BETHEL — Two teenagers and their uncles took off from a small Interior Alaska village in a skiff last week for hunting grounds at the edge of the Brooks Range.
By the time the trip ended, they had stories to tell of running out of gas and beaching the boat, of working the wilderness and of hunting too. They got a big bull and it was quite a thing to be part of.
The main moose hunting season in Alaska has wrapped up. Some had a hard time, including on the Kenai Peninsula, where rainy, cool weather made poor conditions for hunting and moose calling, an effective way to lure bulls in rut. Others found success, in the experience, the stories and freezers full of meat.
"It definitely is moose season around here," said Jon Barton, the assistant area wildlife biologist in McGrath. One man had just reported that his son got a nice bull.
McGrath sits on the Kuskokwim River's upper stretch, where the big push for subsistence is moose, not salmon. Out-of-state hunters in camouflage stage there, and locals want their moose meat too.
"Throughout the season you can see folks come in with moose in their boats," Barton said. "You can drive around the roads in town and some people have racks in their yards, just the heads they brought back. You can see meat sheds, with meat hanging in there for processing."
In rural Alaska airports, meat-filled coolers and moose racks are checked baggage.
Teenager raises a rifle
Last week in the Interior, P.J. Simon, originally from the village of Allakaket and now a Fairbanks resident, boated from the village with his nephews and another of their uncles some 150 miles to a camping and hunting spot.
The morning of Sept. 22, they climbed a ridge to look for moose. They goofed around, taking pictures and making little videos to mark the occasion.
And Simon called, imitating the mournful moan of a cow moose. He's Athabascan but said he uses Western ways too. He cut off the bottom of a juice bottle to scrape the brush, rustling like a moose. He is vice chairman of Doyon Ltd. and normally works in fall as an assistant guide. Clients canceled this year so he got to go on his own.
The other uncle, Walter Bergman, heard something. Simon, 46, pulled out his binoculars. He could see an animal in the valley coming up the hill.
"Be ready, guys, here it comes," Simon told his nephews. "By golly, this moose started running. It was grunting away, and I grunted back."
The younger nephew, Tyler Bergman, 13, walked toward his other uncle, a little rattled. The men told him it was his time.
Tyler settled in, raised his grandfather's .30-30 rifle and fired. He missed, then shot again. That one hit. Simon was at the ready and fired too, to make sure.
"This one was coming right toward us. Jumped over a stand of deadfall, like a horse. Kinda shook its horns," he said.
The moose was big, with an antler spread of 72 inches, more than enough by a foot to make it in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner's 60-inch Club of stories and pictures. Simon made it only once before, back in 2004.
They were in an area where it was legal to shoot any size bull, and they weren't necessarily looking for a big one, Simon said. That wasn't the point. The teens live in Fairbanks — "city slickers," Simon joked. Teaching old culture and new ways, the tradition of the hunt, the hard work of subsistence — that is why they camped out for four nights, he said.
The men demonstrated gun safety and different ways to make fires. The boys gathered wood and helped carry moose back to the boat. They ate fresh backstrap — a tender cut — cooked over the camp stove with fat and seasonings.
On the way home, when the moose-laden, 20-foot aluminum boat beached on a mud bar, everybody had to jump out and push. The heavy load was using more gas than expected too. Just 11 miles from the village, the gas ran out. They had to camp an extra night until another uncle arrived with 5 gallons of fuel, plus hot tea and dried moose.
"I just wanted to teach them outdoor life and to love the outdoors and to be grateful we have an opportunity to hunt," Simon said. "It's not about how big a moose."
The meat was split among four families, including his parents in the village and the boys' family in Fairbanks.
Hunters are still sending in reports from the field. Seasons open and close by area of Alaska. Some number of general moose hunts ended either Sept. 20 or Sept. 25. Counts of how many Alaska moose were harvested this year aren't yet available, state game managers say.
"Initial indications are we are down a little bit this year," said Jeff Selinger, Kenai area wildlife biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game. He attributed that to cloudy, rainy weather, not to a decline in moose numbers. Last year hunters killed roughly 290 moose in the two game management units that cover most of the Kenai, he said.
Statewide, hunters – most of them Alaskans — got a reported 8,802 moose all told in 2016.
Kenai moose hunters this year had to educate themselves on proper identification of legal moose, a new state requirement intended to reduce the number of illegal young bulls taken there. On the Kenai, a legal bull for Alaska resident hunters must have one of the following: 50-inch antler spread, four or more brow prongs on at least one side, or only a single spike on at least one side, allowing some yearlings to be hunted.
Identification is so tricky that the state has produced a 39-minute video as well as printed guides to educate hunters. As of early August, more than 2,200 people had completed the newly required online certification.
Perhaps the most remarkable Alaska moose story of the year belongs to Israel Payton, 39, who hunted mid-month with a friend somewhere in Southcentral Alaska. He said he wants to tell the story in his words in due time for the right audience, so he isn't giving many details. His neighbor, Tom Anderson, raved on the Facebook page for his radio talk show about Payton's moose as a possible world record.
The post has been shared more than 3,700 times and drew hundreds of comments, some applauding the success and others mourning the giant moose.
The moose was massive, with a rack that spanned 80 inches, Payton confirmed.
Whether it is a record will take time to sort out, if Payton even decides to do so.
Payton, born in the Susitna Valley in a trapper's cabin near the Hayes River and raised in Skwentna on salmon and wild game, said he wasn't looking for a trophy and isn't into records.
He hunts to provide his family with "good, sustainable meat that I know where it came from." But he also hunts for something more.
"It's kind of my heritage, the way I grew up. It's a part of me. I can't separate that from myself, really," he said.
If he didn't go on a couple of hunts a year, he wouldn't be himself and his wife would tell him to get out there, Payton said.
Payton, who now lives in Wasilla and is a member of the Alaska Board of Fisheries, realizes the sensitivity of some to hunting and doesn't want to inflame those feelings.
He told a little of the story: He and his hunting partner each flew themselves to an area in Southcentral. The first morning, on Sept. 15 or so, his partner shot a moose with bow and arrow, a nice one with a 63-inch spread. While they were hunting, a bear shredded the tent. So they ended up with a black bear too.
Two days after the first moose, Payton got his opportunity. He would have taken aim at any moose with a rack of at least 50 inches, he said. The one he got provided his first clear shot.
"It just happened to be big," he said.
He used to guide clients who only wanted a trophy and left the meat behind for locals. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as the meat gets used, he said. But he understands why some find that distasteful.
He hunts his own, moose and caribou, sheep and deer. He rarely buys beef. His family, with a fish wheel at the homestead in Skwentna, never buys salmon.
His moose was divided with his parents, who are sharing with others. A Palmer friend with a meat processing facility made sausages, meat sticks and the like. Payton and his wife freezer-wrapped steaks and roasts.
They also can moose in quart jars, 90 minutes at 10 pounds of pressure in the canner. That produces pulled meat for sloppy Joes. He likes moose grilled medium-rare on the barbecue too. The secret is good fieldwork, he said, keeping the meat cool and clean.
"The biggest mistake people make is cooking it too long," he said.
As to whether that will be a record moose, he's still evaluating whether to get it officially measured for Boone and Crockett Club, a wildlife conservation group that keeps big-game records for North America. Antlers must dry for 60 days to allow for shrinkage. Measurements of various parts of the antlers, including the spread, are taken by a certified individual. The formula factors in antler symmetry as well as size.
The current record Alaska-Yukon moose was killed in 2010 on the Lower Yukon River by Rex J. Nick, according to Boone and Crockett (its website is outdated). It had a spread of 76 inches. Nick didn't pursue the record, but someone who bought the rack did so years later, according to Kyle Lehr, Boone and Crockett assistant director of big-game records.
For Simon, Payton and others, the power of the hunt weaves through them.
"I think it's something biologically in me," Payton said.
After they butchered their moose, Simon's group held hands atop the rise. They prayed for a safe return home. They thanked God for providing.
When moose is for dinner this winter, they'll know its story.