On our last morning, Nash and I rode with guide Joe Kazense up a series of ever-narrowing channels. With only a trace of wind, rising fog clung to the willows like cobwebs. When we rounded one of the many bends, the unmistakably large form of a moose appeared ahead of us. As the boat slowly approached, the cow examined our party with a fixed but unworried expression before sauntering off into the brush. “I was wondering when we would see one,” Kazense said. “This is prime moose habitat. They love to eat the aquatic plants in these shallow lakes and streams.”
We motored on until we reached a stretch of bank that was trampled with webbed footprints and covered in loose feathers. We arranged several decoys on the bank and spread a dozen more in the 20 yards of moving open water before us. By the arrival of shooting time, Kazense, Nash, and I were hidden in a makeshift willow blind and were listening as ducks, geese, and swans bantered on a nearby lake. Despite the proximity of these birds, the calm, warm conditions compelled few of them to change location. Several single ducks kept us alert by rocketing over the decoys toward some hidden destination. But none gave our rig more than a passing glance.
“The first week of September is when big flocks of migrating birds start passing through here,” Kazense said. “But this year we had a cold, rainy summer, and it has pushed the migration back a couple of weeks.” Despite our slow finish, we returned to camp in high spirits and joined the others in preparation for our ride back upriver to Nenana and civilization.
Climbing a ridgeline on the Parks Highway toward Fairbanks, I stopped at a scenic overlook to make a last survey of this vast, pristine wetland. As the rivers, lakes, and streams of Minto Flats stretched out to the hazy reaches of the horizon, I thought of what O’Halloran had said about why many people come to visit Alaska and wind up staying indefinitely. “Alaska has that aura of being an immense land,” he said. “As you travel around, you can see that Alaska is big beyond anybody’s imagination. There’s just nothing like it.” From where I was standing, his point was more than clear.
For more information about hunting the Minto Flats with Bill O’Halloran and North Country River Charters, call him at 907-479-7116 or visit his website at www.ncrc.alaska.com.