March 11, 2022
After a mostly sleepless night, due to the excitement and reality of bowhunting muskox again, morning finally came. As I rose and prepped for the day in a warm but unfamiliar house in a remote Alaskan village, I could hardly wait to get out on the snow-covered tundra and start searching for a big bull muskox.
I peeked out the bedroom window as the sky grew lighter. It appeared to be clear, indicating a beautiful, sunny day. Making sure my bow, hunting gear, and warm clothes were organized, I listened as others in the house slowly arose and readied for the day. After living in Alaska for 20 years, I have learned that nothing happens too quickly in these remote places. My local hunting friend, Jim, and I were enjoying some coffee and breakfast, when he said something that totally surprised me: “I think it is going to be too cold for hunting muskox today.”
Hearing that, my experience from past bowhunting excursions came into play. I’ve learned there are some important components, besides your hunting gear, that must be part of your game on hunts such as this. These include being understanding, flexible, and adaptable.
“You live here full-time. How could it be too cold for you?” I said to Jim. “You are better acclimated to this extreme weather than anyone I know.”
We both had a good laugh about this, but knowing Jim for as long as I have, I could also tell he was serious about wanting to wait until the next day, when the forecast was for a “warm up” to about zero degrees; a considerable difference from the current -30 degrees Fahrenheit. So, I deferred to my friend’s experience and knowledge and accepted his decision to not go hunting that day.
Two of the many things that I love about hunting various species of biggame animals across North America are experiencing the different types of environments, and the different cultures. Muskox hunting is the epitome of this concept. Muskox inhabit some of the harshest environments North America has to offer. The subzero temperatures, wind, and snow are extreme. And a muskox hunt will take you to some of the most remote, wild places on the planet.
It is in these faraway places that you get to experience different and unique native cultures and traditions. I have eaten many native foods, fished with the locals through the ice, and even went to ball games at their small schools. This aspect of muskox hunting adds to the adventure and has been rewarding to me.
I’ve also found it interesting to learn how these indigenous people have survived and flourished in such a harsh and unforgiving environment. It doesn’t take long to realize much can be learned from the elders, locals, and guides in these villages. In several of these villages, snow machines are the only method of travel this time of year — no cars or trucks. Their knowledge and ingenuity are readily apparent. For example, the simple task of connecting a sled to a snow machine has to be done a specific way or it will fail and break down on the long, rough rides. It never ceases to amaze me how the locals are able to start, operate, and repair these vital modes of transport under the coldest and most brutal conditions.
Over the years, I have taken eight of these wooly, prehistoric-looking creatures with my bow, which has led to some wild experiences. On my very first muskox hunt, one of our snow machines quit running, a long way from the village. This is a fairly common occurrence, and one reason I try to have at least two other snow machines, besides the one I am driving, go out with us on the hunt. And it’s also why I strive to find good snow machines that are in decent shape mechanically.
On my very first muskox hunt, our snow machine quit running. The locals immediately went to task, while I watched in amazement as they dismantled the machine in a raging snowstorm and subzero temps. Nuts, bolts, and various pieces of snow machine were all over the snow and getting covered up by drifting snow. The “head mechanic” wasn’t even wearing gloves, for crying out loud!
If I were a betting man, I would have bet the farm there was no way they were going to get that snow machine running. I was wrong. Three of the local helpers with us walked to their own snow machines and brought back an assortment of parts collected from other snow machines, of various brands.
Listening to them talk and discuss the problem, it quickly became obvious they knew what they were doing. “We can file this Polaris part down a little here, and it will fit the Ski-Doo. Then we can use these extra-long bolts, off of that part, to make this Arctic Cat part work on the Ski-Doo, just to get us back home,” they said.
Watching them work and dismantle that broken snow machine, then reassemble it again, made me feel slightly unworthy of being in their company. When all was said and done, they pulled the starter rope, the machine fired up, and we continued on with our hunt. I could only smile and shake my head in complete bewilderment.
The physical act of traveling to a muskox destination is an adventure in and of itself. Even living in Alaska, as I do, the logistics, packing, planning, and traveling to hunt muskox is a major undertaking. As with most successful bowhunts, the success of the hunt is often directly proportional to the amount of preparation and planning. And with this type of extreme-weather hunt, the preparation is even more important. It could mean the difference between life and death in these unforgiving conditions, should something go wrong. Obviously, only the best warm clothing, boots, gloves, facemasks, goggles, etc., should be taken. The following are three must-have pieces of checked luggage I take on all my muskox hunts.
SKB Hard Bow Case
Along with my bow and arrows, I pack extra clothes, gloves, facemasks, etc. in this case. It’s usually a very rough ride on the sled for hours or even days, before you find the muskox. On several hunts, I know my bow would not have survived the beating had it not been in a padded, hard case. Also, I keep my arrows in a protective tube inside the case, and I never have the broadheads installed on the arrows. When a muskox is located, there is plenty of time to put the broadheads on your arrows, and then put the arrows in your quiver. Having broadheads on your arrows, in your bow case, bouncing around for hours or days, is a recipe for disaster.
Rubbermaid 44-Gallon Trashcan
This large container is perfect for housing bulky clothes, boots, and other gear for airline travel to your hunting destination. If you’re successful, a life-sized muskox skin will fit perfectly inside the can for your return flight home.
A 30-Gallon Sterilite Tote
The 30-gallon Sterilite tote, with a smaller Sterilite tote nestled inside of it, is used to contain all of the other gear you’ll need on your hunt. A muskox skull and horns will fit nicely inside the tote for your return flight home.
On one of my hunts, I had been stalking a bull for the better part of the day. Each time I thought I was just about to get within bow range, the bull would run and put several hundred yards between us again. This cat-and-mouse game continued for some time, until the bull finally got in a good position for a stalk, and I was able to close the distance. In the strong wind, I crept closer and closer, all the while thinking, This might happen.
The bull had known I was there for some time, but by going slow, and taking my time, I eventually maneuvered into bow range. I must have crossed some kind of invisible line with the bull, because all at once, he whirled around to face me. Then he charged me, and there was nothing for me to hide behind! All I could do was quickly step aside at the last moment and let the bull run right past me. Instead of being on a muskox hunt, I now felt more like I was in a Mexican bullfight, or I should say, a muskox bullfight!
Once the bull blew past me, he continued to run away, and I did not have to do the bullfight shuffle again. My friend, Nick Muche, who was watching me from a distance, was able to film the ordeal. Nick ended up shooting that particular bull later in the day.
Muskox are made for bowhunting. Once a target bull is located, the real fun begins. Sometimes, it is easier to get within bow range than other times. But with a little bit of maneuvering, a bowhunter can usually work into a comfortable bow range. I used to wear white clothing overtop my warm clothing, thinking it would camouflage me in the snowy environment. After not seeing any noticeable advantage to doing this, I now just wear the appropriate clothing to keep me warm — no matter what color it is.
It is virtually impossible to stalk within bow range of a muskox bull without his knowing you are there, due to the wide-open country they call home. Sometimes they are calm and easy to approach; other times they are nervous and alarm easy.
Stalking slow is one of the keys. Also, I try to stay as low to the ground as possible; oftentimes crawling considerable distances during the stalk. Having been in close proximity to many muskox, I have learned they’re less skittish when I stay low. It is a submissive way to approach them, and it has worked better for me than standing up straight and walking. If a muskox starts to portray nervousness, I will stop and lie still, sometimes for as long as 30 minutes. Once the bull settles down, I will then resume my low-and-slow stalk.
A survival characteristic of a herd of muskox is to form a circle when they feel threatened. This creates a small problem for bowhunters, because a good shot opportunity is not often there. It can also be hard to keep your eye on the bull you’re after, especially if there are several bulls in the group. Once again, time and patience are paramount. Remain still, low, and unthreatening, and the muskox will eventually relax and start to slowly move around. This creates the window of opportunity a bowhunter needs to get a good, high-percentage shot.
Just planning, gearing up, and traveling to the wild places muskox inhabit is no small undertaking. The things that can happen in a remote, unfamiliar village are limitless. Maintaining a good attitude, being able to adapt to changing circumstances, and being flexible, is just as important on this hunt as taking warm clothing…or having a team of mechanics who deserve their “Man Cards” more than I do. Oh, one more thing. If a local resident says it’s too cold to hunt? It’s too cold to hunt!
A Few Other Muskox Must-Haves
- Several heavy duty garbage bags and dry/duffle bags (for displaced gear, clothes, and meat)
- Duct tape/packing tape
- Two plastic tarps
- Warm sleeping bag, pad, and a small tent — in case you don’t make it back to camp
- Satellite phone
- InReach device with the same local contact information