Two Shots that Rocked My World

[This story was written by my Dad about a true incident that happened while he was a bush pilot in Alaska during the 1950’s and 1960’s.  I grew up listening to these stories, so am really having a fantastic time re-living them while posting them for him on his new blog. ]

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TWO SHOTS THAT ROCKED MY WORLD

By Captain Bob Leonard

Have you taken an Alaska Cruise?  Sailed up the ‘Inland Passage?’ A spectacular trip, I agree.

Did you know that when you step off your Alaskan cruise liner, back home, you will have viewed less than ‘ten percent’ of Alaska?  That’s right. Further north is 20,320 foot Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America.  And, what about that ‘Gold Mining’ country near Fairbanks?  Or, the mighty Yukon River.  It’s a fact!  Alaska is one-third the size of the lower forty-eight!

I’m not saying that what you viewed wasn’t stately, beautiful and full of magnificent grandeur.  There is no doubt this is one of the worlds most scenic shipboard cruises offered to the public today.  And I am happy you took lots of pictures and can enjoy telling your friends all about your Alaska trip.

But, my story, is about a little bit of that other ‘ninety percent’ of Alaska you didn’t see.  The area is one of the more remote areas, even when measured by our own Alaskan standards.

The Alaska Peninsula extends southwest from the Alaska mainland and points towards the Aleutian Island chain.

The Alaska Peninsula is a part of the “ring of fire,” that circle of live volcanoes which encircle the Pacific Ocean.  On the Peninsula itself there are almost 10 major mountain peaks with a number being considered active.  They smoke!!  Next, if you look closely on a National Geographic Map of Alaska you can find ‘Mother Goose Lake’.  The lake lays almost due south of the villages of Pilot Point and Ugashik.

Mother Goose Lake.  How did it get a name like that?  Well, I don’t know the answer, but I will give you a guess.  The lake is good size and has an area of shallows towards one end.  It is directly in the Canadian goose nesting & flyway of these beautiful birds.  Maybe some trapper of yesteryear saw lots of little geese growing and learning to fly.  Who knows?  Anyway, that’s my input on its name.

Why am I telling you about this lake?  First, let me say I make my living by flying airplanes.  You know them as bush planes.  They serve as our taxi’s and pick-up trucks here in the wilderness.  They provide us with our daily transportation needs. 

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The time is during the mid 1960’s.  My fellow pilots and I each own a small part of Kodiak Airways.  We work hard to make our company profitable.

Kodiak Airways owns a hunting camp situated on the northeast corner of Mother Goose Lake.  We offer a Moose hunting package to the population of both the village of Kodiak and the American Naval Station, which lies close by Kodiak village.  Some of the local hunters use our services and out at the Kodiak Naval Station, we have the Navy fellows who, now that they are living in Alaska, thanks to Uncle Sam, take advantage of building those hunting tales that they can tell in future years to their kids and friends.

This area of Alaska offers excellent hunting opportunities. Kodiak Island is home to the world’s largest carnivorous animal, the Kodiak bear.  Also close by, on Afognak Island, are two large herds of Roosevelt Elk.  In addition, the small Sitka deer is found in abundance on Afognak and the northern part of Kodiak Island.  Finally, the Alaska Moose is found, in great number, close by Kodiak Island on the Alaska Peninsula Mainland. 

Professional Guides are required to be hired in order to hunt the great Kodiak bear.  These hunts are expensive. But, you don’t need a Guide to hunt the Deer, Elk or Moose, just the cost of the transport to get to the hunting areas.

Kodiak Airways offers hunting packages for the Elk and Moose.  Our Moose hunt package consisted of a flight in one of our Grumman Goose amphibious aircraft across the Shelikof Strait to our camp on Mother Goose Lake.  The hunters enjoy our camp for a number of days while we help them find their moose. 

At the camp we keep a Piper Super Cub on floats, a real little workhorse, which can jump in and out of little “pot hole” lakes.  I would take each hunter out in a different direction from our camp and we would look for a nice moose.  Finding one, I would drop the hunter off in the closest small lake.  He is then on his own to take his moose and, once cut & quartered, get it back to the edge of the lake for pick-up towards evening.

The five new arrivals would get settled into the camp.  The main building housed 5 double bunks, a sitting area with a sofa, table and chairs, oil stove and a smaller second room which served as a kitchen, cooking area, cooler & pantry.  There was an outhouse about 75 feet from the main building.  At night this wasn’t used too much as our camp was in the middle of an area of many Alaska Brown Bears.  These guys, though smaller than our Kodiak’s, were still plenty big!  Most everyone agreed that during the middle of a black, black night that 75-foot long path through the high grass seemed so very long.  That flashlight gave out so little light!  Only under the most urgent conditions did one make that scary trip to the outhouse.

Please remember that this story took place during the mid 1960’s.  Many of the hunting regulations now in place were not yet litigated.  What was legal then might not be legal now.

The fall moose season is the most popular as the moose have grazed during the summer and are now at their largest.  Northeast of the lake is the direction where the peninsula is grassland, mostly flat and dotted with many small lakes   The landscape becomes more marshier as you fly towards Pilot Point and the coastline of Bristol Bay.  This is the area favored by Moose.

My hunter and I, flying about 600 feet above the tundra, would look for moose.  Finding one, I would land in the nearest body of water suitable and drop off my hunter.  He was now on his own.  Leaving him, I would fly back to the camp and collect hunter number two and repeat the same process.  I would return in the late afternoon to my hunters and then transport their meat, the rack, and the hunters back to our camp.  A maximum of two hunters, out each day, was my limit.  This gave me time to make a mid day flight to see how each hunter was doing and then gave me the time to collect both hunters before last light.  (It stayed light very late into the evening)  Back at the camp we had set up a ridge-pole covered with heavy plastic.  Here we hung the quarters to age until taking them back to Kodiak for the store butcher to cut, wrap and freeze.  It was a good system and worked well.

It was my time to man the camp and get my own Moose for the year.  My wife and I shared it with another family.  It helped our annual meat bill greatly!  A half of Moose was enough for my two girls, my wife and I to use during the year.  And, you would have trouble telling the difference between Moose and Beef when my wife cooked it.

I owned a 30-06 Model 70 Featherweight Winchester which I used for hunting.   But, aboard my aircraft, I carried a S&W Model 29, 44 magnum pistol in my flight bag.  With its short 4 inch barrel it fit nicely inside my flight bag.  If I was ever forced down and had to spend time in bear country it would be more help, I think, than throwing rocks.  The 44 is with me on every flight.

In Kodiak my five hunters arrived with their gear, which we loaded into one of our Goose amphibians sitting in the parking area.  After coasting down the steep ramp we dropped into the bay with a big splash…and soon I have us all airborne with the two big radial engines pounding away as we climb out over the mountains of Kodiak Island.  Crossing the Shelikof Strait and the mountains running along the east side of the peninsula, I started my decent towards Mother Goose Lake up ahead.  The trip takes about an hour and a half. 

Soon, parked on the shore in front of our camp, we have offloaded all my hunter’s gear, food for the week, and I then help my fellow pilot load, first the meat and then his hunters on board.  Before bidding goodbye to the other pilot, I got his briefing on where the moose were hanging out, that the Super Cub was running fine and that he had a list of food which would be needed to come over on the next trip. With his five days growth of beard, he climbed up into the Goose, fired up, taxied out on down the lake and soon was in the air and turning towards home.

I had my guys get settled in with each picking a bunk.  Usually in this type of group there is one or two who consider themselves cooks.  We, the pilots, will do the cooking if no hunter comes forward.  It is simple fare. Lots of food comes out of cans plus the usual bacon and eggs for breakfast.  We bring over bacon, fresh eggs and lots of bread each flight. A large pot of coffee stays on top the stove all day.

The event of this story actually begins when I notice one of my hunters, a Navy fellow named Gilbert, (not his real name) showing off his new “sporterized” British Enfield 303 rifle.  The 303 is not that powerful a load but I supposed it would do for a Moose.  After several years of flying hunters you learn things.  The fellows whose clothes are worn and whose rifle doesn’t look brand new are usually the experienced ones.  Watch out for the fellows in new clothes with a shiny new gun.  My “303” fellow had new looking clothes too.

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The next morning I had just landed after dropping off my number one guy.  It seems the hunters in camp decided that my “303” guy would be next to go out today.  The others would wait until tomorrow.  After a cup of coffee I made sure my hunter had the gear he needed for cutting up his moose, his canteen and snacks enough for the rest of the day.  I checked his gun empty for the flight.  This I always did since I learned a dangerous lesson a couple of seasons before.  A hunter put a 300 H&H bullet through the top of the aircraft missing my head by less than 12 inches. I was deaf for over five minutes!  Lesson learned!  

We piled into the little Cub and I taxied out into the lake a bit before turning to parallel the shore and make my takeoff run.  I love a Super Cub.  It’s quick up onto the step and when there is a 10 to 12 knot wind blowing; it pops up off the water in just a few hundred feet.  So, off we headed to look for another moose in another area, away from the other hunter.

Within 15 minutes we had spotted a nice looking animal.  It appeared to be grazing and slowly headed for a small lake, which had enough room for me to land in and get out of.  So, pulling back the power to idle, I slowed the Cub and swung around to land into the little bit of wind we had.  Full flaps slowed us even further.  Soon we floated over, a few feet above the grassy edge of the shoreline, and plopped down on the water coming to a quick stop.  I love a Super Cub!

You taxi straight into the mud bank sticking both floats up into the mud.  One line tied around the main stem of a bush will usually be enough to hold the Cub, unless the wind is blowing strong.

I helped my hunter out and we looked off in the distance to see if our Moose was still headed towards our lake.  Our landing didn’t seem to have bothered him as, with his head down, he continued to slowly work his way in our direction.  I told my hunter, “When he turns away from the lake, that’s when you want to shoot him.  Its hard work carrying the meat, so you want him to come as close as possible under his own power.”  He nodded that he understood this concept.

I decided to stay because I was afraid that the noise of my taking off out of the lake might scare the animal away.  Another 25 minutes passed and our Moose was now about 200 to 250 yards from the lake.  He had slowly been turning, and now it seemed that the distance from the lake was about to increase.  Quietly, I suggested to my hunter it might be a good time to take his shot.

He brought up his new sporterized 303, took aim and fired.  WAM!  Moss flew off the animal’s rack.  It shook its head and looked up and around, and even with his poor eyesight, looked right at my airplane, which was hard to miss.  My hunter had hit the rack only.  It was headache time for our moose.

I then looked at my hunter expecting to see him jacking another round into the chamber for a second shot.  He stood there transfixed.  He hadn’t moved at all.  Frozen. 

Well, I thought, it isn’t a big game lion or elephant that’s going to charge us…

Wrong!  I looked back at the Moose who seemed to be zeroed in on my Super Cub as he was turning and starting to run towards us. 

“Shoot him again!” I cried to the hunter.  Still frozen…he stood there.

I had been standing on the front of the right float and suddenly realized I had a problem.  This Moose was picking up speed rapidly.  He seems to be coming right at my Super Cub and maybe doesn’t even see my hunter. But, he sure sees my airplane!

Help will be hard to come by if he damages the Cub and it’s a long, long hard walk back to the camp.

With two steps I was back reaching into the small cabin where my flight bag was.  Flipping open the top, I clawed out the holster and pulled out the heavy 44.  A step back forward and I laid the gun, holding it by two hands, on the engine cowl and aimed at the Moose which now had up a head of steam and was charging full tilt at the three of us…my airplane, my hunter and I.

I never thought about the short 4″ barrel or that I could miss.  My adrenalin was flowing as I took aim and squeezed off a round.  The gun did its usual massive kick and I looked past it and watched the two front legs of the Moose fold and his head and rack dig into the ground.  His rear legs were still running full speed, which sent him around in a circle.  As he came sideways to me I took a second shot and he crashed down to the ground.  I really think I was more surprised than the animal.  To make two hits on him at close to 100 yards with my short-barreled pistol seemed impossible.  Neither the two explosions nor those two rounds buzzing past my hunter’s head (he was about 3 feet aside the line of fire) seemed to have brought him back to life.

I jumped down off the plane and went up to my hunter saying, “I’ll take your gun, thank you!” 

I jacked the empty casing out and threw the bolt forward sliding in another round.  Placing the safety on, I told him,   “I am going to give your gun back to you.  This is your moose on your Moose Tag.  He’s still alive. I want you to go up and shoot the animal through the head.  Make sure he is dead.  Then you can get to work cutting him up in quarters.  You’re lucky.  He is close to the edge of the lake and you won’t have much work bringing him down here.  I’ll return this evening and pick you up.  Now, do you understand all that?” 

“Yes, I understand.  I’m sorry about not shooting again.  I don’t know what happened.” he answered.

“Don’t worry.  You go and kill the moose now.  He’s your animal.”  I said.

 Reloading my pistol I watched as he went close to his moose, took aim and killed the animal outright.  I then untied the float line and jumped up onto the float after pushing my plane off the mud.

“I’ll be back this evening.” I called. 

I watched him get close and stare down at the large animal lying there before him. He bent over and started to take out items from his pack. It seemed he was back to normal.

I’m sorry, but that’s the end of the excitement in this story.  If I was a professional writer maybe I would know how to raise the ‘excitement level’… but never having a moose charge me before…I sure felt the excitement!! 

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I kept busy during that afternoon, flying the meat, rack and the other hunter back to our camp.  

It was getting late when I left camp to pick up my 303 fellow.  By now the bugs were out thick and I wondered if Gilbert had brought a head net with him. 

Oh well, lets see how hard he has been working today, I thought.

I was chugging along at 200 feet as I approached his lake.  Up ahead I could see him standing beside his quarters of meat on the shoreline.  He waved as I flew past him.  I chopped the power and circled around, so that I could land into the light wind, which blew across the small lake.

Securing the Cub to the same bush I had used that morning I could see he had been hard at it since I had left him.  He had dragged the four quarters close to the edge of the lake.  The head and antlers were still at the site of the kill.  He helped me load three of the quarters into the back seat/baggage area.  I told him I would be right back as soon as I had dropped his meat back at the camp.

Forty minutes later I was touching down on his lake again.  He agreed to leave the rack out overnight and return for it the next day.  He got cozy with the last quarter of meat in the back seat and we soon were back at our main camp.

As dinner was being prepared, I wondered just how Gilbert would tell the story of his kill to his fellow hunters.  A bit surprised, I heard him say,  “Bob helped me stop my Moose.  It actually charged us!” he exclaimed.  “Bob knocked it down with his pistol and then I finished it off.”

This got the rest of the fellows all talking. 

“He charged you?” 

“Bob, where do you keep this pistol?” 

“What kind is it?” 

“I had a feeling a 303 might not have enough knockdown power.” 

“How close did he get to you guys?” 

Questions like that.  Most of those questions were directed at me so, thinking before I spoke, I said, 

“Gil’s first shot didn’t drop him.  In fact he turned, saw my airplane, and charged us. 

I figured if his first shot wasn’t effective I better not wait around to see how the second one would do.  It never hurts to help out if a big animal is coming at you.  I carry an S&W 44 magnum in my flight bag and my first shot knocked his front legs out from under him.  I quickly squeezed off a second round…  he was still trying to run at us, and he went completely down.  It got a bit exciting for a minute or two.  Gilbert got the last shot in.”

The other hunter, that day, had taken just one shot to kill his animal.  He seemed almost disappointed that his excitement level was about the same as shooting a cow. 

It seemed, thanks to Gilbert, my 303 fellow, we had had all the fun and excitement this day.

 

– End –

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