Taking it between my bare hands, the hot blood stinging wind-chilled fingers, I pull the bull's heart from its silent, massif of a body. Bigger than my head and with a heavy weight, the heart wrenches attention from the rest of the world as the tundra refocuses. Cutting a slit through the heart's wall to open it like a book, I let the coagulate fall to the ground. Setting the heart aside, we continue to butcher the moose, a true giant of the North.
Editor's note: During autumn, winter and spring, Gareth Wishart works at an environmental NGO in Washington, DC. During summer, he's a hunting guide on Alaska's Seward Peninsula. This is the story of one of his kills.
Hours earlier, with our backs pressed against the soft, insulated tundra hillside, we had spotted the bull in a thick willow patch a few kilometres away, the palms of his antlers shining in the arctic light. There were four of us glassing on the windswept slope in the middle of the Seward Peninsula: Max, Clint, Brad and myself. Max, a young Inupiaq Eskimo with a sparse moustache and thick, hooded winter jacket, had been driving the Argo stationed nearby. Brad and I, the two guides, sat on either side of Clint, the client. Clint, with a solid stocky build, coming from South Dakota, had brought with him a Winchester rifle, over 100 years old and made beautiful with age.
On the hillside we made a plan and put it into action.
Leaving Max with the Argo at the crest of the hill, the three of us headed down the tussocked slope. If we had success we would signal to Max to bring the Argo down. Two rifles between us, walking single file with the sun to our backs, we moved fairly quickly.
But the walking is never easy on the tundra. A friend once described navigating through the tussocks best: "Imagine you're walking on a mattress filled with bowling balls." Each step is ready to snap your ankle.
Reaching what appeared to be the halfway point between where we had last seen the moose and the top of the hill, I suggested we glass below to relocate the bull and reposition ourselves. Looking into the dark willows below, the bull was gone. In a landscape where you can see for hundreds of kilometres, and considering the fact that a moose is about 2m at the shoulder and weighing over 450kg it is a wonder that such a large beast could disappear so easily.
Then, from over my left shoulder, Brad turned to me and said, "We've got another one, and he's even bigger." Sure enough, on the edge of another willow patch a few kilometres west shone the massive antlers of a dark bodied bull dosing in the warm sun. Game plans change, and we head in his direction.
After a long hour of inching our way to close the distance between hunters and the hunted, we reach the last small patch of cover before the terrain opened up. At this point, one guide will approach with the hunter to make a shot, while the other will stay put and direct them; as they are likely to lose sight of their target. It's my turn to direct.
Brad and the client, keeping their heads low, venture on. I stand with binoculars raised, eyes jumping between them and the moose. Getting about halfway, Brad turns back to me with his optics and I raise my arm to 2 o'clock. He me a thumbs-up, and they're off again. It seems like seconds later, but in the last few steps of their stalk, with the wind shifting and bringing news of their approach, the moose slowly brings itself to its feet and stares at them.
Looking through binoculars I see the client raise his Winchester to the bull at 90m. The moose eyes him for a moment and then instantaneously drops.
Seconds later, I hear the sharp crack of the rifle.
I hoist my backpack to my shoulders and approach. Like a creature from Nordic folklore, a moose up-close always seems like a downed ogre, ancient and seemingly made of stone. Handshakes and smiles are exchanged, a job well done.
As the others had walked the final approach, I volunteer to scale the hill to signal Max for the Argo. Leaving one rifle with them, the client offers me his as bear protection during my hike. I accept and start my trudge.
If going downhill on the tundra seems hard, the uphill feels like it could kill you. As we had veered off our original approach, the Argo is out of sight at the top of the hill. I shed clothing; sweat being carried away by the warm Arctic wind, the heavy Winchester clutched in my right hand.
Two hours into the climb I'm exhausted and there is still no sight of Max or the Argo. I look back down the hill and I can no longer see the dead moose or my fellow hunters. I'm alone on the slope.
About 100m further I holler Max's name hoping that he may hear me. No answer. Higher and higher I climb, but nothing comes into view. My lungs are burning and legs aching, but I continue to climb higher. "Max!", I call again, but still no response.
Finally, breaching the skyline, I see the roof of the Argo. With relief I call again, but still he does not answer. Getting closer, I glass the Argo, but I can't see Max. More than a little annoyed and exhausted I continue and assume he must be sleeping nearby.
Reaching the Argo I realise that it is empty. I turn and scan the golden tundra as far as I can see. No Max.
Urgency now takes hold as I wonder if something might have happened to him. Placing the rifle in the cab, I pull myself up onto the plywood roof of the Argo to get a better vantage.
Miles away, down the opposite side of the hill, I see Max figure stooped to the ground. Jumping into the Argo, I start the engine and head in his direction.
Max, hearing the engine, raises his head and waves. Arriving at the bottom of the hill I pull up beside him. With a smiling face, Max reaches into the cab of the Argo and hands me a Ziplock bag filled with blueberries, their juices oozing. "For breakfast pancakes!" he chirps. I smile and wave him in.
With that I swung the Argo around on its eight wheels and we head back to the moose to begin the real work.
The next morning, muscles still sore from the day before, we sit over a steaming breakfast. Memories fresh, we discuss yesterday's hunt as the our collective story comes together. It's good to be in the country and blueberry pancakes make it that much better.
How you can hunt a moose: Distributed across much of the upper reaches of North America, moose are an important game animal. Offering a tremendous amount of healthy red meat, they are always an adventure to go after. They are, however, also extremely dangerous. Anyone who is inclined to hunt these beautiful creatures needs to know what they are doing.
If you'd like to hunt moose for the first time, I suggest three potential routes. First, if you have a friend or family member who is an experienced moose hunter, ask to go along as a packer. Butchering a moose and getting it out of the field is hard work, and your help will be much appreciated. There is no better way to learn the ropes.
If that is not an option, hiring an outfitter is your next best option. Guides offer years of experience and can safely take you out into extremely remote regions in pursuit of dangerous game.
If you don't have the cash to hire an outfitter, consider working for one. The Alaska Professional Hunters Association has an extensive list of reputable outfitters and guides. Start out as a packer; put your time in and work hard. You will learn from the best and gain the ability to take on difficult situations with confidence. Eventually you could work your way up to guiding others.