About three years ago my brother-in-law, Arthur "Sonny" Rivera, contacted me from his home in New Mexico. Sonny said it was a lifelong dream of his to come to Alaska and hunt for a trophy moose. He asked me where would be the best place for him to make it happen.
The Tustumena Lake area immediately came to mind. I called Sonny with the information he needed to get the ball rolling. This year he applied and after several weeks, he called to let me know he had been selected to hunt area 15b and DM534 during the early hunt for moose. I told him he was very lucky indeed to have been selected as there are people who have lived here more than 30 years and apply each year and never have been selected. We talked about the moose not being in the rut yet and the tactics we could use to make it a successful hunt. We agreed that patience and persistence would be the key.
I'm not sure who was more excited about the hunt, but for me it couldn't happen soon enough. After calling several outfitters about horses to pack us in and out, I spoke to Bill Bondietti of Timberline Outfitters based in Homer. The preparations were made for a 10-day hunt. Bill was very helpful with information about the area and exactly what we could take and what to leave at home.
Bill met Sonny and I at Slackwater on the Kasilof River and transported us into and across Tustumena Lake to Bear Creek. After packing the horses with all our gear we saddled up and hit the trail. It had been several years since I rode a horse, so I expected to be sore at the end of the day.
We started out on the creek where reds were still making their way upstream, and plenty of brown bear were there to eat them. The weather was absolutely perfect. Sonny and I enjoyed the ride and scenery immensely. We climbed in elevation to about 2,000 feet and at the edge of timberline. Bill put us in a great location with one of only a few good water sources in the area. It seems that due to the lack of snowpack the previous winter, most of the springs and creeks were dry. Once Bill had unloaded all supplies and taken care of all 12 horses, he took the time to feed and water himself.
The next morning Bill left us to our hunt, and the sense of being alone in a wilderness area was immediate. At last the hunt would begin. During the next few days we made a recon of our area, going out about a mile and a half in all directions from camp. This let us gain familiarity of our surroundings and gave us opportunity to look for scrapes, wallows and lays. The willows were seven to 10 feet high in areas making foot travel arduous. At the end of each day we were hungry and tired. Meals just seem to taste better when a person has worked hard before taking the time to sit down and enjoy them. We ate well the entire trip.
We put our focus on several ponds and swamps with moose potential. On our third day we located what I would name "moose haven." I can't explain why I felt it, but I turned to Sonny and told him I felt this was where he would get his moose. He gave me one of those "yeah, right" looks. This site was full of everything a moose could want, plentiful cover, water, grass and willows to eat. Late that evening we settled into a near perfect hide and let the quiet envelope us.
Before leaving for this trip, a friend of mine who has hunted and killed more moose than I will ever see, taught me how to make cow moose calls and when to make bull moose calls to get the biggest bull around to join the party. I must have paid fairly good attention because after having made two or three cow calls within about an hour and a half, not one but two bulls came crashing out of the willows and timber.
We never saw the bull to our left, but the bull in front of us was a site I will never forget. How big and powerful he looked. My adrenaline was flowing in overdrive, and, from the look in Sonny's eyes, I would say he felt the same. At this point, I remember telling myself to remain calm and get a good look at the bull through my binoculars. Once I had him in my view, I noted two large brow tines on one side but could not see the opposite side. The bull took in a giant breath of the cold evening air then snorted and took off at a trot to get to the other bull. To stop him I took a moose scapula (shoulder blade) and scraped the tree in front of me repeatedly.
God must love us for sure, because that moose stopped not more that 40 yards from the previous spot and turned broadside. Sonny decided to take the shot due to the size of the bull and distance between palms. I heard the shot break the silence and watched the bull stumble upon impact. The bull then went into the timber and willows out of our sight for a few minutes. We listened intently to gain his location and direction. The next thing I heard was water splashing and I realized exactly what that meant.
The bull had gone into the woods and came out behind us in the largest pond in the entire area. He was in the middle of the pond just standing there. We made attempts to get him to move toward the bank, but nothing would make him budge. After several attempts were made to move him, Sonny put the moose down so it would not suffer. We would just have to deal with the situation once the moose was down. Sonny once again put a round into the moose, and I saw him drop into the water.
We remained there for about 20 minutes and then darkness was all around. We could not reach the moose, so we made our way back to camp through the tall willows, dense spruce forest and rolling tundra. Once back in camp, Sonny and I talked about what had happened and what we intended to do about it. While we were both very excited to have seemingly achieved his dream, we now had a moose down weighing approximately 1,400 pounds in three feet of water to try and harvest. It was a sleepless night for both of us.
After a very cold clear night, we got up early and returned to the pond. To our shock the moose was gone. We were cautiously ap-proaching the site and started glassing the area from about 200 hundred yards. Sonny spotted the bull's rack by a large boulder at the edge of the water across the pond. Once again, by God's graces, we found the bull just at the water's edge.
After a quick tape measurement to confirm the size of the rack, we were elated beyond words. This bull would not be a "trophy" bull by some standards but at almost 54 inches it was the most awesome bull Sonny had ever seen. Dreams can come true!
Now the really hard work began. We butchered and hung the meat. Sonny also took the rack and a nice cape. After all was safely hung in the trees about 300 or 400 yards from the kill site, we returned to camp exhausted. We celebrated the results of our luck with powerful and tasty libations. Late that night, I heard wolves howling not too far from our tent. Now, all we had to do was hang tight and wait for Bill to return to get us out with our harvest.
What actually happened would not be that simple. After making daily trips to the hang site and firing a round or two to send scavengers packing, we felt we had done all we could to secure the site. As Mother Nature so often does, she chose to humble us in a major way.
When Bill returned and we went to the hang site to retrieve our meat, we came upon a dreadful sight. Wolves had eaten about half of the moose and I'm talking about the best cuts of meat on the bull. I did a close inspection and came to the conclusion that a black bear must have climbed the trees and felled a few bags of meat and then a hungry wolf pack surrounded him and he wisely made a careful retreat. Once the bear was gone, the wolves feasted on the meat.
The good news is that with the remaining meat, cape and rack we made out of there safely. We once again rode the horses for about seven hours taking a different route than that of our trip in. It was quite an adventure riding horses through thick spruce forest at night. Several times I wished I had a full-face helmet.
Once we were back to Bear Creek, the trip took on the good and satisfying feeling I had hoped for. While the horses cautiously drank from the creek, brown bears moved around just out of sight. It was just past midnight and the northern lights lit up the sky in a demonstration that I know I will never forget. Sonny also watched in awe of the wondrous light show, a first for him.
Overall, this was an outstanding adventure and I would highly recommend it to anyone fortunate enough to be selected to hunt in any of the areas around Tustumena Lake. According to an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist, about half the people selected for the early hunt do not choose to make the trip and of those who make the trip about half will get a moose. Getting close to animals in a wilderness setting completely devoid of sight or sound of any other humans is a hard situation to find these days even in Alaska. As for Bill Bondietti, he was a very capable and competent packer. I was greatly impressed with his care of the horses. His knowledge of the area and animals was very helpful. He is listed with Fish and Game as a "transporter."
Sonny has since returned to New Mexico, and my wife and I have resumed our daily routines here in Soldotna. We both feel blessed to have experienced such fine adventure. Next year will bring more opportunities to hunt for Alaska moose and maybe chase a dream or two.
Porter W. Pollard is a radiology tech in Soldotna, vice chair of the Kenai Fish and Game Committee and an avid outdoorsman.
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