Linked by hunting tradition, family pursues musk oxen on Alaska's Nelson Island

Winn Richards couldn't feel the Bering Sea wind bearing down on the tundra. He didn't see the gusts ruffle clouds of guard hairs on the herd of musk oxen a football field ahead. He was deaf to his son's rifle crack and the twang of his grandson's arrow release as they toppled their quarry. But he was as present for the spring 2015 hunt as he could possibly be — from seven years beyond the grave.

The Richards family hunting tradition stretches as taut as a pulled bowstring between grandfather, Winn, son, Brad, and grandson, Brian. Deer, upland birds and elk occupied countless hours for all three men growing up at the foot of Utah's Wasatch Range.

"Most of our vacations were hunting or fishing or looking for arrowheads or fossil hunting. My dad liked to be outdoors," Brad said. "And growing up, in the summer when I got my chores done, I'd grab a BB gun or bow and arrow and head out."

Brian surpassed his dad's interest and came to top even his grandpa's dedication.

"He was just nuts about fishing and hunting since he was a little kid," Brad said. "For my father, hunting was kind of a social thing — get together and sit around the campfire. It was more hike around and hopefully you'll see something.

"And Brian is very educated in hunting. He's like a really good bird dog trailing a bird. It's almost intuitive for him — which way the wind's blowing, which way the sun is rising. He has all that stuff in the back of his mind. He knows how to approach or stalk into an animal without getting noticed. It's just fun to watch him."

Off to Alaska

Outdoors opportunities were a big draw for Brian and his wife, Nikiesha, when they moved to Alaska in 2005. Moose, caribou, goat, sheep and bear have since been added to the freezer, and they now own Wilderness Way outfitters in Soldotna. And though family members are 2,000 miles apart, love of the outdoors keeps them connected. Brad comes to visit a few times a year to hunt and fish — and visit his grandsons, 8-year-old, Parker, and 7-year-old, Eli, whom Brian, of course, is now teaching to hunt and fish.


All that started because of Winn.

"I've always enjoyed spending time in the outdoors, and he's always been one of my heroes," Brian said. "When I was a kid and a teenager we connected through that. We spent a lot of time together doing those sorts of things. That was the way I felt connected to him was through hunting, fishing and the outdoors."

The dynamics have changed over the years. Winn's decline from Alzheimer's progressively limited his outdoors activities. He died in 2008. And though Brad and Brian still hunt together, it's now dad tagging along with his son.

"My son is the real outdoorsman hunter out of our duo," Brad said. "He shows me where to go, helps me set up. He's good to his dad."

Brad has been game for whatever hunts Brian suggests, including the hunt that landed them on the tundra north of Tununak last spring.

"I'd read about musk ox when I was a kid. I always thought they were neat so I was really excited," Brad said.

Pricey permits

Musk oxen were high on Brian's list of someday hunts but he hadn't had luck in the state's drawing lottery for Nunivak Island permits. Then he heard about a registration hunt on Nelson Island, west of Bethel. Brian has a friend in Soldotna with a brother in Tununak, a village of 320 residents on the northwest side of the island. He offered local knowledge, a place to stay and snowmachines to borrow. With a few mouse clicks and a credit card, they had luck enough to get the last available bull permit for Brad and a cow permit for Brian. It was a serious investment. While residents pay $500 for a bull tag and just $25 for a cow tag, nonresidents pay $3,000, up from $1,500 a year ago.

"I've wanted to hunt musk ox for quite a while. It's always been kind of a dream," Brian said. "To go and see the country they live in and experience that sort of environment and hunt an animal that's so prehistoric-looking. It's a once-in-a-lifetime sort of deal."

As the date neared and planning progressed, talk increasingly focused on the hunt. But the one person they couldn't share their excitement with was Winn.

"I think it would have been exciting for him. He would have enjoyed that," Brad said.

"Yeah, he woulda thought it was cool," Brian said.

But there was a way Winn could still be involved. Brad decided to use his dad's old Huskavarna 30.06 for the hunt, which Brad had used to shoot his first deer when he was 14.

Brian wanted a more challenging hunt so chose to use his Bob Lee custom-made, 65-pound recurve bow. For his nod to family, he decided to use Native American arrowheads passed down from his grandfather.

"When I was a kid he had quite a collection and I was always pretty fascinated by it. It seemed so bizarre that someone could successfully take an animal with a rock and a stick. It seemed so farfetched," Brian said.

He started out trying to knap his own broadheads from a chunk of obsidian. That was unsuccessful but good practice for sharpening two arrowheads from his grandfather's collection.

"It wasn't that tough to sharpen them. The most difficult part was getting the right shape to start with," he said. "I got them sharpened up and had some cedar shafts cut. I cut a notch for the knock and fletched them with turkey feathers. The traditional way is to use stuff like pitch and sinew and let it dry. I didn't feel quite confident in my ability to do that properly, so I tied them on with some waxed bowstring material and used Superglue."

Modern arrows, too

He packed modern arrows, as well — carbon shafts with steel broadheads — not sure how his romantic idea of using ancient arrowheads to fell a prehistoric-looking beast would work.


At the end of February, they flew to Bethel, then Tununak. They were the only passengers on a plane stuffed with mail and supplies, which they were conscripted to help unload on the gusty tarmac.

They loaded up snowmachines the next day and headed out onto the tundra. Brad had been dreading subzero conditions and a flat, white expanse, but he quickly warmed to an appreciation of the landscape.

"It was not nearly as cold as I thought. What I envisioned was far different than what it was. It was a beautiful place — large hills, snow and tundra. One side of the island dropped right down, kind off a cliff down to the ocean. It was really beautiful weather and beautiful scenery with the sea and the snow and the tundra, and the animals were just really great to watch."

They found a herd in about 10 miles of travel, though the animals were surprisingly difficult to spot. Brian figured the hulking brown beasts would stand out like shaggy sore thumbs against the snow, but the unseasonably warm weather — temperatures in the teens — had melted out patches of musk ox-colored bare ground and scrubby brush.

"We were looking across a valley. It took a minute or two to see them. They blend well into the tundra," Brian said.

The herd was about 60 strong, with a group of five bulls a little separated from the rest. It was an ideal situation. The trick with hunting musk ox isn't stealth, as is required with most game.

"All their adaptations against wolves are to stay close and stomp. You could tell the bulls wanted to join the main herd but they kind of didn't know quite what to do, so we didn't want to come too close," Brian said.

The challenge is getting a clean shot at one away from the rest. Brad set up about 100 yards away, waiting for a shot at the biggest bull in the group.


"It's difficult to get a clear shot," Brian said. "They're constantly moving around. You have to be real careful there's not another one behind it or too close."

The big bull went down with one shot. Brian figured the body weight at about 800 pounds, with a field-estimate Boone and Crockett score of 124. The world record is 129.

‘Amazing animals’

"They're just really amazing animals. To me, they look prehistoric, like something you just expect from the Pleistocene or something. Huge and shaggy and just magnificent animals," Brad said. "They have an under-fur that is amazing, it is so dense. The guard hairs on the side and rump, each hair is like 16 inches long. Just big, shaggy animals," Brad said.

The next day it was Brian's turn, in less favorable weather. There was no shelter from winds gusting to 40 mph as they set off across the tundra. This time they found a herd of 20 musk oxen. Brian wanted an older cow without a calf and found one at the back of the herd. With the wind howling, Brian wanted to be no farther than 20 yards away, but the cow's comfort range with the interlopers was about 50 yards before she'd spook and try to rejoin the herd. It was a delicate calculation of distance and accuracy.

"People who don't bow hunt don't understand how much wind takes an effect on your arrow," Brian said.

His first shot was one of his homemade arrows. A gust caught the shaft and spun it sideways, so that the arrow slapped harmlessly against the musk ox's side. Though Brian had been satisfied with the arrows' performance in practice at home, his confidence was shaken. He reached for three modern arrows and let them fly, all striking in quick succession.

Brian soon realized the toughness under all that fluff. Two of the arrows didn't penetrate past the ribs. The third passed through to bite at the lungs, but the musk ox didn't fall.

Winn would get a chance to help after all. Brian let fly his other wood-and-stone arrow. It hit both lungs in a quick killing shot.

"The one wooden arrow that flew true into the wind penetrated farther than any of the steel broadheads did, which I was impressed with," Brian said.

The cow was about 550 pounds, yielding about 300 pounds of meat. Brad's bull produced about 450 pounds.

"I was impressed. These animals, I thought in the spring they would just be skinny and just barely making it. But they had at least a 1 1/2-inch thick fat layer all over them underneath the skin," Brad said. "The meat had more marbling in the backstraps than any cut of beef I've ever had. And it tasted good — very tender and very good."

Brad's got a head-and-shoulders mount displayed back home, which makes for quite the conversation starter.


"It was just really fun telling people about it who have never even heard of anyone who's shot a musk ox. It's a very unique thing, and they're fascinating animals," Brad said.

That one experience will continue to be unique, as Brad doesn't plan to do another musk ox hunt. But the family hunting tradition will continue.

"Oh, yeah, he's already got me signed up to go sheep hunting, and I'm coming up early in summer to do some fishing. He's always coming up with new adventures for his old man," Brad said.

"It was a neat experience," Brian added. "It gave me a chance to look at the past, at the beginnings of bow hunting and hunting heritage. It makes you think about why we do it — partly for sport. It's to feed my family, but I don't have to hunt for that, I choose to do it.

Jenny Neyman is a Soldotna-based freelance writer who edited the Kenai Peninsula newspaper Redoubt Reporter for many years.