ANCHORAGE - Danny Presley trudged for miles through ankle-deep mud, stopping every few feet to hand-saw a spindly spruce tree as rivulets of rain poured from the rim of his white Stetson. He didn't complain.
Presley had just bagged the bull moose of a lifetime in the Tustumena backcountry of the Kenai Peninsula Wildlife Refuge. Its rack eclipsed any he had seen before, and its sheer bulk posed problems.
The antlers spread 75.25 inches - enormous, even by Alaska standards.
The thing wouldn't fit down the narrow, tree-lined horse trail without help. Presley had strapped the antlers across the back of his leopard Appaloosa, Chippewa. The packhorse banged its way slowly down the path behind Presley as he sawed off spruce after spruce.
"Y'know I was elated, but there was a long trail ahead of me and I'm hoofing it and kind of kicking at myself, too, for not bringing an extra pack horse," he said.
The North Slope oil field worker lives on a spread in Happy Valley, just south of Ninilchik. Presley, 48, had to wait 22 years for access to the coveted Tustumena backcountry.
That area is one of the Kenai Peninsula's best known, and seldom seen, refuges for big bull moose. Presley applied to hunt there every year and was finally one of a dozen to win a state permit to do so between Sept. 26 and Oct. 15.
Tucked deep within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, the location is off limits to floatplanes and all-terrain vehicles. Only hard-bitten hunters reach the place on horseback.
Presley, his son, Sean, 27, and brother, Keith, set out with seven horses on a little-known trail near Brown's Lake on the season's first day. One day and 20 miles later, they set up camp just west of Timberline Lake.
Presley had scouted the area by aircraft three times in the preceding weeks, and had seen an old bull with a huge rack, but it had been a week since his last fly-by.
As a drizzly dawn broke Sept. 28, the two brothers rode less than a mile from camp. They stopped, listened, groaned like cow moose and scraped a moose scapula against tree trunks - simulating the sound of an amorous bull moose rubbing its antlers.
They saw a cow about 60 yards away, and the seasoned hunters watched in silence. Then came a rack poking out of the grass. "I'm, like, holy cow! He's huge!" Presley said.
Presley aimed and fired his .338-caliber Ruger rifle, striking the moose in its side. He swiftly moved in and fired once more into its head.
In a state where only those moose racks wider than 50 inches are considered a trophy, Presley's 75.25-incher was enough to make hardened hunters and gray-haired wildlife biologists gasp.
"We see quite a few in the 60s, but anything over 70 inches is exceptional," said Bruce Bartley, spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Game.
The Tustumena ridge's difficult access and restrictions on the number of hunters allow a lot of older bulls to survive, he said.
This one may have been quite elderly, he said, judging by its antlers. A bull that reaches 8 to 10 years can have a huge, symmetrical rack with massive palms. As bulls age, their paddles tend to shrink and grow odd-shaped projections.
The moose shot by Presley had narrow palms, and its tines stretched out like long fingers.
Because of its odd shape, the huge rack won't crack the top 50 in Boone & Crockett, a record keeper for North American trophy hunters. This rack scored a 238.375. The number indicates a series of measurements including width, number of points, and the girth of key places on the antlers.
Such a score would place 68th of 425 in Boone & Crockett's all-time record book for moose, according to Jack Reneau, the organization's director of big-game records. The rack should shrink a little as it dries, however.
The world record bull, shot by John A. Crouse at Fortymile River in 1994, had a spread some 10 inches smaller than Presley's moose. But it scored higher because of factors such as girth, symmetry and number of points.