This is our 5th year of writing about hunting; if you’re new to our posts on the subject, here’s a few things you should know. 1) There will be no gory photos (if we change this decision in the future you will have ample warning before scrolling to see them). 2) We eat everything we hunt; in years that our cabin doesn’t kill animals, we eat far less meat (and already live on a meat-reduced diet). 3) If you’re looking for the basics of where to start or how I’ve decided to do this (even after years of living as a near-vegetarian), my article An Introduction To Hunting in Ontario (Moose, Deer and Birds; Confessions of a one-time “Vegetarian” is a great place to start. 4) This series will run through Friday. You can find this years series here.
The alarm goes off and guys jump out of bed – or that’s how it seems to me. More than half our cabin either are or were firefighters. They don’t question the alarm clock – it beckons them to service and they are obligated to answer the call. There’s a flurry of activity as guys scramble to get to the kitchen where they wait for the coffee to percolate until it’s strong enough to to rise them from the dullness of sleep.
I usually sleep through all of it.
I routinely wake up between 5:00AM and 6:00AM at home – but my bunk at the camp swallows me deeper than the city ever could. The darkness of the cabin doesn’t compete with the bright lights or screeching street cars that the city offers. My bunk prefers to offer me a stone silence (often interrupted by the roars of men snoring during the hunt) and a darkness that is so stark that I struggle to see my hand even when it touches my face.I generally stay in bed until my Father barks at me to rise. This was a common event when I was a teenager (and even later in life) but I’m 15 years removed from his waking routines. I’m sure careful reflection would reveal an inner comfort related to some form of return to a Father-Son relationship summoned by our annual waking routine but I tend to think I simply like the dark. That and I’m willing to wait until the coffee is ready before getting out of bed.
The mornings are dimly lit. We navigate the shared bedroom by a combination of flashlights and two propane lights which cast a yellow glow at the center of the cabin. It’s easy to avoid both if you hang enough clothing between the opening of your bunk and the main chamber of the room. My bunk resembles a cave and I generally remain in hibernation until being told it’s time to come out of hiding. This generally happens before the coffee is ready.
The first day of the hunt is a bit of a race. Scratch that. It’s a series of races. I race to make sure I’ve got everything I need as other guys race to drink coffee or put their boots on or start their all-terrain vehicles.
The biggest race (and prize) takes place with our scouts (we don’t call them that). The scouts are the first guys that are ready (un-ironically this also happens to be the most experienced of the hunters). One or two guys leave camp before the rest of us and leave camp long before first light. They race their machines to the area that we plan to hunt and wait for the rest of us to arrive. Their role is critical; they ensure that other hunters know we are on our way and will be hunting a specific piece of land (Ontario largely respects a first-come-first-served approach when it comes to hunting public land).
Time to go.
Despite an absolute chill (it’s near freezing) in the air, I was dressed incredibly lightly. My under-layer was limited to jeans and a T-Shirt. My outer layer includes a fluorescent orange (as required by law) wind-breaker, light outer pants and ultra-light gloves that will protect me from thorns but not cold.
Most of our camp dresses incredibly warm and takes four-wheelers (aka ATVs) to the hunt. They dress in layers and do all they can to keep warm. I was one of few guys being driven to the hunt via pickup truck. As a dogger (I walk through the woods in hope of pushing animals towards the other hunters), I face the opposite of their challenge. Sweat is my enemy – staying dry and cool are of utmost importance.
Three of us are dogging; 9 guys are on watch.
Despite writing about dogging for 5 years, I’m convinced that I’ve failed to describe what it’s like. And the harder I try to describe it, the more I’m convinced that I’ll never be able to aptly share the experience. Here’s a few random thoughts that try to portray the experience, from my perspective:
- It’s painful. The pain usually starts with the muscle-fatigue that you experience when working out (not that I do that anymore) but that’s just the beginning. Falling, twisting ankles, swollen joints, bruises and minor cuts are par for the course. This isn’t the case for all doggers but it’s often the case for me as I will walk through just about any obstacle that lies in front of me.
- It can be scary. Imagine walking through a swamp, balancing on logs and trying not to fall in the water for 10 minutes. You find yourself in the middle of a swamp and aren’t sure you can take another step and don’t know how long it will take to get out of the bog. Each step takes 10-15 seconds before you can stabilize yourself and you know that you can’t move anywhere fast. At that very moment you notice a large pile of scat (“poo”) from a bear. It’s steaming. The bear can run through the bog at full speed. The risk is minimal but it plays on your mind in ways that are difficult to describe. (Note: this isn’t theoretical – this exact situation happened to me this year).
- It can be lonely. Much of the land we walk is visited by humans 2 or 3 times a year or less. Getting lost is rare. Feeling lost isn’t. Even though I’m armed with a GPS, compass and plenty of knowledge, their can be an impending feeling of isolation and an overwhelming feeling that you’ll never see another human being again.
- It’s physically demanding. Climbing up and down hills are the start of the challenge. Twigs and thorns constantly pull at your legs, arms and other clothes. One one of this years hunts, a set of branches grabbed me with such a fierce grip that it took all of my neck muscles plus both of my arms to free my head from it’s grasp.
- It’s unbelievably frustrating. Imagine looking at your GPS and seeing that you have 400 meters (437.5 yards) between your current position and your exit-point. Because a tree lies directly in front of you, you have to take a circular route around it (and the swamp beside it and the cliff next to that). After 15 minutes of brutal walking, you look back at your GPS to see that you’re now 395 meters (432 yards) away from the same exit.
- It’s a constant struggle to stay warm – then cool. If you get too warm, you will sweat and that moisture will make you cold. If you keep too cool you will lose all of your heat and not gain it back. If you knock all of the snow off a tree and it falls into the neck of your jacket, you may become instantly cold and wet.
- It’s mentally demanding. Despite the physical demands, it’s important that you also keep your eyes peeled for any sign of animal tracks, pay attention to the wind direction, watch your compass, GPS and listen for any sign of animals moving through the woods.
- It demands trust. Although this is true of all of our hunters, it’s especially true when you are dogging as you know that you are walking towards a group of people with loaded firearms.
- It’s a privilege. Very few people will ever see what you get to see. Period.
- It’s living history. It’s very easy to feel connected to the few people who have ever seen what you are seeing – including those over the past several centuries.
- It’s empowering. When you find the other hunters, it feels good to know that you’ve succeeded in your challenge.
- You’re part of the harvest. I’ve hunter for 25 years and killed 3 birds. I’ve never shot at a moose or a deer but I’ve felt directly connected to the success of the hunt whenever I’ve dogged a run that led to a kill.
- It’s a learning experience. Dogging teaches me to be a better hunter and allows me to learn about the forest. This happens sometimes while sitting on a watch but not nearly at the frequency as when I walk.
- It’s tradition. My Father is a dogger, so am I. It feels that simple.
- I like it.
Marcus (another dogger) and I roll out of the pickup truck and load our guns. I “put one in the snout” – meaning that my gun has a bullet in the chamber and can be fired with the quiet removal of the safety. Marcus gave me this right-of-way because he has had great fortune as a hunter with multiple deer and moose to his credit. He made no bones about it; if we see a moose, he wants me to get the first chance to fall it.
The truck dropped us more than 1.5 kilometers (about a mile) away from the guys taking watches. The distance is measured “as the crown flies” – the actual walk will easily be 4 or 5 times greater than the straight-line distance to our friends.
Marcus let me take the lead (partially because of his previous success and partially due to my comfort with the use of my GPS). We set off into the bush together, which is unusual for doggers who typically start at different positions in order to ‘push’ the bush together. It made sense to walk together as we had to walk more than a kilometer before we’d split off into different starting positions. Walking a kilometer (ab out 1,100 yards) in the city takes me considerably less than 15 minutes – walking it as a dogger takes more than 90 minutes.
Mark and I headed into the woods while it was still nearly-dark. it would be hours before we’d see our friends again.
Marcus and I have been away from any sign of humankind for an hour. We’ve traded stories about our families and caught up on the year that’s past us by. We’re now focused on the hunt and have seen lots of sign and feel like we’re pushing animals through the woods – even though the official hunt won’t begun until we’ve split company and are pushing closer to the line.
Marcus was whispering and yelling at the same time. I had no doubt what he was looking at; it had to be an animal – specifically a moose.
I took careful steps to ensure I wouldn’t alert our prey and moved into position. I steadied my breath, not sure what I would see. After 25 years of hunting, this could be a deciding moment. This could be the moment that I’ve waited so long to experience; the moment that could see me shoot a moose or the moment I’d decide that I couldn’t and result in quitting my pursuit immediately.
It only took a few steps before I saw the massive animal. He was less than 30 yards from us and staring contently at the two of us. A giant rack (antlers) hung across the forest and appeared to be 5 or 6 feet across. Of the 75-100 moose I’ve ever seen in the wild, this was probably the biggest I’ve ever seen.
He stood and stared at us. It was an easy shot – there was a clear path between me and 1,000+ pounds of meat.
My gun remained at my side. We didn’t have a license for an adult male moose this year. We can harvest one adult female and multiple calves – but no adult males. This has been my story most years; I often see animals but they’re often the wrong animals at the wrong time.
Marcus and I stared at him for more than 10 minutes. We traded the odd whisper but mostly stared at the moose and traded smiles of excitement with each other before he left.
As the beast of an animal walked away I was once again amazed at how quiet he was. Every step I make in the forest seems to be a giant crunch of leaves but this bull moose disappeared as soon as we couldn’t see him.
Despite his leaving, Marcus and I stood still.
I couldn’t see it. I quietly took a few steps and my heart leaped forward.
“Marcus – I think it’s a cow!”
I partially raised my gun, leaving the safety firmly in place.
Bulls often travel with cows and they rarely travel with other bulls (who they’d rather battle for territory with). Marcus and I could see the legs of another adult moose and knew that the possibilities of this being a cow (which I could shoot), loomed large.
More than 5 minutes past, Marcus and I staring at it’s legs.
“Joel, it’s another bull,” he said. My heart sunk for a brief moment before taking great joy in simply enjoying seeing another animal. We stared at him for 5 minutes before he took off into the forest and we quietly celebrated our early success.
“I think there’s one more!”
Marcus was off like a sprinter chasing a flash of black that we both saw for a moment. I decided to quietly move to the flank (side) of where he was going in case the animal looped around. I was fairly certain it was the second moose but if Mark was right it would almost certainly be a cow; 2 bull moose are rare in a pack but 3 are almost unheard of.
We’ll never know what that last animal was; we never got another peak at it. By 8:55 we knew we had lost the moose and agreed it was time to split up as the hunt would begin shortly thereafter.
The first hunt was over. It took us more than 90 minutes to get into position for a 15 minute run.
Two of the other hunters saw a bull moose on their way to the watch. They appeared to have seen the smaller of the two animals. I know that our efforts could have pushed those animals closer to the line – this is part of the reason why I find dogging so rewarding. The entire camp s energized; bulls will congregate in an area in an attempt to ‘woo’ a cow so the sightings of multiple bulls is a positive sign.
We left the watchers in their places, asked them to turn around and we pushed the woods from the opposite side for our second run of the day.
By the time I wrote in my journal, I was sitting in the woods waiting to head onto the second run. The weather had changed from overcast to moderately rainy. Writing was becoming difficult; sitting in the rain was even tougher.
The second run would include the crossing of a beaver dam and the climbing of ‘the wall.’ I’ll share more about that later this week…