Bowhunting the Bearded One
by Lon E. Lauber
The deafening drone of the small aircraft made verbal communication difficult. I tapped the pilot on the shoulder and then pointed toward the two dark specks contrasting against the barren, winter wasteland below. The pilot maneuvered the plane’s yoke. Instantly the Cessna slipped the wind. Like a spoofed mallard dropping into decoys, the plane began falling out of the sky. The closer we flew, the clearer the specks became.
“Musk ox!” I shouted. And as if on cue, the two bulls whirled and bonked heads. I soaked up this sight in the icy gray sky over Nunivak Island in northwest Alaska. They were definitely prehistoric looking creatures.
This first impression of Oomingmak, the bearded one, was everlasting. They reminded me of sturdily built, four-legged football players wearing shaggy shoulder pads. Their horns could be the helmets and instead of facemasks, hooked out to each side.“Wow what a creature,” I thought.“Tomorrow, my most exotic bowhunt will begin.”
On the short flight back to the landing strip, I thought about all that had led up to this unique hunt. I was used to the 1,200-mile flight from Adak in the Aleutian Chain to Anchorage (where I lived at the time of this hunt). I’d made that trip from my island home numerous times before. Then I flew northwest out of Anchorage to Bethel. That was an additional 398 miles. I spent the night at a bed and breakfast, close to the Bethel airport. That evening, I attended a local Native dance festival. The primal beat of the drums and the animated dancing touched my soul. It took me back to a simpler era. “How appropriate,” I thought, “going back in time to hunt a prehistoric creature.”
From that point on, the adventure was dreamy. I didn’t even realize I was on a prop plane leaving Bethel heading for Mekoryuk, the village on Nunivak Island. The imagery was surreal. The sky was filled with pink clouds straight out of an oil painting—brush strokes and all. The entire region was flat, featureless muskeg and lakes. The only dimension to the landscape below was a lip of wind-blown snow at the westerly shore of every frozen pond and lake. God must have felt creative that morning. His angels were wielding large tubes of fluorescent pink lipstick. Every one of those lake lips glowed in morning light. The cabin temperature in the commuter plane seemed chilly, but maybe it was mental. Next, I was flying over the Bering Sea. It was mostly frozen chunks of ice. It reminded me of a white, gray and blue mosaic tile on the floor of a fancy hotel bathroom.
When the plane landed on Nunivak Island I was jolted out of my dream world and back to the present. Fred Don, my Chupik Eskimo guide, greeted me with a smile and soft handshake. When I stepped off the plane, my boot landed smack in the middle of a puddle! Now, I’m not a rocket scientist but I knew it wasn’t 40-below. Here I had purchased all this expensive Arctic clothing and now it was acting like spring. I had mentally and physically prepared for the brutal sub-zero weather as every musk ox hunter should. Such preparation is mandatory in the Great Land. However, Alaska weather is as unpredictable as a grizzly bear and every bit as lethal.
After arranging all my Arctic gear in Fred’s trailer, he asked if I wanted to go for a plane ride. Any time I can getan eagle’s eye view of my hunting terrain, I jump on the chance. It was that evening we flew around and spotted two bull musk oxen. Later, Fred fixed a musk-ox back strap, mashed potatoes, and corn dinner. The ox meat was marbled and had similar texture to mountain goat (which is pork-like). It was tender and had excellent flavor. For me, there is nothing more satisfying than harvesting my own food supply and collecting an unusual trophy at the same time. This double treat is what drives me to such adventures.
The anticipation of this new adventure combined with gale-force winds pounding and rocking Fred’s hunting trailer made sleeping very fitful. I knew an Arctic storm had blown in. I surmised a sub-zero version of Mother Nature would greet me in the morning with her icy mitts.
However, the day dawned nicely with an orange-juice-colored sunrise and only a breath of wind. The storm had passed. I ate a hearty breakfast while Fred and his assistant guide, David Widby, loaded our gear in the sleds to be towed behind snowmobiles. Before we left, I shot a few arrows down the hallway of the trailer. Not knowing the temperature outside, I bundled up for the ride. I was ready.
Within minutes of leaving the village, we watched hundreds of reindeer scampering across the frozen tundra ahead of us. They disappeared over the eastern horizon. If I didn’t know better, I’d say they were running into the sun. What a delightful beginning to the adventure! Shortly, I discovered the temperature hadn’t plummeted like I thought, Mother Nature being ever so kind. I was burning up, so I stopped and stripped down. My mind was not accepting the fact that it was 25 degrees above zero. After I regulated my own thermometer, we covered an hour of uneventful terrain. Then I saw the antlers of a winterkilled reindeer sticking out of the frozen snow. I stopped and photographed this harsh reality of the Far North.
Sporadically, we bumped into more reindeer. Then I saw a snowy owl. With a pump-and-glide, pump-and-glide motion, his white feathers melted into the snowscape as he flew away. With another 90 minutes of butt-grinding snow-machining behind us, I saw the first musk ox. We stopped about three-quarters of a mile away from the animals. The plan: if there was a big bull in the herd, I’d try for him with my bow. If there wasn’t, I’d shoot some photos.
Here I was traipsing across the frozen north with a bow in one hand and a behemoth telephoto lens, camera and tripod in the other. Being both a professional photographer and diehard hunter has always been a bittersweet combination for me. This situation was no different.
We circled the first bunch of oxen, bumping into a second herd nearby. We looked over the second group. There were a couple decent bulls but nothing truly outstanding. Then we checked out the original bunch of animals. They were all small bulls and cows. When we moved around, we saw two mature bulls off by themselves in the wind-blown, grass-covered sand dunes so typical of musk ox habitat. We snuck back around to scope out the two loners. After two or three minutes of careful glassing, Fred whispered from underneath his beaver-fur hat, “The one on the left is a really nice bull. Don’t shoot the other one; he’s past his prime.”
I looked at the bulls and the one met my criteria for a trophy. There was almost no hair between his horns. The bosses were wide and the horns curved down close to his face and curled back up even with the eyes. They looked fairly symmetrical overall and they had the coveted black tips! Fred took one more look with the binos. He turned to me and, smiling, motioned with his hand like his heart was fluttering with excitement. I was convinced that was the bull for me. I tried stalking the bulls but they winded me and ran up the hill. They joined the main herd. The whole bunch thundered off and disappeared. I left my camera with the assistant guide. I was hunting now; the photography would have to wait.
An hourlater we caught up to them. They were huddling in a typical musk oxen defense formation just behind a steep little hill. “Perfect,” I thought. “I’ll just sneak up there and zap the big one.” Boy did I have a thing or two to learn about the bearded one. I eased to within ten yards of the closest animal. But, the big bull was sandwiched in the middle of 25 other hairy beasts! Flock-shooting ducks is ill-advised. Flock-shooting musk oxen is unthinkable. Of course, the bull never offered me a clean shot. They broke formation and stampeded away again. Snow and ice crystals kicked up behind them like dust. We followed the herd same as we did earlier.
As we hiked near the southern coast of the island, we walked past a parched whale scapula the size of a card table. It was propped upright in the rocks. Fred said it had been there all of his life. “What’s it for and how long do you think it’s been there?” I asked.
“It’s a navigation marker for ancient travelers,” he replied. “Maybe earlier than Christ,” he finished. Once again I was taken back to days of old—but not for long.
When we crested a ridge overlooking an ice-covered bay, we found the herd, in formation once again. They were right in front of me. The animals pushed and shoved each other like spoiled kids squeezing through the movie theater door at the première of the latest Harry Potter film. It appeared the tighter they squeezed, the safer they felt. Again the big bull offered me no shot. There I was less than 20 yards from a trophy class specimen of one of the most intriguing mammals on the continent. But instead of fully savoring the moment as a hunter, I was fretting about having the wrong tool in my hand. “Oh, man, I wish I had my camera instead of my bow,” I thought. The oxen were bathed in golden morning light. Their eyes glinted and their breath smoked. I held my bow at the ready but my mind was busy composing photos.
The minutes trudged by like hours. Then I got my chance. The herd relaxed a little and the big bull stepped clear of the bunch. Without realizing it, I had drawn my bow. This time he’d be mine. I waited momentarily at full draw because the brute was slightly quartering toward me. I didn’t want to hit that shoulder blade. Before he stepped perfectly broadside, he squirted back into the herd. Then, they were off and running again.
Twenty minutes later, I was on them for the fourth time. They bunched as we slowly worked in once more. When they eased up and started milling about, I knew what would happen next. I was truly ready. When the big bull walked clear of the others I drew and picked a spot just behind the bull’s massive shoulder. “Don’t shoot,” Fred whispered. “Watch out for that calf.” Just as I was ready to release, a new addition to the herd nosed up next to the bull. This eliminated a safe shot at the bull’s vitals. I held at full draw for a few more seconds. God must have approved of my patience. As if on command from above, the bull moved forward and stopped. Finally he offered me the close, ethical shot I’d been waiting for. My 20-yard pin swung ahead smoothly and settled low and tight behind the bull’s hairy front leg. The release was subconscious. Instantly the arrow buried to the vanes right where I was aiming. The bull lunged and sprinted forward. He plopped over just 32 yards away. Fred turned to me with his mouth agape and said, “He died already!” I just smiled, feeling proud of my patience to wait for the right shot.
After a quick photo session of my prized bull and when the butchering was done, I hopped on the snow machine and zoomed off to photograph live musk ox. I shot several hundred images of these ancient mammals, feeling very blessed with the opportunity to hunt and film such unique creatures.
Now, with my hunting and photographic needs well met, we headed north to the village. The fiery sun was setting off to the left and the yellow moon was rising in a lavender sky to our right. If thatwasn’t a fitting end to an otherwise perfect hunt, I guess the 30-plus reindeer racing into the moon was.
Outdoor author and photographer Lon E. Lauber has been hunting Alaska for two decades. He is a contributing editor for Hunt Alaska.
ALASKA’S MUSK OX
The musk ox is taxonomically classified with sheep and goats. However, its closest living relative is the Takin found in the Himalayas. Musk oxen, the plural form of musk ox, are quite stocky animals with a hump on their back and cream-colored saddle. Bothmale and females sport horns but the cows’ horns aren’t nearly as impressive as the bulls’. A mature bull’s tan and brown horns spread out across the animal’s entire forehead; this is called the boss. Then the horns droop down, hugging the sides of their furry face. Finally, the horns make an outward U-turn and end at eye level with polished black tips. In my opinion, the musk ox is the most unique-looking trophy of all the North American big-game species. Not only are their horns ornamental, they’re instrumental too.
The tune they play is similar to that of mountain sheep. Battling bull musk oxen are quite aggressive during the rut. Sometimes, they’ll start 50 yards apart, charge each other at full speed and collide squarely in the bosses. The sound can be heard from more than a mile away on a calm day. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game,
analysis of motion-picture footage has determined that the force generated in a clash between musk ox bulls is equivalent to that of an automobile ramming a concrete wall at 17 mph. Bull musk oxen have heavily armored skulls to protect them from the shock of impact. Four inches of horn and three inches of bone lie directly over the brain in the area of contact. Some battles
may include up to 20 of these head poundings. Standing true with the rules of nature, the toughest bull in these battles usually dominates the breeding.
A breeding bull will weigh up to 800 pounds and stand five feet tall at the shoulders. Cows are about a third smaller. Musk oxen are perfectly adapted for their harsh Arctic environment. Their pelage is the essence of natural textile engineering. They have coarse, outer guard hair 15- to 20 inches long to block the icy wind. For underwear musk oxen have short, fine wool called qiviut. Qiviut is eight times warmer (by weight) than sheep’s wool. This insulates them from the cold. Musk oxen have no trouble surviving the 20-to 80-degrees-below zero weather typical of the North.