by Ann Sherman
Reprinted from “A Fish Out of Water”: Reeling in Stories from Wine Lake Camp
Hunting was never really my thing. But when bow hunting becomes your partner’s mistress, you quickly learn to adapt.
In the Spring of the first year that we owned the camp, I can remember the hunters coming back late at night. They beckoned us to come over to the opposing shore to see the bear they had taken that night. We boated over, and at the very same time, the skies seemed to open up with ripples of the Patricia Region northern lights.
As I stood looking down at the full bodied, skinned out animal (which completely resembled the proportions of a human being), I wondered where the other guy in their party was! It was spooky to see something so similar to a man lying there while the northern lights (or jiibayag niimi’idiwag) streaked across the sky. This was the first, and only time, I have witnessed a multi-colored Aurora Borealis. Reds, blues, yellows, and greens sprinkled through the night air. The spirits were speaking on this chilly evening, and I shuddered in fear.
It was years later before I would get better introduced to the art and sport of hunting. It hadn’t taken any time for me to learn to clean a flopping fish. I had even become an expert in removing the Y-bones from a northern Pike. I could gut and gill a lake trout without wincing. I nonchalantly watched my two-year-old daughter carry around on the dock recently killed ducks. But I shied away from seeing the big mammals killed and butchered.
I was a city girl. Our family bought meat in styrofoam packages at the super market, for goodness sakes. It was easy to totally forget that your supper actually originated in a living, breathing animal. Getting that close to the cycle of life was all new to me. I could wait to understand and experience the process of hunting. I thought I could wait a million years.
In his book, The Sacred Hunt, Randall Eaton shares a different perspective on hunting. From personal experience, and years of field research, he has concluded that our culture needs for youth to be initiated into the art of hunting. It served an age-old need for sustenance as well as connecting humans soulfully to the natural world. He writes, “Hunting teaches us the intelligence, beauty, and power of nature…..We keep returning to the field because for us hunting is a dynamic ritual that honors the animals and the earth on which we depend both physically and spiritually. Through hunting and fishing, children learn at a deep emotional level their inseparable relationship with nature as well as their responsibility to fiercely protect it.”
We witnessed the quick connections that our children made to nature by living in the bush. As Herb carried two-year-old Savannah in a backpack while grouse hunting, she eagerly stared all around her. She was fascinated with the sounds, smells, and sights in the woods behind camp. At one point, she jiggled in her seat to alert Herb and exclaimed, “uh oh.” She had spotted a grouse hiding on the ground long before her daddy, a proficient hunter, had seen the potential meal.
Years later, I began to get my feet wet in the hunting world. Little trout Lake, Trout, I would begin to understand and appreciate why getting your hands dirty collecting your meal is all part of God’s design for us. It is easy in the city to be completely alienated from the natural world. I believe we need to deeply understand where our food comes from, and who so graciously provided it. Our souls yearn to show gratitude for the life of the plant or animal that has gone before us, and will nourish us. We yearn to be in awe of the cycle of life that was prepared for our well being.
But the first time I went hunting with Herb was a disaster. He offered me warm camouflage clothing and instructed me to bring along a book to read while I waited for all the “action”. Herb climbed into a tree stand ten feet above me, near the opening to Turn Around Lake. I sat below, listening for a while, and then quietly leafed through pages. The forest was full of sounds and magic.
But I, unable to sit patiently and still, fidgeted and became bored. I just wasn’t cut out for statue-like observation. Unlike Herb, I had not mastered mindful meditation. I wanted to wiggle.
Above me, Herb sat intensely listening and occasionally calling out to nearby moose. When I could stand the wait no longer, I quickly stood up and whispered, “Psst. Psst, Herb can we go now? I’m cold.” To which he ever so reverently responded, “Don’t move. There’s a squirrel two feet above your head.”
My awkward movements had awakened the forest lookout. If I blew my cover, the squirrel would noisily chatter, alerting every animal and bird within a half mile that humans had encroached on their domain.
In the end, I failed my first lesson in hunting. Quick movements, an impatient attitude, and a busy-body lifestyle don’t belong in the woods.
Years later, I got another chance to experience Herb’s world during the hunting season. The days were pleasantly getting shorter….. thankfully allowing us to meet the morning a little later each day. Instead of the June sun crashing through the windows around 5 a.m. to blind us all, the Autumn sun politely peeked in about 7:00 a.m. But Herb had been up since 4:30a.m., sneaking across the water, canoing into the creek that led to Little Trout Lake. He had used his patience, attentive ear, and quiet disposition to position himself within bow shot of a young bull moose. He knelt down in the tall grasses to take a shot on the last day of the bow season 1997.
The shot hadn’t been as accurate as he would have liked, but when it is the first chance you’ve ever taken with a bow and arrow at a moose, you’ll take what you can get. The low shot had allowed the moose to stumble through the thick brush further than desirable. A good hunter follows the animal, tracking its progress, and locates it as it beds down to die. Herb did all this with adrenaline pumping. He followed the moose over the hill, into a meadow and across a creek. There, the moose fell and took its last farewell breath.
Herb gutted the 500 lb. animal — removing vital organs for the ravens and small mammals to consume. About seventy percent of calves do not make it through the winter, so he was thinning the herd by selecting one of the young, less knowledgeable ones. Quite pleased with himself for stealthily getting within fifteen yards of the beast, he collected his thoughts and headed back to camp.
At this time of the year, all the guests and staff had gone home. The only assistance Herb could muster up was me and our 16-month-old daughter. He desperately needed help quartering and dragging the moose out of the bush. What easily takes an entire day for four strong men to do, was about to be accomplished by two and a 1/3 folks before dark.
We packed a lunch, snacks, and numerous diapers. We all dressed in cold weather suits underneath necessary raingear. The day started out sunny, and the crisp air brushed our faces as we sped down the lake in the john boat.
When we reached the creek, the large john boat couldn’t traverse very far down it. A beaver dam blocked the way, holding back water from reaching the other side. We had brought along a canoe and carried it over the dam, gently setting it, and placing the chainsaw, knives, ropes, backpack, and gas cans inside of it. Water dripped from our paddles and fell in ringlet patterns in the river. We paddled up the creek until the water beneath us disappeared. When the canoe scraped the bottom of the muddy creek, there was still no moose in sight.
There wasn’t any trail to follow either. To access the downed animal, Herb needed to clear a path for about a half mile with a chainsaw. Finally, next to a hidden pond, lay the prepped and gutted moose.
This was the first mammal that I had ever searched for. With Savannah peering over the pack on my back, I held one hairy leg at a time as Herb cut the animal into quarters with the vegetable-oiled chainsaw. The bone and blood flew. Savannah squinted to watch the process. She was quickly learning the means for acquiring a winter’s supply of lean, organic meat. Any farm girl could swap stories with her about the necessary harvest and the family’s division of labor at slaughter time.
We took a break to eat our cold lunches, let Savannah wander some in the clearing, and then began to haul the quarters to the canoe. With a rope firmly attached to skin and muscle, Herb dragged one quarter at a time down the bumpy, narrow path. I carried buckets and backpacks, lanterns and ropes, boat cushions and chainsaw — and Savannah — along with each load. With the skin side down, the 125 pound quarters skipped and skidded along the trail, snagging and catching on roots.
We lifted each awkward section of the moose into the flimsy canoe. When all the gear was packed, Savannah and I stepped into the canoe. It immediately rocked on the stony bottom of the creek. Too much weight, clearly beyond capacity, hindered us from moving. So Herb slipped into a pair of chest waders and dragged his moose, his baby daughter, and his woman down the river –pulling us all in the canoe.
We still had to lift the moose quarters up and over the hefty beaver dam and into the flat boat. By then the winds had picked up and the final ride back to camp was rough. Rain sprinkled in the air, adding additional moisture to our bloody outfits. Lightning and thunder crackled off in the distance. A storm was brewing as we rode in our aquatic convertible. Savannah, bored to death by being carried for so long, cried in frustration. The rest of us could hear Grandfather Thunder’s voice talking nonstop in the evening sky.
As quickly as we could, we hung the weighty limbs on rafters in the ice house. After a few days of curing, we would sharpen knives, prepare tables, and begin the butchering and wrapping of roasts, steaks, stew meat, and scraps for burger.
A week later, I relayed this epic event to the past owner, Tom Williams. I was amazed with myself for stomaching the process, and proud of Herb and me for achieving the feat by ourselves. We would feast on wild moose meat for a winter, give thanks, and revel in our hunting success. I told Tom I felt as close to being a traditional Native after that day in the bush, as I would probably ever feel. He quickly set me straight. “Ann, if you had been a traditional Indian, you wouldn’t have hauled the animal out,” he said. “You would have set up winter camp right where it fell!” So we clever gringos had done it the hard way, once again!
I was slowly learning that all of one’s earthly senses (sight, sound, smell, and light steps touching the forest floor) were all vital to a successful hunt. It took more than luck and fire power to get close to a wild animal. Their instincts tell them to stay far away from human predators. The hunter must be sightless, soundless, and smell-less to a passing moose, especially since we only allow archery hunters in our wild life management unit.
Herb hung all his hunting clothing (first washed in no-scent soap) among pine bows. Then he tried to utilize the sensitive detection device of a horny bull moose to attract the moose to the hunter. The hunters often tried spraying urine from a cow in heat around the area they wanted to hunt.
Another time, they experimented with an unusual technique. One day the wind was blowing so hard that Doc, who was sitting in a tree stand in Beaver Lake, thought it was a wasted effort to be out at all. Herb and Darren set up some incense which blew deep into the woods in smoky rings. Low and behold, a nice bull moose (34”) came prancing out to discover the musky odor. It was then that Doc got his shot.
Listening to faint crunches, snaps, and rustlings is as important as good vision in a hunt. Dennis and Frank gradually learned how to be sensitive to the sights and sounds around them, while Fred learned how staying invisible from the moose can mean the difference between feast and famine. A hunter must always be alert.
Dennis and Frank, with Herb as their guide, were stalking in the clearcut area on the north end of Wine Lake. They saw a cow across the meadow, feeding on the hill. But each of the men had bull tags. As it was getting dark and they were losing shooting light, they stood talking about the cow across the way. Herb heard a typical “burp-bark” sound from a bull moose. The three all froze in their tracks.
Herb queried the hunters, “Where did that sound come from?” Dennis pointed to the right and Frank pointed to his left. Herb disagreed and whispered, “No, its right behind us! Knock an arrow if you want to get him!”
The bull had smelled the cow and was working his way over to her. Dennis stayed put, while Frank and Herb ran to head the moose off. Herb got within 25 yards of the moose and froze. Frank, a good five yards back, could not see a thing with his middle-aged eyes. The bull darted off. A chance lost, another moose year gained.
Another time, Fred and his friend George took turns as caller and shooter for the bull tag they hoped to fill. They were working over an area that had lots of moose signs in it. On this day George was the hopeful archer. Fred was headed to cover, calling along the way for a big daddy moose. He turned around and could not see George anywhere in sight. So he squinted and stood tall – straining to locate George among the weeds.
Finally, he saw George crouched down with an arrow drawn. “What the heck is he doing?” thought Fred. There stood a young bull, just out of shooting range for George, staring glassy-eyed at Fred. Meanwhile, Fred was sticking out like an ocean liner in a corn field. His gaudy presence stirred the animal, and cost George the shot.
A successful hunt utilizes all these features: quick, light steps, an effective rutting call, listening to subtle sounds in the woods, and staying down wind and out of sight from the moose. When it works, it works well. When the hunter does not entirely “become the woods” and develop the proper attitude or ethics, their hunt is ineffective, or worse, destructive to the natural order.
To rifle hunters, hunting is hardly a sport these days. They have all the advantage with their high-powered equipment. But a bow hunter must become one with the animals and plants around him, crawling within scentless yards of a moose, if s/he is to get a shot.
One time, everything (senses, skill, weather, and attitude) all came together. Herb and David were hunting in the early morning in a meadow on the south end of Wine Lake. They had snuck in for a quarter of a mile along a creek and over beaver dams. The night before, they thought they had heard a bull responding to Herb’s lone call. It had gotten fairly close, scented a cow, and then the two moose took off after each other –sounding like a freight train in heat. Because of this action, Herb and David returned to the same spot in the morning to call again.
Just as they arrived, they could hear a bull grunting. But it quickly disappeared over the ridge toward Beaver Lake. David figured the hunt was over as the large animal lumbered gracefully out of sight. Herb suggested they try calling in that spot a little while longer.
They walked into a series of old abandoned beaver dams. Herb kept calling and returning the familiar grunt sound of a restless, competitive moose. The bull started to come back.
David and Herb ran as fast and as quietly as they could to the area where they had originally been set up –at least 300 yards back. Herb hid in the tag alders and could hear the bull answering his call. Then barely audible, Herb heard a stick break. He tapped David on the shoulder and pointed in the direction where the animal was coming from. David got on one knee behind an alder. Herb snuck back behind a clump of wispy willow.
The challenged moose started thrashing and beating up the nearby willows – getting ready for a bull fight. Unlike the earlier faint steps, this sounded like six men dragging a boat through the willows. Twelve foot high alders were shaking. As the bull pulled his sweaty head up, the trees snapped all around him. He let out a low grunt to locate Herb in the meadow.
The bull slowly and defiantly walked right by David, who was hidden eight yards away. His arrow was knocked and his Black Widow recurve was shiny and ready. David could look the moose right in the eye as it passed him.
The shot was dead on. The giant looked back in defeat and piled up 45 yards away. It would take six guys, a four-wheeler, and a come-along to maneuver this majestic beast from the meadow he once claimed to himself.
Another time, John and Herb were sneaking through an area with weeds no more than twelve inches high, at daybreak. Seventy yards away, a huge, 60” bull was rubbing his antlers on scrubby bushes. They didn’t need binoculars to hone in on this massive moose.
They would need to run whenever the moose moved to get close enough for a shot. Herb directed John to run when he ran, and freeze when he froze— to become invisible in that terrain. The moose began to noisily thrash and then to dig a rut pit with his hooves on the ground. He urinated on the earth and rolled sideways in the mud. Herb could see hooves up in the air, flailing in an upside down provocative dance.
The hunters quickly ran to within 25 yards of the horny, oblivious creature. Then Herb realized he was all alone. “Where was John? Did he sprain his ankle?” he thought. As the guide, Herb would not take the broadside shot that he was set up to handle. He ventured back to check on John.
Sixty yards back, he found John, head barely peeking out over a clump of fallen logs. The moose now sensed the danger and let out a “marrrrk” warning, telling the hunters to get away. Herb put his bow on top of his head and thrashed in the bushes, hoping to convince the moose that he was another bull ready for the rut.
The fog settled all around the impressive sillouette in the valley. Eighteen hundred pounds of muscle sauntered off with a final bellowing bark. “What happened?” Herb asked. John, a large, towering man in his own right, shook and simply said, “Man, that was one HUGE moose.”