Moose tracks: Local man fulfills lifetime dream of Alaska hunt
For Willis Mattison of Osage, a hunting trip to Alaska had been a lifelong dream.
"It began when I was about 12 years old," he said. "I dreamed of having a log home in Alaska."
Mattison's cousin, Kenny, moved to Alaska in 1963, making Mattison very envious of his close relative.
The two kept in touch, and since Kenny was living there, they started planning an Alaska big game hunting trip.
"We nurtured the idea for 30 years," Mattison, 68, said laughing. "And in the last six years, we finally started getting serious, realizing that both of us were getting up in years and there was going to be a limit to our physical ability one of these days. So we mutually concluded that we better get it done."
A part of the long delay was due to Kenny, who is a hazardous materials Ice Road Trucker in Alaska, being called back to work for specialty jobs very few people could do, Mattison said.
"He would do that and it would disrupt our plan," Mattison said. "So finally last year I said, 'Kenny, enough's enough. You're 70 years old. Retire already and lets do this thing.' He finally saw the wisdom in that."
The two cousins knew they wanted to go to northern Alaska to hunt moose, bear, caribou, wolves and wolverines. They looked into several different hunting scenarios that never came to fruition.
"Finally this past spring, we settled in on doing a horseback outfitter," Mattison said.
On Aug. 19, Mattison packed his gear, including two chest freezers and a generator to haul meat back to Minnesota, and drove seven days from Osage to Fairbanks, Alaska.
After a week of preparation, the two hunters flew two-and-a-half hours via bush plane to a remote un-named lake on the south slope of the Brooks Range in northern Alaska.
The outfitter the Mattisons hired had set up a base camp on the banks of the lake and was waiting for the two cousins to begin their hunt.
The hunting ground they had chosen was about 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, well above the treeline.
"This was all tundra," Mattison said. "Wide open tundra and a mountain range with huge broad flat valleys."
The hunting technique they used was the spot-and-stalk. The two hunters would sit on top of a high knoll with binoculars and a spotting scope and look for the game.
"Sometimes you could see something five or six miles away, and you'd look at your watch and say, 'we don't have time to get there and get back again before dark.' Not a good choice," Mattison said.
The two hunters, however, didn't let any harsh terrain get in their way.
"If we saw something in range, we went after it. The outfitter said he'd had 35- to 40-year-olds back in there that would not, could not go where we did," Mattison said.
Walking on tundra also took some getting used to, he said.
"It is some of the most strenuous walking," he said. "It is just horrible walking. You're up, you're down, you're falling, you're stumbling. If you're on top of something, it rolls over. The next thing you step on is hard so you climb on top of it and you fall back down."
They walked in knee boots everywhere they went because everything was wet, too, Mattison said.
After three days of hunting, the pair bagged a small caribou. They'd seen caribou passing by base camp every day, but the animals had moved on by the time the hunters got to them.
"So we realized we had to get out and get in front of them, and that's what we did," Mattison said.
On the fourth day, they decided to go about five miles to a spike camp, which was in the direction they had seen a grizzly bear a few days before. They stalked the bear to within 75 yards but didn't take a shot.
"He just gave us head and neck and both my cousin and I made the same decision. No. Not a head or neck shot on a grizzly," Mattison said.
The pair watched the bear run off for four miles.
"He never stopped. Just a constant lope. I had no idea that a grizzly bear had that kind of stamina," he said.
On a return trip to the area the following day, the pair spotted a moose, which was just a small white speck of antler showing through the brush about three-quarters of a mile away.
"I finally sat down at about 300 yards and just watched it," Mattison said. "And finally I saw it move. I saw the whole rack turn, and I said, 'Kenny, that's a live moose.'"
The two had spotted and come across several moose antler sheds during the trip, thinking they were looking at a live moose.
As they got to within about 250 yards of the bull moose, a cow moose they hadn't seen nearby stood up.
"So we had to drop to our bellies and push our packs to the crest of a little rise where we could get a clear shot," Mattison said.
The bull was still out of sight in the brush, and the hunters needed him to stand up to get a good shot at him. Mattison said while they were discussing what to do, the cow got nervous and ran down a gully near the bull moose and up the bank on the other side.
"I switched my scope back to the bull and I just saw the whole rack rock from side to side. I said, 'Kenny, he's getting up,'" Mattison said.
As the bull stood up, Mattison said he and his cousin were in shock.
"He was huge," he said. "He was twice the size of the cow. We were just awe-struck momentarily. We couldn't do anything."
Mattison took a perfect broadside shot.
"I let it go and nothing," he said. "I didn't see him flinch, he didn't move, he didn't fold. He did nothing but just stood there."
Mattison's second shot hit the moose in the front shoulder, and again, the beast didn't move. Cousin Kenny took a shot, hitting the moose in the shoulder, and finally, the animal slowly buckled to the ground and rolled about 50 yards down the hill.
They estimated the moose to weigh over a ton.
They quickly got to the job of skinning and quartering the moose. The weight of one leg alone after being removed from the body was as much as the two men could handle to move.
"We dragged it a foot at a time," Mattison said. "Heave, heave, heave. It was like a 300-pound leg."
Kenny hiked back to base camp the following day to get the outfitter and horses to transport the moose back, while Willis stayed behind to start removing the moose meat from the bone.
Mattison estimated he removed more than 900 pounds of meat from the moose, which took five packhorses two eight-mile trips to bring back to their base camp. He said the bush pilot had problems getting the 60½-inch rack into his airplane for the return trip to Fairbanks. The antlers themselves weighed 95 pounds, and the cape weighed 75 pounds.
Mattison plans on mounting his moose head. He has a special place reserved in his log cabin on Toad Lake for his trophy.
The dream-hunting trip cost Mattison more than $10,000.
"It's not something you want to do more than once in a lifetime, and it's kind of hard to justify, but to me, it was worth every penny," he said.