Musk-ox!

Posted on October 13, 2011

An adventurous bowhunter braves extreme conditions pursuing an Arctic trophy

Musk-OX Bull

David and the author pose with the trophy musk-ox bull. Note the lunar-like landscape in the background.

By Steff Stefanovich

Plumes of frosty steam billowed from the big bull musk-ox in the frigid Arctic air. At 25 yards, he angrily pawed the ground and rubbed his pre-orbital gland on his hairy foreleg. He was obviously unhappy that I’d come this close to his eight buddies and him and was letting me know it.

We had stalked the group for a while and finally got them to form the classic protective circle, with each bull facing outward. The bull I was after was to my left, still within the group. I was trying to keep track of him, but the aggressive bull to my right held my undivided attention. (While purchasing our licenses, we had been warned that this behavior indicated an imminent charge.)

I was inside their comfort zone, awaiting their next move. If my bull didn’t clear the group soon, things could get interesting quickly! I glanced toward my Inuit guide, David, expecting him to be backing me with his rifle. However, he stood about 100 yards away—unarmed. The setting Arctic sun hung low behind the group, casting an eerie haze over the frozen landscape. With nothing between us but cold, blowing snow, time slowed as I watched the agitated bull paw and snort. I was not sure what to expect next.

ATV vs. Komatik

I had read a few articles about musk-ox hunts over the years but had never seriously considered going on one. That all changed early one spring when I attended my local Safari Club chapter fundraiser.

A musk-ox hunt was offered on the live auction. My wife Deanne nodded approval, so I raised my hand and ended up with the only bid. I was going musk-ox hunting! The hunt had been donated by Jerome Knapp (Canada North Outfitting; 613.256.4057) and was to take place out of the newest Canadian territory of Nunavut, located in Cambridge Bay. It is well above the Arctic Circle and known as “the musk-ox capital of the world.” I called Jerome and secured a spot for the first hunt of the season the following March. I was starting to get pumped!

The guides are seen here preparing the komatiks for the ride to camp.

The guides are seen here preparing the komatiks for the ride to camp.

Musk-ox are found exclusively in the Arctic regions of North America and Greenland, but there are also some transplanted herds in Russia. Their Inuit name is “Umingmak,” or “Bearded One.” Their hair is the longest of any North American mammal. Their wool, called “qiviut,” is the finest wool in the world. Heavily bossed, deep, sweeping, hooked horns makes for an impressive-looking big bull, although females have horns as well. Adult males can reach 800 pounds, while females are about 30 percent smaller.

Hunting via ATV over miles of bare ground can be enjoyed during the moderate temperatures of autumn. However, in the spring, the more-traditional hunts are conducted quite differently. Travel is done by “komatik,” a long, wooden sled drawn by dogs or snowmobile. A wooden box placed in the middle serves as the passenger compartment, and gear is stowed fore and aft. All connections are lashed with rope to allow flexibility, because the unrelenting pounding from the rough surface would cause anything else to come apart! Once again, vast areas of barren, now-frozen landscape are crossed in the search for a trophy musk-ox bull. Due to the severity of the conditions, groups of two guides and hunters are recommended for safety. This is the classic musk-ox hunt that I had read about.

Komatik Ride

You can clearly see the luxury that a komatik ride provides.

Getting Ready

I spent the next few summer months planning the trip. It was going to be cold, very cold! Appropriate gear and clothing were priorities. Temperatures could fall to minus 50 or 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Clearly, insufficient planning could have grave consequences.

I’d decided to use my cold-weather snowmobile jacket and bibs, along with a Northern Outfitters windbreaker outer layer. Two layers of Cabela’s expedition-weight polypropylene underwear, a layer of Cabela’s down underwear beneath wool pants, and a wool sweater rounded out my wardrobe. I wore 40-gram Thinsulate fleece gloves inside felt-lined leather mittens. Rocky 1000-gram Thinsulate boots inside boot blankets would protect my feet while riding in the komatik. Hot Hands heater packets would be a pleasant addition to my cold-weather gear. I also added a chest-protector to keep the heavy outer layers clear of my bowstring.

Because of the summer heat, I had to wait for cooler weather to practice shooting. In addition, I knew that my gear would also behave differently under the extreme Arctic conditions, and I needed to eliminate anything that might magnify this.

I started by stripping down my Hoyt Protec and removing all lubricants. Axles were pulled and cleaned, limbs removed from the riser and all lubricants removed. I even cleaned my Cobra drop-away rest. As I reassembled everything, I used a graphite powder lubricant, which worked well. To accommodate all the additional clothing, I shortened my draw 1 inch to improve accuracy.

It was soon late summer, and things were coming together nicely. I was still a bit apprehensive, since it was impossible to recreate the extreme conditions I would face on the hunt. I hoped that all my preparations would be adequate.

Ice Bull

The author and his team came across this lone bull on the open ice, but they decided to pass on him, although he looked pretty good to the author.

Hunting Time

Before I knew it, my hunt had arrived. I flew to Edmonton, where I met my campmates. The next day, we flew to Yellowknife, where we deplaned to allow removal of half the seats on the plane. The area was converted to cargo storage for the remainder of our flight to bring much needed supplies to a remote Arctic village. Our final leg took us to Cambridge Bay. As we approached, the sight from the air of a small community surrounded by an endless sea of white was somewhat surreal. Once on the ground, one thing quickly became apparent: It was cold!

Mabel, Jerome’s “go-to” person in Cambridge Bay, greeted us at the airport. Once we had gathered our gear, Mabel took us to the Arctic Islands Lodge. We checked in and then visited the Department of Natural Resources for our licenses. While there, we reviewed information on regulations, field judging and Arctic wildlife. We were warned that if we got too close to the musk-ox and they felt threatened, it could provoke a charge—and we could get hurt.

Dinner that evening was spent getting acquainted and telling hunting stories. Our group included four bowhunters and three rifle hunters, each with considerable hunting experience. Following our meal, we met our guides and were assigned our groups. We spent the remainder of the evening getting to know each other, reviewing rules and safety issues, and learning what to expect during the hunt.

My guide was David Amegainik, a 60-year-old Inuit with an amazing hunting history. He was sure that we would find a good bull. We would leave for camp the next morning.

This article in is in the September issue of Bow & Arrow Hunting magazine.

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