The French Canadian fur traders of old had a name for the moose that was aptly descriptive. They called him l'orignal, which embodies in its meaning grotesque, awkward, fantastic, and freak. So the name is fitting for the appearance of the moose, which under certain adverse conditions is anything but beautiful, while at his best he is nothing less than magnificent.
The Rat Creek country teemed with moose. The very first time that we walked overland from Crooked Lake Dam we encountered a majestic bull moose resplendent in his great polished antlers and shiny dark coat. We were all heavily laden with our bulging backpacks, Ab in the lead carrying the rifle in one hand. Suddenly the bull charged across the trail, and although Ab had time to get off one shot in the thick bush, he was handicapped by his heavy load and made no-hit, for we tracked the bull for a good distance and could not find a single drop of blood on the yellow poplar leaves with which the ground was strewn. We were thrilled with the sight of such a huge beast which appeared to be taller than a horse. Later that season when the snows came, we observed with satisfaction the moose tracks that crisscrossed over our own trails and along the creek where the animals browsed in the red willow thickets. Any sign of a moose was a good sign, for it meant that fresh meat was available to augment our food supply. The heaps of glazed, rounded, brown, hard droppings were signs from which we learned to tell if the animal was young or mature and the trail fresh or old.
Ab had been spending his time moose hunting since we were out of fresh meat. It seemed that when the larder was empty the moose were difficult to find. This occasion was no exception and he was becoming desperate. One late November evening Ab was much later than usual in returning to the cabin. I assumed that he was lost in the bush and camping out overnight. Just as it became quite dark he walked in, tired pale, and sweaty. He had been hunting in a hummocky, wooded muskeg area to the north of the cabin when he saw his quarry. He could see only the paunch of the moose where it stood among the stunted spruce. Ab soon had the moose gut-shot and moving. Through the two-foot depth of snow, he dogged it for hours while it moved generally southward toward the cabin. The sky was heavily overcast and it looked as if it would snow. When the moose finally veered to the west Ab plodded on southward to the cabin.
It did not snow that night and we were on the move at daylight. we picked up the moose's trail in due course. It led through the most difficult terrain to be found, through downed crisscrossed timber that curtailed our progress. The moose, realizing that it would be followed, was making desperate attempts to slow us down. It shuffled at a steady walk and favoured its right hind leg, as we could see by its tracks. It emerged from the bush to the bank of the partly open Crooked River and waded across. From where we stood we could see its trail on the other side leading straight into a thick poplar stand.
It was now necessary that we build a raft large enough to carry us both across the open channel. This was accomplished by packing from the bush a number of dry poplar logs. We placed them side by side on the ice and fastened poles across them by nailing with ancient square-sided spikes gleaned from a long-abandoned logging camp nearby. The raft must be large enough to float us across the open channel and to float us back with the meat, should we be successful in finding the moose.
Up on a little poplar covered ridge we found him where he had chosen to die, facing his back trail. The meat was unspoiled, for the moose had bled to death into the abdominal cavity.
After we had packed out the meat to our cabin, we no longer carried our big rifles for we had all the meat for our needs for some time to come. On many occasions, we were to observe these interesting animals at close range. From our new cabin on the hill, we often saw a lone bull crossing the creek, or a cow and a calf feeding in the red willows until they moved on, unmolested and with our best wishes. While on our traplines, we frequently encountered moose and, standing still, observed them feeding or travelling from one lush feeding ground to another.
The moon shone so brightly one early autumn night that we saw a cow moose across the creek, standing just beyond the willows. She called then, a sound rather difficult to associate with such an animal. She called again and again. The sixth time she vanished silently.
Ab shot a prime cow moose one windy afternoon, late in February. Our meat supply was once more uncomfortably low. The snow was four feet deep, which made travelling over new trails something less than a pleasure. This day it had warmed up considerably as a strong warm wind raked the Rat Creek country. The bush was noisy with the creaking of old poplars, and bare branches rattled against one another; coupled with the wind roaring through the trees, any sound made by a hunter tended to be obliterated. Ab ran onto a very large and very fresh moose track. The freshness was confirmed when he placed his moccasined foot into a track and found it soft all the way down, including the ridge of snow that is left between the imprints of the cloven foot.
He now discarded his snowshoes and stepped carefully into each track as he moved forward. Bill Mahoney had instructed him carefully as to correct procedure in just such circumstances. Indians, said Bill, on a very fresh moose trail, move very carefully and slowly into each moose track so that a minimum of noise is made. It was almost too easy. Ab seeing that the animal had been feeding, stepped slowly, step by step around a large alder thicket. Suddenly he sighted the cow feeding peacefully in some scrub birch. So successfully had been the stalk that he stood less than fifty yards from this huge animal that was in full winter hair, fat as a seal, and in top condition. He felt as an elephant hunter might feel on suddenly encountering his quarry at very close range. From the cabin where I was cutting firewood, I heard the roar of Ab's 38.55 Winchester. Soon there followed a second report and after a few minutes, a third and final shot. From the timing of the shots, I felt certain that he had made a kill.
At dusk Ab arrived carrying on a forked stick an extra-large moose heart. An almost unbelievable amount of prime fat meat lay just a mile from the cabin for the cow had run toward it as soon as she was hit. Later we packed out all the meat in our big packsacks, real labour from which we rested from time to time by placing the load on convenient stumps or logs along the trail. There was the satisfaction of knowing that our meat supply was assured until spring, and further killing of big game was now unnecessary.
When we made a kill, we usually had a feed of fried liver, which when properly prepared, was found to be delicious. As the meat cooled out and aged we prepared steaks, chops, and roasts. We astonished ourselves at the amount of meat that we could eat. A two-inch-thick steak that covered the inside of the big frying pan disappeared between the two of us. We made hamburgers by the dozen, grinding the meat in our hand-operated meat grinder, eating with gusto, our young appetites whetted keen by outdoor living. In early autumn and early spring, the hanging meat turned very dark, but we found that when the outside was trimmed away the meat was more palatable than ever.
"I am eating meat twenty-one times a week," said Chris Timson, in noting the abundance of big game in his trapping territory. This was frequently the case when northern dwellers lived largely off the land.
"A moose can carry a lot of lead," Chris also said to me. Explaining that the animal should be hit in a vital spot in order to bring it down, he stated that a moose might well escape the hunter even though riddled by bullets if they were improperly placed. The account that follows demonstrates the truth of Chris's observation.
It was Indian Summer, those last warm, sunny, and glorious days which forestall for a brief time any hint of the coming winter. Ab and I sat in the cabin, eating a noonday meal of three stuffed mallards.
The cabin door stood wide open and the warm sun shone down onto the cabin floor, one of those fine days when it is a joy just to be alive. Suddenly from the creek, we heard a crackling in the willows and from our seats watched in fascination as a prime bull moose came forwards, twisting his great rack of antlers from side to side to negotiate his way through the willow thicket that bordered the creek. In a few moments, he stood among the poplars just outside our door. Ab meanwhile, had unlimbered the Winchester and taken aim. As the rifle cracked, the moose fell flat on its side as though slapped sideways by a giant's hand. Ever conserving our supply of cartridges (now numbering nineteen) Ab asked me to bring the .22 to "finish him off." I grabbed it from its rack on the wall and whirling around I saw the moose back on its feet and making for the screening bush. Ab pumped several shots from the Winchester at its vanishing rear but it did not stop. We tracked it for hours through the woods, but when it took to grassy swampland the trail was hopelessly lost.
After three hours, we returned to our now cold and gluey duck dinner. Our disappointment was great for two reasons: one, that for an unbelievable few seconds the moose had lain at our doorstep, which would have eliminated much backbreaking labour in packing out meat. The second was that the moose had been hit and would probably die and be wasted. In analyzing Ab's poor shooting, we concluded that he had shot too high; we hoped only grazing the animal causing shock for only an instant.
One hot sunny day in July we were visited by Harry, a green Lake half-breed. He appeared at our cabin having arrived by his small hunting canoe, after a series of long portages. Harry, in pidgin English, informed us that he was making a summer moose hunt to feed himself, his wife, and eight children. In his canoe, there was a small white-tailed doe, shot as he paddled up the creek to our cabin. At the conclusion of his visit, we watched him paddle out toward Rat Lake, the canoe winding through the channel among the tall reeds and bulrushes until he disappeared from sight.
The next day Harry returned and asked if he might borrow our skiff. He informed us that he had killed two large bull moose about halfway down the lake. He had shot them from the canoe while screened by reeds as they fed in the water among the water-lily beds. The carcasses now lay on the west shore where he had horsed them by brute strength. The skiff was lent and he worked hard to freight all the meat down to a spot below our cabin where he dried it in the warm sun and wind and with the aid of a slow fire. He later had to portage the dried meat several miles to a wagon road where the trip home was completed with a team of horses and a wagon. He had to battle various insect pests all the while-blow flies, mosquitoes, sandflies, and bulldog flies-so that he had to endure great discomfort. This had been the way of life of his Cree ancestors.
Possibly his white ancestors had been slothful. One evening after Harry had pulled out I went pickerel fishing at my favourite bend in the creek just below the cabin. I pushed the bow of the canoe into the reeds and cast my lure into the creek. Then I saw Harry's small doe, discarded and floating in the reeds where he had dumped it. Evidently, after he had shot the two moose, he decided that he did not need the deer. He had not offered it to us, either, and we had no fresh meat since we did not hunt in summer, not yet having learned how to dry meat for summer use.
In our second winter at Rat Creek my trapping career almost came to an abrupt halt. The creek was still wide open in early November as I paddled the dugout canoe down the creek that I might inspect some traps without leaving the telltale tracks made by a trapper who walks. A few miles downstream I heard the sounds of a dry twig, then another, and another, the unmistakable sounds of a moose walking or feeding. I let the canoe drift quietly into some reeds and hung there motionless. Carefully I reached for the Winchester and stood up, studying the place in a big willow thicket from where I had heard the sound of breaking twigs. I could see the head of a moose, the top of the head a greyish yellow and a darker brown as I looked down its face. I pulled back the hammer of the Winchester, raised it to my shoulder and sighted the moose's head. I thought of the baseball-sized brains I had observed in moose skulls. I decided that a shot at a partly obscured head might not stop a moose, so I lowered the rifle and looked for the neck or shoulder where a more effective slug might be placed.
The moose head had vanished, I stood as a statue, awaiting any sound or movement from which I might pierce the protective camouflage. After several minutes I stepped silently ashore and began slowly to circle the willow thicket. Sneaking around a sharp bend, I almost tripped over Harry, our visitor from Green Lake, who sat boiling his tea pail over a tiny willow fire!
Harry was dressed in a brown parka, the hood of which was trimmed with a coyote skin. He was trapping in what was considered to be our trapping territory, so Indian-fashion, he had hidden his fire of dry willows which give of much heat but very little smoke. The cracking of dry twigs that I had heard had been Harry breaking willows for the fire. I explained to Harry how he had appeared to me from the other side of the thicket and that I had him in my rifle sights. Harry's almost black face turned a sickly somewhat lighter shade. We were both shaken. I was nauseated and felt that I might retch. The experience taught me a very severe lesson; make sure of my target before shooting. It had a lasting effect on Harry also, for we never laid eyes on him again.
It was early May, the ice had just gone out of Rat Lake and we were camped halfway down the lake, trapping muskrats. In the long twilight, I paddled the canoe up a small creek that meandered through muskeg, floating bog, and stunted, moss-draped black spruce and tamarack. In this grim-looking place, it was rumoured that a white man had been drowned some years before and the body was never found. The police and the coroner had come out from Big River, but no discovery of the body was made. There were rumours that it had been murder, and a more appropriate place for such a deed would have been difficult to find. The shoreline quivered at the touch of my paddle and I could push my paddle under it and feel nothing. Hiding a body here would have been extremely easy.
My mind occupied by such morbid thoughts, I paddled around a half-circle in the creek that skirted a stand of black spruce.
I then came upon the biggest bull moose that I had ever seen. It was feeding in the swamp and was unaware of me. I silently watched this great beast at a range of about seventy-five yards. Here indeed was l'orignal. Against a backdrop of stunted spruce it appeared solitary, huge, grotesque, its long hair now bleached and ragged, its antlers long ago discarded, little resembling the popular conception of a bull moose. However, when September returned once again, this bull would become resplendent, majestic, and with great palmated antlers that might well be in the trophy class. I silently wished him well as I paddled out of sight. In such an area it is possible for a moose to live out its entire life span, for access is treacherous in the bogs in autumn, and the creek is not always navigable in low water and is seldom travelled by canoe. The deep snows of winter have a deterring effect on human travel in such a place. We learned that; unlike white-tailed deer, moose are not apt to stay close to human habitation but seek solitude. We found them in the most remote areas of our trapping territory.
A cow moose, with her small rusty-coloured calf, that stood facing us on a game trail one spring, was given a wide berth, for she showed no inclination to move out of our way and wagged her ears warningly and her ragged hair bristled. We offered no argument.
Moose are large beasts and at times appear to be not too intelligent. Most moose are taken by hunters on the chance encounter, by sighting a moose that does not see the hunter. Try to stalk a radar-eared moose and you have an entirely different situation. Since a moose is forever worrying about its back trail it often beds down on the high ground, facing its back trail. A moose hunter's success is related to his ability to stalk moose.
I learned to do this with good effect. When we moved into the Cree Lake country we found that moose were not plentiful and a chance encounter almost never occurred. We had to stalk them successfully in order to obtain meat.
One winter morning I came upon a place where two moose trails cut across my trapline and led off to the west. I took up the hunt, feeling the tracks with my moccasined feet. I judged that since the tracks were frozen hard the trail was at least one day old. I tracked the pair for more than five miles until fresh tracks crossed the older trail. I was in hilly second-growth jack pine country, the trees no taller than myself. I now followed slowly and carefully. One hillside had rather sparse tree growth; there I saw two dark blobs which I knew were bedded moose. I crept very slowly and very carefully closer to the hillside. At last, I crouched within two-hundred yards, the effective range for my .30 Winchester rifle. A slight breeze must have carried my scent ahead for both moose presently stood up. I aimed just back of the shoulder of the larger of the two and squeezed off a shot. The moose fell back in its bed and I heard the sound of escaping air, a sound like a great sigh. When I dressed out the fat cow, I found that I had made a lucky hit for the bullet had ripped through the upper portion of the heart, the lungs had collapsed, and she was dead when I got there.
One man, dressing and cutting up a full-grown moose has his work cut out for himself. The shadows were gathering when I completed the task that day. I had to strike out due north for the river which would be my guide since it would be too dark to follow a bush trail. Later the moon rose and I walked on the frozen river, seven miles to the cabin where I arrived at 7 P.M. carrying a moose nose on a forked stick.
Ab mastered the art of moose stalking with as much ability as any Chipewyan Indian. He could track on bare ground in autumn and became an able stalker. He killed a fine bull moose one day in early October, picking up its tracks in the sand at the river's edge where it had stopped to drink. From his boat, he could see that the track was new. He beached the boat on the sand and tracked the bull for a long mile through the jack pine timber. Then he heard a grunt. The bull stood motionless among the pines. He had seen the hunter first and it was the mating season he had issued a challenge, probably mistaking the hunter at a distance for another moose. Ab killed him in his tracks with one well-placed shot.
Ab once tracked a big bull into a circular basin of second-growth jack pine. All around stood big jack pine timber. The basin was about 400 yards in diameter which he circled carefully to pick up the trail where the bull had emerged. When he arrived again at his own trail he realized that he had circled the moose since no trail led from the basin. On the second time around the bull was alerted; Ab saw the moving trees and heard the crash of broken branches as the moose charged into the timber.
At Cree Lake we discovered that since there was little else in the way of trees, moose fed on the tips of young jackpines, eating a branch down until it was as thick as a man's thumb. A moose shot in this country had stomach contents that looked like chopped green oats and straw that I have seen in domestic cattle. It set me to wondering if it were possible to use the uncounted acres of young jack pine for cattle fodder by grinding, chemical treatment, and the addition of food supplements.
Winter was not far away that late autumn day when I made my first trip of the season by walking across country to my small out camp on Caribou Lake. This new, tiny cabin was set in a jack pine grove only a few feet from a small creek that enters the western extremity of the lake. I had had a busy day; the long walk overland with loaded packsack, and putting the cabin into winter condition, tired me and I retired to my pole bunk early and immediately fell asleep. Sometime during the night, I awakened, for I had to go to the bathroom, a common enough occurrence for a trapper who retires early after drinking several mugs of hot tea. The bathroom was located a few paces to one side of the cabin and had the sky for a roof, the forest on all sides for walls, and the earth for a floor.
I had settled in my bedroll once more and was dozing off when I heard the sharp snap of a dry twig. Then I heard it again and knew that I was no longer alone. I lay quietly wondering what could be walking about out there. I had seen a good deal of bear sign on the way over. Are bears nocturnal? I asked myself. I decided they could be since Ab once trapped one after dark. No Indian, I decided, would be abroad at this hour if he were in his right mind.
The sounds which had come from the vicinity of my bathroom had ceased. The fog was rising from the creek, the sky was cloudy. With no moon and as yet no snow, a darker night was not possible. My Winchester stood beside my bunk but, since it was impossible to see, it was likewise impossible to shoot. The silence lasted for several minutes. I was listening intently and I knew my visitor was doing the same. Then I heard the rattle of willows on moose antlers and was able to identify my visitor as he plunged into the creek and crashed off into the jack pines on the other side.
Many years later I learned that a birch bark horn is used not only to call moose but also to lure him to his doom by dribbling a horn full of water into the lake from a hidden position. The resulting sound is said to be effective in making a suspicious bull come charging to the sound during the rut. The bull thinks it is the sound of a cow moose urinating.
Bull moose play rough during the rut. We learned this while examining our kills. Among other injuries, we found cracked shoulder blades, broken ribs, dented rib cages, punctured rumps, and splintered and broken antlers. This is evidence of robust gladiators who battle with no holds barred.