We’ve had a few moose encounters recently, the most significant being the one I shot. The Tr’ondëk Hwich’ën people believe that if you think about an animal, you draw it to you. I thought about nothing else as we hunted and later, processed the kill and so we’ve had lots of moose visitors. I am now thinking hard about fine wine and vast sums of money. I imagine the theory is only for animals but you never know.
(Update- a kind friend gave me a bottle of wine yesterday. It works!)
|Hunting by boat|
We started hunting early. I’ve learned a lot about moose from people here and from reading blogs. The rut is around the last two weeks of September. Bulls don’t come down from the mountains til it gets cold. Best time to hunt them is just before dark or just after sunrise as they move around at night, or round midday when they tend to get up for a stretch.
|Moose tracks and Neil prints on the beach|
From the moose themselves I’ve learnt this, shoot them when they’re there cos they don’t always play by the rules. I'm sure we heard a cow calling in the woods in mid-August, a full month before the rut. A beautiful bull came over to meet her, well before I’d even started thinking moose-y thoughts.
|Calling on the birch bark moose phone|
We began calling from our porch in early September hoping to attract a bull (it’s not legal to hunt cows). Our friend Dave gave us a great lesson on moose calling a couple of years ago so we bellowed and “ugh”-ed through our birch bark horn each morning and evening.
|More autumn visitors, mushrooms|
Our first visitor was a cow. She came just after dark and lingered behind the house. I couldn’t see her but I could hear her. “Ugh” I said in my best moose-boyfriend voice. “Er?” she asked quickly, like “what the fuck?” before Homer interrupted with a loud bark and frightened her off.
|Autumn colours in the yard|
A couple of days later it was ungulate Piccadilly Circus at our place. A cow called from the woods in response to Neil’s flirty male groans. In the meantime, another girlie swam across the river to us with her calf to get in on the action but, on seeing Neil, swam off downstream. Moments later a bull appeared on the far shore of the Yukon. He was all set to swim over and investigate my serenade when the first cow stomped past me, so close I could almost touch her, and swam to him. It was always the same. I never got the guy. When I was young, all my friends were prettier than me so I didn’t get a look in unless I was fobbed off with his ugly mate.
|Even more visitors, wolf tracks, bear tracks and bear tracks on top of wolf tracks|
It was worth another crushing disappointment for the experience of being so close to a living moose. They are vocal animals. “Hmm, Hmm, Hmm,” she said to herself on each outbreath, as if humming a tune as she plodded along. She knew I was there. We looked each other full in the eye. I was spellbound and petrified, trapped at the bottom of a bank. She stood taller than me from the shoulder and stronger than an ox.
|Cow and calf|
I crouched, and clasped my rifle. But she paid no mind and wandered past me to the water’s edge, humming to herself, her bronze gold fur shimmering in the sun and then plunged into the river still singing her tune as she swam quickly and powerfully across to her beau. Or mine, depending on how you see it.
All this happened at about 3-4pm. A time when you rarely see moose, according to the hunting blogs, which just shows how contrary they are.
|Back to straining cranberries for jam|
It all went quiet after that and I thought we’d missed our chance. We called and called but went straight to moose voicemail. No-one home. We called and listened, and listened so bloody hard I heard motorbikes revving, ice cream van chimes and hordes of wailing zombies. You’d never get a motorbike or van out here so most likely it was zombies. Or just the murmurings of our creek.
|Our place from the river|
We motored up to a spot a few miles away and I managed to fool a bear with my calling. It plunged into the river from the far shore to get me. Bear meat is very good so it almost became dinner itself but when we started the boat it swam back and wisely disappeared into the brush.
I’d almost given up and resigned myself to finding that ice cream van and getting a Mr Whippy, when we got our chance. We followed the advice of a hunting blog and called when it was still dark, and got out in the boat at first light. Neil was driving, I was looking. We settled on this arrangement after a previous early morning trip out when Neil failed to spot a cow and calf about 10 feet away, and so close, I almost mowed them down with the boat. Neil has a steadier hand on the tiller and I certainly have better eyesight, so we decided to swap roles.
|They were very close but Neil’s eyesight's so bad, he couldn't find the camera “on” button and they had started to swim away|
We were arguing, as usual. I wanted the boat closer to the shore and Neil was worried about grounding it. Suddenly I spotted a bull, possibly the same bull I had seen before, ploughing down the far bank to the shore. The morning sun caught his antlers and they shone white as bone. I pointed. Neil motored as fast as he could cross river. The bull stood head on to us, antlers glinting. He was not scared. He looked all-powerful, regal. I watched him through the scope of the rifle. As we got close he turned side on and I had my target. I saw nothing but the bull. He was my only thought and so completely I hadn't thought to put a round in the chamber or take the safety off when I pulled the trigger. Idiot.
I woke up after that and, laying prone on the prow, got a lung-shot into his chest. He began to walk quickly along the shore, I shot again and hit the neck but he was so damn strong he just kept going. He turned back the other way. Neil managed to spin the boat around and then keep it steady with him. Neil’s driving was better than my shooting and I’m ashamed to admit I got one shot full into his hind quarter, some of the best meat. The boat was moving, the moose was moving and my heart was pounding. Blood sprayed from the wounds onto the beach as he doubled back and tried to make it up the bank. I was petrified we’d lose him into the brush and took another poor shot, clipping his front leg. I needn’t have. He looked at the bank but seemed to know he couldn’t make it before toppling backwards and collapsing in a fountain of silt and scarlet. He tried and tried to get up, blood pouring down the beach. The sight was indecent, heart-breaking. I didn’t shoot again. I didn’t want to waste any more of the meat and I knew he was finished.
Our wise Alaskan friend told me yesterday that probably his fear of the boat kept the adrenaline pumping and kept him moving. He said, "next time, when you know you gotta fatal shot, just back off and let him die in peace." I’m not sure I have the experience yet to risk losing an injured bull. And at probably two tons in weight, we would have struggled to carry the meat any further had he run into the brush.
|With my moose tag just after the kill|
I love hunting. I love the watching, the listening, the waiting. I love being out in the country, checking for tracks. I even love dealing with the meat. Quartering, hanging, canning, rendering, tanning all of the processing is fascinating and involving. But I do not love pulling the trigger. I do not love the obscene moment when you irretrievably decide to end another creature’s life.
|I am inside the body cavity in this picture, trying to cut out the heart|
We put my tag around his antler and spent all day immersed in the pungent smell of bull and iron-rich blood, quartering, cutting and sawing.
|Wheeling hind quarter up to the house|
We ferried the parts up to our house, about a mile away, in two loads. He was smaller than the first bull I shot, for which I am extremely grateful.
We were able to tie a hind leg off to the bushes to open up the carcass and with a little more experience and confidence, we got no silt on the meat as we’d done before. We got everything aside from the guts and hide back to our place by the late afternoon. (See footnote)
We hung the legs, rib cage (which we chopped with an axe into two massive sections), and chunk of neck. They have air dried, and hopefully if the weather does not remain unseasonably warm, they will soon freeze. The legs (quarters) go into meat bags and we rubbed the ribs and neck with canola oil, which helps form a crust to keep flies off.
I have canned the tongue, part of the heart and odd chunks and flaps we trimmed and we are working our way through canning the neck. This is next year’s meat and if all goes well, we plan not to shoot a moose next year.
|Canning in the pressure cooker|
The liver was no good. The conservation officers told us sometimes bulls don’t eat during the rut which affects the organ. It was a stinking, grey-pink mash. We cooked a little for the dog but decided we ought to dump it.
|Chunk of the neck, skewered through the vertebrae so we can hang it|
I tipped it from the prow of the boat along with the head a couple of days later. We cut those regal antlers off and they are laying in the yard, waiting to have the silt and blood scrubbed from them.
|Neil splitting wood for the range. We needed a LOT for the canner|
On the night we shot him, we ate his heart. It was brilliant, scarlet. The blood red of life itself, and when I held it my hands it was almost as big as my chest. The heart seems to me the essence of the animal and I could see no better way to show our gratitude than by eating that first. We have no traditions with which to honour our moose. The Tr’ondëk Hwich’ën believe that you honour a creature by hunting it. If you do not hunt, the animals and fish will not return.
|Rendered fat and moose scratchings|
That is not my story. I come from a country that hunted all our big animals to extinction, so we opened a bottle of wine we were saving for birthday and have drunk a toast to him every day since.