Last month, Brendan Burns, KUIU’s Director of Industry Relations, called me to say that he had managed to pull a coveted permit for a self-guided musk ox hunt in Alaska. The timing could not have been better–we’ve been working on a new KUIU kit geared specifically for the conditions Brendan would encounter: extreme cold, wind, and snow. This hunt would give us the opportunity to further test this new system.
Below is a photo essay of Brendan’s experience. Hunts like this, in the harshest real-life conditions, continue to push our ever-expanding KUIU lines to the next level. Enjoy Brendan’s story. All photos were taken by the incredible Paul Bride.
Non-resident musk ox hunting opportunities are one of the rarest and most unique adventures in North America, so it is easy to imagine my excitement when I received one of the only non-resident permits to take a trophy bull musk ox in remote Western Alaska.
Musk ox are an incredible Ice Age throwback animal that have changed little since the time of woolly mammoths. Although most often lumped into the cow or bison family because of their looks and name, the musk ox is actually more closely related to goat and sheep.
Gone from Alaska in the early 20th century, musk ox were reintroduced from Greenland in the 1930s. They have steadily grown in numbers and have been distributed throughout the state. The Nelson Island musk ox herd, where I had my permit, was transplanted from Nunavak Island in 1968. The habitat has proven to be perfect for them. With no natural predators, the herd has thrived to an estimated population of over 900. Alaska Fish and Game opened the island up for limited hunting to control the numbers a few years ago. Permits are hard to come by to say the least.
The permit allowed me to hunt for a short six week window in February and March. Given that I found out I had drawn the permit in early February, I didn’t have a lot of time to plan out my hunt.
After making a few calls to line up the logistics (this is a DIY hunt with no transporters or guides) I found out a friend in Alaska had also pulled a permit. Justin Shaffer is an active duty Sergeant Major in the US Army and a long-time KUIU customer. Two of his Army buddies, Lee Daniels (retired) and Donnie Ramey had also pulled tags for this hunt. They were gracious enough to invite me to hunt at the same time as them. Considering the remoteness of the area, potential logistical problems, and the size of the animals, I was thrilled to have few like-minded guys to hunt with.
We looked at some weather trends and picked a time to hunt that offered a bit more daylight and slightly higher temps. Predicted temps this time of year range from -50 to +30.
The timing of this trip could not have been better. For the past year, we have been working on a true late- season, cold weather system. As with all of our products, we love the opportunity to test our development prototypes ourselves, in the exact conditions they are intended to be used in. After a few rounds of refinements, the latest version of the system had just shown up. There is no better place to test a cold weather system than in the middle of winter on the Bearing Sea coast.
Photographer Paul Bride accompanied me on the trip. Not only is he amazing at capturing images, he has spent an incredible amount of time in the remote regions of the Arctic. His knowledge and experience in this environment was invaluable.
Nelson Island is an isolated area in far western Alaska along the Bearing Sea connected to the outside world by airplane, snow machine, or boat. The largest community, where we would be basing out of, is Toksook Bay. Toksook is a small Eskimo community with roughly 700 residents who rely mainly on subsistence fishing and hunting.
After a short month of planning, packing, watching weather,and shooting my bow in winter conditions, I finally found myself on the way to Alaska.
From Bozeman I took a flight to Seattle, on to Anchorage, and finally ended up in Bethel. After an overnight in Bethel I finally was on my way to Toksook Bay, where I would meet up with Justin, Donnie and Lee.
I arrived in Toksook to clear skies and a balmy -5. Not bad for the time of year, and perfect for testing out our new cold weather prototypes.
Justin and I would be staying in an old school that the local community had fixed up to house visitors. Donnie and Lee were staying with a friend in the Alaska National Guard.
Considering the remote location and the few people who travel to Toksook it was very comfortable with a full kitchen and a few small rooms. Most importantly it was warm!
I spent the rest of the day lining up a snow machine to rent for the next couple of days and exploring the village.
The people were incredibly friendly and welcoming. It is always a treat to get a glimpse into a different way of life.
The following morning we all met up in the dark, double checked all the machines and gear, and headed out in the direction of a high point. A local had pointed us in to a set of cliffs above the ocean that musk ox frequented this time of year. We were hoping to be able to take all our bulls in the next couple of days as a huge storm was expected at the end of the week.
After a long, bumpy, two-hour ride we came into view of the ocean. We worked our way to the highest point around to glass and hopefully turn up a group of musk ox. Looking around it was hard to imagine any animal could live in this environment.
After hiking around the face of the high point we finally spotted the first group. What an amazing sight! We wanted to look over a few musk ox, but with a short 2 1/2 day hunting window before the next monster storm came in, it was probably best to take every opportunity as it came.
We crept closer to the herd and Justin identified a big bull in the group. Donnie wasted no time in volunteering to stalk him.
He liked the look of the bull and the herd was feeding in a good spot to get close.
With a knife ridge in between us and the herd, Donnie was able to slip into bow range and remain unnoticed until he was close.
Once in range, the herd grouped up in typical musk ox fashion. It took a few minutes for the big bull to get in a clear spot for Donnie to get a shot.
One well placed arrow and the first musk ox was on the ground. It was a very mature old bull with good bosses, deep dropping black tipped horns and an amazing cape.
We were able to work a sled close to the kill site and started the process of taking care of the bull. This was the first musk ox I had ever seen up close. They are an amazing animal with an anatomy unlike anything I have ever encountered. It was a great bull to get to look at and helped immensely in my crash course in judging musk ox.
While we were processing Donnie’s bull, another large herd of musk ox came across a big face a half mile above us.
Lee quickly grabbed his rifle and we made the steep climb up the hill to get closer in case another big bull was in the herd.
Lee’s luck was good, as the group had a huge old shaggy bull bringing up the rear of the herd. Unlike the first bunch, this group spooked immediately when we got close.
One quick shot with his 300 blackout as the herd went over the hill resulted in an ancient old bull for Lee.
With two big bulls on the ground we spent the next couple of hours getting them skinned and processed. Not an easy task, even with four guys working at once.
After taking care of both bulls, Donnie and Lee decided to head back to town before their musk ox were frozen solid.
Justin and I decided to split up and head in separate directions up and down the coast in hopes of finding a good herd for the next day. Paul and I headed south with Justin going north. We would meet up in a few hours and head back to town. Daylight is short this time of year and the thought of getting stranded or caught out all night was borderline terrifying.
I drove south a couple of miles to the next valley and walked out to a high point.
On the way around the mountain I bumped into two bulls that were hidden in a small depression. I’m not sure who was more surprised. How two enormous black objects could disappear in solid white is hard to believe.
I sneaked close to them, wanting to get a better look. Both bulls seemed big, but with my limited musk ox judging skills and the short time in the day, I opted to pass.
It is amazing to see these beasts up close. It was an incredible encounter that I hoped I would not regret.
They finally had enough of me and ran off.
Paul and I continued along the cliff face on foot taking in the truly amazing landscape that you would never see without this hunting opportunity.
After a few hours Justin and I met up and headed back towards Toksook along a different route. On the way back we bumped into another small herd with a nice bull in it.
We both decided the bull was a little young. We spent a few minutes watching them before hiking back to the sleds and continuing on.
We made it back to town just in time to beat the sunset, fill up our sleds with gas and get ready for the next day.
The second day we again headed out in the dark, only this time headed further up the coast to another big valley. The temperature as we were leaving town was -24 without windchill. I have no idea how cold it got riding. I was extremely impressed with our new system. I was not cold once.
Once on the high ground we immediately spotted a group of what appeared to be nine bulls together heading our way. Justin and I both wanted to fill our tags today if at all possible.
We dropped down the mountain in hopes of getting ahead of the bulls.
While moving in their direction, we accidentally bumped into the herd a close range. It was obvious these were all big bulls. As soon as they saw me they bailed for higher ground.
I could tell this group was not going to be like the ones we stalked the day before. They were watching us on full alert, ready to run. Since they were aware of us I decided to try a different tactic. With Paul and Justin in plain sight to keep their attention, I disappeared out of sight an used the only available drainage to sneak below on them without being seen. It worked perfectly as they kept a constant eye on Justin and Paul.
With the contour of the hill I was able to keep my profile low, slip into 30 yards as the best bull in the herd stepped clear. The shot felt perfect, and the herd thundered away with my bull at the rear.
The bulls headed down across a small draw, through a deep drift and over the next rise. My bull finally fell behind in the drift and I was able to get a second arrow in him before he disappeared.
With the bull headed towards the ocean we opted to back out, climb back up the mountain and see if we could locate him. I felt great about both shots, and confident he was down, but we did not want to take any chances of pushing him to the ocean cliffs.
While headed towards the vantage point, another bull popped up right in front of us from a draw to our left. He must have been following the herd and gotten separated.
Justin took one look at the bull and decided this was exactly what he was looking for, with huge bosses and a striking silver back.
As the bull went over a small rise, Justin dropped out of sight and quickly cut the distance.
At 25 yards the bull hesitated just long enough for Justin to put a perfectly placed arrow. The bull was down in seconds.
While walking over to Justin’s bull we could see down the ridge my bull had gone. Luckily he was laying right on the top of the ridge dead. He had made it just out of sight before going down.
Just like that the hunt was over!
Justin’s bull was a monster, with the most pristine cape and bright while bosses of any we had seen.
With both bulls down we photographed Justin’s bull, hiked back to the snow machines to get our stuff. The four of us loaded Justin’s bull whole in the pull behind sled, and drove down to recover my musk ox.
My bull was everything I could hope for, super old with dark bosses and a big scar on his face.
We were able to maneuver the sled close and get a cool photo with both bulls before starting the real work.
Musk ox meat has a reputation as the finest wild game in Alaska, which is saying something considering the delicious moose that call the state home. We treated each bull accordingly. When we got done there were barely enough scraps for a fox to catch a meal between the two bulls.
Musk ox are not as big in the body as they appear. I would estimate they are the live weight of a big cow elk but more compact, sporting the shortest legs for their size of any animal I have ever processed. They are truly a unique trophy.
By mid-day we had both bulls processed and ready for the trip back to town.
With only a day left before flying out it was perfect timing. We had some serious work to do back in town to process all the meat and capes for the flight home.
We pulled all our bulls inside on a tarp and processed the meat and hides. Pulling the cape off a musk ox bull is easily the most difficult of any animal I’ve taken. All our bulls turned out to be exceptional by Alaska standards.
My bull had one full tooth in his jaw and was most likely in his last winter.
One of the other residents in town had been successful at taking a nice bull as well. He was gracious enough to invite us over to show us how they process them. Normally it is so cold they simply pull the whole musk ox into the house. It was interesting to see.
With all of our gear and meat packed, we decided to go out again the next morning for a few hours to see if we could find an Arctic fox.
We ran into a few more herds of musk ox. I could not get enough of seeing these creatures. They are a perfectly suited animal for this cold, unforgiving environment.
On the way back to town after a big loop, Justin was able to get a beautiful arctic fox, putting a cap on an amazing adventure.
We headed back to town, loaded up our gear and meat, and arrived at the airstrip just in time to catch our flight out.
This was an amazing adventure and a truly special opportunity I will never forget. I want to thank the community of Toksook Bay for their hospitality and the state of Alaska for offering these one of a kind hunts.
I can say that our cold weather system is impressive, and the prototypes exceeded my expectations. If you spend any amount of time in extreme cold conditions, this system will be essential.
On to the next!