It seemed that we were never going to make it. Finally, after a long journey we could get into our sleeping bags, more exhausted than ever, close to the warmth of the stove of the cabin.
A LONG JOURNEY
Considering the amount of flights that we had to take, the time difference and other uncontrolled surprises, I could not remember exactly which day I left my hometown, Bilbao, back in Spain, accompanied by my father. It seemed a long time ago. We drove to Madrid to take a plane to Fort Saint John (British Columbia), with stops in Frankfurt and Vancouver. Fortunately, our entire luggage made it to our destination along with us, so we could rest calm at our hotel after almost a 24-hour trip that had left us exhausted.
The day after arriving to Fort Saint John, we drove almost 3 hours along the Alaskan highway to take the 4 passenger light aircraft that was to take us to the base camp; a 20 minutes flight going Northeast. From there, and after arranging all the licenses and permits, we took another 20-minute flight to camp in the middle of the Rocky Mountains by the shore of the Prophet River. As soon as we landed there, we jumped on our horses to get to our camp; a marvellous 2 and a half hour ride surrounded by the beautiful sounds of the Elk.
To many, the hunting starts as of now, but for me, it had started many months ago when I contracted the outfitter. Once contact was made, I promised myself that I would do everything I could to reach my goal, which was to take a moose with my bow. It was my second chance to shoot the biggest deer in the world, as I did not manage to make it happen two years ago in the Yukon territory.
There are many factors that are out of our control that may affect the success of the hunting. The weather, animal density, the roughness of the area, the skills of the guides… That is why hunters, bowhunters in particular, can never leave any additional factors to chance. I have prepared myself very hard, I cannot waste any opportunity and for that, neither my equipment, nor myself can fail.
A GREAT START
Everyday we woke up for breakfast at 5 a.m. to take the trail in the darkness. We normally hunted two hours by horse from the camp, and sometimes even further. We wanted to reach the hunting area as early as possible, as that is when the elk and moose are more active due to the colder temperatures.
We had breakfast all together in the main cabin; scrambled eggs with a bit of bacon, prepared by our lovely cook Kyla, the wife of my father’s guide Allen. Next to him, was Brad, who would be my guide during the following 10 days of the hunting. While we enjoyed a light cup of black coffee, Tyler, the camp’s wrangler, finished to gathering the horses that were still staked out in the valley. That day the four of us would hunt together.
After a while on our horses, we got to one of those valleys the resembled those described in a picture book. Well, I guess that it wasn’t exactly a valley, but what laid out before us was just like I had dreamed and seen in print before embarking on the trip. Straight away we started to hear the first bugles of the Wapiti (Elk), an American-Indian word that means “deer that walks”. It did not take us long to realise that although it was long ago, the names of these deer were not put there for the wrong reason. We let out some bugles and soon suitors from all over the valley started replying to us. They sounded quite peculiar and particularly different from that of our red deer, with their typical bellowing. It was also quite incredible to see that these animals can weigh more than 400 Kg.
Suddenly, we saw a group of Wapiti above us sidling the hillside. The male of the group was amazing. So, without having to think about it twice, we used the contours of the hill to hide ourselves. Then Brad and I started going up towards the deer like crazy to try to intersect them. However, after 100 meters uphill on the run, we took a look and disappointingly, they had already surpassed us. There was nothing more we could have done; they were just plain too fast.
With our hearts about to burst out, we made signs to my father so that he would come up quickly. The elk were coming up the opposite hillside and he had to take the chance, as it was a spectacular Wapiti for the area. A few minutes later, he reached the place where the three of us were already waiting with the spotting scopes; just in time to see the wapiti appear in a small clearing. Without losing a second, my father put himself in position. The majestic animal was in the cross hairs at about 310 meters. He had to make a decision straight away.
Brad and Allen were urging him to shoot, but my father, being the first day and all, hesitated. I think in situation it could have happened to anyone. It was a beautiful animal and experience was telling us that letting these types of opportunities go, is what leads you to a deep regret on the last day of the hunting. Without a doubt, I told him to shoot. Considering that, as opposed to the guides, I too had an interest in him killing the first animal fast, he hit him with such a shot that it left the elk upside down. Awesome!
A fabulous 6×6 Wapiti that had great mass and was very long. Not much more can be asked for of a Wapiti from British Columbia. A great start! Later in the hunt, we came to realise what a good decision he had made by shooting it, as we saw plenty more of them, but few were in the same class as his huge beast.
In the evening, I went with Brad to a valley that was 2 and a half hours from camp. It was incredible that we did not see anything on our way, even though we had stopped a couple of times to have a look at each ravine that we came upon. As soon as it got dark, we got on our horses and returned to camp.
Getting the horses ready always takes time, and normally much more than what you expect. We moved to a fly camp with the idea of staying there for 5 days. We would take 6 packhorses, 3 with all the necessities for the 5 days, and the other 3 in case we claimed any animals.
We were ready by midday: Allen first, then myself, my father, Kyla and closing the caravan, Brad. On our way we made the most of our time by tempting the Elk in the area. I even had a chance with one of them, after it replied to our calling. After a little stalk, I managed to get in to less than 50 meters. I think I would have been capable of hitting it, but I decided to put my bow down, as I wasn’t completely comfortable. I normally train at that distance, but it is not the same to shoot an animal, no matter how big it is. We would have more opportunities, so I should not rush.
After almost 7 exhausting hours of horse riding, 2 more than we had expected, we arrived at the camp. Moving along with so many horses is not that easy.
By 6 in the morning, still dark, we were already going up the mountains through a small path between the pines. It was extremely cold. It had cleared up at night and everything was frozen. However it was a good way of staying awake that early in the morning. By the time the first rays of light showed up, we were already at the hunting area. We had not seen a Moose yet.
A bit after arriving to a forest of small pines, Brad suddenly stopped and as if from nowhere, a little more than 60 meters, a beautiful Moose appeared moving its palms from one side to the other. Further down, another one replies. Incredible! I got off my horse rapidly, took my bow and a couple of arrows, and started reducing the distance between us.
In just a couple of minutes only 40 meters stood between us. Brad called the moose from behind me to retain it at that place; further down, we could hear another male replying. This could not be happening; I thought that that only happened in the books! I could only see the tips of his antlers appearing through the top of a small pine. I needed just three more steps, just three. I tried really hard not to lose my mind until it finally made a move. It took a few steps and before me stood a huge animal, two meters high to the base of the neck, tons of points, such a fine looking animal, but there was a lone pine between his vitals and myself.
Waiting for that final step, it turned around and began to disappear at a trot. Without a second of doubt, and in view that it was in fact a gorgeous Moose, when he stooped for a second to look back, my father shot it with his160 grain projectile from his 7mm. He had struck it, but it immediately disappeared without a trace and no chance to repeat a second shot.
We were commenting on what had just occurred and hugging each other, trying to release some of the tension we had accumulated, until the sound of another moose getting closer interrupted us. “There it comes”! We left my dad and Allen in where the shot took place. We spent 3 hours trying to get that other moose in range. We didn’t manage to do it, but I had enjoyed every minute of that morning.
We went back to the place of the shooting and we found the picture that we wished we had never seen. They had been following the bloodshed for quite a long time, and had reached a point where they lost it and it didn’t look good. After two hours with our noses stuck to the ground we managed to advance 2 meters, but the amount of blood was minimal. To make matters worse, my dad who was a bit ahead of us, raised the Moose that was lying down and he could not finish it off. He saw it running very strong. It didn’t look good at all.
We were very upset; there is nothing worse for a hunter than leaving an animal wounded. In view of what had just happened, we climbed to a high point to try to look for the Moose from above. We had no luck; we saw a bunch of animals, but none of them was ours.
We had gone through a rough patch; for my father it had meant the end of his hunting, as a wounded moose counts the same as a dead moose. He was facing one of those days of hunting that only happen once in a life time. There were moose all over the place, all in rut following the cows, cows calling the bulls, bulls fighting, and we were there, above all spotting, thinking about what should be our next move. The best hunting day of our lives, had been darkened by the cloud of our rush.
We had to plan very well our next moves before starting a new entry that could take the whole afternoon. So after a bit of discussion, we ended up deciding to stalk a beautiful male. The problem with that one was, there were two other good bulls, but illegal and 5 cows… such a bunch!
In British Columbia, in order for a moose to be legal at this time of the year, it needs to have at least in one of the antlers, either 3 brow tines or 10 tips including the brow tines. Such measures considerably restrict the number of possibilities, but assure you that the Moose will be more than representative.
We started calling it from a closer distance. It seemed that we had produced the desired effect and little by little, with its head down and moving it from side to side, the big bull started to get closer. Moving slowly and ungracefully towards us, it emitted a very peculiar sound with the belly that together with the tense minutes that allow you to realise what’s going on, managed to make me a nervous wreck. Unfortunately, once again, it was impossible for us to break the 50-meter barrier, and the Moose disappeared between the pines as if it was a Roe deer.
It was already pitch dark when we came back on the trail, and we still had two hours ahead of us before reaching the camp. It was cold as hell, and so many hours on a horse had left our butts and knees kind of destroyed, but we just had to lift our heads and look at the sky and any pain would vanish. The nights were spectacular and the days had just been amazing, what a close and likeable animal the Moose is.
Hunting is unpredictable; that might be its most attractive feature and the reason why all of us still go out to the woods with the same excitement and energy as though it was your first day hunting. Each new day is different from the previous one. We decided to go to the same place as the day before, however, after more than a couple of minutes looking through the binoculars, we could only see a couple of Moose; nothing like the previous day. Where had they gone?
What had happened the previous day was something exceptional, something that we would never have the opportunity to live again. It was a pity that we did not get the best out of it. The Moose seemed lifeless despite the beautiful and bright day that had resulted after the frozen dawn.
We got off our horses so as to fully enjoy the true hunting experience in these endless northern territories. The previous day made us over confident. But there was no way to tell that things could change so quickly. We still had plenty of time, however, through doing one thing or another, we were already halfway though the trip. The day was going by very slowly, very little action and no sign of yesterday’s bulls, not even of the wounded one.
Later in the evening, we managed to locate two white palms about 2 km away from where we were. It seemed nice but we lost it very soon so we could not asses it correctly. We planned on trying to get closer to it before the night fell.
An hour later we reached the area where we had seen the Moose. We only had less than one hour left of light, and even though we were more than 2 hours away from the camp, we decided to tie the horses and try to carry out an incursion into the pine forest. We hoped that with some luck we might find it. Not every guide puts as much effort and has as much drive as Brad did. I still think that it was admirable, the positive attitude and time that Brad was investing in me, and I would be eternally grateful to him for that. Chapeau!
Allen stayed close to the horses calling the moose, trying to obtain a reply from it that would allow us to guide ourselves to get to the right shooting distance. There we were, the three of us. Brad first, then myself and my dad, the boss, who did not want to miss any the action. We were moving forward through the pine forest step by step, looking for the areas covered with moss, in order to advance stealthily. Every few steps, we stopped to listen…nothing, we couldn’t hear anything. We continued until, suddenly, the three of us froze. “Moose?”, “I think so”. We thought we had heard it.
We continued moving forward when we heard a shy grunt. It was definitely a moose. We heard it closer and closer; the tension was rising and every time one broke a little branch, we exchanged murderous looks. We heard it clearly moving between the trees, rubbing the branches with its antlers and from time to time, replying to Allen who was still down there calling it. The forest was really bushy and we could not see anything more than 30 meters ahead. We had to guide ourselves by ear.
An hour later, we finally managed to have visual contact with the bull. Brad stuck himself to the floor and in a discrete manner lifted one finger indicating one direction. I didn’t want to look… So much tension! It took me a couple of seconds to recognise its legs. It was so tall that its body was up where the branches started and we had not seen it until then. It was only under 25 meters away from us!. I prepared myself, but there wasn’t a clear shot. There were branches all over the place and I did not want to risk it. We had to wait.
It started moving and, taking advantage of the noise made by its movements, we decided to advance too. Dad decided to stay behind; well, in fact we left him, it was better not to make any row. It started to be a bit frustrating. There did not seem to be a clear shot and sooner or later the moose was going to realize that it was not moving alone. Fortunately, Allen seemed to have managed to move the bull to a more open area.
That was when, after finding a clear space, we saw the moose appearing between the pines, amazing! I quickly took the rangefinder. Moose are so big compared to roe deer, which is what I am used to that it was so difficult for me to measure the distance at a guess. 50 meters, too far. I started to turn around to comment the distance with Brad when, to my right, between the trees, I saw a huge moose attentively looking at us. Wow!
I looked at Brad asking for his ok and the expression on his face said it all: it is taking you too long my friend! The rangefinder showed 40 meters, now it was my chance!. I drew the bow carefully at the same time as the moose was starting to turn around to leave. This is when you start to give thanks to all the practice and experience as the movements take place automatically, and by the time I was about to realise it, the arrow was already flying towards the elbow of the moose. The moose started running upon the impact and we lost sight of it in amongst the trees.
Brad got very anxious and told me that the shot had been too low and called my father with a fine whistle so that he could finish him off with the rifle. I tried to convince him that I was completely sure that the shot was good, and that the rifle would not be necessary. It had been a low shot, but I had a good impression, just in the fold of the elbow. Soon dad showed up with his eyes out of his sockets. I made it clear to him not to even think about shooting it.
That was when we suddenly heard the deep breathing of the moose, like his chest was flooded. Right after it collapsed among the pines. I couldn’t believe it! I got it! I needed someone to pinch me to realise that it had happened. In less than a minute it had fallen down. A Moose by bow…a dream come true!.
We needed a little bit of time to assimilate what had just happened, but when we were about to relax, we heard Allen shouting from below “the moose from the clearing is the wounded one, José shoot!!”, “Dad it’s yours! Go for it!, shoot!”. Once again the master quickly put himself in the shooting position and managed to conclude what he had started the previous day with two accurate shots. I looked at Brad and the only thing that I could say to him was “This is crazy!” .
Exactly, it had been an absolutely crazy moment: two moose in less than 1 minute, less than 100 meters apart from the other, father and son together, one with a bow, the other that had already been wounded, on a horse in British Columbia…what else could we ask for? I think we are still trying to come to terms with it. The sensations and feelings that we went through that day were so indescribable and vividly remain in our heads. Hunting is like that. The moment you least expect it to happen, the hunt changes completely, but we never thought that it could turn around in such a way.
The following day we would spend the whole day skinning them, but how good does it feel to lose a hunting day after having claimed the prey. I could do it again and again!. We ended up reaching the camp very late, but celebrated it with a bit of powder lemonade.
In the morning we prepared 4 horses so as to take out all the meat from the moose. In America it is always compulsory to take out the four quarters, the back straps and the sirloins. With the world’s largest deer, it was going to be a hard task and would take us quite a long time. Imagine with two of them! We took the opportunity to take pictures, tons of pictures, as the previous day as it was already dark we did not have the chance.
When skinning my moose, we realized that the arrow had entered through the ribs and it had ended stuck in the opposite leg but without coming out. On its way, it had cut the lower part of the heart and the arteries coming out from it. My old comrade-in-arms, a 70 pounds Mathews Switchback, and the Muzzy MX-3, three bladed broadhead had fulfilled their mission perfectly well.
The two moose were very different from one another. My dad’s was flat palmed, with a lot of tines, and mine was open and long. As a matter of curiosity, as they get old ans start to go back, Moose start losing palm, as they do not have that much strength for growth so as to fill in all that space between the tines. So they end up with a small palm and long tines. Another important feature that reveals the age of a moose is the lock of hair that falls from the belly. Each winter it freezes and breaks, becoming shorter each time.
There was only the Elk left to complete the duplex-kings-horses (in reference to a typical Spanish game of cards called Mus, in which such a combination is like having four Aces when playing poker). We decided to go back to the main camp to hunt them from there. If packing horses was already a slow task, when you have to dismantle a camp, pack everything and to load the two moose, then it takes absolute ages. We spent the whole morning trying to balance the weight of the saddlebags, tidying knots and putting the horses together. The hunting was done, now that we were not in a hurry, we enjoyed everything much more.
At midday, we started our trip to the main camp, hunting along the way, as it couldn’t be any other way, but due to the weight carried by the horses we could not distract ourselves with long forays. The day was again fantastic. We were very lucky with the weather, it was hard to believe that we were in the middle of October.
On our way we saw a couple of Elk, in the same area as on our way to the floating camp, but these were not legal. In order for the Elk to be legal, they need to have at least 6 tines in one horn, something that it’s kind of complicated in this area as they are not as big as their cousins from Arizona.
When you are getting kind of sleepy on you horse and suddenly a Wapiti bellows at you from less than 100 meters, your heart takes a leap that leaves you out of breath. We tied our horses quickly and got into the pine forest little by little trying to find the ideal place. We saw a small meadow that I liked. It was 50 meters long by 20 meters wide.
I sent Brad 50 meters to my right to call the Wapiti, which was bugling on my left, so that it would pass in front of us staring at Brad. I stayed with Al, who would give the ok if the bull was legal. Dad, 10 meters behind us, observed the whole manoeuvre. He has to be in everything!.
We were all ready. I guess that actors at the theatre before the curtain opens would feel things similar to what we were feeling. Let the performance begin!. Brad made some calls and the Wapiti replied immediately, there it comes!. A magic dialogue started between them and each time the whistles of the elk sounded closer and closer. The tension was rising. None of us could even blink.
Between the pines we saw an antler crossing; then, a bugle that stopped our hearts. It had to be only 35 meters away. We saw a part of its body among the trees, it was coming towards us. I was thinking, if this goes on for any longer, then I am going to lose my head! A couple of steps more allowed us to see his headgear for a second. Al whispered at me “It’s a shooter!” Hearing those words made my hair stand on end;. the moment I had dreamt of was finally here.
It kept on moving towards Brad. I drew the bow when it was passing by some pines, right before it showed itself completely as it crossed the clear area. It stopped under 25 meters from where we were and turned its head to look at us. I would never forget that moment. I was ready and in a second I managed to put the elbow between the 20 and the 30 pins and I let my arrow go.
“Perfect shot!” said Al hugging me. It had been a perfect shot. The arrow had passed completely through it and was stuck in the ground, taking out both lungs. It wasn’t going to be able to go very far. Hugs, euphoria, discharge of tension. The four of us, we were extremely happy, our performance had been a complete success!!
We let a couple of minutes pass by to start tracking. The track was plentiful and we found it only 50 meters away. We already had the horses ready to finish our play. We took the necessary pictures and realizing that we could not carry any additional amount of meat, we left it for the following day.
In an hour and a half we arrived back at the main camp. I couldn’t tell who was the happiest of all. We crossed looks of pride and satisfaction. We had made a great mess!!! Everything had been perfect, probably the trip of our lives, or I better say, for sure.
We spent the following days relaxed, enjoying the memories of our adventure. We were going to claim the Elk, which, by the way, had been eaten by a grizzly. We took the opportunity to fish a little bit in the Prophet river and to listen to the song of the Wapiti, as well as those from other animals such as the Moose, Caribou, Stone sheep, Black Bears, Grizzly Bears, Whitetail deer, Wolves, Billy Goats…. a true paradise! We stayed there until we had to start packing the horses for the last time and to take the light aircraft that would take us home. We were enjoying ourselves so much… I couldn’t believe it was over. We’ll be back!
Duplex- kings. Horses…we won!