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Our Way or No Way – A B&C Audio Adventure

By M.R. James
24th Big Game Awards Program | From Legendary Hunts

“No closer!” cautioned my Inuit guide Charlie Bolt, raising his rifle just in case. “Shoot now. Shoot the white-horned bull.”

“Easier said than done,” I mumbled to myself. Over 50 yards of frozen, windswept tundra still stretched between us and the two huge musk ox that stood facing us, pawing at the snow menacingly while lowering their heavy-horned heads as if contemplating an imminent charge. What would have been a simple shot for any rifleman was next to impossible for a savvy bowhunter. Even if the buffeting crosswind miraculously failed to affect my arrow’s flight and accuracy, I knew from four decades of bowhunting experience that a frontal shot on such a large animal would be pure folly. Too much thick hair and hide, tough muscle, and dense bone stood between my shaving-sharp broadhead and the bull’s vitals. Somehow I had to cut the remaining distance by nearly half and work myself into position for a broadside shot — preferably without further provoking my obviously worried guide or the two agitated bulls. Fair chase bowhunting for musk ox, I was quickly discovering, can be an exercise in frustration. My hunting partner, Bob Ehle of Pennsylvania, and I had lost a full day of hunting to the fickle Arctic weather gods. Then, after locating two good bachelor bulls just after dawn on our first clear day afield, we parked the snow machines and began our stalk only to watch in stunned disbelief as the twin bulls instantly whirled and galloped away upon catching sight of us. Time after frustrating time throughout the long day, stalk after fruitless stalk, we tried and failed to move within good bow range. Fifty to 60 yards was as close as we could get. That’s tempting yardage, but impractical in bitter cold, wind-whipped shooting conditions. The last we saw of “our” two trophy bulls they were disappearing over a ridgeline a couple of miles away — still running!

Leg weary, wind-burned, and emotionally drained, Bob and I returned to our comfy tent camp that night with a much better appreciation of the daunting task facing us. However, despite our disappointment, we agreed it hadn’t been worth the risk of wounding and losing one of those great shaggy beasts — or forcing our guides to finish off a poorly hit bull with a bullet. We’d do it our way or no way.

The next morning we climbed into our enclosed sleds that were roped behind the guides’ snow machines and headed out across a great flat that resembled a snow-covered moonscape. Soon we cut the meandering trail of two big nomadic bulls made sometime the previous night. After a hurried and animated conference, our excited guides turned their snowmobiles to follow the tracks. One hour passed. Two. Three. The sunny but frigid morning slipped slowly away as we paralleled the bulls’ trail, our hopes soaring each time we approached a promising ridge, but falling each time we topped the rise only to see more empty tundra stretching endlessly ahead of us. It seemed as if we were following tundra phantoms, not flesh and blood creatures whose ancestors have tracked across these same icy wastelands since prehistoric times.

Riding in a bouncing wooden sled across miles of frozen tundra is a bone-jarring, tooth-rattling experience. Our base camp was perhaps 90 to 100 miles from the small village of Kugluktuk on the shores of the Arctic Ocean — and how far we ranged from camp in our daily search for oomingmak, the bearded one, is anyone’s guess. All I knew was it would be a long hike back to civilization in the event of any mechanical breakdowns. But there was obvious comfort in hunting in pairs and in knowing a radio was our link to the outside world.

It was late March. Already several days had passed since I winged north from my Montana home, overnighted in Yellowknife, and met my hunting companion and two other musk ox hunters who had also booked a hunt with veteran north country outfitter Fred Webb. Together we caught a morning flight to Coppermine to embark on what was an unforgettable adventure. I was discovering, just as every musk ox hunter I knew had told me, the appeal of this hunt lies in the overall experience. In this stark, frozen land. In the native guides whose knowledge of the Arctic and its wildlife is amazing. In testing oneself in an unfriendly environment where wind and bitter cold are constant companions. In finding a unique creature that is a true survivor in an inhospitable world, a special animal largely unchanged since Stone Age hunters pursued the forebears of these same beasts armed only with flint–tipped spears.

Back to the present, our whining snowmobiles crested yet another ridge — and there they were! The two bulls, dark dots against a sea of frozen white, were plodding on perhaps a mile ahead. The Inuits quickly braked their machines and held a brief conference while Bob and I studied the distant bulls through our binoculars.

Then we were off again, Bob and his guide veering to the left while Charlie steered his snowmobile in a looping arc to the right. Moments later we eased to a stop just below a ridgeline. As Charlie shouldered his pack and rifle, I stretched ride-stiffened muscles and pulled my bow once to make certain the rough ride or sub-zero cold hadn’t rendered it useless. And then we were moving to the top of the ridge and beyond, dropping into a shallow bowl where the bulls should appear.

And suddenly the bulls were there. But this time there was no turning and running. This time when these two old bulls spotted us moving slowly down the frozen rise they simply stopped and turned to face us, waiting and watching without apparent concern. It wasn’t until we’d closed the distance to perhaps half a hundred yards that they began to paw the snow and shake their woolly heads. That’s precisely when Charlie readied his rifle and warned we’d moved close enough for me to shoot the white-horned bull.

Turning, I shook my head. “Closer,” I said. “Can’t shoot. Too far.” And with each word I took another cautious step closer to the waiting bulls.

Shaking his hooded head, Charlie moved after me. “Close enough,” he insisted. “Shoot now.” 

“Can’t,” I said again. “Too far.”

At 40 yards I raised my tinted goggles and slipped the mitten off my shooting hand, slowly easing to my knees to study the musk ox, with my worried guide crouching just behind me. The bulls still offered only an impossible head-on shot. Cautiously, I inched closer still, not taking my eyes from the shaggy apparitions looming before me, wispy guard hairs fluttering in the whipping crosswind.

Although I would have preferred to close the distance by another 5 to 10 yards, I sensed this was as near as I could get without inviting real trouble. Staring at two agitated musk ox occasionally pawing the snow — with only some 100 feet of empty air between us — I couldn’t help but recall Fred Webb’s story of one rifle-toting client who had been charged, trampled, and injured when he violated a bull’s perceived “safety zone.” I certainly didn’t want to have to explain how I came to get hoofprints all over my snow parka.

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Speaking softly, I asked Charlie to move slowly to my left. If the bulls concentrated on my guide and turned to face him as he eased sideways, maybe I could get the broadside shot I needed. And the tactic worked perfectly, except when the bulls turned my white-horned bull was perfectly screened by his traveling companion. And even when Charlie moved behind me and edged to my right, the bigger bull wouldn’t turn far enough to present me with the shot I needed for a quick, clean kill. Talk about a frustrating standoff!

As my mind raced for some solution, I spotted Bob and his guide watching the unfolding drama from a ridgeline maybe 150 yards away. A new idea struck me and I motioned Bob to circle around and approach from behind us. Within 10 minutes he was kneeling beside me, listening as I quickly explained what I had in mind while Charlie and Bob’s Inuit guide warily eyed the increasingly nervous bulls, rifles ready for instant action in case the bulls charged.

Wishing Bob good luck, I carefully got to my feet and began sidling to my left. On cue, the two bulls turned as I moved and moments later I saw Bob draw, hold, and release. His arrow caught the second bull mid-body, angling forward. Immediately the mortally hit bull spun and lunged away in a spray of hoof-churned snow. My white-horned bull trailed close behind.

Bob’s arrow quickly weakened the lumbering bull. He labored to the nearest ridgetop before pausing to bed down while his companion paced close beside him. Trailing quickly after them, Charlie and I ducked out of sight and crept closer. When I finally rose to peer over the ridge, Bob’s bull lay only 20 short yards away. My bull was standing just behind him, stubbornly refusing to leave. And when he turned and strode into the clear, he was perfectly broadside. My arrow struck him just behind the right foreleg, its 3-blade broadhead burying deep in the off shoulder.

The huge white-horned bull spun in a tight circle and mere seconds later collapsed beside Bob’s bull. Our frustrating, memorable, once-in-a-lifetime Arctic adventure was over. Not only had we collected two great big game trophies, we’d done it our way — a very special way. 

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-Theodore Roosevelt