Autumn in the Greatland is a sight to savor with her giant mammals, fiery sunrises and dancing northern lights. The river corridors are where the shy, horse-sized moose with sonar panels for antlers devour more than 40 pounds of vegetation every day. If it’s wet, swampy and thick, moose will be nearby.
Where the thicker riparian zone gives way to open muskeg, caribou are king. This white-maned tundra trotter with disproportionately large antlers looks majestic as royalty, yet acts—at times—as unpredictable as an errant breeze. Regardless, neither indecisive caribou nor secretive moose are easy prey for the hunter, whether carrying bow or rifle.
In the wilderness, physical and mental toughness, along with endurance, shooting ability and glassing skills, are the recipe for success. Spot-and-stalk tactics for caribou, and calling compositions for moose, are the order of the day. When the arching yet intricate form of caribou antlers catches your eye, your only chance as a bowhunter is to melt into the natural folds of the fiery tundra and act like a wolf. Even then, more times than not, a stalk will unravel by a fickle breeze, terrain that’s too open or the sporadic whims of the caribou. However, rifle hunters with a steady rest can “reach out and touch ’em” with most any .270 Win. or larger caliber.
With the telltale flash of moose antler, a different bag of tricks must be employed. You’d think an animal weighing 1,500 pounds and standing 7 feet tall at the shoulders would be easy to find, but “swamp donkeys,” as they’re sometimes called, can vanish in their boreal forest domain like a rabbit in a briar patch. Guttural, cowmoose moans and diaphragm-resonating bull grunts might be the best motto for locating and luring an amorous bull moose into shooting range.
In addition to the natural difficulty of getting close to backcountry big game, hunting for caribou and moose in the wilderness on a float trip presents even more challenges.
Hiking the tundra in pursuit of caribou is similar to an ant traversing a large, damp sponge. Frequently, tundra is stippled with tussocks (bowling ball-sized grass clumps), where your best mobility resembles a drunk woman in a tight skirt walking with one broken heel. For moose, wading beaver ponds and knee-high icy streams or clawing through thick brush like a tick on a wire-haired terrier’s back is all in a day’s hunt.
Besides arduous terrain, unpredictable weather and travel logistics with bush planes and river rafts, it’s the bears and bugs that add a certain level of excitement and potential danger to any Alaskan wilderness experience. During autumn, you can be hiking in T-shirt weather in the afternoon and then wake up to flash-frozen streams with 6 inches of “partly cloudy” blanketing the landscape. Moreover, the fresh dusting of white can quickly reveal the tracks of a curious brown bear. Mostly, these large omnivores are shy, unobtrusive creatures. However, they’ve never learned to share when it comes to mounds of fresh meat—so beware.
Depending on your perspective, the frigid climate might bring a refreshing interlude from the tormenting insects. At times, the din of insects can be deafening. Also, the squadrons of mosquitoes and droves of white socks can make one feel as if they’ve involuntarily entered a bankrupt blood bank.
Don’t fret, though: If you wanted it to be easy, you wouldn’t be hunting in the wilderness. So, before those old legs get too brittle and the back too weak, head for the Northland and savor the unique challenge and experience of a wilderness float hunt for moose and caribou.