By Brandon Butler
Muskoxen are survivors.
Thought to have migrated to the upper reaches of North America more than 100,000 years ago, the muskox made it through the last ice age by locating open areas away from predators. The shaggy coat of a muskox is capable of insulating the animals from temperatures down to negative 100 degrees.
Males, or bulls, stand about 5 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh an average of 500 pounds. During the breeding season, the bulls give off a strong odor (hence the name). Though called muskox, these animals are not true oxen. They are actually more closely related to cattle. The peak of the breeding season occurs in August.
Traveling to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, Canada, to hunt muskoxen would be the adventure of a lifetime for most hunters. Jim Phare, however, is not your average hunter. Jim is taxidermist who has traveled the globe in pursuit of exotic game. He’s hunted bears in Russia and made countless trips to Africa.
After traveling through the Canadian cities of Edmonton, Yellowknife and Copper Mine, Phare and his five companions finally arrived in the town of Cambridge Bay. This small village of 1,500 residents, about 80 percent of whom are Inuit, is located on the south coast of Victoria Island. Hunters and fishermen contribute a substantial amount of money to the local economy of this transportation hub.
Arriving in Cambridge Bay during unpleasant weather, the group was stuck in town for a couple of days waiting for the swollen seas to calm enough for boat travel. Taking to the water and hiking on foot are the main modes of transportation once the hunt begins.
Once the weather broke, the hunters spent their first days glassing the classic rolling tundra for muskoxen feeding on the region’s lichens, mosses and grasses. The bulls were in full rut, and busy searching for cows to breed. Muskox bulls establish dominance prior to the peak breeding season by fighting, much like bighorn sheep. The bulls slam their heads together to determine rank. The losers of these battles are expelled from the herd. Often times these lesser bulls will join together in bands of two or three.
Hunters on a trip like this always hope for a magical moment. For Phare and his party, the magical moments all came together on the same day.
“The three hunters in our group were glassing when we spotted two bulls. We decided that myself, and another of the hunters with me would take these muskox. We moved into position with little effort, and both took two nice bulls,” Phare said.
As the party was making their way back to camp, they intercepted another bull traveling across the tundra.
“The third member of our group was able to tag out on the way back to camp. We didn’t find out until later that the other three members of our party had also all tagged out on this day,” Phare said.
On this hunt temperatures remained mild, but it rained nearly everyday. Jim said besides his .300 Winchester, the most important equipment he took on the hunt was his rain gear. He added that good optics are a must when hunting the wide open tundra.
When confronted with danger, muskoxen band together in a defensive posture to ward off predators. They will normally hold their ground, or charge, as opposed to fleeing. Therefore, it is fairly easy for hunters to slip into rifle range. Muskoxen can be bowhunted, but in relation to all bowhunting adventures, getting into effective range may be substantially harder and much more dangerous.
Phare and his party thoroughly enjoyed their trip to the Arctic. With a 100 percent success rate, and time to soak in the culture of the amazing people, Phare recommends a muskox trip to anyone who has ever dreamed of pursuing game in the Arctic.
See you down the trail.
Brandon Butler writes a weekly outdoors column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.