A Memorable Moose Hunt

Our friend Dave Penz has spent most of his life taking the good news of the gospel to the native peoples of western Alaska. One of his first assignments was in the village of Shageluk. He tells this story about one of his early hunting trips.

One of his neighbors, Charlie Wolf, was the son of a white prospector and a native mother. Many offspring of such parentage were energetic and ambitious, but not Charlie. He had a beautiful wife and three children, but he barely managed to keep food on their table. Unfortunately, he was an alcoholic.

One mid-winter day Charlie wanted Dave to go moose hunting with him. He owned three scroungy dogs. Dave had a sled and a good team of dogs, so they hitched up all the dogs and headed into a wooded area where few people went hunting. They set up their camp when it got dark.

Next day they spent the four daylight hours trudging through the woods. Snow fell steadily. Just at dusk they came upon six moose clustered together in a thicket. They shot two of them. They skinned and butchered them and hung the pieces in the trees to keep them from animals. By the time they had finished it was pitch dark.

“I know a short way to get back to camp,” Charlie said. Dave hoisted a large chunk of meat atop his backpack, picked up his gun, and followed Charlie through the foot deep snow. It was so dark he couldn’t see where they were going, but something seemed wrong, especially after Charlie had stopped several times, then started off in a different direction.

The meat grew heavier and heavier, and the gun, too, seemed so heavy that Dave considered leaving it behind. If only they could see where they were going. Suddenly he remembered something. “I think my flashlight might still be in my pack,” he said. He dumped the contents. Sure enough, there was the flashlight at the bottom.

Charlie had refused to admit they were lost, but when Dave flashed the light through the woods, they could see their own tracks circling around to where they stood. They were the only people within many miles, and Charlie couldn’t deny it now. Later Dave would use the story in many of his sermons, telling his listeners that most people don’t know they are lost until they have the light of God’s word in their lives.

While Dave repacked his belongings, he prayed aloud, asking God to help them find their way back to camp. Then he stood watching snowflakes fall in the beam of his flashlight. They fell at a slight slant, telling him the wind was from the north. He knew he had to go east to get to camp.

Dave started out, in the lead this time. Now Charlie thought he heard noises in the woods. Wolves! Maybe they had smelled the meat Dave carried and were following them. He was so frightened he kept stepping on Dave’s heels. He continually asked Dave to shine the light behind them to see if it reflected from the eyes of hungry wolves. There were no wolves, but the last time Dave swung the flashlight around to the front, he caught the faint, snow-covered impression of old sled tracks running across a frozen lake. Now he knew where they were. They followed the tracks across the lake and were soon greeted by the dogs they’d left tied at camp.

The next day they took the dogs and sled back to where they’d left the meat. They were amazed to find the long, heavy front leg of a moose a quarter mile away from the rest of the meat. A wolverine had helped itself, and was probably not far away. The two men hung the leg in a tree and Charlie set one of his traps beneath it.

It took several trips to get the meat and hides back to Shageluk. Oh yes. They also hauled home Charlie’s wolverine, which had come back for its prize and got caught in the trap.

Another Fishing Trip…

A typical Alaskan lake (Photo by Don Biggar)

    My recent blogs about our July pike-fishing trip in Canada reminded me of another fishing trip, when my late husband, Bob Biggar, introduced me to Alaska during our honeymoon summer of 1962. Since he had already worked in Alaska for a number of years, he hoped to convince me that the state would be a good place to make our home. I was convinced enough to live there for seventeen years, while we raised two little Alaskans.

    That summer Bob was a project engineer on a road-construction job near Fairbanks, where giant Euclid scrapers hauled mine tailings as fill material for the new roadbed. One day one of the scrapers’ huge tires went flat. Bob asked if he could have the worn-out inner tube. He patched the holes and blew it up. As I remember, that tube was about seven feet across—large enough for a whole group of people to play on.

    Bob’s friend, Andy Hall, owned his own pontoon plane. He offered, in exchange for the inner tube, to take us on a spur- of-the-moment wilderness fishing trip. I was so excited that I completely forgot the next day’s luncheon invitation to the home of Virginia Leih, one of my new friends. I scurried around frying chicken and collecting camping equipment. When Bob came home early that Wednesday afternoon, we headed for the float pond at the International Airport.

    The plane had dual controls, and since Bob was licensed to fly float planes, Andy let him do most of the flying. Bob was thrilled, and so was I. I’d never flown in a plane like that before. We headed south, following the Alaska Highway. Then we crossed the Tanana and Little Delta rivers that braided and twisted across the tundra. They ran silty with glacial flour—rock that glaciers had ground to powder. All across the valley we saw zigzagging lines of trees and brush marking where rivers once flowed. Beneath the dark clouds and rain squalls to our right we glimpsed the shining peaks of the Alaskan Range. There were no signs of civilization below us…we were deep into the wilderness.

    My watch read six o’clock when Andy pointed ahead. “That’s Groffin’s Lake.” Bob brought our bird in for a landing. Spray flew past the windows as we coasted to the foot of a promontory topped with tall spruce and birch. Andy tied the plane to a tree. We stepped off the pontoon onto shore and hauled our equipment up the hill.

    In a clearing stood a sturdy sod-roofed log cabin. Traps hung on an outside wall. Door and windows were boarded shut, with dozens of sharp-pointed nails meant to discourage marauding bears protruding from the boards. We erected our tents on a carpet of moss deep enough to nearly hide the wild cranberry plants that grew up through it. The moss appeared to be studded with garnet-colored jewels.

    I set out cold fried chicken and potato salad for our dinner and while we ate, Andy entertained us with bear stories. Afterward, he offered to show me how to fish. I followed him to the shore. He cast out a line and handed me the pole. Immediately I felt a tug and the line snapped straight. Seconds later a big pike lay flopping on the moss.

    A few minutes later I caught another one. Although Bob had said he didn’t care for fishing, he suddenly wanted a turn. For a guy who didn’t like to fish, he seemed to enjoy himself hugely. Andy went to bed. While Bob fished, I built a campfire. Then we lay on the hill beside the fire, watching the moon rise before we too called it a day.

    I was too excited to sleep, and the blanket wouldn’t stay put. Although it was mid-August, autumn already had come to Alaska and the night was chilly. It didn’t help that Andy had pointed out grizzly-bear scat not far from where we pitched the tents, nor could I forget his dinnertime bear tales.

    Through the mosquito netting I watched the moon travel across the sky. Loons filled the night with their weird, lonely cries. By 3:00 a.m. the sky lightened. Bob got up to brew coffee. He brought me a cupful with a couple of cookies. Then I, too, got up. We walked to the brow of the hill to watch a pair of moose feeding off shore. They’d plunge their spreading antlers below the surface for long minutes, then raise their heads to munch mouthfuls of water lilies while water poured off the shovel-like blades. A flock of wild geese flew south, honking, and the loons still called.

    We’d kept our fish fresh in the lake overnight, but the back half of one was gone. Andy told us another pike had probably eaten it. While Bob cleaned the others, I practiced casting but got no bites. Then the line seemed to catch on the bottom. I jerked and jerked. Finally it came free, dragging a big hunk of water plant which seemed strangely resistant. When I finally reeled it in, another big pike was on the line. Not by its mouth, but hooked through its back. Andy said they sometimes strike at the bait and miss, bumping the hook on the way past. So we had one more fish to put in the cooler.

    By 5:00 a.m., we’d struck camp and were skimming over the tundra, where we counted seven or eight moose within a short distance of each other. We flew closer to the mountains this time, through rain squalls and bumpy weather. We flew over a radar site which Bob had helped to build, then turned toward Fairbanks. We landed on the float pond at 6:30, ate breakfast at a pancake house, and then the men went off to work. I went home to take care of our fish and get ready for our temporary return to Washington.

    The day got so busy and I was so tired from the sleepless night I forgot all about the luncheon I was supposed to attend. Only later did I find out there’d been a surprise in store—I was to have been the guest of honor. Virginia, the gracious and forgiving hostess, continued as a cherished friend when we returned to Alaska the next spring.

Mother moose (with head underwater) teaching her babies to browse a stream bottom.
(Photo by Don Biggar)