Because of what a horror my first hunt for the species had turned out to be, I approached my second muskox hunt (in late August of 2001) with a certain amount of trepidation. Just how tough would it be for me to kill one of these wild oxen of the Far North with only a “stick and a string?” I was worried. Yet, as hardy as muskoxen were reputed to be, I just had to believe that even the biggest bull out there would succumb quickly to my Savora broadhead if it struck him through the heart or the lungs!
My destination that fourth week of August was Banks Island, the most northwestern of all the Arctic Islands contained within Canada’s Northwest Territories. It is a very large island, stretching north from about the 71st Parallel to nearly the 75th, and its only tiny hamlet, Sachs Harbour, sits almost 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It is no mean feat just to get there by airplane(s), and if you robbed a bank to pay for the exorbitant airfare, it would be an excellent place to go in order to escape detection for the rest of your life. I doubt that the year-round population of Sachs Harbour exceeds 100 by more than just a few souls. Most of them are Inuvialuits who make their living through hunting and trapping. The Inuits—much to the east—are their “kindred cousins,” and Caucasians tend to lump them all together as “Eskimos.”
I booked the hunt through Hans Keller (Global Hunting Adventures), and he was able to provide me, through the Sachs Harbor HTO (Hunter-Trapper Organization), with a friendly guide named Manny Kudluk. Normally muskox hunts are sold on the basis of one tag per hunter. However, due to the excessive number of animals on Banks Island, together with the HTO’s desire to reach out more proactively to the sport-hunting world for help in dealing with their muskox superfluity problem, Keller had been authorized to sell his hunts on the basis of two tags per hunter. The second tag was virtually at no cost, if you wanted it. I decided the two-for-one deal was too good to pass up, so, when Manny met my plane at the dirt landing strip in Sachs Harbour and took me to see the NWT Government Agent for the purchase of my license and tags, I shelled out a few extra bucks for that second tag and began hoping for a double dose of good luck.
After spending my first night at the one, tiny co-op “hotel,” I was greeted the next morning by Manny and his assistant, Freddie, riding a couple of four-wheelers that were outfitted with substantial tow-carts trailed behind them. These would carry all our camping and hunting gear, as well as the meat and hides they expected to be bringing back to town a few days later. I found their optimism most encouraging. It took quite a few hours to get everything organized, loaded, and tied down securely, but by four o’clock we were on our way, heading somewhere into the middle of the island. I had my own quad all to myself, so I knew this hunt was going to be an adventure in more ways than one.
Our destination was a little hunting shack that Manny’s grandfather had built long ago, which was just big enough for the three of us to sleep in. An hour or so before reaching our camp, we began to spot a few scattered groups of muskox. Our sightings included one old bull, bedded by himself, about a half-mile away. Manny remarked that there appeared something odd about him and suggested we go take a look. His hunch was right—the muskox was dead!
There seemed to be no visible evidence of the cause of death, either, though his demise seemed to have occurred very recently. He was not lying on his side, but instead lay sort of slouched against a bank in a prone, upright position. Manny’s interesting conjecture was that, either he had just died of old age—or else from a heart attack triggered by the rigors of the fall rut (which was in full swing). Since we knew his meat would not be safe to eat, all we could do was move on and abandon him to the wolves that would surely find him in the next day or two.
The long, seven-hour trip by quad—over what at times was very rough, bumpy ground—gradually took its painful toll on my tailbone. By the time we finally reached our destination, I could hardly walk—thanks to an old, teenage back injury that the ride had re-inflamed.
While Manny and his helper unpacked everything and began to prepare the evening meal, I took a walk to a nearby, little lake—hoping to make friends with my backbone once again. It had clearly fallen out of sorts with me.
The time was nearly midnight. The sunset was coming on strong in a very hazy, orange sky, and its mirror image jumped right out of the lake at me to double both its effective and affective impact. Not a breath of air was moving anything. Of course, in that stark, utterly barren landscape, there was little to move! Nothing on Banks Island grows higher than eight or nine inches off the ground! Even the occasional willow bushes are not that tall. I looked all around me at a static, panoramic skyline that had not changed one iota since the last time the polar ice-cap receded to the north. As long as I kept the tiny shack at my back, I was able to feel as if I were completely lost in both time and space. Never before had I felt myself in the middle of such total wilderness, nor so very close to my faceless ancestors of the Pleistocene. Given the prehistoric-looking creatures I had seen that day, the time-travel backwards didn’t even require closing my eyes!
The sunset of our first night in camp foretold the sunrise and clear skies of our first day of hunting. After a reasonably healthy breakfast of bacon and hotcakes fried in bacon grease, Manny tied my soft bow case on the front of his quad around 9 o’clock. Then I climbed aboard behind him, and we took off for the nether reaches of Parts Unknown. That is the name of the kingdom that every true hunter lives to explore. Freddie followed behind us on the second four-wheeler, with one of the carts in tow.
By 10:30 a.m., we were into muskox. Topping a rise, we suddenly saw a herd of 15 grazing in a basin below us. All the males except for some juveniles had been chased out of the band by the one, big, dominant bull. He was not about to share his harem of cows and calves with any other mature bull. Dismounting from our quads, Manny and I discussed a possible strategy for approaching the big fellow, but there were no contours nor any brush to hide behind, so he suggested I simply try to walk into the middle of the herd with a slow, up-right, non-threatening posture.
Despite my best efforts to feign casual indifference, the bull obviously regarded my approach as threatening, anyway. The closer I got, the more nervous he became. When I had managed to close to within about 70 yards, one of the cows bolted, and that panicked all the others into flight—including the huge “herdmeister.” His body-bulk looked half-again-as-big as the second-largest animal in the group.
We watched them run off the better part of a mile before settling down to feed again. Manny opined that it might be worth trying the same kind of indifferent stalk one more time, so off we went on foot—leaving Freddie to stay put with the quads. I was able to approach the bull on my second attempt to within perhaps 60 yards before they all decided to pull up stakes again. Their direction of flight—as well as the flat country they were heading for—led us to return to the four-wheelers and start looking for another good bull somewhere else.
Around one o’clock in the afternoon, we rolled up to the crest of a ridge and spied a solitary bull a mile away. He was bedded, facing away from us, and a gentle crosswind was blowing between us. My guide and I took off at a fast walk, excited by what seemed an ideal stalking situation. Mind you, since there was not a stitch of cover anywhere around, the success of the stalk was going to depend on the bull remaining in his bed. I was praying he wouldn’t suddenly rise to stretch his legs, or look around.
At a distance of 100 yards, I asked Manny to stay behind. Unfortunately, I forgot to leave my rucksack with him and ask him to video the impending drama. Later on, I regretted that oversight. The contrast between my previous year’s experience and the one I was just about to have couldn’t have proven more stark!
My final steps were in soft, moist grass, and when I stopped only 15 yards away from his left hindquarter, the “moat” had been crossed, and I was inside the castle. The sensory defenses of my soporific quarry had utterly failed him. Methodically, I drew back my arrow and took dead aim. I tried to imagine an invisible straight line that connected his heart to the tip of my arrow. The point at which that line exited the bull’s body was the precise spot I willed my broadhead to strike. Although I don’t recall releasing the string, the next image I do recall was that of a chartreuse green nock sitting in the middle of that spot. The arrow shaft had entered just behind the last rib, and—judging by what happened next—I do believe the tip of the broadhead must have lodged in his heart!
With his reverie rudely interrupted, and with an explosive speed that took my breath away, the beast was instantly on his feet and facing directly at me. I knew the charge was imminent. I fumbled clumsily to get a second arrow out of my bow-quiver and onto the string. Then, amazingly, before I could even draw back to defend myself, the bull hit the turf like a ton of bricks—falling right back into the bed from which he had just sprung! I was totally stunned. Within five seconds, all motion ceased. He was dead in his bed, and the drama had ended almost before it began.
By the time the startling reality had had time to sink in, Manny was at my side, extending his hand in congratulations. Soon Freddie drove up on the quad. Both Inuvialuits were excited and hastened to tell me that they had never seen a muskox go down so fast—even from a bullet. Within minutes, the skinning knives were out, sharpened, and fast at work. When Manny reached the area of the bull’s neck, he said, “Dennis, look at this! I don’t think we’d better take any of the meat. The layer of fat around his neck and shoulders is entirely translucent—just like jello!”
Immediately, I saw what he was talking about. Instead of a thick, healthy, white layer of fat just under the hide, there was a thin, gelatinous substance that looked more like marmalade. After we removed the head and horns, it was Manny’s decision—not mine—to leave the carcass where it lay. He insisted his family would not want to risk eating any of the meat. When I asked the reason for that, his answer was nebulous, and I decided not to press the issue. Once before, he said, he had seen this condition in a fall-harvest bull. Our trio’s conjecture was that the rigors of the rut had delivered countless, concussive blows to the animal’s neck and shoulders. He had obviously been off by himself for a reason, seeking to avoid further punishment.
On our second day of hunting, the gorgeous weather continued, and we located—quite early—a second lone bull that had also opted for solitude, rather than companionship. The stalking situation was virtually identical to that of the day before. No cover, flat terrain, a gentle cross-breeze, and another bedded behemoth quartering away from us. Like all wild oxen, the muskox has a rather short neck, and such massive, powerfully-built shoulders that it has great difficulty seeing what is directly behind it when lying down. The thick, long, wooly coat of hair further impinges on its peripheral vision.
I knew not the reasons for this pariah’s isolation—self-imposed, or otherwise—but I knew my final approach had to be in line with his spine, if I wanted to avoid detection with any simple turn of his head. At about 60 yards out, I came to an area of slight depression in the tundra that reminded me of a rice paddy. It appeared flooded with several inches of water, and innumerable blades of spring-green grass were sticking up through the surface. The “paddy” was about 40 yards across, in the direction of my quarry, and perhaps 80 yards long on the other axis; I had arrived at the midpoint on that longer axis. A detour around either end seemed highly inadvisable.
What worried me now, since there was hardly a breath of air stirring in the total stillness of the sparkling landscape, was the fear that each step forward here would create sucking sounds to give away my presence before I was quite within comfortable bow-range. Luckily, there was a sort of narrow “dike” right in front of me that seemed to invite passage. It came to surface in all but a few spots, so I decided this was clearly my best option. For the withdrawal phase of every step that threatened to produce the dreaded sucking sound, I slowed down my motion to the point of being almost imperceptible.
By such painstaking means—extended over a period of at least 20 minutes—I finally managed to reach the far side of the water hazard. Heaving a big, quiet sigh of relief, I looked at my bull that still lay in the same position in which we had originally found him. He was barely over 20 yards from me now. As I nocked an arrow on the string, I found myself fearful that he must surely be about to get up at any moment—if for no other reason than just to stretch! I still wanted to get a little bit closer.
Right in front of me, a small berm rose up about four feet to the flat plain where the big muskox was lying in somnolent meditation. A few more steps up onto the flat, and I’d be in the perfect position to make my shot. I felt it was important for the angle of my shot to be downward into the vitals, rather than flying parallel to the surface on which the bull was bedded. That downward angle would greatly increase the chances of death coming swiftly to my quarry. I felt no confidence I could precisely replicate the shot (and the result) that I had pulled off less than 24 hours earlier, but I was certainly going to try my best!
Those final, few steps upward seemed to take an inordinate amount of time. At long last, however, I found myself looking down my drawn arrow shaft and trying to determine the exact point-of-entry on the bull’s rear flank which I wanted to achieve. The animal still didn’t have a clue as to my presence, but his body was so heavily draped from nose to tail with rags and streaming tatters of molting qiviut that I was having great difficulty determining the location of his normal body contours—and, therefore, the correct position of his vital organs. After a few seconds of holding at full draw, I let down in order to reevaluate and try to get a better fix on the best point-of-entry. I decided to risk taking one final step (more off to the side), and then I drew back again.
In a trice, the arrow was away and buried itself nearly up to the nock. The startled bull jumped to his feet, turned broadside, and stared at me in disbelief. Within mere moments, a second arrow was on its way. This one hit heavy bone, but it still penetrated a good 14 to 16 inches. As the bull started to trot away from me, I figured the second broadhead had to be lodged pretty close to his heart. When the bull reached a point about 45 yards out, he stopped, turned, and looked back at me. Immediately, a third arrow was winging its way to the rib cage, and the comforting sound of a solid hit told me that he would not likely be long for this world. The bull started moving once more, but this time at a slow walk. Perhaps another 10 seconds passed, and he suddenly crumpled to the ground. From the moment of the first shot to the last moment he drew breath couldn’t have been longer than 50 seconds!
I stood there, thankful and stunned—amazed all over again at the lethal efficiency of my razor-tipped, Savora broadheads. I thanked God for the bounty of my harvest, and for restoring me to His favor. 50 seconds wasn’t quite like 10 seconds, but both kills had been quick and humane. As I continued to stand there thinking about it, I realized that most rifle hunters would feel grateful for the same results. Bullets are not tipped with razor blades, of course, so on very large and/or dangerous animals—even when well-placed—they can often take longer to achieve the desired result than a well-placed arrow.
Freddie and Manny had watched my second successful stalk from the top of a hillock about a half-mile back. To get to that point, however, we had had to descend on foot into a broad canyon and then climb back up to the relatively flat plain where my second bull lay waiting for me. It took my two companions more than an hour to return to the four-wheelers and find their way around the canyon to get back to me. I was guarding the meat, in case any wolves showed up. Naturally, having never yet taken a wolf with my bow, I was not above hoping I might get a chance to defend the carcass and make another kill before my guides returned. I was not to be so lucky, of course.
To help pass the time, I got out my cameras and tried to capture on film the prehistoric appearance of the beast whose life I had just taken. Even his face was so covered with qiviut that I had a hard time making out its individual features. After taking a few pictures of him in that state, I spent some considerable time “cleaning him up” by removing all the loose, light-colored banners and shreds of qiviut I could. All in all, I probably amassed more than half-a-pound of the soft, dense, super-warm wool. The warmest wool in the world, bar none! I still have it to this day.
When my guides returned, the work began. Since they both had butchered hundreds of these creatures before, as the primary source of their food supply, I decided not to let my third knife get in the way of the blinding speed with which they wielded their two knives. I believe they had the animal skinned and quartered in less than 15 minutes. It was quite something to watch! This time there were no problems or questions about the quality of the meat, and a few hours later, back at the shack, we all made an attack—armed with knives, forks, salt shakers, and drooling taste buds—upon an entire skillet of incredibly delicious, tenderloin muskox medallions. Wow! What a pig-out feast that turned into!
Editor’s note: This article is the fifty-second of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks—join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work, and the various editions of BAREBOW! available, by clicking here:http://www.barebows.com/. You can also follow BAREBOW! on Facebook here.
Top illustration by Hayden Lambson