Going into the draw with 14 points for Wyoming elk, I was confident this was my year to draw a coveted tag. When unsuccessful popped up on my screen, I went to YouTube to drown my sorrows watching others accomplish their dream hunts. Ironically, Austin Atkinson’s video “Nunivak” jumped to the top of my search. Hearing his dad verbalize he had applied for an Alaskan muskox tag for over 35 years, I knew the odds were stacked against me to ever draw that tag. Inspired, I contacted Gary Adams of Canadian Arctic Adventures to help me acquire a muskox tag in one of the coldest places on Earth, Banks Island, Northwest Territories.
Looking for the full Arctic experience, an early March hunt was set. Researching flights, I quickly figured out that there is no quick and easy way to Banks. If all went as planned, this adventure would take three days and six layovers to get my feet on the ground at Sachs Harbor. In hopes of sharing the memories and splitting some travel expenses, I reached out to my friends, Rick, Joe, and Dave, who were all up for experiencing the frigid tundra.
A huge snowstorm in Toronto delayed our first flight by 13 hours and added a fourth day of travel to our itinerary. This setback caused us to miss all our connecting flights and instantly turned this adventure into an expedition. Nerves were tested as we rescheduled our flights and only one spot remained on a cargo flight to the island on their last day of flying there for the week.
Days two, three, and four went smooth and as planned. We were greeted with great news from Akalac Air that an additional three spots had become available for our final lag of the trip. Landing in Sachs, we met our guide, John Lucas Sr. A 77-year-old Inuit native, John grew up on the island and has guided hunters for over 50 years!
Early the next morning while enjoying a cup of coffee in John Sr.’s kitchen, who could imagine the extreme cold could get colder and poor visibility worse which turned day five into a no travel day. John kept us entertained with stories from his past. We were captivated by his experiences about the arctic fox fur trade, past hunts, and even helping give birth to one of his children on the tundra.
The morning of day six had temps in the -30s without the windchill and complete whiteout conditions. Slightly better visibility around noon, John made the call to get dressed and pack up the sleds. The thrill of climbing into the (qamutiik) wooden sled and sitting on a dried muskox hide quickly ran off as the bone jarring sled ride and extreme temps continued to punish me across ice and land for hours on end. The cold tore at every inch of my body, and the snow was getting thrown into my face from the Ski-Doo track and harsh wind. I resorted to curling up like a dog in the canvas tent that was stored by my feet to help endure the punishment I was taking. Our four- hour journey allowed us to complete just over 40 miles into the most desolate place I had ever been and brought this lag of our expedition to an end.
The six of us awoke on day seven in the 12x12 hunting shack to the nicest day of the trip. Blue skies, low wind, and temps in the -20 degree Fahrenheit range. We were all relieved when John instructed us to start packing up around 11 a.m. Joe joined me in the qamutiik, and we were off. Cresting a ridge about an hour later, it was easy to spot the brown specs off in the distance. It didn’t take long for John Sr. to look them over, and he instructed me to grab my bow.
The wind was in our favor as we moved slowly, following the animals until they circled up and allowed us to close the distance. As the animals calmed, they began to disperse in a single file line with the target bull in the back. With a quartering away shot, I began to pull my bow back. Due to the extreme cold, the nock stuck to my string and the arrow fell to the ground. I quickly grabbed another arrow and the same thing happened. Panic began to set in as the muskox moved off. Slowly following the herd, another shot presented itself. This time, my third arrow stayed attached. Taking aim, I hit the muskox behind his shoulder. Surprised by the poor penetration of the arrow, I was relieved to see the blood pouring down its long hair and running onto the snow. Grabbing another arrow, I moved closer and put another arrow into him. This time, he reacted to the impact of the shot and ran off to about 80 yards and bedded down. As John and I approached my bull, the noise from our boots startled the animal. He stood up and tried to move off. Hanging his head low and not wanting to see this magnificent animal suffer, another arrow helped to fulfill my lifelong dream of experiencing the Arctic.
Looking back at the other guys, I noticed they were moving off in hopes of intercepting the herd as it moved away. Through my binos, I could see them closing the distance. Hearing a muffled shot and watching a celebration unfold, I was confident Rick had achieved his goal of harvesting a book bull.
Spirits were high as we regrouped, took pictures, and broke down the animals. Once back at camp, our muskox joined us in the cabin and John Sr. and RyRy began to skin out the heads and hooves, while I began to prepare a backstrap dinner.
As good weather does, it drastically changed on day eight. A major front brought in extreme cold, wind, and whiteout conditions. John Sr. quickly informed us it would be another no hunt day. Rick and I used this break in the action to process our meat and package it up for the long trip home.
Day nine brought more of the same, and at 11 a.m., our guide, RyRy, said he was going to run about 30 miles north to a polar bear camp and drop off some gas cans for a future hunt. With safety in numbers, Joe decided to brave the elements and join his guide with hopes of bumping into some muskox along the way. Time ticked by slowly as I melted snow for our drinking water until the hum of a Ski-Doo was heard. Joe busted into the shack with blood on his clothes and a huge smile on his face. They had gotten about 10 miles from camp and spotted multiple groups of muskox in a long ravine. Spotting a giant in the closest group, they closed the distance and Joe made his shot count.
John Sr. seemed in disbelief, but after unloading the hide and meat and seeing the size of the horns, he instructed Dave to get ready. Wanting to conserve fuel, John instructed Joe to climb into the qamutiik on his sled while the rest of us waited back at camp.
Shortly after completing the processing of Joe’s animal, Dave came through the door with another muskox for the books. With our fourth tag torn, I began to cook fresh backstrap as the rest of the group got right to work on the lifesize hides late into the night.
Day 10 was another no travel day due to the extreme temps. You know it is cold when your Inuit guide who has lived on the island for 77 years says we are not going back to Sachs. Slipping outside to get snow for drinking water, I captured an image of John Sr. sitting on his wooden sled and staring off into the white abyss. I could only imagine the memories he was reflecting upon and wondered if it was too cold to travel or did he want just one more night in his favorite place on Earth?
Day 11 found us throwing away Inuit time as everyone was up early for the trip back to town. As RyRy zigzagged our path back to Sachs, we were able to see more caribou, muskox, and even a couple Arctic wolves. Once unloaded, Rick and I headed back to our sleeping quarters to clean up. A friendly member of the community named Norman asked us if we wanted a warm cup of coffee. After a nice conversation, Rick had himself a beautiful handmade artic fox hat and I would be learning about cold weather trapping and Arctic ice fishing. That evening, we celebrated our last leg of our expedition over Dave’s backstraps.
I am so thankful I was able to experience the Arctic, and I would like to thank the Lucas family, Norman, and the people of Sachs Harbor for opening their doors to us. Thanks to Gary at Canadian Arctic Adventures for making my dream come true. And thanks to my family, administration at work, and good buddies, Rick, Joe, and Dave, for helping me live my best life!