by Russ Mehling
Day 0-1 Warm Welcome to Winnipeg
The muskox hunt begins in Winnipeg. Hunters fly into Winnipeg the day before the adventure starts. There is a beautiful hotel attached to the airport and the weather is generally pleasant this time of year (late April), so a short walk from the terminal to your hotel is a welcome treat after your flight into Winnipeg.
This is a day to relax and go through your equipment one last time. Within a short cab ride of the airport we have a Cabela’s, Wholesale Sports and Wal-Mart, just in case you missed something while packing. Our group ran to Cabela’s to pick up some last minute hunting supplies. We got back to the hotel and called it a night in preparation for an early start the next day.
Part of the adventure on a hunt like this is just getting to the hunt location. Early in the morning (5:15 a.m.), we walked across the street to the departure terminal. All our bags were weighed, so make sure you follow Calm Airs baggage limitations… or have your wallet handy. Once through check in, a quick stop at security and we were on our way to the gate. The small jet was parked on the tarmac. We were called to board and since it was “rush” seating, we entered as a group so the four of us could sit together and talk hunting during the flight.
A pleasant surprise on the flight was the meal option. In this day and age of a complimentary snack and beverage consisting of two peanuts and a half a glass of soda, it was great to be served scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage, yogurt, and granola.
The travel consists of three flights. Winnipeg to Churchill (1.5 hours), Churchill to Rankin Inlet (40 minutes), and Rankin Inlet to Baker Lake (40 minutes). The good news is these are all small airports and the layovers are measured in minutes, not hours.
We arrived in Baker Lake right around lunch time. We were picked up from the airport (along with all our luggage) and brought to the hotel that would be our home for the next six days. We were assigned our rooms, dropped our luggage, and headed to the restaurant for a great meal. At this time, we were introduced to our guides and discussed plans for the week.
The rest of the day was spent preparing for the next day’s hunt. Ok, some of us took a nap as the early morning and travel had sapped some energy from us.
Day 1 – Bad Weather, Welcome to the North
One thing you can count on during an adventure this far north is bad weather. Unfortunately, weather can’t be controlled and we learned this on the first day. We awoke to heavy winds and intermittent snow that reduced visibility to near zero. This is bad on two fronts. First, safety is our main priority and zero visibility can not only be dangerous on the tundra, it can be life threatening. Our guides live in the area and they are the toughest people I know. If they say it’s a no go due to the weather, don’t plan on leaving the hotel. Second, just like sheep hunting, muskox hunting requires glassing at long distances (several miles) and poor visibility will undoubtedly lead to poor hunting conditions.
Fortunately, the weather is in constant change, and near the end of the day, it started to break. This was an excellent time for us to jump on the snow machines and take them for a test drive. When we left town, we realized even in the improved conditions, the visibility could be measured in yards, not miles. Good call staying in town.
Speaking of snow machines, every hunter gets to drive their own! No bone jarring rides in komatiks! We’ve heard from many former muskox hunters that that was the worst part of the hunt. We understand not everyone is an experienced snowmobile driver, but you learn quickly. It is similar to driving a very stable ATV. Our group had one person who had never driven a snow machine, and two that had spent less than 10 hours on them. By the middle of the second day, we were all experts. Well, maybe not experts, but we were very confident and covered a lot of miles every day.
The temperatures for the day ranged from a low of minus 10˚F to a high of 20˚F.
Day 2 – We’re Actually Muskox Hunting!
Day 2 saw the weather improve. We sat down at breakfast (our choices of eggs, pancakes, French toast, hash browns, ham, sausage, bacon, omelets etc.), excited to get out on the tundra.
Our excitement waned slightly as we started our trek. The weather was still not cooperating, and we could only see several hundred yards in front of us. The sun was trying to shine through, so we hoped it would burn off the heavy fog and let us get to glassing.
The travel from town to the muskox area is between 20-30 miles and takes somewhere between one to two hours. With the weather the way it was, we took our time. We had an early lunch while trying to stay out of the wind. Lunches are prepared for the hunters at camp, and everyone receives a couple of sandwiches, a piece of fruit, dessert, a bar or chips and a juice. After the first day, lunches can be more customized depending on what we liked or disliked in our lunch bags. We packed up after lunch and continued on. The visibility had improved and shortly we located a group of caribou.
While the hunters stood staring at the caribou, the guides located a large group of muskox, three small herds all in one valley. The hunt was on!
For this hunt, we were all traveling together, as two of us were there as “observers” as well as hunters. The other two hunters decided who would shoot first and we closed the distance. At about a mile away, we glassed over the group and located several bulls, including a giant old bull that had broken off his entire left horn. It was decided there were two different bulls that would make either hunter extremely happy. Those hunters and their guides moved in closer.
A short time later, after some quality marksmanship, we were all celebrating over two great muskox bulls! Plenty of photos were taken and laughs shared. Now the real work began!
Taking care of a big muskox bull is a daunting task. Anyone who has ever field dressed a whitetail, can only imagine what working on a 700 pound creature with 18” hair would be like. Since one of the hunters wanted a life-size mount, extra skinning time was taken to ensure the taxidermist would have a quality hide to work with. Once the hide was off, the guides expertly broke down the bulls into healthy sized chunks of delicious, healthy meat.
With the other hunter deciding on a “European” or skull mount, the guides asked if they could keep the hide. Nothing gets wasted in this part of the world. The hide would be tanned for leather, while the guard hairs would be harvested off of the fur to create and incredibly insulating material.
Once the animals were taken care of, they were loaded on the wooden sled and the slow trek back to town began. We got back to the hotel around 7:30 p.m and supper was waiting for us. It needed to be heated up a bit, but was excellent from the salad, the main course and of course, the dessert!
An incredible discovery of the vastness of the north was realized on the way home. At one point, we stopped to rest our thumbs (the throttle on the snow machines is operated by a thumb control), and we could see town. We didn’t believe our guide when he said it was an hour away. We checked our GPS and realized as clear as we could see the town, it was still over 20 miles away!
Today’s temps were a low of -10˚F to a high of 25˚F.
Day 3 – 2 Muskox Hunters and 2 Wolf Hunters
When a muskox is tagged, the hunt is not over. The next phase of the hunt is just beginning! The tagged out muskox hunters have wolf tags to fill. We went to an area where the residents had been caribou hunting, hoping the hunting activity may have attracted some wolves looking for an easy meal. These caribou hunters also mentioned seeing muskox in the area, so we all headed in that direction.
It didn’t take long before more muskox were in our sights. We had a bowhunter in camp who was hoping to get his muskox with a bow. We approached the herd, and even at a distance of several miles, noticed how skittish they were. The wolf hunters got excited as nervous herds generally mean a predator is near. They headed to a high hill to try and locate some wolves while we tried to close the deal on the muskox herd.
The muskox would only let us get to within a few hundred yards before they would move off. After a long game of cat and mouse, we decided the bow may not work on this group and the decision was made to grab a weapon with a slightly longer effective range.
This group had a giant bull in it and we were fortunate enough to get a clean shot at it… actually two great shots. The bull dropped on the spot and we walked up to a legitimate Boone & Crockett contender. A great bull for someone who had never seen a muskox two days ago!
Our wolf hunters never spotted the wolves we assumed were making the herd so nervous. They also traveled to the previous days’ kills to see if any wolves had moved in on the kill sites. There were tracks of Arctic fox, but no wolf sign.
A valuable lesson was learned today. The hunt for muskox was long, and was being filmed. This left two of us going without eye protection for several hours. That evening was uncomfortable and red and watery eyes reminded us that sun glasses or polarized snow goggles need to be worn at all times other than when actually taking your shots.
The bull was taken later in the day and with only one guide to work on it (with the help of the hunters) it was a slightly later homecoming. As the night before, an excellent meal was waiting for us. After supper, we “green scored” the bull and we were correct. It will easily make the Boone and Crockett Record Book. Sleep came easy tonight.
Today’s temps ranged from 0˚F to 30˚F.
Day 4 – 4-for-4 on Great Muskox Bulls
Day 4 dawned warm and beautiful but caused some other issues. The warm weather was creating fog. Our wolf hunters and muskox hunters went in different directions to cover more ground. The muskox hunters continued to the area we killed yesterday as many other groups of muskox were seen. Our wolf hunters went in another direction to see if more wolves were present in a different area.
First the muskox. We encountered heavy fog off and on most of the way to the hunt area. Late in the morning we drove up a high ridge and could see the sun shining up top. We stopped here in the warmth of the sun and had an early lunch. While eating, we located a group of muskox. We finished lunch and marked where the herd was. We wanted to head in another direction to the herds seen yesterday by our wolf hunters.
Unfortunately, as clear and sunny as it was on the ridge, once we tried glassing the valleys, all we could see was fog. We tried to work around it, but to no avail. We couldn’t see far enough to glass any animals, so we headed back to the group we saw at lunch.
They had separated, with some heading over the ridge. We parked the sleds and got to within 750 yards. From here, we could only see six animals, with the rest of the group on the other side of the hill. We stalked in closer, to 500 yards. We saw at least two very good bulls in this group and decided we didn’t need to see the others. We got ready for the remainder of the stalk, grabbing our shooting sticks, preparing the rifle and watching the bulls.
The bulls were relaxed, and only trotted off once during the stalk. We were able to get to 285 yards and then it was decision time. After 10 minutes of looking over the bulls, we realized there wouldn’t be a bad decision, so we selected the one with the best “eye appeal”. It was a great shot and we had just completed a 4-for-4 week on trophy muskox!
Again, one guide worked efficiently on preparing the hide and cutting up the meat. It was loaded on the sled and we were off. Our drive slowed as we hit ever increasing fog. At times, the rear snowmobile could hardly see the front machine. We took our time, choosing safety over speed. At around 9:30 p.m. we stopped to rest and check our GPS. We were within a half-mile of town, and couldn’t tell! We even heard someone’s dog barking. It was incredibly thick fog!
What made us feel safe was that every guide has equipment with them to not only survive, but to stay relatively comfortable for a night or two out on the tundra. Not being prepared out here is a matter of life and death. The guides live in this country and will not take even these day trips lightly.
Our wolf hunters cut tracks of at least seven different wolves, and got close enough to see one beautiful white wolf, but with hunting going the way it does sometimes, it wasn’t meant to be. They never encountered the fog that we did, but realized when they got back to town we may be a little later. Their guides had also formulated a plan to look for us if it became necessary. All made it home safe and sound.
Today was a beautiful day with temps ranging from 20˚F to 40˚F.
Day 5 – Bad Weather or Bad Weatherman
With the heavy fog of the night before fresh in our minds, the morning fog had everyone checking their weather pages today (yes, there is WiFi at the hotel!). It was calling for the fog to clear off, but with very high winds and snow following. Discussions were had between hunters and guides. There was also a severe storm being called for Day 6, our departure day. Normal departure is 9:15 a.m. After waiting an hour or so and checking the forecast, a decision was made to call off the day’s hunt and try to change our flights from tomorrow to today.
Calm Air is excellent and if there is room, only charges a $50 change of flight fee. We made our bookings and packed our gear. Once the gear was packed, we headed to the local conservation office for our Export Permits. This took slightly longer than expected and going forward, we will book the afternoon flight at 1:15 p.m. out of Baker Lake on departure day. This will allow us time to complete the paperwork during open office hours.
We arrived at the airport with our bags, trophies, meat and export permits. Calm Air is reasonable with the oversize, overweight and extra baggage fees. We ranged from $150 to $250 in excess baggage fees. Our muskox trophies were wrapped in tarps while our meat was vacuum sealed, frozen and boxed for the trip home.
Unfortunately, just like anywhere else in the world, the weatherman is the only person who can be wrong most of the time and still keep his job. As we headed to the airport at 3 p.m. the weather was still fine for hunting. We could have spent a few more hours chasing wolves, but made a decision based on the forecast. The good news is that they were correct about the next day’s storm and had we not left today, we would have been in Baker Lake for two more days, stuck in the hotel.
Our flight path took us from Baker Lake to Rankin Inlet to Churchill to Winnipeg, same as the trip up to camp. We arrived back in Winnipeg early in the evening. We collected all of our luggage, including our game, and walked across the street to the hotel. The hotel was excellent and allowed us to place our hides and meat in the walk in freezer on site.
Today’s weather in Baker Lake ranged from -10˚F to 5˚F. It was 70˚F in Winnipeg when we landed!
Day 6 (Actually Day 7) – Wrapping Things Up and Going Home
The next day, our recommended taxidermist picked up the trophies and discussed what work was required on each hunter’s head/hide. He will do everything from prep and ship to the hunter’s preferred taxidermist, to completing any taxidermy the hunter wishes. He has worked on many muskox and is familiar with the unique anatomy of these creatures. He also takes care of all the necessary paperwork for the animal parts to be shipped outside of Canada.
Once he has left, all that’s left to do is pack up, collect any meat for the trip home and walk back across the street to the departure terminal to begin your journey home.
Thanks for joining us on this journey. We hope to see you all on the great white tundra soon!
- Normal guiding ratios will be 2 x 2. Every hunter will have his own guide, but for safety reasons, we will be traveling in groups of two.
- We lost two days due to weather, but safety will always be the number one determining factor in making decisions for the day.
- Any time you can spend on a snow machine prior to the hunt will benefit you, but as we learned on this hunt, it is easy to learn to drive.
- Practice with your firearm, the better you can shoot at longer ranges, the higher probability of success you will have. Shots of up to 300 yards may be encountered.
- There are a couple of gift shops in Baker Lake that provide opportunities to share a part of your experience with those you left behind.
- Alcohol is severely limited in the community, plan to celebrate prior to leaving Winnipeg, or on your arrival back.
- Things may appear to be moving slow at the beginning of the hunting days, the guides are not only packing for a hunt, they are packing for a survival trip, they will always take time to make sure they are well prepared.
- Any meat you leave behind will be donated to the community and it is greatly appreciated.
- While we experienced mild weather during this hunt, the normal for this area at this time of year is -10˚F to 15 ˚F.
- Next season’s muskox hunts will be conducted April 18-24 and April 24-30.