You’re only as old as you feel.” How many times have I heard that? Maybe it’s true, but I’m doubtful. Most of my adult life I was 5 feet 8 inches tall, and yet in the last few years that number has shrunk. I never possessed bulging muscles, but I always managed to get the job done, whatever the cost to my medium-sized frame. Now I’m not so sure.
It was my last moose hunt that made me admit that I’m no longer 30-ish, regardless of how I feel. I had promised my wife that I would hunt only in the morning, close to our cabin (no long treks with heavy, bloody moose parts strapped to my back) and only shoot a two-year-old. A young animal is more tasty than a trophy anyway, just right for senior-citizen-sized appetites.
The morning I set out, Jeanie reminded me of our agreements, told me to be safe and wished me luck. The day was cold and clear. Shouldering my hunting pack, I stepped outside and reached for the new .30-06 that hung on the cabin wall. This was the first time I had hunted with a scope, opting always for open sights. I like to stalk and shoot with careful deliberation. As I passed the frosted window, I glanced inside where Jeanie was pouring herself another cup of coffee and settling down to work on her next book. Our cabin in the Brooks Range, above the Arctic Circle, was warm and inviting, filled with the aroma of fresh coffee and years of memories. We had built it when I was still young, during a year alone in remote wilderness with our son and a beloved female friend.
I noted that it was light enough to shoot now, and that the chimney smoke drifted lazily to the south. Silently, I stepped onto our Creek Trail, which meanders within sight of the singing brook. Having a network of paths is essential for ease of movement through this country. Trails also keep the fragile land from being trampled near the cabin. Choosing my steps with care, I moved quietly along the stream.
Sunrise was 10 minutes away—that golden moment when the sun would shine forth from behind Mt. Laurie and illuminate the whole valley. I knew the moose would soon be bedding down. Reaching a bend in the path, I caught a glimpse of brown and tan gliding through the willows on the other side of the creek, about 300 yards ahead of me. I rapidly closed the distance to what I thought was about 100 yards. Peeking through a stand of small spruce trees, I saw what I believed to be a moderate-sized bull turning toward the forest, away from the creek. Reflexively, I raised the rifle and slipped off the safety, placed the scope’s crosshairs on his heart and gently squeezed the trigger. The rifle roared and punched my shoulder. A moment later I heard the smack of the bullet.
Eyes on the moose, I ejected the cartridge and engaged the next one. The moose jumped when the bullet struck, and in one motion he turned and bolted. Aiming at the back of his head, I squeezed off the second round and heard the dreaded click of a primer misfire. My heart leapt into my throat. The painful thought that I had wounded this majestic animal almost brought me to my knees.
As I ejected the dud, the moose reared up on his hind legs, and let out a guttural roar. I watched in fascination as the giant crashed over backward to the willow bar. I bent down to retrieve the dud cartridge and then carefully made my way across the creek, approaching the moose slowly from his rear. When I was 50 feet away, I could see that he was still breathing, so I fired a final round into the back of his head. Just then, the sun crested the mountain and flooded the valley with golden light. I said a silent prayer of thanks to the moose for the gift of his life, and for his quick death.
As I worked the moose onto his back for skinning and gutting, Jeanie arrived, wading the creek with butchering supplies. “Do you realize you were gone only 12 minutes until I heard the first shot?” she stated as she climbed the bank with her packboard and 5-gallon buckets. That was certainly a record hunting time for me. “This is no two-year-old,” she declared when she joined me beside the great animal. “He’s the biggest one you’ve ever killed. We’ll never carry him to the cabin before dark.” I was already painfully aware of this.
My lack of experience with a scope had caused me to underestimate him. Now two aging people had a monster animal on the ground with an impossible quarter mile of packing to the meat house. What had been a hard load in my younger years was now, in my late 60s, impossible. In addition, we had three bears in our immediate area. Because we lived close to the land and in peace with wildlife, they had little fear of us. This was not a problem until we added the moose. There were two things in our favor: The day was cold and it was still early.
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Realizing that neither of us could carry one of these quarters alone, we considered using the “sod carrier” I had crafted when we built our cabin—a stretcher that allows two people to share an awkward load. Still, that would mean leaving the remainder of the moose unprotected to be claimed by a bear. Alaska does not allow a hunter to shoot a bear in defense of a kill, and we had no desire to do so. We knew our bears and had named them. In any case, it would mean another large animal to dress, haul and process. We needed another plan.
Floating An Idea
“Let’s use the canoe,” I ventured. “I can line it up the creek. We can float the moose down to the river and let it drift to the landing. It’s further, but we won’t have the meat on our backs.”
“OK, and we can use the log hauler to get the meat up the hill to storage,” Jeanie agreed. This was another tool I had designed—a two-wheeled vehicle that carried several hundred pounds. It could not, however, be used without a wide and even path. “But do you think the canoe will float with this entire moose in it? And the creek…” We studied the freezing water, low and swift as it splashed over slippery stones.
Our canoe, a 16-foot double-ender, had a load limit of 650 pounds. We both knew this moose was far heavier. It was important to us that we honor the animal by taking all edible meat and organs, a commitment that we do not hold lightly.
“OK, you keep working here,” I said. “I’ll get the canoe. Keep an eye out for Bosco.” This large mountain grizzly was a recent arrival in our valley. He had surprised us with a bluff charge in a thicket earlier in the summer, but when I reacted with raised arms and my “bad dog!” voice he vanished. Now, with meat on the ground, he would be more motivated.
I was back with the canoe as quickly as I could wrestle it up the swift, brushy creek. There were a number of places where I had to drag it over shoals and beneath trees. Lining it was impossible, though I managed to haul the canoe by hand up the rapids.
For the next six hours we skinned and butchered, severing the limbs with a pocketknife at the major joints. Attention to detail at this stage allows for easier handling and prevents waste. Meat left on the bone keeps better, and we also save the liver, tongue, kidneys, heart and caul fat. Organ meats spoil quickly, but whole limbs will last 10 days or longer in a cool, dry place, especially if smoked.
Testing The Creek
By late afternoon, we began loading the moose into the canoe while working the craft gradually out from shore. After a hasty snack and hot drinks, we pushed it into a deep, quiet section of the creek. It wallowed unsteadily with only an inch or two of freeboard.
Stumbling and yelping, we dragged (and were pulled by) that barge down the little creek. Where it floated, the current slammed dangerously into the canoe, ripping lines from our sore and aching hands as we fought to keep it straight. Jeanie took a bad fall while crossing a reef above a plunging channel. I twisted a leg and shoulder, but we finally made it to the river. Floating the river would have been easy had we not been exhausted and afraid of losing both moose and canoe to the river.
We finally beached below the cabin and, taking two pieces at a trip, transported those heavy, slippery quarters up the hill using my log-hauling cart. By the time darkness fell, we had the meat safely locked in the smokehouse and storehouse. We ate leftovers and bathed in a basin by lamp, then climbed the homemade ladder to our loft bed. It had been a brutal day.
Over the next week we smoked, wrapped and processed the meat. Will this be our last moose? We don’t know. I had cataract surgery this last spring. Maybe I’ll decide to return to my old .30-30 Winchester carbine, a gun that requires me to stalk slowly and consider all consequences. But then, I still need to weigh my ability to pack meat. Find more of Tom and Jeanie’s writing at jeanaspen.com.
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This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Spring 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.