Interestingly enough, this was the only time I ever went big game hunting… our one and only hunting trip like this together. There were several reasons for it. For one – I was almost always in school during moose hunting season. And my dad really enjoyed going with his buddies a lot more. The second was because of the lasting impression this trip made on me. I was never too keen on killing such magnificent giants. And then in my teens I realized that there were too many people hunting on account of the fact that Fairbanks had such a large military presence. So I never really pursued it thereafter. Dad and I hunted rabbits and ptarmigan together, but no big game. I stand by my concerns today regarding big game hunting… or even just in general for that matter. There are too many people and not enough animals.
“Stay here,” he whispered into my ear. “And do not move. Do you understand me?” he articulated firmly. I nodded wordlessly. I was instantly afraid. It was the first time in memory that I can recall my dad looking deadly serious. I watched as he pulled the banded scope caps off very carefully only to have the second slip from his fingers and bounce keenly off the gun body.
“Ahh!” he gritted, instantly shouldering the rifle and pulling the trigger just as the bear reeled up and around to engage the sound. A split second later he’d fired several more. And then they both took off – the brown bear exploding downhill into the alders, tree trunks and branches shattering everywhere – and my dad in a focused, patient pursuit. All I could hear as he moved off was, “Stay here! Don’t move!” And then more gunshots cackling across the sky… and then finally silence.
According to Dad’s account, it took seven rounds to bring that bear down. He pulled the trigger six times, unloading the chamber and an entire clip; and then had to load in an additional bullet manually just to get the job done. And every single one of those rounds hit the mark in one place or another. Incredibly enough, that thing never stopped moving until the very last shot. It was running on pure adrenaline the whole time. All the way, that is, until the seventh bullet blew through its neck as it stood up from the alders to get its bearings, so to speak. Four shots through the shoulders, shattering both – two of which went through its heart and the other pair through its lungs. The remaining three bullets went into its back leg, other ankle, and through the neck as previously described. And these were 30-caliber rounds from a 300 Weatherby magazine rifle – a high-velocity weapon specifically designed to drop big game within a single round. Each impact carried about 3000 foot-pounds of punch – the equivalent of getting hit by a car! So you can imagine my Dad’s belated wonder when he started thinking about what it took just to slow that animal down. This was one big grizzly bear; it turned out to be eight-and-a-half feet long (from the front to rear paw tip) on diagonal.
I was eight years old and this was my very first hunting trip. It was rolling into mid-September at the time, and I’d been begging Dad to take me out for weeks. I was the eldest of three, the only boy in the family, and was itching for a little exclusive guy time. So he finally acquiesced, picked a spot, and assured my Mom that we’d be close, safe and back by nightfall. We ended up driving out to Nome Creek Trail early the next morning, about forty-miles north of Fairbanks on the Steese Highway. I remember clamoring down from my Dad’s red Dodge Power Wagon – the beast that it was – all suited up and ready to go with my winter kid clothes and little black rubber boots. Everything was amazing out there… not one noise aside from the huff of a cool autumn breeze tickling its way through the hillside aspen, alder and spruce bows. And the colors – mesmerizing. Berry bushes and the like all painted in yellow, orange and red, blazing with brilliance. It was a classic autumn day in Central Alaska, swollen with the ripe twang of high-bush cranberries and the familiar incense of aging leaves.
“Aren’t there any roads here?” I asked. “How are we going to get there without a road? Where are we going? How far till we – ”
“We’re going up there,” Dad interrupted, pointing patiently skyward. “To the top of that hill above tree line to get a better look. And there aren’t any roads here aside from this mining trail and maybe some moose trails up top,” he affirmed warmly while shouldering the backpack and rifle. It was thus that we started in on our great adventure up Nome Creek Trail. And for the first few miles it was nothing if not invigorating. By the time we’d reached the seventh mile and top of that hill, however, I was pretty well spent. We’d already climbed about twenty-five hundred feet and the day was barely getting started. It was to my relief, then, that Dad finally stopped and pointed over to the next valley. “That’s Opher Creek, down there. You see it?” he asked, beckoning me forward. “We’ll take a food break and then head over there to look for moose sign, okay?”
I nodded in weary agreement, but “…food break…” was all that I could muster coherent thought on until we began eating. After a full stomach of Mom’s homemade bagels though I was ready for the hunt once again. So we continued on down into Opher Creek, dropped the pack at a bright yellow outcropping of aspens, and then started climbing up the side of the next hill. We’d been off trail and into the thick for almost an hour before my Dad stopped and knelt quietly to face me. “From here on you need to be very quiet. Do you see that?” he pointed, “It’s a moose trail. We’re gonna follow that, but we need to be quiet okay? No talking.” A foot-wide groove lay directly ahead in the spongy tundra, worn all the way to the shale and clay beneath. And it was so well traveled, that it I imagined it as more of a Moose Highway than any type of trail!
My heart began to pound as I nodded excitedly and whispered an affirming “Okaaaay.” Truth be told I was already tired again and could barely utter a word until that energizing moment. The nine-miles of squishing along in little rubber boots and asking endless questions had taken its toll. But then suddenly, somehow, I felt revived. Evidently the excitement of finally ‘hunting’ something was instantly invigorating, leaving it all temporarily behind. We proceeded carefully from there. And it was a really good thing, because it wasn’t but thirty minutes before our encounter with the brown bear. My Dad put out his hand to stop me. That hairy monstrosity was no more than fifteen yards ahead of us foraging for food. And it hadn’t heard us yet, or smelled us, which meant that the wind must have been blowing in our favor that day. He knelt down once again to face me, and then everything happened as I’ve described.
“Come on down here,” he called quietly. “It’s okay, he’s dead.” I wobbled my way down into the brush, still shaking from excitement. To an eight-year-from a quiet little town it was the most massive thing I’d ever seen, especially up close. And even dead, it was scary as hell. My Dad set to rolling up his sleeves and then gutting it out as I curiously questioned his movements.
“We have to remove the guts now or the meat’ll go bad. If we do it now it should at least last until I come back tomorrow. You can touch it,” he continued, still working feverishly as he watched me inching forward, looking back and forth between guts and girth. “Go ahead, it’s okay,” he coaxed. I put my hand out cautiously into the course brown fur until it met the skin below. It was still hot! Reflexively, I pulled away as if recoiling from a scalding flame. “Didn’t expect that, huh?” he laughed. “It’s okay. He’s not going anywhere.”
“So are moose bigger than bears?” I asked with unrestrained awe…
By the time Dad finished gutting the bear it was already mid-afternoon. This certainty was met with a proclamation of the need to eat again and then get moving if we were to make it back to the truck before nightfall. This was all I needed to hear to summon the strength to keep going as I watched him clean his blood-stained arms with canteen water. So we headed off on a straight shot down the hill toward Opher Creek and our bright yellow aspen patch. We hadn’t even reached creek-side, however, before yet another encounter! I froze in the midst of the alders we’d been threading. Dad’s index finger was firmly planted across his lips. And then I watched as he quietly knelt to reload the clip with the remaining three bullets. Something ahead was concealed and snorting like a bear, and my Dad didn’t want it to find us because he hadn’t the firepower or desire to take on another one. So we waited in the hopes that it would just pass without noticing.
“It’s a moose,” he uttered wide-eyed, and then immediately rose up, locked in the clip and aimed. Deep in the midst of our golden alder patch were two giant antler tips, but that’s all that was visible. So he guessed as to where the rest was located and fired. It jumped and ran momentarily, still cloaked by the densely radiant foliage. He dialed on down from the horn tips and tried again. And again it ran and stopped, but out into the open this time. Both shots had apparently missed. So he beaded onto what he assumed was the backside of its shoulder and fired one last time… and the moose just stood there. His certainty about the hit began dissolving rapidly. After emerging, the moose was only out about twenty yards – so close that my Dad couldn’t even hear the impact. Normally when an animal was far enough off you’d hear two distinct sounds – the bullet exploding from the casing as it exits the barrel while breaking the sound barrier, and the dull thud as it punches into the animal like a splitting maul into wood. In between are usually the drawn out pitch changes from that initial firing as rocketing lead passes through inversion layers while crossing the distance. This moose was so close that there was no way to distinguish the difference between those two important sounds, and therefore no way to know if he’d actually hit it. It would all just sound like one big trigger pull explosion regardless. And scoping didn’t help much either since the magnification was too high. All he could see was a blob of course brown fur. However, the realization that he’d actually missed again became abundantly clear as it started pawing the ground and snorting angrily. It was absolutely huge and in a killing mood.
“I don’t have any more bullets,” he voiced quickly, still locked in focus on the gargantuan beast. “When I tell you, start running. I’ll push you into the brush. Stay there and I’ll draw him away.” And just as he set for motion, the moose went first. Both of its front hooves came off the ground as if to trounce, and then it reeled over into the trees crashing headlong into the ground. My Dad just watched in disbelief as the earth rumbled from the impact. Minutes later he finally broke trance to check it out.
“It’s just stone dead,” he muttered. “Huh. I don’t believe it.” He beckoned me over and then lifted me excitedly onto the ribcage. “So are moose bigger than bears?!” he exclaimed, still holding steady as my feet slid around on the loose skin beneath.
“Yes! Yes!” I yelled. “Now get me off!!!” It was way bigger than I could have ever imagined. And the horns themselves spanned almost two of my body lengths. I felt absolutely minuscule in comparison. And I wondered how my Dad could even have challenged such an animal, let alone killed it. For some reason, this moose was almost scarier than the bear. It must have been the giant antlers, or maybe the length of those incredible legs, or even the very the idea that it was actually big enough to take on that brown bear he just killed.
“Huh. I had another one in my pocket and didn’t even know it,” he remarked, now handling the bullet introspectively. “We could have really used this about ten minutes ago. Whew! Okay – we gotta clean this one too. And we gotta do it fast because it’s getting dark. So hold up the back leg for me while I do this.” He struggled to lift the leg as I walked under with my arms up, and then set it gently onto my hands.
“You got it?” he asked while beginning to let go.
“No. No. It’s too heavy! It’s gonna smash me!” I exclaimed as it began crushing down like a vice. “Get it off!”
“Okay! Okay. We’ll try something else,” he assured while jockeying to lift it again so that I could retreat. Two minutes later he had a fairly large stick in hand and asked me to prop it under the leg as he endeavored to pry it back over.
The sun began to sag on the horizon. My dad observed its relentless progression, shaking his head as he set to work gutting at top speed. Entrails began spilling out everywhere. It was fascinating to watch yet again. I’d never seen so many giant pieces and parts and colors. And he worked like a madman to get it all done. “Come in here and hold this back for me,” he directed. “Take your jacket off and roll up your sleeves so that you don’t get too bloody, okay.”
Watching and touching were entirely different experiences. It was like leaping to a totally different level of exposure – disgusting and overwhelmingly pungent in one sense, but incredibly interesting in another. It was all I could do to hold back all of that hot, slippery mess with my little hands as it slimed about trying to escape. And then there was that moment when he actually had to climb completely into the ribcage just to get the stomach out – one blood and guts memory not easily forgotten. The whole experience was at once invigorating and exhausting, until the end when the clouds and accompanying darkness fell at once, and it began to rain. Then it all just became totally exhausting. My Dad threw on the pack and gun and then grabbed me. “Lets get movin,” he expressed with growing concern. “The weather’s getting nasty and we gotta get outta here now, okay? We’ll take a straight shot to the top. Otherwise it’ll take too long.”
But my little legs were no match at that point for all of the snags and tangles. And he started outdistancing me almost immediately. So he dropped back and put me up onto his shoulders above the backpack and kept going. When I think back now, I can’t even imagine how tired he must have been. I mean… we never got one solid hour of rest since the day started. And he was working way harder the entire time. But that was my Dad – a total machine, totally unstoppable – ever since I can remember. He kept climbing and it started blowing… and sleeting… and finally just snowing like hell. And the trail started to disappear into the whitewash and ever-imposing darkness. We still had miles to go when he reached the top of the hill above Opher Creek and then came to a stop.
“Great. I’ve lost the trail. There’s no way we can keep going like this. We’re gonna have to stay out here overnight,” he voiced with near disillusionment. “I can’t see a thing through all of this snow.” He knelt down and lifted me off of his shoulders to set me back onto the ground. “Your mom is not gonna be happy about this,” he continued while eyeing and then dusting my snow caked little hood and rosy cheeks.
We wandered around into the gale looking for adequate cover. And then he parked us under the largest spruce tree that he could find, broke off a bunch of branches for bedding, and began foraging for firewood. I was so tired by the time we ate the last of mom’s bagels and started warming up that I almost fell asleep sitting. And the snow just kept coming. But that spruce tree kept us high and dry the whole night… as long as you didn’t drift too far out to the edge of cover, that is. I had no problem with that on account of the fact that I kept trying to roll into the fire all night. I don’t think my dad got one wink of decent sleep. He spent the entire evening stoking the fire, dragging me off of it, and stopping our bed from igniting.
I was freezing my ass off! Even with the backpack as liner beneath the spruce bows, it didn’t matter. One side would warm up while the other simultaneously froze. Flip. Then the other. Flip. Then the other. All night long, for what seemed like an eternity in a half-dozed stupor. I don’t even remember what he was doing, but I’m sure it wasn’t nearly as cyclonic. The next morning I woke to burn marks all over my winter jacket and pants, a frozen little crotch, and six inches of snow outlining our tree cover. Evidently it had been an eventful evening. I’d wet the bed as usual and wasn’t even on one this time – definitely a new twist on that exasperating old theme. I made a minor attempt to hide it from my Dad, but it was fairly obvious. And God was it uncomfortable! In hindsight, you’d think that something like this would convince a kid to stop wetting once and for all, but I was so stubborn that it actually took until I was ten to finally quit. And even then it required the sheer-force of will – relentless practice of popping up and flying to the bathroom night after night for several weeks – just to make it stick. One evening thereafter I woke to find myself standing next to the bed wondering ‘what the hell?’ And then it struck me that all the dedicated practice and commitment to beating this damned thing had finally paid off, and I flew to the bathroom bouncing with quiet elation.
“Get up sleepy head. Time to go,” he urged while rustling my balled up little mass. Grey dawn was emerging but you could barely see a thing. I started sensing how deep the chill had burrowed in over the evening and curled ever tighter. “Come on – Let’s get moving,” he continued. “The faster you get up, the faster you’ll warm up.”
“Why can’t we have more fire?” I protested, still locked in cocoon, my voice barely discernable beneath the taut cover of winter clothing.
“We ran out of wood. Were out of everything, so we need to get going before something else happens, if you know what I mean. Plus I gotta get you home and then come back out here for the meat before another bear gets into it. We really made out like bandits with all that snow,” he reflected. “No worries about it spoiling, or even being easy to smell. Come over here and help me find the trail Cliff.”
I unwillingly uncoiled and then looked down to discover the burn marks all over my snowsuit. “What happened to my jacket?!” I blurted while tugging discretely at my underwear and pants.
“You kept rolling onto the fire… and I kept rolling you back off,” he chided.
“I don’t remember that,” I remarked thoughtfully, still jockeying quietly to get the underwear away from my now rapidly freezing nether region.
“Oh I know, believe me. You woulda been very happy on the fire last night,” he joked.
He began spiraling around concentrically in search of trail sign, and paused about twenty feet out from the tree. “And there it is,” he smiled. “It was right here next to us the whole night. That was some storm.”
I ran excitedly over to see, observing its white blanket on into the distance.
“Alright, lets get back to the truck and warm you up. How does that sound?”
“Yeah,” I chattered. “I’m f-f-rreezing.”
The clouded, brooding sky began to ignite and slowly brighten. Aside from the prior evening’s snowfall everything was calm, with no wind or weather to speak of. That was a welcome sight considering how much more frozen my crotch would have been otherwise. And as we started our forced march downhill into forever, my body steadily warmed up as my little feet began simultaneously to solidify. It was all I could do to keep the blood flowing – a continual toe scrunching effort – while we treaded silently toward that intangibly distant refuge below. Aside from the nearly unbearable foot pain, this was all that I could focus on.
It was different back then – freezing I mean. Maybe it was tender nerves, maybe just my size, but freezing as a child was far more painful than as an adult… and I had plenty of opportunities to do both. There were times during my paper carrying years that I’d be out there in forty or fifty… or even sixty below zero. The warmest children’s clothes on Earth won’t protect you for long in those temperatures. Sometimes it got bad enough to warrant knocking on a trusted customer’s door to stand inside their heated entryway for a while. Sometimes it was so bad in fact – with the newspaper load and all – that Dad would help by driving me around. And sometimes I just kept walking as long as possible until I found a discrete location to drop down and use the insulating potential of the bag and newspapers to warm back up as I stared quietly into the stars. Most of the time I’d chop the route up into pieces just to get a few warm-up breaks at home. It made the job longer but definitely more bearable. And always, always, I’d carry a kerosene hand warmer in each pocket to at least keep the heat pumping through the main arteries. Years passed and then I was reacquainted with long spells in the cold while doing fieldwork and surveying for the local power company. Same town, same weather, more hours – but this time I was about fifty pounds heavier and with what appeared to be a higher pain threshold. There were some rough days out there where, rather than the freezer burn, I just started slowing way down as my core temperature began dropping – which is bad. But most days only my extremities were affected in this way. This may not seem like a big deal until you try snapping your fingers, lighting a match or opening a car door. We’ve got plenty of Alaskan sourdough tales about the guy who froze like a porcelain statue with an unused book of matches in one hand and a stack of kindling right there in front of him, ready to go. From first blush the searing pain of cold might look more dangerous than slow, insidious cooling, but it isn’t. As an adult I was far more concerned about that cooling than I was about the frostbite since it happened way more often.
“You okay?” he inquired, aware at some point of my visible pain.
“My feet are freeeezing,” I whined uncomfortably.
“Lemme see,” he replied while seating me on the ground and then pulling off a boot. The sock was balled up to the tip of my toe all encrusted with blood. “Whoa! What the heck did you do here?!” He exclaimed. “Why didn’t you tell me that you were bleeding all over the place?” He gently bent my leg around to assess the damage while rubbing my toes. “Man Cliff you really did it to yourself this time. There’s no skin left on your heel at all. Doesn’t this hurt?”
“Not as much as freezing toes,” I complained.
“Why didn’t you pull your socks up?” he pressed.
“They kept falling down all day and I’m tired… And my feet were hurting and then got better, so I thought it was okay,” I replied innocently.
“That’s because you were using your own blood as a lubricant,” my Dad remarked calmly, still taking all of it in. “You need to tell me when something like this happens, okay? Don’t do that again,” he ordered firmly. “Its not bad enough that we’re coming home late. Mom’s gonna wonder what I did to you out here!”
He removed the second boot more carefully only to reveal the same, and then stuck both naked little appendages between his legs to heat them up. I’m not really sure why I never mentioned that they were bleeding. I think I was so uncomfortable from the pee and cold that I just wanted to go home. So I forced myself to keep moving and ride through it. Every time he recalls this story my Dad brings it up – the fact that I never complained; never said a word until he asked me. Sometimes it’s almost more interesting to him than tale itself. A while later he put the socks back on and adjusted everything to prevent them from falling so easily. Next thing I knew I was back on my slightly warmer feet.
“Can you carry me again Daddy?” I urged, arms up and wide while trying to milk it.
“Later okay? You gotta keep walking for now?” he replied earnestly.
“But why?” I protested.
“Because I can’t carry you the whole way and your feet will freeze faster if you don’t move. Keep on moving. We’re almost there. You can make it part of the way.”
He extended a hand and beckoned me forth once again. I grabbed on and we kept going, albeit slower. The snow continued to crunch incessantly beneath our feet for what was to become monotonous hours. Sometimes he carried me, sometimes he couldn’t. A red dot became visible off in the distance and then started growing larger… and larger yet, until it began taking form. But I didn’t trust it. When we were on the ridgeline hours earlier and he’d pointed to it, it looked really close. Miles later, however, I was soberly reminded of just how far off we actually were. So I suppressed my hopes and instinct to run toward it. And then just as suddenly it was right there upon us. I touched the red passenger door panel to make sure that it was indeed real as Dad got in and started her up. It was the sweetest sound I’d ever heard. He hopped out and lifted me up and into the cab, and then pulled off my boots again and started rubbing as the heater warmed up. We were on our way home…
My Dad returned without me that same day in a Weasel track vehicle with it’s accompanying owner. And in the process of removing the moose’s diaphragm and lungs to start the butchering, he discovered what actually made that third bullet so lethal. It entered behind the shoulder as expected, and then on through the heart, exploding it effectively in half. The moose, like the bear, had died instantly and didn’t even know it until several seconds after blood flow and oxygenation had already ceased.
In hindsight I could say a lot of things about how we should’ve packed smarter, brought more bullets, and taken some of the meat with us on the way back. That’s my ‘calculating’ mind talking, not my Dad’s more casual approach to be certain. It wasn’t as if he didn’t consider the possibilities. The man had a physics degree for pity’s sake. It’s just that he wasn’t nearly as committed to contingency planning as I’ve always been – a mannerism likely induced, ironically enough, by what happened on this very trip. I might also mention that it was typical of my Dad to push me too hard like he did here, and that he had no concept of a child’s limitations compared to those of an adult. But I was the firstborn, the only son until my brother’s arrival at the age of twelve, and there were no grandparents around for advice or moderation. And to top it off, my Dad came from a hard-core farming family. So my eldest sister and I got tempered like steel in situations like this throughout childhood. From salmon dipping on the silt-blasted shores of the raging Copper River to hiking the treacherous slopes of Darling Creek – we did what most kids couldn’t even begin to dream of… and all of it was instrumental to our development.
People, I believe, are shaped by experiences of this ‘nature’, and this first hunting trip was absolutely no exception. For weeks afterwards I had nightmares about dying. I’d wake up crying, sweaty, and afraid night after night. And on one fateful evening I just woke up angry and tired of being emotionally violated and desperate. I wondered deeply what it was that made those animals different from us and why? And I swore to do whatever it took to find out – to know what it truly meant to be human before my own inevitable and possibly untimely demise. Then I thought about God and wondered why a being like this would allow such beautiful, powerful giants to die so easily… and what that meant for the rest of us. I needed to know – did God even exist or were we all just wandering alone like these animals appeared to be doing? And I wanted evidence, and I wanted to see it with my own eyes – because at that point I couldn’t even tell if there was any kind of order or importance to anything. Most people don’t believe that an eight-year-old could cogitate on anything even half as complex or important as this, but I’ve seen other children do it since. And if those kids were anything like me, these were the moments that created something extraordinary that likely wouldn’t have existed at all if it weren’t for the event that spawned it in the first place. This simple hunting expedition – what my dad called a “little scouting mission to wear me out” – changed everything for me. As a dreamer I found myself searching for and exploring these truths for most of my adult life, looking for absolutes in a world riddled, like cheese, with holes of perspective. But eventually I got my answers, however hard won they ended up being. And they were worth ‘hunting’ for…
Imagine if he’d turned back at the five-mile mark. None of this would have happened. Now try to imagine how different things might have been if he’d just tried to let the bear pass like he’d been planning with the second monstrosity. And then realize – we were nine miles out and I was wearing bloodied up rubber boots. Once the bear got a whiff of that, he might have hunted us all night all the way back to the truck. Talk about potentially contrasting outcomes…