Story and photos by Cody Voermans
By all accounts most of the 2015 hunting season saw normal weather conditions in the Canada’s Northwest Territories. That is until October.
By the start of that month the weather along the Arctic Red River drainage in the Northwest part of the province was downright terrible. Winds along the River were constantly over 30 miles per hour (mph) and gusting over 50 mph frustratingly often. The temperature held in the single digits or below and the snow was piling up faster than the line to the only outhouse at a chili cook off.
A slight break in the weather had allowed a Super Cub to drop myself and Tavis Molnar off on a lonely gravel bar 30 miles upriver from base camp with a plan to float hunt for moose. But that break was a very short window. In fact, I am pretty sure that as I crawled out of the plane, I could hear Mother Nature laughingly whisper, “Hold my beer and watch this.” Normally, early October is prime time for the moose rut along that river, but this particular year, Mother Nature was flat out angry we were there.
Unloading our gear, I watched some intense wind gusts kick up enough dust from nearby gravel bars to significantly reduce ground visibility and our pilot was in a major hurry to get the hell out of there. He quickly unloaded the last of the gear, shot us a quick “good luck boys” and pointed the plane back to base camp. Watching the plane leave is always a lonely feeling on a hunt but as I watched this one leave, a white squall closed in the valley behind the cub, and the sight caused a worrisome knot in the pit of my stomach. The high winds and snowstorms meant no plane could get back up that valley to retrieve us if something went wrong. Only good gear, a trusty raft and a bit of courage would get us back to base camp.
Over the next couple days, Tav and I did our best to negotiate 30 miles of icy river in a rubber raft. We spent most of our time paddling hard against strong winds that intended to push our raft upriver faster than the current could to take us down. White water and downed trees in the river channel made for treacherous travel. Through most of the float I found myself in bow of the boat, breaking ice flows with my oar and battling icy spray over the bow. There is nothing worse than getting covered with freezing spray when the mercury is sitting low in the pan. The moment when icy spray hits your face and instantly freezes your eyes shut is a gut check for any adventurer. I was glad to have the Koldo raingear as my outer layer at a time when staying dry was absolutely vital.
On the second night of the trip, Tav and I pitched our pup tent on a frozen gravel bar and prepared for one of the coldest nights I have ever experienced in the backcountry. As darkness crept up the valley, the temperature was dropping faster than a hawk after a field mouse. There was no way to avoid the situation. We were in it and had to make the best with what we had.
To make matters worse, we had a camp visitor just before dark.
The Grizzly walked by us about 100 yards from our camp and showed no signs of fear. I wasn’t so worried about him being aggressive toward us. Heck, we both carried high power rifles. I was however highly concerned that he would use our raft as a chew toy while we slept, and we would be left without transportation. Tav and I had a brief conversation with the old bear that can only be described as hostile negotiation. The bear didn’t ever give a sign we won the debate over control of the riverbank, but he did finally saunter on down river just as darkness fell.
When I crawled in the tent that night, Tav was already in his sleeping bag with all his clothes on, and I mean all available clothing. Just his face was visible as he mumbled something about Mother Nature being overly cruel this year. To be honest, I was concerned I wouldn’t sleep at all in that temperature. All I could do was throw on every ounce of clothing I had with me and crawl in my bag. To clarify, this included wool socks, merino wool base layers top and bottom, a Dalibor set top and bottom, a Valhalla shirt, a Kryptek Hoodie, a Kratos insulating set now called (Cirius) , a full set of Koldo rain gear and a Kryptek beanie. I felt like the Michelin Man rolled up in a down burrito wrap, but the alternative was nothing short of freezing.
I’ll never know how cold it got that night. Neither of us had a thermometer. We were resigned to restless uncertainty and put our trust in the performance of our gear. That night as I lay closer to Tav than I care to admit, we had a conversation that will always stick in my memory. Just before he drifted off to a short sleep, I asked Tav just how much trouble we were in. In my mind, the river was freezing up and making our raft useless, the wind was too high for a plane to retrieve us and we were looking at an approximate 30-mile hike along a winding frozen river with very little food. Tav just rolled his back to me and calmly said,
“Well Cody, the way I see it we only have two things to worry about. It might get better, or it might get worse. If it gets better, then we have nothing to worry about. If it gets worse, then we have two more things to worry about. It might warm up or we might freeze to death. If it warms up, then we have nothing to worry about. If we freeze to death, then I guess we have two more things to worry about. We might go to heaven or we might go to hell. If we go to heaven, then we don’t have a thing to worry about. If we go to hell, it will be a fair bit warmer than this crap and we will be so busy shaking hands with all your buddies we won’t have anything to worry about. Go to sleep.”
Even in the face of serious conditions, my friend Tavis Molnar is a comedian. Good hunting partners like him are hard to find.
At the start of the trip we had plans to try fishing the Arctic Red River. Our fishing rods are shown in the following photo. Our intentions were grand but with the conditions we had on this trip, my response to the proposition of casting a line was “Hell no.”
In the end, Tav and I were able to break ice and power row the raft down river. We were even able to make a few short hikes off the river and call in a few rutting bulls. Most of them were like this young stud we found during a short break in the weather. He was a little short on years and experience but long on courage.
Unfortunately, none of the moose we found were the caliber of bull I was looking for and I decided to pass.
Over those cold days on the river, the hunt became more a test of gear and character than the pursuit of a bull moose. Since that trip I’ve been asked many times what gear I recommend for northern hunts. My advice has always been to “go with what you know.” I absolutely know that properly layered Kryptek gear will perform in the worst conditions a northern hunter can experience. I just hope a big bull will be waiting for me next time I’m in the North Country. I’m certain I will be back.