Beyond the Trees

By Aaron Neilson, August 2015

The arctic landscape is so alive with hundreds of native Inuits thriving in Victoria Island's main hub, Holman, as well as a vast diversity of wildlife, including birds, large mammals such as Polar bear, wolf, and muskox, multiple fish species (both freshwater and saltwater), and even foxes and small rodents, which all make this most inhospitable place home. I am so thankful to have been given the incredible opportunity to experience it, if only for a short time.

Arriving in early April, we were met with what still appeared to us to be very much winter. With average temperatures hovering around -20 degrees, it was pretty darn cold. However, our Canadian Arctic hosts were certain spring had sprung and temperatures were definitely on the rise. Regardless, I was extremely happy to be outfitted in my extreme weather Sitka gear, including the new Kelvin Down jacket and other cold weather necessities that proved to be worth every dollar over the next week. I had been to the Arctic once before on a Polar bear hunt, so I was fully aware of the necessity for good quality gear. Exposed skin can get frostbite in only a matter of minutes, so although we were all excited for the upcoming hunt, personal comfort and safety were most certainly the first concerns.

We were met by representatives of the community as well as the guides who would take us on the search for muskox. They were a pretty efficient crew, and I was thrilled to see that they, too, were anxious to get out and hunt. Although we were not scheduled to leave town until the following day, our head guide, Pat, was busy with prep work, making sure we had our licenses and tags and getting the other guides and helpers in line prior to our departure. My hunting partner on this trip was my good friend and client Joe Seagle from Kentucky. Both of us planned to hunt two muskox each, one with a gun and one with a bow. I also had an additional crew member, my cameraman and producer Jake Latendresse. A very experienced hunter in his own right, Jake was the perfect cameraman for the job – tough, fit, and very experienced filming in rugged conditions. We knew the Arctic would wreak havoc on our camera gear, but I also knew that if anybody could make it work, Jake was certainly the guy.

After an early meal, courtesy of our bed and breakfast hosts, it was time to hit the road, so to speak. Pat had told us to expect a 40-mile snowmobile ride to get to base camp, one that he expected to take us roughly 3 hours. Jake and I had our own sled, so after making sure all exposed skin was completely covered, off we went. Pat was clearly the most experienced and the leader of the group. Roughly 65 years old, he was still a very hard worker and obviously the kind of guy you wanted with you in a place that can turn deadly in the blink of an eye. He had lived on this island his entire life and told us there was hardly a corner of it he hadn’t been to more than once. I have no doubt his experience was beyond what even he could possibly describe. We actually drove on the pack ice, following the coastline as it was an easier and faster route to Pat’s personal hunting cabin that he planned to use as our base of operation for the next 5 days.

Prior to my departure from home, I had taken some basic precautions regarding my weapons so as to be sure they would operate properly in such cold conditions. First off, I thoroughly cleaned and degreased my rifle, a Ruger M77 .300 Win Mag, taking every precaution to keep the firing pin from sticking or freezing when it was time to fire. When it came to the bow, a Hoyt Carbon Spyder Turbo, I simply made sure any movable pieces, such as my drop-away rest, were grease fee and I kept the bow dry and the string well lubed with wax. Once I exposed both the gun and the bow to the extreme cold, I kept it that way. The little cabin we stayed in was very warm, most likely 60 plus degrees, so it was important to not bring the gun or bow in and out of the cabin, thus allowing condensation to build up and then potentially freeze once I took them back out into the cold. I simply left both of them outside the entire time, cased up and secure, even at night.

Not knowing exactly how this would go, I chose to start off with my rifle in tow until I had a better feel for the hunt and how it would be possible to get close enough for a bow shot. We spent little time in camp that first day. Once we were settled in, Pat and the others were anxious to move about the island in hopes of locating the many herds of muskox that call this place home. I was very surprised by the mountainous terrain as I was definitely expecting it to be much flatter. I was also surprised by all of the freshwater lakes throughout the land. They obviously were still iced over with what appeared to be 5-6' of ice, but they were very plentiful nonetheless. Although fairly hilly, the terrain was wide open as we were hundreds of miles north of the treeline. This allowed us to move about via snow machine, stopping at high points to glass for muskox. Pat had told us we were not allowed to knowingly approach within roughly 1 mile of any muskox using the machines. We were to glass and then once we located a group, we would drive to within what he estimated to be 1 mile and then approach on foot from there. It was not easy, but in some cases the terrain provided enough cover to get the job done, and, as Pat said would happen, the muskox would often group up and stand their ground in a circular defensive posture rather than run. This allowed us to approach closely in a couple of instances, but it was an odd defensive maneuver. I think it was perhaps a way to save valuable energy rather than constantly running from anything they perceived to be a threat.

In the particular instance of the first group of bulls we encountered, luck was on our side. We had originally spotted these bulls from a fair distance away, so we simply waited for them to crest the hill and began our pursuit on foot. It took us roughly 30 minutes as covering 1 mile when dressed like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man isn’t easy. As we crested the hill, the muskox bulls had unfortunately gotten themselves out onto one of the many frozen lakes in the area and they had little success in moving quickly with nothing but hooves on slick ice. It proved not to be too difficult for us to quickly close the distance within rifle range, and before the end of the first day, I had already taken a great muskox bull.

I was fascinated by the prehistoric look of such a unique creature – a boss much like that of a Cape buffalo with dropping, curled horns to boot, hooves much like the American bison, and the most incredible long, sleek, and shaggy full coat of hair, much of which was easily in excess of 12" long. It was a true adaptation to Mother Nature’s harsh environment found in the north and a most interesting animal to see live and up close.

As the other guys eventually made their way to us, it was especially interesting to see how quickly they were able to skin and butcher the animal under such brutally cold and windy conditions. Their skin was like leather and most certainly immune to the temperature, at least for a while anyway. Fresh muskox backstrap was now on the dinner menu, and we couldn’t wait to try it! One thing was for sure, these boys didn’t leave anything to go to waste, which is a testament to their culture and lifestyle.

Back in the cabin that evening, we were all very impressed with the insulation and warmth of the place. While Pat prepared fresh muskox for us, Jake, Joe, and I finished prepping our bags and looking forward to the following day’s hunt. My 30 below sleeping bag was definitely not necessary as I don’t think I climbed in it once all night. I did, however, get my first taste of muskox, and it was excellent!

The next morning, our plan was the same, travel the frozen tundra and glass the open terrain, looking for little brown dots littering the moonscape. This time we didn’t have to look long before we were on a group of four bulls and a chance with my bow was upon me. The procedure was much the same as the previous day, and although we did put some boot time into this one, the bulls finally gathered into a defensive group and allowed me to approach. It seemed to work best if I approached them by myself, without an entourage, thus sending them fleeing in the opposite direction. As they formed their circle of defense once more, Jake and I approached to within 30 yards as Pat and the assistant hung back a bit. We had already determined the one Pat wanted me to shoot, so now it was just a matter of getting close and getting a good shot angle. Finally, the bull I was after presented me with a broadside shot, and at 30 yards, the WASP broadhead zipped through him like butter. The difficulty was picking the right spot as the beast was so covered in thick hair that no definitive shoulder or brisket lines were evident. At the shot, the bulls bolted straight away from me, while my bull slowed to a stop after about 200 yards, which allowed me to again get within 30 yards or so for the finishing shot. Upon skinning the bull, I could see that what I thought was a perfect first shot was in fact a bit low, thus requiring the follow-up. When looking at the animal live, it was not easy to pick the right aiming point and stay away from the shoulder bone as well. Regardless, all ended well and we had another magnificent muskox bull on the ground. In fact, he was bigger than the one I had taken the previous day with my rifle, making it all the better.

The 3-hour ride back to Holman the following day gave me a lot of time to reflect on the past couple of days and the experience we had just participated in. In fact, that’s exactly what this adventure really was, an "experience." Oftentimes we find ourselves on difficult hunts high in the mountains or looking for critters that rarely show themselves. Muskox hunting, however, just isn’t that way. It’s the experience of the travel, the land, the species, and the native people that makes this adventure to the north so special. Rarely in today’s world do we see a place where the people really do rely on the land for a large part of their subsistence, but the Arctic is still one of those places. Fishing, trapping, and hunting are all as important to the native Inuits here as they were to their ancestors 100 years ago. They use the land as Mother Nature intended it, a rich source of food and shelter. While they now have modern conveniences like cell phones, satellite TV, and the internet, many of them also continue to hold on to traditional values, and hunting is still one of them! It is a tradition that I certainly hope remains a part of their culture for decades to come.