Flashback Friday – High Arctic Muskox

JA1996coverEditor’s Note: On Fridays we search through the extensive Safari archives and dust off a rare gem to share with our readers. This week we follow an intrepid hunter after muskox in the High Arctic, where he learns first hand that very often the ancient ways of doing things often trump modern technology. This story originally appeared in the July/August 1996 issue of Safari Magazine.

Crunchy snow underfoot and a howling, icy wind greeted me as I descended from the plane. This was my first experience with the High Arctic and Bathhurst Island, best known as home of the magnetic north pole. We had been deposited on the southeast corner of this frozen chunk of tundra, 65 miles west of Resolute in Canada’s Northwest Territories, and almost 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle. As the twin-engine Otter lifted off the sea ice and thundered away, I suddenly had a wave of doubt about my sanity in tackling this hostile environment in late winter, just to pursue my passion for taking a muskox.

The deep winter and the harsh habitat are an important part of what makes a hunt for these creatures so special. I gazed at the bleak landscape, marveling that anything could even survive here. The only vegetation visible consisted of a few clumps of moss and lichens clinging to life amid the rocks on windblown ridgetops. The atmosphere was alive, stinging any exposed skin with a thousand needles of cold, wind-driven air. The temperature was near 40 degrees below zero – vicious weather but not unusual here. I struggled to cover my nose and eyes to blunt the discomfort, and drew my breath from inside my face mask because unfiltered air burned my windpipe. I remembered outfitter Jerome Knap’s last words to me, on the phone in Resolute, assuring me that all would be well when I donned the caribou-skin clothing required for this hunt. I was dressed in wool, down and high-tech fibers, and still felt frozen to the bone after only a brief exposure to the cold and wind. I could only hope Jerome was right about the utility of caribou-skin clothing for these conditions.

The author and his hard won trophy.
The author and his hard won trophy.

Adam Kalluk, my young Inuk guide, had arrived earlier by snowmobile from Resolute, and had a remarkably warm and comfortable situation prepared for us. A happy warmth filled the tiny room – a welcome relief for my numb fingers and face – the heat emanating from a kerosene stove in the corner. We all backed up to it gratefully, and savored the smell of the caribou stew Adam was cooking on the gas stove. After sufficient thawing, we retrieved our gear and spread our arctic sleeping bags on our bunks.
There were four muskox hunters in camp, and my guide, Adam, would share our quarters with us. Over lunch we got to know one another, and became aware of the unbelievable language distribution in our group. Of the five people sharing the cabin, each one had learned a different native language as a child. Adam spoke Inuktituk, the Inuit tongue; the other hunters consisted of a Cuban-American, an Italian and a German. I was in a distinct minority as a native English-speaker. Everyone, including me, spoke at least one other language, so we frequently had conversations going in three or four different tongues, especially when the other Inuktitut-speaking guides were present.

Whatever the language, the conversations were heavily weighted toward talk of the muskox, the cold, the wind and the arctic. We waited another full day for the gale to die down, and I passed the time getting to know my new international hunting friends. I read for hours from Berton’s The Arctic Grail, familiarizing myself with those who had navigated adjacent icy waters in the past century. The book was a veritable encyclopedia of hardship, deprivation and death, as men challenged the extremes of human endurance, trying to cope with conditions such as were raging just outside the thin walls of our cabin. The doomed Franklin expedition passed only a few miles off our position in 1845 before disappearing forever into the arctic wastes.

Late in the second day, too late to go hunting, Adam took my binoculars and his snowmobile on a quick scouting trip. All our spirits soared at his report of several bands of muskoxen visible just over the low mountains behind us.
By the third day the wind had died sufficiently to hunt and we set about preparing clothing and gear. Caribou-skin clothing had always been a mystery to me. How in the world could simple animal skins be better than the manufactured marvels I ordered through my favorite catalogue?

The author dressed in full caribou skins.
The author dressed in full caribou skins.

First come the inner boots, with hair turned out, extending up to the knee. Then outer booties, only ankle high with skin turned in, fit over the inner boot, and are tied on securely. Surprisingly, only a regular wool sock and liner are needed under these. Then the “Bermuda shorts” with suspenders, hair outside, and the lined coat with hood, hair outside, go on. Caribou skin mittens, again with the hair outside, come last. All this fits over a conventional, inner polypropylene-outer wool arrangement. I knew it was good when, or the first time, I had to retreat outside to stay comfortable. And I never once was cold while wearing this outfit!

Hunters pursuing muskoxen in the High Arctic and elsewhere use snowmobiles for transportation. Hunter and his gear, even the game taken, ride behind the snowmobile on a wooden sled called a qamutik, which is attached to the snowmobile by a rope. Amazingly heavy loads can be transported, and the only negative is the fairly significant pounding one can take while riding the sled, especially over rough ice or snow.
The herd finally stopped in a small valley, out of our view until we were quite close to it. This time we were dealing with very agitated animals, so we attempted to stay out of sight during the stalk, a real challenge in that open terrain.

Despite our efforts, the group spotted us and began its characteristic nervous milling as we approached. My quaking legs and sweating body dreaded the thought of more miles of frozen tundra so I felt a strong compulsion to hurry the shot before our quarry ran off prematurely again.

I settled the cross hairs on what appeared to be the largest bull in the herd and squeezed off the shot, carefully avoiding the many cows around it. The bull collapsed immediately, rolling only slightly down the gently inclined slope. My peripheral vision caught sight of a second animal struggling in the snow so I knew Alberto also had connected!

A snow mobile pulls the ubiquitous qamutik, a wooden sled used to haul passengers and equipment.
A snow mobile pulls the ubiquitous qamutik, a wooden sled used to haul passengers and equipment.

Mingling with the excitement of success was the inevitable regret that something must die in this quest called hunting. As I approach any downed animal, the worn cliché inevitably enters my mind: We don’t hunt to kill, we kill to have hunted. Death is always final, silent, somehow humbling. As I trudged heavily toward the dark figure in the snow, watching the remainder of the herd retreat, I thought back to early arctic explorers for whom the muskox often meant salvation in the form of nourishment. I imagined myself a Ross or Perry, the first white men to see Bathurst Island, about to stave off maddening scurvy with a meal of fresh meat. I reminded myself again that sound conservation of most species, including these Ice Age survivors, demands a dedicated hunter; and that such an individual imparts to the sport those qualities of being both good and necessary. In the ideal world, nothing would ever die for any reason, but in our world the cycle of life and death requires that everything, including the hunter, eventually die. As a hunter I was privileged to have participated, to have won a temporary victory, to have been a part of the age-old struggle.

muskox1My bull was an excellent one, though its horns were below record book minimums. Bulls in the arctic north of the Perry Channel usually have slightly smaller horns due to the harsher conditions, but the quality of their hides is the very best. The cape of my animal was truly amazing. Its 20-inch-long outer hair guarded a wool underfleece that was so thick a knife could hardly cut it.
Dead animals freeze solid in no time at 40 below zero, and then skinning becomes an impossible task. We set about it immediately, and I marveled at the Inuit skill with a knife as flashing blades quickly and efficiently sliced hide away from the body. I was also amazed to see the just-peeled skin freezing as hard as a board as it came away from the body. I had mine skinned for a full body mount, and then we quartered the carcass before it froze solid.
Next came the long wait while the snowmobiles and sleds were retrieved, a wait that would have been deadly without the caribou skins. I had a Thermos of hot coffee in my pack and it was a most welcome respite. It actually already was late in the day, and so much had transpired I had lost track of the time.

One discovers much about himself on such an adventure. John Ross spent four years stuck in arctic pack ice, from 1829-1833, unable to extricate his ship. He and all but one of his men survived because they adopted the ways of the Inuit in food and dress, a helpful arctic survival lesson never learned by the Royal Navy of those days. I learned that one can survive in the winter arctic, and that dressing the Inuit way is one key to success. With this confidence, I can anticipate a return to muskox country someday, to enjoy its beauty, its bounty and its blessing.—J.Y. Jones

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