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In Search of the Mighty Oomingmak: Muskox Mission 2012

For The Love of Hunting, In Search of the Mighty Oomingmak
Muskox Mission 2012

Check out this photo…

2012 Iditarod Race Start

The Oomingmak Expedition Crew at the 2012 Iditarod Race Start in Willow, Alaska

The man on the right in the beaver & seal skin hat [custom made in Unalakleet, with a beaver trapped in Wyoming] is my father, Bill. He is the proverbial Lucky Rabbit’s Foot of Draw Applications. Also the Bringer of Good Weather to Alaska. Seriously.

My fiancé Kurt and I apply to hunt for all sorts of critters each year in the Alaska Draw. Two years ago we thought, “Hey! Let’s put Bill in too!” So we put HIM in for everything WE applied for. Draw Results for 2011= Trina: Moose. Kurt: Moose. Bill: Moose, MUSKOX!
Kurt looks once, twice, three times at my Dad’s name next to DX003. Instantly turns green with envy. Stomps around our boat exclaiming things like, “I’ve been putting in for that hunt for NINE years!” and, more childish things like, “NO FAIR!” complete with the foot stomp and balled up fists. [Okay, I might exaggerate slightly, but you get the idea...] So we call my Dad to tell him the big news: Get ready for a moose hunt! And after that, a Muskox Expedition!

 

Mendenhall Glacier visit, rock zen!

Mendenhall Glacier visit, rock zen!

 

Larger than life, YUKON!

Larger than life, YUKON!

In September of 2011 Kurt and I loaded up the big crew-cab Chevy, took the IFA ferry to Ketchikan, rode the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry to Juneau, met up with my Dad there, re-boarded the ferry and disembarked at Haines, AK. A two day road trip took us through a small portion of BC, the Yukon Territory, into mainland Alaska, finally stopping for a quick visit and gear sorting party at the home of our friend & fellow guide/outfitter, Lance Kronberger.  The next day, we were winging our way from ANC [Anchorage] to UNK [Unalakleet], repacked the bare essentials and squished ourselves into Jim Tweto’s 180. Kurt and my Dad both had tags for this unit, burning holes in their pockets. My Dad was also set up with a grizzly tag, just in case. That evening we pitched our tents on a remote gravel bar in Moose Country, and had sweet dreams of giant moose.

 

Our final deep breaths before the SQUISH.

Our final deep breaths before the SQUISH.

Sunset on the river.

Sunset on the river.

The next morning we awoke to what vaguely sounded like a bull moose grunt. It went something like this: “UNGH! UNGH! Moose! Moose! UNGH!” Emerging quickly and blurry eyed from our tent, Kurt and I see my Father in his sweatpants, T-shirt, and camp shoes in a kneeling position about 3 feet from his tent, with his Thompson Center .300 trained on a moose! This big guy is walking across the river, straight at us. Kurt is trying his level best to judge it, but the fog, the head-on look we’re getting, and the fact we’ve been awake for 25 seconds are all making it difficult to see if it’s a legal “50 or 4″. Not being sure, Dad let him walk.

Later that morning, Tweto arrived with the rest of our gear, including The Raft, and perhaps slightly more importantly in my Dad’s eyes, The Coffee. We were now fully caffeinated and free to float quietly downstream in search of the next monster moose.

Building the raft.

Building the raft.

 

 

Ready to float...

Ready to float…

 

Floating!

Floating!

Arctic Grayling. It's what's for dinner!

Arctic Grayling. It’s what’s for dinner!

DRAT. Yet again our plans are foiled! This time by the buzzy whine that we first tried to dismiss as a plane. As we listened to it echoing and fading in and out, all the while drawing nearer, we hung our heads with the realization….Jet boat. Ugh! Arg! NO FAIR! Here we are, 100+ miles from the nearest village and there’s a JET BOAT? Here, I’ll cut to the chase and tell you that our 11 day raft adventure was just that. No bullets flew, no blood was drawn. We thoroughly enjoyed fishing, floating, hiking, and hunting, but the disappointment of the jet boats [turns out there were 2] still frustrates us.

NOT what you want to see at Prime Time!

NOT what you want to see at Prime Time!

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As they say, life goes on. So it was that late on March 2, 2012, the three of us again converged on Anchorage. March 3rd was a snowy day full of activity in downtown ANC for the Ceremonial Start of the Iditarod Dog Sled Race and the Anchorage “Fur Rondy.” Highlights included walking amongst the dogs, racers, sleds and trucks with “dog boxes”, participating in the “Running of the Reindeer” [Alaska's answer to The Running of the Bulls, this race is 2,300 people in all manner of dress, undress, and costume, running 4 city blocks in ankle deep snow with 10 reindeer behind you; all proceeds go to Toys for Tots], watching kids fly high at a traditional Blanket Toss, and a fur auction. We were busy again on March 4th, driving North to Willow to watch the Race Start or “re-start.” It was cold but sunny and we enjoyed the day immensely. We concluded our evening by preparing dinner for our friends, Lance & Nikki Kronberger, at their home. Nikki doesn’t cook, and we wanted to see them and their kids, so we offered to make ourselves useful in the kitchen.

Attempting to calm the pre-race jitters.

Attempting to calm the pre-race jitters.

Traditional Blanket Toss!

Traditional Blanket Toss!

Ready to RUN...

Ready to RUN…

...RUN from the reindeer!

…RUN from the reindeer!

Some of the bidders at the Fur Rondy auction site.

Some of the bidders at the Fur Rondy auction site.

Mountain Men!

Mountain Men!

More anxious dogs on Race Day.

More anxious dogs on Race Day.

Zoom!

Zoom!

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Early the next morning Dad & I heaved and hauled all our gear to the airport check-in while Kurt returned the rental car. When he caught up to us at the gate, he plopped down in the chair next to me and said, “You lied to me.” It was true, I gave him a false departure time so that we could avoid the grouchy growly Kurt that emerges when we run late, whether we are catching a plane, ferry, bus or taxi. Most especially planes. We were thoroughly excited about our big adventure! We were finally on our way in search of the mighty Oomingmak, The Bearded One.

Hey guys, let's go out here!

Hey guys, let’s go out here!

Less than ideal weather upon arrival at Bethel.

Less than ideal weather upon arrival at Bethel.

When we landed in Bethel, the weather was NOT good. When we walked in to the terminal, we were greeted by two guys Kurt knows, both had been stuck in Bethel for the night due to weather. We were all hoping to get to Mekoryuk. This is where my Dad’s Weather Luck comes in. He says, “Hey, don’t worry about it! I’m here.We’ll get there.” They looked puzzled but offered us some pizza without asking for further explanation, and we waited.Soon, the wind calmed slightly. Then the sun tried to peek out. Then the ticket agent called us over, pointed outside and said, “There’s your plane. Go get on it.” The two guys shake their heads, and the big guy says to my Dad, “I just about want to bear-hug you.” I had the camera ready, but he didn’t do it. My Dad quipped, “It’s always like this in Alaska” as we stepped on to the sunny tarmac and boarded our plane.

And so we landed at Mekoryuk that afternoon. We were met at the “airport” [read: landing strip of snow, with a square patch cleared away where the plane off-loaded us] by our transporter, Abe David. With our gear and groceries loaded into the sleds, we hopped on the snow machines and zoomed the chilly 3 miles to the village of Mekoryuk. The sun was out and with plenty of daylight left, paperwork & licenses in our pockets, we left on the snow machines again to hunt reindeer and foxes for the afternoon.

Arctic fox!

Arctic fox!

Red Fox!

Red Fox!

Brand new "scope bite" from brand new .270.

Brand new “scope bite” from brand new .270.

That evening, with a red fox to skin and a reindeer to butcher, we got our first glimpse of life in the village. Abe and his wife, Mona, live in a typical village house. Three bedrooms, one bathroom, and a kitchen/dining/living area. Three of their four adult children live with them, and each of their daughters have a 4-year old child, “Precious” and “Boy.” When not called by these nicknames, they are called by their native names, which are fairly unpronounceable by our non-native tongues. Talk about a full house!

Got ulu?

Got ulu?

One of the first things we learned in this new environment was that despite living on a boat with only 85 gallons of fresh water on board, we know NOTHING about water conservation. I thought I was being helpful by washing the dishes until Abe informed me that we were about to run out of water. What? Well, each of these homes has a 110 gallon water tank in the entryway. It costs $32 to fill it. Likewise for the removal of the holding tank contents. Needless to say, we had differing standards of “clean” and my overuse of water in my efforts to “help” was not well-received. Abe made a phone call and 30 minutes later a 4-wheeler pulling a blue tank arrived to give the David house a refill. There is a similar-looking tank, only black, for the sewer removal. I later learned that many of the homes are still using “honey buckets.”

The next day, Abe deemed the weather too bad to hunt. It was bright and sunny, but he claimed there was a storm coming in. We decided he just really needed a nap. We explored around the village and kept ourselves entertained throughout the day, which continued to be bright and sunny entirely.

Touring Mekoryuk! The art of self entertainment.

Touring Mekoryuk! The art of self entertainment.

March 7th was a big day. Rested and refreshed, Abe was ready to take us hunting. We loaded the sleds and with Abe in the lead, we departed the village in search of muskox. Kurt & I had a double snow machine, my Dad started the day on the single machine. None were a comfortable ride but all were good machines that ran well and had heated hand grips. Kurt and Dad eventually switched machines and I tucked away behind my Dad, saving my face from frostbite. The guys weren’t so lucky, and even with double face masks, the bitter chill permeated to freeze dry patches of their cheeks and noses.

Somewhere along the way, Abe suddenly stopped and informed us that we HAD to take a photo. Above us, we witnessed the most amazing double sun dog. Abe had rarely seen such a perfect sun dog, much less a double. He said the elders claimed that meant you should return home. My Dad thought otherwise, saying it meant we had a good day ahead of us. Onward!

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Forty COLD miles later, riding across the choppy frozen tundra, we reached our destination. We began scanning the snow fields ahead of us, and spotted little groups of muskox. Three here, two there…Abe stayed behind on the ridgetop while we ventured down for a closer look. The first bunch did not have any big bulls and the second bunch didn’t even offer us a look, instead heading out onto the sea ice where we dared not approach. Abe had told us that the ice can break off & drift away, and this is how some of the muskox are lost from the island’s herds on occasion.

Glassing from the ridgetop.

Glassing from the ridgetop.

Kurt suggested my Dad and I go check out the next group, which turned out to be a larger herd with a few bulls in it. As we approached them, they circled the wagons and stared us down. About this time, Kurt came up right along side them, snapping photos like a tourist in Yellowstone! My Dad seemed frustrated with Kurt’s choice of photo shoot location, which wouldn’t allow for a REAL shot. I suggested we just walk up to them. As we did they turned away from Kurt and began walking, slowly dispersing from their tight safe haven. The biggest bull was also the last in line, and as the others cleared away, my Dad let fly a round from his TC .300. The old bull was hit but not down, and my Dad took care of business, bringing the prehistoric-looking beast to rest on the sparkling snow.

Circling the wagons!

Circling the wagons!

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Abe arrived, tipped the sled he was towing on it’s side to block the wind, and after an epic photo shoot, the skinning “party” began. Okay, truthfully, Abe and I sat in the “wind block” and drank coffee. Kurt and Dad skinned. And skinned. And skinned! Even in the sun, with 7 or 8 layers, fur hat and mittens and military issue “Bunny Boots,” I was a chilly popcicle! But this muskox; what an amazing animal! These critters are so well adapted to the Arctic conditions with fully 6 inches of underwool [qiviut, pronounced “kiv-ee-ute”] and incredibly long guard hairs to fend off the ice, snow and bitter cold.  Also surprising was finding the bull’s stomach literally stuffed full of grass and other plant matter. Yet, scanning our surroundings, I could not see even one tuft of grass! Incredible. As I watched them work, I thought, “Well, Dad was right about that sun dog!”

The Mighty Hunter and The Mighty Oomingmak!

The Mighty Hunter and The Mighty Oomingmak!

The Expedition Crew.

The Expedition Crew.

Can you see how proud I am of my Big Bad Dad?

Can you see how proud I am of my Big Bad Dad?

The skinnin' shack.

The skinnin’ shack.

Proud hunter.

Proud hunter.

Did I mention it was cold?

Did I mention it was cold?

On the return trip to the village we passed by a cabin used by the reindeer herders during warmer weather. It was half-buried in snowy drifts and completely coated in snow and ice, making it look like a freezer in great need of defrosting. We stopped here for photos and watched the sun set. We were still two hours from Mekoryuk. I spent this two hours hanging on for dear life, reminding myself I wasn’t going to be frozen forever, and deeply pondering my younger sister’s absolute love of snowmachines. WHAT is she thinking? [My Dad later reminded me that Darci rides on groomed trails. Oh. Maybe that is more fun?]

Reindeer herder's cabin.

Reindeer herder’s cabin.

Back at the house, Mona and her girls had prepared the most delicious baked salmon and rice, and a huge chocolate cake! Indeed a meal fit for the celebration of a successful hunt. My Dad, using an overturned bucket, sat outside for several hours [temperature, -3] butchering the muskox meat neatly into quart sized ziplock bags. Kurt opted for the wannigan [temperature, still -3] as his base of operations for caping out the skull. Two words for separating hide from skull on a muskox: Filet Knife. It’s the only blade long and flexible enough to reach that tight space between the horn and the side of the head.

Our next morning started with broiled muskox backstrap for breakfast. Wow! This truly is some of the best meat you’ll ever eat. It was good fuel for our afternoon of fox and reindeer hunting, where Kurt got an Arctic fox and Dad got a beautiful reindeer. I finally joined the ranks of the frostbitten, but just minor, on my toes.

Dad's reindeer with the herd in the background.

Dad’s reindeer with the herd in the background.

The final day in Mekoryuk was another look at village life. We ventured down the road to the Washateria. Here you can exchange $5 for a token that gives you 7 minutes [they tell you it's 10] of running water in the most glorious shower ever. Okay, that might be an overstatement, but it was a very clean shower room and after 7 days, we were all ready for a shower. I cheated the system slightly by washing my hair in the sink for the first round, then savored all 7 of those 10 minutes!

Our days in Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island added up to a very unique experience. A modern day expedition by all accounts! Reflecting back on it now I am humbled by the vast, cold wide open spaces. I am in awe of the amazing wild creatures that call Nunivak Island “home.” I am truly blessed to have enjoyed such a memorable hunt with my best buddy Kurt and my super adventurous Dad. I also remember that we were very much ready to LEAVE!

We were packed, but the plane was delayed. Then late. Then really late. We eventually departed, only to be stranded in Bethel [BET] as we had missed our connecting flight. This may have been a blessing in disguise since we were oh, about 600 pounds over our baggage limit with gear, guns, hides, meat, and skull. ERA didn’t charge us since we missed our flight. We paid for it the next day, getting out of BET, and my Dad got another dose of the reality of bagging a trophy in a far away place. My Dad continued to Denver and finally back to Wyoming safely, with his first successful Alaskan hunt in the books! As he likes to say, “And a good time was had by all!”

The most expensive Alaskan big game tag = non-resident muskox.

The most expensive Alaskan big game tag = non-resident muskox.

A final note:
Draw Results for 2012= Trina: nothing. Kurt: NOTHING. Bill: Moose AND Brown Bear AND Black Bear. I told you he was lucky!

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