North to Nunavut: Quest for Umingmak, the Bearded One
If you're looking for the high arctic hunting adventure of a lifetime, consider Nunavut, one of Canada's best kept secrets. Remote and game-rich, Victoria Island holds the highest concentration of muskoxen in the world.
Destination Cambridge Bay
Hunters the world-over flock to Canada's far north in pursuit of arctic-dwelling game. From caribou to polar bear, muskoxen are one of the most coveted species. Although the last official population surveys were completed back in 1998, authorities estimate that Victoria Island is home to a stable to growing population of over 30,000. Consider the options, and the island is a top choice among hunters looking to score on this highly sought-after trophy. A roster of reputable Nunavut-based outfitters offer guided hunts, but if you're looking for quality, numbers, and minimal travel, Cambridge Bay's Ekaluktutiak Sports Hunt Ltd. caters to 60 muskox hunters annually, and yes, with an historically high density of animals, most tag their animal.
Preparing for the Hunt
Flying Canadian North I made my way from Edmonton to Cambridge Bay on October 14 of 2011. Total air time was less than five hours and, as we touched down on the rough gravel runway, I was reminded again of how far north we were. With a population of just over 1,700 people Cambridge Bay is a thriving community situated on the south shore of Victoria Island. Upon arrival, I was greeted at the small terminal and taxied the short drive into town where I would stay my first night at the famous Arctic Lodge. The rest of the day was consumed at the government office securing my license and meeting with veteran guide, George Pamiok Angohiatok. As a respected and reputable hunter and guide, I was assured that I would be in good hands with this native Inuit.
The author’s guide, George, posing with a narwhal tusk from a whale he harpooned just weeks before the muskox hunt.
That night was a restless one. Despite best efforts to sleep, I tossed and turned in anticipation of what promised to be a most exciting hunt. There's something about Canada's far north that beckons the adventurous spirit. With a pristine beauty all its own, the wide-open spaces, extreme weather, rugged terrain, abundant wildlife, not to mention the hospitable Inuit people make it a traveling hunter's paradise.
High Arctic Adventure
At sunrise I was greeted by George and his assistant Roland Emingak. Fall had turned to winter almost overnight. The problem was a lack of snow. With insufficient snow to use snowmobiles, our hunt would require the use of quads. Thankfully I was given the option to drive my own ATV and I eagerly accepted. With the rugged terrain, this would prove a wise choice as we covered over 70 miles during our short hunt.
Assistant, Roland, dressed for the cold arctic air.
Loading my gear on to the quads, we made the short trip to George's cabin. The main camp was full with visiting hunters so I had the choice to either stay at the hotel in town or with my guide. Jumping at the chance, I was most eager to experience the culture and his cabin offered all of the comforts of home.
With fevered anticipation, we dropped my gear, repacked the requisite survival items, my daypack and bow, and headed out. George's pre-hunt forays had been productive. Days previous, he had located a large herd of muskoxen 18 miles west, in an area known as Starvation Cove. With this in mind, we decided to try there first.
Arctic air is cold. We all hear about sub-zero temperatures and most Canadians are accustomed to a certain kind of cold, but unless you've experienced it firsthand, it is impossible to comprehend. Arctic air is humid and that makes it seem exponentially colder. Words cannot adequately describe the chill. Suffice it to say, zero degrees felt like -13 Fahrenheit, plenty cold enough for this Alberta boy! Like every other guest, I quickly realized I needed one of the outfitter's arctic parkas to cut the wind, especially while riding the quad. Thankfully, this is an integral service they offer their clients because few visiting hunters bring suitable extreme cold weather gear. I was grateful for the parka and particularly glad that I'd brought ski goggles. It would have been a miserable hunt without either of these.
Fast forwarding a couple hours, after driving along the frozen coastline for over an hour, we stopped for a break at an outpost cabin high up on a ridge overlooking the Sea. A breathtaking view of stark tundra met by an expanse of water was a sight to behold. Somewhere across that abyss was the mainland. After a quick stretch, we pressed on, stopping every so often to glass our surroundings. Bumping across the frozen tundra, we eventually dropped down onto a frozen streambed, a welcome reprieve from the incessant pounding of uneven ground.
By noon we were on high ground and migrating along the spine of a ridge. Pausing for another break, we continued to scan our surroundings for muskoxen. Off in the distance a pod of small black dots peppered the landscape. They were less than two miles away and obvious even to the naked eye. Counting all 18, this was the herd we were looking for!
The bright sunshine illuminated the brilliant view. We discussed the option of just looking over the herd that day and maybe searching for others, but if I've learned one thing over my three decades of hunting, it's that success shadows opportunity. Fair weather can be rare in the arctic. To be blunt, my goal was to take a trophy muskox with my bow and all things being equal, there before me was not only a herd, but one of the largest bulls George had seen in some time. Knowing this, we decided to move in for a closer look.
Mounting our quads, we used gentle undulations in the topography to conceal our approach as much as possible. Contrary to stories I had heard about muskox being tolerant, these ones were anything but. At the first hint of our approach they bolted and disappeared over a distant ridge. I wasn't sure what George and Roland had in mind but I couldn't do anything but follow. We slowly migrated toward the last location we'd seen the herd. Continuing the cat and mouse routine for nearly two hours the herd finally stopped to form their stereotypical defense ring. As soon as this happened we dismounted and gathered gear. I grabbed my bow and George and I began our stalk on foot. Carefully easing in, we closed the gap, but at 55 yards the herd grew agitated. I drew as the biggest bull turned broadside, but he just wouldn't stand still long enough for a shot. It wasn't meant to be and the herd quickly made their escape. All we could do was watch as they again disappeared over the horizon.
Returning to our quads, we continued to follow. Finally offering the break we were looking for, far off in the distance noticed that the herd had stopped along a small frozen lake. This was just the opportunity we needed! I was told muskox don't like to walk on ice so it served as a natural barrier on one side. All we had to do was move in and surround them before they ran again. The rolling landscape accommodated our approach. I still don't really understand why they didn't run, but they didn't.
Leaving our quads and easing toward the large herd on foot, all 18 stood their ground. George moved in from the east; Roland from the west; and I was between them to the south. Opposite me, on the north side of the herd was the small lake. We had the herd surrounded and in classic form, they tightened their defensive posture. Our strategy had worked well as the herd huddled close, all-the-while shifting and shuffling as if to evaluate their options for escape.
Kevin Wilson, the author, taking aim.
Standing firm in their defense ring, as I approached the three big bulls were clearly agitated. Rangefinder in hand, I confirmed the distance. At 38 yards, my window of opportunity lingered. Three of the bulls turned toward me, and it became obvious that they were either going to charge or make a run for it.
I was warned to exercise extreme caution, as muskoxen will sometimes charge if they feel cornered or threatened. After hearing a few stories of hunters who had been attacked, I had no interest in becoming a statistic should one of these prehistoric tundra dwellers decide to make an example of me! As the largest of the bulls turned, I went to full draw and waited. The uncertainty of a possible charge is ever-present, and it required full concentration to focus on delivering an accurate shot. Nearly a minute passed and, as soon as he turned broadside I centered my sight pin on his chest and released. The arrow flew true and the shaft buried deep. While the shot looked good, based on the point of impact, the bull had in fact been slightly quartering toward me. I'd like to say he toppled immediately, but he didn't. As the herd raced off to escape the commotion, my bull immediately separated and slowly walked off in a different direction. If you are a bow hunter, you know that a shot has to be perfect to bring an animal down quickly. As we watched, my bull vanished over a shallow knoll about 70 yards away. I knew I'd hit vitals but the extent of the damage was unclear.
"Congratulations Kevin, that's a fine bull!" shouted George in excitement. "He's huge... he should go high up in the record books," he exclaimed. "I think you hit him a bit back, but he'll go down. We'll just give him some time."
A muskox has so much hair that it is difficult to determine precisely where their shoulder bone is. Both George and Roland warned me several times to avoid the shoulder. In turn, I aimed a few inches back. We would later learn that the point of entry was nearly perfect, tucked in low and close to the shoulder, but because of the slight quartering toward posture, the exit wound was indeed back a bit.
Regrouping at the four-wheelers, we discussed the shot and all felt confident that it was fatal and that my bull was likely lying dead just over the shallow rise. To be safe though, we sat down for a quick sandwich before taking a look. The anticipation was almost unbearable. I'd just arrowed a spectacular bull muskox and now I had to do the right thing. Every bow hunter knows that unless you can see the animal down, it's smart to wait 45 minutes before following up; and so wait we did. When we crested the ridge my heart sank. In amazement, we saw my bull stumbling, getting up, and faltering more. George assured me that he would go down soon enough but suggested we approach and put a finishing arrow into him.
Record Bull Down
"He's not going anywhere, but we're losing daylight," George said. "I think we should move in and finish it now." I can honestly say that with most animals that first shot would have done the trick but I was forced to admit that every archery shot is different. Even George and Roland were amazed with how tough this bull was. Trusting his judgment I eagerly followed his instruction. As we approached, he grabbed my camera and captured the final shot. With a better understanding of the bull's anatomy, I approached to ensure a quartering away opportunity. At 35 yards I aimed and sent the arrow on its way. Piercing the bull's chest, he flinched and in less than three seconds collapsed. With a huge sigh of relief, reality set in … I had just taken my first muskox and what a trophy he was!
"He should score well into the Pope & Young Record Book," George commented excitedly. "I think he'll probably green score somewhere around 108 inches, maybe bigger."
Certainly the number was appealing, but I have to say, the score was irrelevant. I was in awe of this wooly creature. Contrary to its reputation, I didn't find it to have a foul odor at all. In fact, it was rather appealing. Even though I'd taken my muskox on the first day, I savored every moment. Great guides, an awesome landscape, and a spectacular animal... what else could I ask for?
Kevin Wilson with his muskox.
With only a couple hours of daylight remaining we took photos, skinned, quartered, and caped my bull, loaded him up and began our long trip to the cabin. Arriving an hour after dark, it had been an adventure of a lifetime. As luck would have it, the weather turned for the worse the next day. Extreme winds and bitter cold made for difficult conditions. We actually had to return to where I'd taken my bull to recover several gas cans we'd left to make room for our load. Grateful for the opportunity to get it done on day one, it was a hunt I will remember forever.
Muskoxen (Ovibos moschatus) are well-adapted to life on the arctic tundra. Records show that historically they were found across northern Europe, Asia, Greenland and North America but by the 1920's they were only found in east Greenland and Arctic Canada.
With shaggy long hair, a shoulder hump, and a small tail, both the bulls and cows have horns. At first glance, it can be challenging to differentiate between the sexes, but by keeping a few key facts in mind, identification becomes straightforward. The horns on a mature bull are decidedly larger with a full and heavy boss. Bulls generally have thicker or heavier horns, and a trophy-class specimen will commonly have horns with black tips. Mature bulls will typically stand taller, approximately five feet at the shoulder and weigh in between 600 and 800 pounds. Cows are smaller, averaging around four feet in height and weighing between 400 and 500 pounds.
Muskoxen have large hooves that allow them to move well across the uneven and sometimes rocky and wet tundra. They will commonly move to winter habitat range with shallower snow accumulations, or windblown areas free of snow. Their diet consists of an assortment of plants, including grasses, sedges, forbs, and woody plants.
If You Go
Planning to do a muskox hunt? If so, you'll need to consider a few things. First and foremost you need to decide where you want to go. Biologically speaking, Victoria Island muskoxen are considered to be slightly smaller in stature and some say horn size as well, than muskoxen on the mainland. But don't make this your deciding factor. Muskoxen do travel back and forth across the sea ice. Once you've chosen a destination, think about the timing of your trip. Most jurisdictions offer both spring and fall hunts. Spring hunts typically occur from mid-March to mid-April and are done with snow machines. Hunters typically ride on a komatik pulled behind a sled. Fall hunts generally occur from mid-August through to early November. Until the snow comes, quads are a standard mode of travel with some operators offering boat hunts. When the snow arrives, snow machines may be used.
Regardless of when you go, be sure to check with your outfitter regarding recommended items to bring. The need for warm, windproof, and waterproof clothing cannot be overstated. I'm used to hunting in extreme cold, but Canada's arctic presents weather challenges the likes of which few people in the world ever experience. Specialty clothing including boots, goggles, and extreme weather mitts are a must.
Do your research and know exactly what you're getting into. Understand the firearm/ammunition requirements, archery/arrow/broadhead requirements, licensing, and so on. Some outfitters, like the one I went with, will offer combination hunts like muskox and caribou, when seasons are open. Likewise, if tags are available, some will sell more than one muskox tag if regulations allow it. For more information on muskox or other arctic hunting opportunities in Nunavut, contact:
Ekaluktutiak Sports Hunt Ltd.
P.O. Box 1270
Cambridge Bay, NU
Tel. (867) 983-2426
Tel. 1-866-NUNAVUT (686-2888)
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing, waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. Member of OWAA & OWC.