Forty below zero sounds cold, even when you say it fast. It is cold, but I was comfortable perched atop gear on an 18-foot komatik (sled) being towed into the uninhabited, harsh, frigid wonderland of Ellesmere Island. No sport hunter had been there before me, and few people had been there for any reason.
We were about 40 miles north of the village of Grise Fjord, the northernmost settlement in Canada^s Northwest Territories, when an incident took place that seriously threatened to abort the first muskox hunt in this part of the Arctic. It also came close to aborting the career of this writer. This is a land where you are usually only one mistake away from the eternal sleep.
The hunt began five days before the first day of spring and after six days of mostly waiting for airplane connections to reach Grise Fjord, which is about 1,000 miles south of the North Pole. It was still months before the effects of spring would be felt in the High Arctic.
I had sport hunting license No. 3 in my possession. I had chosen that number because I considered three my lucky number. Charles Welty and Robert Tracey, both of Hampstead, Md., had Nos. 1 and 2, respectively. They rounded out the first sport hunting party for Ellesmere Island.
My guide was Abraham Pijamini (pronounced Peeameenee). The 51-year-old Inuit (Eskimo) is a legend in the High Arctic. His exploits as a hunter and leader of the village of Grise Fjord were related to me as I traveled towards the village. At the time, I had no idea he would be my personal guide.
I met Pijamini at a briefing the day before the hunt was to began. He explained through an interpreter that we would travel 100 miles north by sleds towed by snowmobile to the hunting grounds at Sor Fjord. The hunt would last for at least three days, and there was a small cabin at Sor Fjord. He added that the cabin would be heated and comfortable, but we should be prepared to spend some time in an igloo should we get caught in an Arctic storm during the journey.
At the briefing, he examined the best arctic wear we could round up in the United States and declared it unacceptable for the extended stay in the Arctic. He rounded up Inuit clothing from the village to outfit all three of us. This included caribou parkas and pants, sheepskin mittens and four-layered Inuit boots. These were to go over our heavy will socks, shirts and trousers. This much clothing tends to make one about as wide as he is tall, but it is just enough to survive sub-zero weather.
At the briefing, area fish and wildlife officer John Stevenson filled us in on how the first hunt became possible. Each year the Grise Fjord Hunter and Trapper Association is assigned a quota of muskox that they can kill. They have the choice of taking the animals for meat and furs or to allot a portion for sport hunting. The hunters must have an Inuit guide and pay a fee to the association. In addition, the hunters must have a $25 hunting license and, if successful, pay $500 trophy fee to the territory.
When Stevenson explained the rules of the hunt to us and Pijamini, the Inuit guide responded with a look of disbelief.
"In the interest of fair chase, the snowmobile cannot be within two miles of the muskox when it is shot," Stevenson said.
When the interpreter related this information to Pijamini and explained the distance in relation to an iceberg within view, the look on his face revealed his lack of understanding of the white man^s ways. He said,"Are you all crazy?" But he was beginning to learn the ways of sport hunting, and he would learn more on the hunt.
The hunt got underway with the proper amount of fanfare for such and event. It doesn^t take much to be an event in the High Arctic. Just and airplane arrival is a big event. For the first sport hunt out of Grise Fjord, many of the 105 Inuit residents turned out to see us off. Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman Bob Peterson, wife Colline, Stevenson, and Larry Simpson, manager of the Co-op were there to bid everyone good luck. Everyone pitched in to help load the sleds with all the gear needed to make the long journey into the icy environment. They also helped us hunters get into our Inuit outfits, especially the last pieces as we began to lose maneuverability. About two hours after the scheduled 10 A.M. departure time, we were ready to go. There was just one problem. Pijamini^s snowmobile wouldn^t start. Malfunctioning snowmobiles are common in this severe weather. Therefor, guide Looti Pijamini took off with Welty, and Isaac Akpaleeopik took off with Tracey. They knew Pijamini would get his snowmobile running and catch up on the long run.
Constable Peterson, who does much more maintenance work than police work at Grise Fjord, and Pijamini took the starter apart and reassembled it. That is not an easy task in the cold. Within half and hour the repairs were made and we were on our way.
It took only a few minutes for me to realize that the Arctic air caused by the moving sled was too cold for my face, even with a ski mask. I turned my back into the motion-caused wind, squeezed the caribou hood close to my face and found warmth -- unbelievable warmth. All that I could do was hold on to the gear lashing and watch the fantastic ice, mountain and glacier formations as they faded into the distance on our backtrail. This was a natural beauty hard to describe to someone who had never been there.
About every half and hour, Pijamini would stop the snowmobile and check on my well being. While he used no English in our briefing, I found it interesting to learn that he knew quite enough of the language to communicate on the trail. Even though I was warm, I appreciated the stops because it gave me a chance to loosen my legs and arms that I used to cling to the uncomfortable saddle of gear. While it was tiring, I could not complain because I was enjoying the scenery and just knowing that I was staying warm is something else difficult to describe to the uninitiated.
After about three hours on the trail, we caught up to the other sleds. They were having trouble. Looti^s snowmobile had burned out the bearings that operated one of his drive tracks.
Welty, an experienced snowmobiler, remarked, "We may as well head back to the village for another snowmobile. They will never be able to fix that."
Pijamini heard him and said, "We be ready to go in half an hour."
We three hunters watched in admiration as the Inuit worked with bare hands and replaced the bearings in half an hour. To appreciate what they did, I have to point out that it was too cold for me to take off my mittens long enough to smoke a cigarette. That is cold by the standards of a guy who rarely goes a half an hour without lighting up.
"These guys are self-sufficient," Welty remarked as he realized he had under estimated the guides.
The other two sleds took off and Pijamini attempted to start his snowmobile. The starter that had been reassembled at the start of the hunt had come apart. Even though he had just spent about a half an hour helping repair the bearing, he started right into tearing down the starter. He asked for no assistance and, needless to say, I would have been little or no help. Looti and Isaac returned to help Pijamini finish the repairs when they realized he was not behind them.
So far the adventure had been just a matter of enjoying the scenery and battling the elements, but the real trouble was not too far ahead.
After a lunch of bannock (bread) thawed over a kettle of melted snow with a Coleman stove and hot tea, Pijamini took the lead through the mountain passes. The trail was narrow and winding.
While facing the read and admiring the mountain formations that towered on both sides of us, I suddenly realized that I was in midair without a sled under me. Instinctively, I used my old football tactic of letting my body go limp when I knew I was going to hit the ground hard. When I landed, I felt a sharp blow to my head and tumbled over a couple of times before coming to a stop.
I looked up and saw the sled disappear around a huge rock and the first thing that came into mind was that Pijamini had not realized he had lost me off the sled. I sprang to my feet and ran a few steps after him before I remembered it did not matter because the other two sleds were behind us.
It was then that I realized there was a warm sticky feeling on the throbbing left side of my head. I removed a mitten and slipped my hand up under the ski mask and felt a laceration that went entirely across my palm. I pulled back a blood-covered hand. I put my hand back on the wound in an attempt to stop the blood and followed the trail on which Pijamini had disappeared.
Pijamini had stopped within 100 yards after he went around the big rock. I did not realize that my face was covered with blood or I would have understood his concern when he reached me.
"I^m okay," I said. "We just have to stop the bleeding."
Within seconds he had found the first aid kit on the sled and was winding bandage around my head. By the time the other two sleds caught up to us, I was bandaged and the bleeding had stopped.
All three of the guides thought that we should turn around and head for Grise Fjord. In fact, they insisted. I argued that as long as the bleeding stopped and there were no symptoms of a concussion, we should continue the hunt. After all, we were nearly half way to the hunting grounds.
Finally, Looti agreed that we should go to camp where we could radio for an airplane if I developed headaches or dizzy spells. Those symptoms and killing an muskox were my major concerns, and in that order.
Through Looti, the usual interpreter for his father, I learned how the accident happened. Just as Pijamini^s snowmobile reached the crest of the hill, he saw the wind had blown away much of the snow and exposed several rocks. To prevent the sled from hanging up on the rocks, he accelerated just as he made a sharp left turn. That caused a whip action with the sled that tossed me off.
We reached the hunting cabin at about 10 P.M. The first order of business was to clean and dress my wound. I insisted that they cut all of the hair away from the laceration. Welty and Tracey took turns doing this while I complained about them messing up my $7 haircut. Then they scrubbed the wound with melted snow water and taped it shut with several bandaids. Since there were no mirrors in camp, I had no idea how big the cut was. Tracey told me it was about a two-inch cut, which made me feel better. Actually, it was about a five-inch cut that started above my left eye and circled in a half-moon shape back behind my left ear.
After my hunting companions saw the wound, they began trying to talk me into returning to Grise Fjord. I expressed my reluctance to return without killing a muskox.
It was Pijamini who came up with the perfect solution. In his halting English, he said, "If I get you muskox in morning, then you go back?"
That was agreeable to me. Pijamini had Tracey report the accident and our plans to Constable Peterson in Grise Fjord by radio.
With this settled a quick dinner of boiled caribou meat was prepared for us hunters while the Inuit feasted on raw, frozen seal meat. They explained that eating meat was important in the Arctic because it kept up body heat. Believe me, that is important.
While eating dinner, Tracey, Welty and I discussed our choice of rifles for our first muskox hunt. None of us knew much about muskox except that they reached weights of as much as 1,000 pounds and would probably take some killing. We all underestimated how much killing they would take.
I selected a Remington Model 700 in 7mm Magnum. My cartridge selection was Winchester-Western factory loads in 175-grain Power Point bullets. Both Tracey and Welty, coincidentally, had Remington Model 700s, but they went a little heftier with 8mm Magnum 220-grain soft point Core-Lokt Remington loads.
At breakfast the next morning, one of the guides announced that there were two herds of muskox within sight of the cabin. This was taken as good news by the guides because they were anxious for me to shoot a muskox and get on my way back to Grise Fjord. I was anxious to oblige.
Before coming to the Arctic, I had said I would like to do a lot of looking at muskox before shooting because I wanted to shoot one that would make Boone and Crockett Club^s record of North American big game. The injury changed my plan.
After breakfast, only one herd was in sight. That herd was in the mountains and may have been five or six mils away. Distance is very deceptive in this white land.
While the guides worked on getting snowmobiles running, which takes some doing in the cold, we checked out rifles. We had all degreased our guns, but wanted to be sure that we had done a good job. All the rifles were functioning properly.
When all was ready, the Inuit guides decided not to go after the herd that could be seen in the mountains. The other herd was believed to be closer even though it could not be seen. They selected a southerly route towards a hilly formation.
I had elected not to wear my caribou parka because I wanted maneuverability in hunting and I wanted to be able to get to my camera. After about a 30-minute ride on the sled, I was cold for my first time on the trail I was relieved when Pijamini spotted a herd of muskox in a valley and stopped.
We abandoned the snowmobiles and began the stalk. The walking was not easy because one step would be on crusted snow and the next one would break through in more than a foot of snow. While the walking was uncomfortable, it quickly built up the body heat that was lost in the sled.
When we were within 500 yards of the muskox, we were detected and the herd bolted. There was no cover so I am sure we could easily be seen. Fortunately, the herd ran only about 200 yards before stopping. But when we made up that distance, they ran again.
Muskox do not run far because it uses up body heat that is too hard to replace in the Arctic. After the second run, they formed a defensive circle with all their rear ends pointing towards the center. They remained in this formation while we stalked to within easy shooting range.
"All six bulls," Pijamini said. "One old. Has broken horns. Others good bulls."
"Is the one on left a good bull?", I asked.
"Yes, good bull," the guide answered. "See white horns. That is very good bull."
"I think the one on left is better," I said after giving both of them a good looking over.
"Both good bulls," he admitted. "Maybe you shoot one with white horns."
"I think I like the one on the left better."
"Okay. Maybe you shoot him."
I had the 3X9 Leupold cranked down to three power. Putting the cross hairs on the big hump above the shoulders, I brought the rifle down to where I thought the foreleg joined the shaggy body and squeezed.
The 50-yard shot was a definite hit, but I was stunned when the muskox showed little effect from being hit with 175 grains of 7mm Magnum. But after a moment, it fell to its knees and died.
Tracey selected the white horned bull I had passed on. It took three 8mm Magnum rounds to put it on the ground. Welty had the same experience with the third bull. All the shots were in the lung area, but were a little high.
It turned out that Tracey^s white horned bull was the best trophy as Pijamini had tried to convince me. The green measurement under Boone and Crockett Club scoring was 102 4/8 for Tracey^s while my bull measured 99 4/8. With a minimum score of 90 to make the book, both of these bulls should make it