A 4-day hunting trip in the Yukon Territory turned into an 11-day experience testing our survival skills.
It was October 2018 and it was my first hunting trip outside the contiguous United States. My Uncle and I made the trek from Arizona up to Watson Lake, Yukon Territory. Watson Lake has a total population of 790 people. It is one of the last towns before you venture off into the wilderness. We traveled 80 miles further into the wild by float plane to reach our camp for the hunt. This is where our adventure begins.
Day one was glorious. It was 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit with the sunshine beaming down on us. We stayed in cabins built by our guide 20 years prior on the shore of an inland lake. We did not know it at the time, but the cabins were going to be our safe haven by the end of the trip. Since we flew in, we brought some supplies for the four days—everything from a propane tank to canned vegetables and some personal gear we always take hunting. We were all in high spirits and excited to get started. We used small metal hauled boats to get around the lake, find a good spot, as well as venture off and start hiking around the different areas. Not even 2 hours in, we spotted a small bull moose with a cow and calf. He was too young, so we tried a different spot. On the way there, we saw a stout bull from the boat. My guide asked if I was confident taking the shot from the boat. He was worried if we got to land, we might miss our opportunity. Luckily, the lake was somewhat calm, but I was still looking at a 180-200-yard shot. I knew my rifle and my capabilities, and I told him, “I was ready.” We slowed down to idle and I prepared for my shot. BOOM! My .300 Weatherby Mag flew through the air and connected with the Moose. I had a through and through on the lungs about an inch low from the heart. He dropped immediately and died instantly. We hurried ourselves to the shore to dress the moose. It was 5:45 PM and the sun sets at 7:30. This was my first time dressing a moose, but we worked efficiently, and we got everything done right as the sun was going down. Our boat was just inches over the waterline, and we used headlamps to get back to camp in the dark. It was a movie-like ending to the first day.
Day 2 and 3 were pretty mundane. We cruised around the lake stalking the carcass to see if we could catch any wolves trying to get an easy meal. We found some tracks and a den, but wolves are elusive, and I never put my eyes on them. We went back to camp and prepared firewood, checked the perimeter for any bear and wolf tracks, and cleaned up the meat and skull from the moose. Anything we could do to pass the time, we explored. There were some random containers we stored water in. I brought a hand pump that would filter the water for us. Also, we had a deck of cards and dice, so we played hundreds of games. I was very content with hunting in such a remote area. I was excited, but also somewhat nervous being so far from society. If something bad happened, we were all on our own until a full blow rescue mission could be executed.
Day 4 is where it took a turn for the worst—it would not stop snowing. The nice sunny weather was gone and 6” of snow dumped down in just a few hours. The attitude of the guides changed quickly to preparing more firewood and adjusting our caloric intake. My uncle and I didn’t think much of it. Maybe it was only going to last that day and we could get a float plane the next day. Our guide was worried that a storm cell was moving faster than predicted and we would be snowed in for a long period of time. Our guide was right. The next 7 days put our mental strength to the test.
Day 5-10 the snow did not stop. Our only means of communication was a satellite phone that was charged from a portable solar panel. Our issue was the sunlight could not penetrate the thick clouds full of moisture. We would periodically turn the phone on and call back to Watson Lake to check the daily weather status. A second storm cell approached our camp, and the lake was between these cells—causing temperatures to drop and the sky to not let up. We were still in good spirits for the first few days of cabin lock down. We read about every book we all brought; and typically, ended up sharing stories while sitting around the cast iron heater that warmed the cabin. Around the 6th day, we started running low on supplies. No more coffee, no more butter, no more vegetables. We started eating the moose we shot for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We did have some flour, and we made it into Bannock, which is a flatbread the Inuit’s were known to make. Our main objective was to get the phone charged, so we could start reaching out to the local authorities and float planes in the area. At this point, we didn’t know if the storm was going to be over tomorrow or in a week. It tested our mental fortitude knowing our time in the Yukon was unknown. It got to the point where we were taking the boat around the lake with the solar panel just to get a minuscule amount of charge on the phone.
Every day we would wake up and pack our equipment just in case that was the day the plane would come. Every morning we would wake up with the hope that today would be the day; if not picked up by 3:00 PM, we knew it wouldn’t happen that day. We would unpack our sleeping bags and get back to our severe cases of cabin fever. On day 11, we connected with the air traffic controller in Lake Watson, and they said, “Conditions are only looking at getting worse.” They were predicting a whiteout for the next few weeks. A FEW WEEKS! We started to get very uneasy with the fact that we were going to be out there for a serious chunk of time. We started talking about options of trekking the 80 by foot through the wilderness but decided it would be too risky with the terrain. We would have to cover up. We unpacked our rucks completely, got back to preparing firewood, and filtered more water. We then accepted the fact it was going to be a while before we would be home again. In the afternoons, we would all nap. As silly as that sounds, it was a great way to pass the time when there was nothing else to do. It was right around 3 PM when we heard it. A roaring engine from a DHC- 2 Beaver float plane. I thought I was dreaming until I looked outside. There it was, right in the sky, performing a corkscrew maneuver to land on the lake. I woke everyone up. We rushed to pack our bags back up. We knew this was our ticket out of there.
Flying a plane from the 1950s doesn’t have the same amenities like a modern airplane. Our bush pilot could only rely on herself to fly the plane and see what was in front of us. What was nerve-racking about this was there almost was no visibility. She recommended not flying because, at any moment, we could be completely blind between the sweeping evergreen hills of the Yukon. We didn’t care because we knew it was now or sometime in the inevitable future. We loaded up the plane as fast as we could and with as much as we could fit in the fuselage. We were close to the max weight capacity, and we could tell the plane was heavy taking off. During the 1.5-hour flight back to Watson Lake, the plane would drop and dive due to worsening weather conditions. We bought the bush pilot an entire case of liquor, gave her a cooler full of moose, as well as a generous tip because she risked her life to pick up a couple of hunters.
This was an experience I will always remember. No matter what, I will always bring supplies for the worst-case scenario. You never know what mother nature will have in store for you, and you must be prepared.