Early in life I stumbled upon the works of Jack London, awakening a fascination for the wilds of the great north country. Wilderness and that interaction within it was a regular weekend part of life for our northern Minnesota family until London brought out the wonders of strife and what it meant to live in the harsh, but beautiful country of the north. His stories inspired an impossible dream of going back to the 19th century to face the inhospitable conditions and learn new ways of survival. I’d tuck myself into bed at night after reading, imagining I just endured a hard day’s venture—barely surviving—needing sleep ahead of unknown hardships during the following days.
Later in life, I found myself unintentionally in the middle of a London story in the bush of northern British Columbia. In 2016, photographer Steven Drake and I boarded the Atlin Air De Havilland Beaver time machine for a tremendous moose hunt. After touching down on the shore of a remote lake, we were greeted by the familiar faces of guides Warren Lees and Dylan Massey and horses Utah, Great White, Steve and Babe. They shared news of a potential record-breaking bull that recently moved into our hunt area. Warren, my friend and guide on previous hunts, was his usual unexcitable self. The many years of bush life drains adrenaline into routine while my excitement to dock my horse, Utah, for the ride and fully leave civilization for a couple weeks was barely containable.
A three-hour horseback ride well after dark in a continuous downpour brought me back to the stories I read in my youth. We arrived at camp, the smell of wet horse hair, leather and willow calming after the steady clap of hoof steps and thunder. Fatigued horse sighs as well as one of my own filled the air. Yet, between cold, wet shivers, I found myself smiling within. The guides and wranglers were every bit the characters I’d routinely read about and their simple and arduous way of living and hunting here filled me with something inexplicably woven deep into the fabric of life. There was no civilization to fall back on. Either figure it out or perish.
Eggs, bacon and bannock came shortly after a cold, dark rise from the tent cot as well as a wet and mucky walk from tent to cook shack. Horses were saddled under headlamp; river ice was broken to fill water bottles and a sandwich was jammed into a small ziplock along with a small assortment of candy bars before we set out into the dark veil of the morning hunt.
Three hours into our first morning of weaving through pockets of willow, we bumped into that big bull trying to pin down a hot cow in a small opening. Things happened rather quickly for me and, as I worked my way in, I second guessed myself for a possible better shot. It was “the morning of the first day” after all. Another stalk never came and the bull anxiously moved his cow to hidden ground. That missed opportunity stung. We pushed bush for the remainder of the day, trying to recover another opportunity. No luck. Putting away tack in the rain and tucking in after a failed hunt is always a hard pill to swallow.
The following day we were back on the bull. He was responding well to Warren’s cow calls, but the willows wouldn’t allow a shot. We dogged him several times over the following three days with the shot just out of reach. The following five days turned on us and left us second guessing everything. One thing was certain: he could not be found. We spent a good deal of time sitting on hillsides, glassing for his return.
After giving in to the bull’s disappearance, we packed up a string of ponies and hoped for opportunity in a new country. The seven-hour ride was broken by a young bull in full rut hoping one of our horses was a hot cow. He came quickly to a call and, splitting Warren and me, gave Drake an iconic photo that many thought was photoshopped.
As we entered our ninth day without any good shot opportunities, I was certain my prior years of success had finally caught up with me. All I had to show so far from the hunt was lost weight, calloused hands, a scruffy beard and a good feeling of being worn from the daily routine.
On the second-to-last day, I was lucky enough to have a 180” bull play in to 200 yards and fortunate enough to drop him where he stood. It was a great recovery of a hunt and I was grateful for the opportunity to do the work a hunter loves: the breakdown and pack-out of a tremendous animal.
The last day left us with a caribou tag and one final day to enjoy freedom from civilization. Winter moved into our higher plateau and the caribou were well into their rut. With no expectations for the day, we gave chase to a herd we spotted over three miles away. Consistently 450 yards out and unable to close the distance, I just enjoyed the time. We continued to dog the herd without expectation and nothing else to do. Out of the five bulls present, only one was legal with five points on top. Then, all of a sudden, I was in front of them and the only legal bull was stumbling, quickly felled by my arrow.
The next day was full. Packing two large animals and beating the short window of daylight to the initial camp left us exhausted and we pulled in shortly after dark. But I never wanted to leave this hunt early. The two weeks felt like a year. I soaked in every second, every experience and every encounter, but, still, the time seemed short. Hard work, acquiring skills and traveling to a remote destination via bush plane for a northern bush hunt is more rewarding than the trophy taken. To survive well in the world that inspired London’s writings—to exist as man in the wilderness—is most definitely passage to a well-lived life.