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Prepare to be Unprepared

Blake Patton

But for the flick of his wrist, this Texan would've ended up in a different record book.

By Blake Patton

I'm not sure exactly what attracted me to the frozen arctic to hunt muskox. There are certainly easier animals and places to hunt. I guess it was the allure of the unknown.

I booked a spring 2008 hunt with Fred and Martin Webb who were highly recommended by bowhunting acquaintances. My goal was to harvest a record book muskox, and the Webbs' area in Kugluktuk, Nunavut (northern Canada), is known for producing the largest in the books.

I initially planned to hunt only barren ground muskox on my arctic adventure, but later decided to hunt Greenland muskox (different subspecies) as well. It's a long way from Texas to Nunavut, so I figured I might as well make the most of the trip.

Due to logistics and the incredibly cold temperatures expected in March, it took more preparation than other hunts. I purchased special clothing and boots to protect me from temperatures that would dip to 50 below zero.

I carried two Mathews bows with me, both in top condition that I shot at least 30 arrows from every day for months. I practiced shooting in the gloves, head cover and heavy clothing that I planned to wear. I discovered that when the time came to make a shot, I'd first have to shed the big parka. It would keep me warm, but it was like wearing a space suit and made shooting a bow difficult. With it on, I looked like the Michelin man.

The first day of air travel, I met Daryll Southwick from Colorado and Phil Gaines from California in Edmonton. From there, we traveled together to Yellowknife, spent the night, and then flew to Kugluktuk, where Fred and Martin were waiting. We left there and went to their house to get our licenses and tags and to sort our gear.

My guides were Charlie and George. I would hunt first on Victoria Island for Greenland or 'white face' muskox, a smaller cousin of the barren ground muskox. The mode of transportation for the hunt would be a wooden sled pulled behind a snow machine.

It is an understatement to say that riding in the sled was rough. Imagine being pulled on a tube or board behind a boat in choppy water; now imagine that the water is frozen solid. There were times when I thought my tail bone hit me in the chin.

The trip from Kugluktuk across Coronation Gulf to Victoria Island was 132 miles each way, not including the distance traveled while hunting on the island. After more than four hours of travel (about halfway there), visibility deteriorated. The guides found a suitable place to set up a tent and camp for the night.

Caribou hides were placed on the ice under our sleeping pad and bag. I crawled into the sack early the first night to get warm. I fell asleep while the guides were still awake and the stove was keeping the inside of the tent warm. When I woke up an hour or so later, my face numb, I realized that going to sleep with my bare head exposed was a mistake. It didn't take me long to put on a stocking cap and get my noggin in the bag.

Despite a little weather delay the next morning, we reached Victoria Island by midday. During the trip, we stopped every hour or so to stretch and have coffee, tea, hot chocolate or bullion to warm up (a relative term). The temperature was colder than it was in Kugluktuk, since we were 150 miles farther north. It was at least minus 35 degrees with a chill factor approaching 60 below zero.

Once on Victoria Island, we found a couple of herds of muskox. I could only judge one muskox relative to another, so I really didn't know how good the biggest bull in the herd was. But one sure looked good enough to take. I peeled off my big parka and mitts in preparation for a shot and stalked up to within 33 yards of the bull. It finally turned from facing me to pretty much broadside, a slam dunk at that distance.

Not!

I drew my bow, settled my 30-yard pin a little high behind its left shoulder and triggered my release. But the arrow didn't go anywhere.

As I looked at my hand and release in disbelief, the string came off the release and the arrow flew at least 20 feet over the muskox.

I was a little panicked, but I figured the delay was just a fluke. However, the same thing happened when I tried again. Except the second arrow flew low and left and hit the bull in the front leg. That really shook me up; my confidence in my equipment plummeted. It hit rock bottom when I tried to nock another arrow and saw that my rest had broken off.

I was sick as I stood there with a practically useless bow in the presence of an injured muskox. For some reason, the bull stood there. If it hadn't had an arrow in its leg, it would have probably been amused. In reality, it was pretty upset. It stared at me, pawing the ground.

Still being determined to arrow the bull and being less cautious than advisable, I walked up inside 15 yards and tried to shoot without a rest.

That didn't work well at all. I shot under the bull, which was enough to send it packing.

By that time, my fingers were frozen to the point I thought they would never thaw or bend. I briefly considered stopping right there and camping for the night; regrouping to get warm and fix my bow. Ethically, however, I felt I needed to finish things as quickly as possible.

My backup bow was at least 16 hours away in Kugluktuk. In retrospect, it was a pretty dumb move to lug a second bow all the way from Texas and then leave it where it was of no use to me. So all things considered, I decided that the thing to do was harvest the muskox with Charlie's .223 rifle.

We also had a couple of issues with the rifle. Earlier in the day, the gun had fallen off the sled and was dragged for some distance, packing the end of the barrel with ice. After chipping the ice out of the barrel and removing the bolt, he picked a spot on the ice and looked down the bore and at the cross hairs in the scope and saw that the scope had been knocked off. He made horizontal and vertical adjustments to the scope based on the bore sighting and we took off after the bull.

Blake PattonI approached to within 50 yards of the muskox and dispatched it with the rifle.

I was happy to have taken a nice Greenland muskox. At the same time, I was disappointed with the sequence of events that did not allow me to take the animal with archery tackle. The good news was that we were going back to town the next day and I would have time to repair my broken arrow rest and get my backup bow before embarking on a quest for a barren ground muskox on the mainland.

After congratulations were exchanged, we took pictures of my trophy. The muskox was a beautiful animal with excellent hair and nice horns.

Charlie and George pulled the sleds next to the ox, put up our shelter for the night and lit the Coleman stove in the tent. The wind picked up and it got extremely cold, so this gave us a way to take a break and warm up while skinning.

I didn't have a thermometer that would work, but it was brutally cold. Charlie figured it was 50 below zero before figuring in chill factor. An arctic fox came in to help himself to the carcass that night. I enjoyed watching it.

Fred and Martin had secured a room for me at the Coppermine Inn in town. Daryll and Phil were both back at the hotel after successfully harvesting nice muskox on the mainland. We had an opportunity to exchange stories and look at pictures that evening and over breakfast the next morning.

After cleaning up and reorganizing my gear, I spent a couple of hours that night repairing the arrow rest that broke using duct and electrical tapes. I also reinforced the rest on my other bow in the same way. I was 100 percent confident that I would have no more problems with the rest, but I was still very concerned about the release problem that I really didn't understand.

Charlie, George and I regrouped at Fred's house the next morning and departed in the sled and snow machines, heading east for about three hours to a cabin on the south shore of Coronation Gulf.

The cabin was like a hotel compared to sleeping on the ice in a tent.

The next morning, we took off to hunt what Charlie referred to as "good muskox country."

He was correct; it took only another couple of hours to spot a herd of muskox that consisted of 10 bulls, all good. There were no cows or calves in the bunch. The majority of the bulls were B&C animals. We looked them over and picked out what appeared to be a really old bull.

We were able to get in position so that the closest bull was approximately 35 yards and the bull I wanted to take was 50 yards. I nocked an arrow, put my 50-yard pin behind his shoulder and attempted to release my arrow. The same thing happened as before; the arrow flew harmlessly through the air over the muskox. I knew then that there was no way that the bow string was going to release like it should under those conditions.

The bull walked to the right a little and then turned back around at the same distance. Frustrated but more determined than ever, I again settled my pin just behind the left shoulder and tripped the release. The string again did not release but I held the pin in place and carefully jiggled the release to send the arrow on its way.

The shot strayed a little from where I was aiming, but it still hit the bull in the chest. Fatally hit, the animal fell behind the others as they ran.

After catching up to within 35 yards of the bull, I took another shot with the same release problem. Again, my shot strayed a bit, but it hit the ox in the right hind quarter. Blood immediately poured from the wound, indicating the broadhead had clipped a major artery.

The bull didn't go far and lay down. I walked to within 10 yards and was able to perform the unconventional release one last time and put an arrow through his lungs. He bolted toward me a few yards as I retreated, and then he flipped over backward.

Subscribe Today!Charlie and George discussed a plan for the rest of the day and decided to put up a small tent and get the stove burning so that we could warm up during the skinning process. We would then try to make it back to the cabin before dark to spend the night. It took about five hours to get everything done and begin the trip back.

The weather had deteriorated to very windy and almost whiteout conditions. I'm sure glad the guides knew where they were going. Under low light conditions in the snow, there is little or no depth perception. It was interesting when I looked up to see that I was passing the snow machine only to realize that we were going down a pretty steep grade.

We arrived back at the cabin just after dark and celebrated by enjoying muskox tenderloin.

I hope that the lessons I learned from my equipment failure will help others considering a trip to the Arctic. The only thing I can figure is that due the extremely cold temperatures, the string was freezing to the hooked jaw on the release.

Maybe string wax on the serving contributed to the problem. The single-caliper release seemed to open fine, but the string just wouldn't come off as designed when at full draw. Perhaps a double-caliper design might have worked better. I had a drawer full of those at home. I wish I'd carried one as a backup, maybe along with a finger tab.

Regarding the rest that broke, I recommend that no part of the rest be plastic. The fall-away feature of the rest I used worked fine. The plastic part that holds the arrow just got brittle in the cold and broke.

Problems aside, I had a great adventure. I feel privileged and very appreciative to have hunted with a quality outfitter and two great guides with a vast knowledge of the area.

-- Reprinted from the September 2009 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine.

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