An Empty Quiver: Chapter 12. Hunting The Bearded One

 

By: Dr. Dave Samuel
By: Dr. Dave Samuel

This 2004 hunt was one of my most memorable hunts for several reasons.  First, we were hunting muskox, but we didn’t have to cope with freezing snow and cold weather.  Second, we experienced the culture of the far North.  Third, I was with a very special group of friends.  Fourth, it was a successful hunt. 

Nunavut is a relatively new Canadian province, created in 1999, and covering most of the area above the Arctic Circle.  It is approximately three times the size of Texas, but has only 28,000 Inuit residents.  To get to this vast tundra, you fly to Edmonton Alberta, overnight there, then fly to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, and on to Cambridge Bay in Nunavut.  There you stay in the Arctic Inn Lodge before being boated the 3-4-hour ride to the Cape Peel camp on the shore of the Ikalut River.  Cape Peel is located on the southern shore of Victoria Island and the camp, though primitive, is comfortable.  Take your fishing rod because the Arctic char fishing is fantastic. 

 I always enjoy my stays in Edmonton because my twin brother lives there.   Thus, all hunts in that part of the world give me an opportunity to visit Bill and his family.  The guys were amazed to see two ‘Dr Daves’ as Bill and I are more identical than ever.  Once we arrived in Cambridge Bay high seas prevented our departure to the hunting camp (a 3-hour boat ride).  Cambridge Bay has about 1,500 residents, so there isn’t all that much to see and do, but we visited their cultural center and spent a very enjoyable and educational time viewing videos depicting history of the Inuit way of life. The cultural center was putting such videos together so that Inuit youth could see how their ancestors lived.  Our afternoon there was very interesting. 

The next morning (Sunday) we went to one of two churches in town.  There were twelve in attendance, with five of us being hunters.  I remember that one of the others there was a dentist we met on the plane.  He flew to this village once a year and spent two weeks doing dental work. I also remember that there was no sermon.  We just sang hymns and read scripture.  The minister was an older retired woman who had moved to the village to serve the church.  Another older woman played the organ.  After church was over everyone was invited to the parlor for tea and cookies with the minister and organist.  We visited for almost an hour, learning more about the culture.  There were stained glass windows in the church with one depicting the scene of Noah’s Arc.  Guess what animals were being loaded on the arc?  Yep, polar bears, musk ox, caribou, and seals.  Why not?

While in Cambridge Bay, we stayed in the only hotel in town.  They had a restaurant where we met all kinds of people.  I remember one young man who was a pilot working for a gas and oil company.  He’d helicoptered all over that region and told us about the thousands of muskox he’d been seeing.  Gas, oil, and mineral exploration is booming in that area, so there were several pilots and engineers staying at the hotel. 

 One last thing.  Several of the guys wanted to get a beer, so we asked the front desk at the hotel where we could go for one.  He laughed, then pointed out that the elders of the town had declared it to be alcohol free and that law was strictly adhered too.  But he suggested that if we went down four blocks, and into this one alley, and knocked on the back door of a house there, the man might sell us a beer.  We decided not to try.   

Bowhunting muskox, omingmak (‘the bearded one’), has always been one of my high priority adventures.  However, the idea of doing it at 40 below zero while bouncing over the ice on a snow sled or snow mobile, just wasn’t very appealing.  Yet here I was with four friends, bowhunting for muskox.  Two in my group were bowhunters.  The others used muzzle loaders. Our adventure began in Cambridge Bay, a community of 1,500 citizens located in the Canadian province of Nunavut.  All supplies, including lumber (no trees in Nunavut) are shipped to town by plane, or by the one barge a year that goes there.  Needless to say, the people who live in this harsh country are hardy.  Their major foods are muskox, caribou, Arctic char, walrus, and seals.

Though things are sparse, and most recreation involves catching fish and hunting, there is a golf course in Cambridge Bay.  It is an interesting, and I suspect, a challenging course.  The greens are small and made of sand, and there are rocks, lots of rocks.  In fact, I nicknamed the course ‘Pebble Beach’ but the real name was the Many Pebbles Municipal Golf Course.  We decided not to play.

After two days in Cambridge Bay, the winds and waves subsided enough for us to get to Cape Peel.  The weather was a bit cloudy with temperatures probably around 50 degrees on this mid-August day.  We landed at camp around 2:00 in the afternoon, and were met by Doug Mohler, a bowhunting acquaintance from Minnesota.  Doug had arrived in camp a day early, and he was all smiles while showing us a huge bull taken on the first day.  He then excitedly told us about the animals he’d seen near camp.  This only heightened our enthusiasm.

Within an hour Doug and I (and my guide, David) hiked from camp to check out three oxen I’d spotted.  Those three turned out to be nine muskox, and two were big bulls.  We left the muzzle loader guys to chase them, and hiked down the coast about a mile.  From one vantage point we could count over 50 muskox in seven different herds. This was muskox heaven.

Doug, Dave, and I took off after animals feeding near the beach.  We got within 100 yards of six muskox, and two of them were shooter bulls.  They fed as we tried to maneuver close, but one cow spotted us and the herd thundered off.

No matter, for there were more in the distance and off we went.  An hour later we were within 150 yards of eight animals and one was a super bull.  When the bulls are alone, if you go slow and crouch, moving ten yards at a time, he may come to you to investigate.  My guess is that they believe you are a challenging bull.  But when in a group, the cows call the shots and getting close is tough.  Nevertheless, we stayed fairly close, crawling more than 300 yards trying to keep up with the feeding herd.  The rut was on and the big bull kept harassing the cows.  Finally we were close enough for a 50-yard shot, but my arrow zipped under the chest.  So much for that 2-hour stalk.

It was midnight when we returned to camp where I’d discover that all of my gun-toting friends had taken bulls.  One day, hunt over.  Indeed, they were a happy celebrating bunch.

I slept in a bit on day two, and my guide, Dave Kavana, and I didn’t get to the boat until 8:30.  We motored along the shore of Wellington Bay (off the Arctic Ocean) about two miles west of our Cape Peel camp when two bulls were spotted.  There was some type of brown seaweed that washed up on the beaches there, and muskox would come to eat it.  These bulls apparently had their fill and were now relaxing along the shore. We beached about three hundred yards away and began the stalk.  Both bulls faced away and since their huge necks and full fur made it impossible for them to see behind them, we only needed good wind and a quiet stalk to get close.

I huddled behind my guide as we crawled across the tundra.  The muskox bulls were 80 yards away when Dave suddenly stopped and riffled through his pockets.  Just to our right was a rectangular area, about 6 feet long and 3 feet wide, surrounded by hand-placed rocks.  At the head of this rectangle was a small, primitive, wooden cross, long since fallen.

“Do you have a coin?”, Dave asked.  By chance there were several in my camo pants.  I gave Dave a quarter and he tossed it in the rectangle.  “Do you have another?”, he asked as he gestured that I should do the same.  I pitched a Canadian dime into the same area, and off we went after the bull.  I’d later learn that this was a very old grave site, on the open tundra, in the middle of nowhere.  Dave explained that when such graves are found, the passer by puts in anything he/she has in their pockets, ‘to honor the grave’.  The cultural aspects proved to be one of the great things about this hunt.

When my rangefinder showed sixty yards, the smallest bull got up and started to graze.  He looked our way, and although we were in plain view (there just isn’t much cover in the open tundra) the bull continued to feed.  As he moved away we quickly closed the gap to forty yards.  When the second bull stood, I knew he was a shooter.  He was busy chewing on that brown seaweed that littered the shore.

As he turned broadside, my shot was away, though a bit low.  Not knowing whether the shot was lethal, and having a hard time discerning where the lower line of the chest was located because of the long, hanging fur, I got another arrow on the string.

The bull stopped at fifty yards, but just as I started to draw, a low but menacing growl caused us to look behind.  A smaller bull had snuck in behind us.  I have no clue where he came from, but he was now at thirty yards and rolling his eyes while uttering a low, menacing, growl.  The rut was on and this bull apparently thought we were an intruding bull.  He swaggered toward us, pausing to rub his eye on the inside of the front leg.  This was a dominance display that involved the orbital gland given as a threat to other bulls.

Now we were in a dangerous situation.  This nasty little guy stopped at eight yards and just when things looked ominous, he spotted my wounded bull.  He quickly and thankfully turned and headed away, grunting the whole time.  When he was half-way there, my bull turned broadside and the second arrow was away.

n August the muskoxen are shedding their rich underfur. This is some of the warmest, finest wool in the world. Your taxidermist will have to remove the loose underfur, but there is still plenty of long, thick fur making an impressive mount.
In August the muskoxen are shedding their rich underfur. This is some of the warmest, finest wool in the world. Your taxidermist will have to remove the loose underfur, but there is still plenty of long, thick fur making an impressive mount.

The second bull arrived and head butted my bull just as he fell to the ground, dead.  My guess is the small bull really thought he was one tough dude.  He slowly sauntered off, mister tough guy, looking for cows.  Within a few minutes another guide from camp boated up and the photo session and skinning took place. Our guides were grateful for the meat, as it is their staple for the winter.

The last days were spent roaming the tundra, taking photos of muskox and fishing for char.  Again these fish make up a major part of the Inuit winter diet, and each was quickly filleted and hung to dry.

Sure the land is stark and harsh, but even so, there is something about the culture that makes this hunt special.  They use everything to sustain life on the ice and tundra.  They make water bags  from a seal’s gullet.  How about an ‘haviuyaq’ antler knife, closed with sinew cord and used to cut blocks of snow.  The wildlife you see is fascinating.  The black guillemots, black-legged kittiwakes, snowy owls and Arctic terns were just a few of the birds we saw.  Then there is the vast tundra and wide seas.  Bowhunting in the land of the Inuits was a great adventure that I heartily recommend to any bowhunter.  Especially in August, when it’s ‘warm’.

Both sexes have horns, but those on the male are much bigger and have black tips.
Both sexes have horns, but those on the male are much bigger and have black tips.

Postscript

Commercial hunting almost wiped out the muskox, so all hunting was stopped in 1917.  It was reopened in 1967 and today there are over 40,000 animals on Victoria Island.  The sport hunting and commercial hunting quota is 1,500 per year, but it is not being met and wildlife officials are concerned about over grazing of the habitat.  

 When the sky is clear, you can literally hunt 24 hours a day, because it does not get dark.  Clouds will lower your hunting time to 22 hours.  In 2004 we paid $4,200 guide fee, and after we left, the native government officials decided that there were so many muskox that you could take a second bull for $1000.  Muskox licenses were $53.50 each and there was a Government trophy fee of $160.50 per animal.  As I write this the hunt has gained popularity and the guide fee is $5,500, and the second musk ox now costs an additional $2,000.  Licenses and tags are approximately $400 Canadian dollars, and the government trophy fee is about $200. 

 Muskox are not difficult to hunt compared to our deer or elk.  They live in open tundra, but if you take your time, you can get close.  They aren’t tame by any means, but not as wary as other animals you bowhunt.  There are lots of animals to stalk, at least there were where we hunted.  We never got more than two miles from camp, yet there were miles of ocean shore where we could have boated, then stalked animals seen from the water.  Had we been more patient, and gone further from camp by boat, I’m sure we all could have taken larger animals.  But, none of us were disappointed in the animals we took.  My bull scored somewhere in the middle of the Pope and Young record book, and the other bowhunter in our camp took a Boone and Crockett qualifier.  One of our muzzleloader hunters also took a Boone and Crockett qualifier.  

 Why go in August?  First because it is warmer.  Mid-August temperatures go as high as 50 in the day time and down to freezing at night.  Winds make it feel a bit colder, but we had no bug problems, and the temperature was quite comfortable.  You should take knee-high rubber boots, and rain gear is handy, especially for the long boat ride to and from camp.  Another reason I liked the August hunt was because the bulls were in rut.  This doesn’t create much of a bowhunting advantage, but it is interesting to observe.  Third, you can get to the muskox by boat.  Wellington Bay is frozen for 10 months a year.  Traveling to the hunting area by snowmobile is a long grueling trip.  Though the boat ride can be rough, it is definitely easier and warmer than in the winter.  Fourth, although winter fur is best, the fur in August is still good.  Muskox have double coats, an outer long hair that sheds rain and snow and an inner soft undercoat called ‘qiviut’ that is the lightest and warmest of all wools.  Though the underfur is being shed in the summer-fall, the fur on the oxen is still quite thick.  Keith Casteel and Scott Whyel from my party collected a huge, compressed bag of qiviut to bring home to make home-spun sweaters and hats. 

 As I said, the culture, the wildlife, the people, the weather and the muskox made this August bowhunt one of my great hunting adventures. 

 ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr. David Samuel spent 30 years as a professor of wildlife management at West Virginia University. He is now in his 44th year with Bowhunter Magazine, where his Know Huntingcolumn still appears. He currently writes the Know Whitetails column for the Whitetail Journal, The Future of Hunting column on www.bowhunting.net and writes a weekly outdoor column for WV newspapers. His activities on behalf of wildlife are diverse: from initiating the West Virginia Bowhunter Education Program to helping get bowhunting legalized in many European and African countries.

He has won honored lifetime achievement awards from the National Bowhunter Education Foundation, the Wildlife Society, the Quality Deer Management Association, and Whitetails Unlimited. He is in the SCI Bowhunter’s Hall of Fame, and his greatest honor was being inducted into the Archery Hall of Fame in 2007. He has written 9 books, with his three most recent books being Whitetail Advantage, Whitetail Racks, and the one being presented here, An Empty Quiver – A Lifetime of Bowhunting Adventures which is now SOLD OUT. You can find the table of contents for the two whitetail books, and get autographed copies of all three of these books on Dr. Dave’s website, www.knowhunting.com.

for more please go to: The Future of Hunting

For more also go to: Straight Talk Interview: Dr. Dave Samuel