This is the sixth in an 8-part mini-series chronicling my experiences in the 2012 Ontario Moose Hunt. You can find the entire series here (it will update daily as it’s published) or check out previous years (2009, 2010, 2011). The posts appear exactly one-week after they were experienced.
Thursday morning. The weather is nothing short of unbelievable. We’re fortunate to have a moose in the shed – beautiful days are nice for sitting but they aren’t the best for hunting.
The best weather for hunting occurs around the freezing point. Ideally there’s a fresh coat of snow and a thin sheet of ice on top of puddles. A thin layer of solid precipitation makes tracks (and blood, should an animal be injured and need tracking) easy to see. The relative cold (especially as it’s often the first few ‘cold’ days of the year) also encourages the animals to move (both to produce heat and to look for food since some of it can get covered with the snow/ inaccessible due to ice).
Our hunting season always starts the Monday after Canadian Thanksgiving (which is in the first half of the month). My Father has been at our cabin at this exact time of year for more than 40 years. I have visited for most of my life but hunted it for 15 or more years.
Because hunting is always the same time of year, it’s easy to notice anecdotal changes in the weather. Other than one unseasonably warm year (I hunted in a T-shirt), this week was very cold when I was young. Snow was to be expected and significant amounts would often fill the woods (we received almost a foot of snow in less than 24 hours early in the millennium). I can’t scientifically prove that our planet is warming but I know we’ve seen warmer temperatures over the years. Less than 10 years ago we had to use hammers to break the ice off the surface of our water barrels and I am now hunting in a T-shirt with no threat of snow. I actually can’t remember the last time it snowed.
Once again I wore way too many layers to walk to my watch and a lot of my clothes was dripping with sweat when I finally got to my watch (it was about an hour and 15 minute walk from where we started) and I hung a lot of clothes to dry around me. The smell is sweat is a huge disadvantage as animals will know I’m here far before I’ll ever see or hear them. I can only hope that the wind is going the right way (i.e. blowing in my face) and that the doggers capture more of a moose’s attention than my relative stench (which for the record, is undetectable by my own nose) will.
The heat is a lot easier on the guys with watches. We can dress far lighter so we don’t risk overheating (and then cooling down and getting a chill) on the way to our watches. It’s a nice luxury and one I don’t take for granted.
I was asked to set the watches again today. We’re hunting an entirely different tract of land and I’ve never set the watches in here before (despite hunting it all of my life). I felt an unmistakable twinge of pride when I arrived at the final watch and realized I had been able to get each of the guys in position. My confidence in the woods is definitely growing although I know the importance of remaining humble; the moment you get cocky is the moment that Mother Nature likes to remind you how much there is left to know.
The ‘road’ we’ve followed to our watches makes Wolf Road look like a paved highway. This land hasn’t been traveled be vehicle (including ATV) in more than 20 years and it’s best days were more than 100 years ago. A few of us know where to find an old stone foundation of a cabin that’s been all but forgotten and mostly eaten with the forest not far from here. It hasn’t been a home for 80 or more years and less than a handful of people would see it in a year (there are no roads, paths, signs or markings to it).
The following photograph will give you an idea of the state of the road. The picture is a bit of a cheat though – still life makes finding paths like these so much easier than in real life where the sway of the trees doesn’t make an opening so obvious. If you look at the top of the picture (i.e. where the trees meet the sky), you should be able to isolate the road – if you look at the ground it becomes much more difficult to see:
I had a quick chat via text message with Dana this morning. We don’t talk a lot when I am up here and my connection to the outside world is purposefully limited (as well as often being limited by lack of cell signal). I’ve shared some pictures of our experience out to social media this week but spent very little time on the receiving end. It’s part of what charges me up for the rest of the year and I enjoy being disentangled from the wonderfully awesome joys of my ‘regular’ life.
We’re down to 11 hunters now – one had to return home this morning. It looks like we’ll be losing a bunch tomorrow (Friday) and we’ll likely be home on Saturday. That could still change and there’s a possibility of one of the guys’ sons still coming for a few days which could change everything. But that seems like so far in the future when you spend hours staring at the forest and waiting for a sign of life.
We had a longer lunch before deciding to return to where we killed the moose on Monday. Because we harvested her before our actual hunt, we never had the chance to push this land. I was nominated to be a dogger and am happy to have the chance to stretch my legs and walk through the bush for a run.
I am wearing a fraction of the clothes I started with this morning. Light hiking boots, flannel pants, a T-shirt and an orange vest. I’m not carrying a backpack and my toque has been replaced with a mesh hat. This would be cold if I was on a watch but it’s perfect for the walk I’m about to do.
I’ve walked this land before. I know that I’ll be going about 1.5 kilometers (a mile) and that there is some very tricky terrain. There are a whole lot of dramatic elevation changes (i.e. hills), some thick brush and a really tricky section where I will have to find my way to a 3 or 4 foot wide dam that offers the only possible crossing of two lakes for almost a mile. Moose will run across that dam (we actually shot one beside it two years ago) but it will offer much more difficult walking for me.
Dogging has three parts:
- Walking to where you will start your hike.
- Sitting and waiting for the forest to settle and for your team to get to their watches.
- Walking your route.
I’m fortunate that this is some of the prettiest land I know. I had the chance to sit for an hour with the following view (this is one of the lakes that hides that dam within the folds of its shores):
The walk was beautiful – but not without its challenges. I found the secret crossing point with relative ease and was excited to cross it with little effort. This is what greeted me on the other side:
I’m afraid the photo may fail to portray the drama that this shear wall of rock offered. This was part of the hike – the only way forward was straight up the middle. Loose dirt tumbles between your feet as you try to make it up the narrow path. As soon as you’ve beaten the loose soil you are greeted by a new challenge: 10 feet of almost vertical rock that is filled with caverns and small caves. Caverns that are perfect for black bears to hole up in. Caverns that almost certainly can’t possibly contain a black bear in reality but reality is irrelevant to your imagination. In your imagination the possibility of a giant man-eating bear emerging from a hole in the rock seems to be a near certainty. Your only path is to move onwards and upwards.
The walk isn’t all horrible though. There are some beautiful areas. I especially find the feeder streams (which offer the moose plenty of fresh drinking water) to be some of the prettiest parts of walks like these:
Feeder streams, like most of the walking, are tough to navigate. In fact, most of this land is nearly impossible for a human to traverse with any grace or stealth. The trees that are lying down in this picture were waist-high:
I spent a lot of time thinking about how amazing moose are. For most I’ve my life I’ve heard variations of an argument that states “hunters have an unfair advantage over moose.” I understand that we have weapons and other technology and that gives us an advantage when it comes to killing but this walk had me really focussed on just how unfair that statement is. And, to be clear, I do mean that it’s unfair to the moose.
I’ve watched these animals for all of my conscious life. They are incredible animals who, like most creatures in the forest, are hunted from the moment of their birth until their death (and, in the case of their corpses, often beyond). They are hunted by other predators (both real and imagined) and practice survival skills that we, as humans, can never understand and aren’t capable of learning. They could run through the forest in the above photograph at full speed – it took me 5 minutes to get to the other side of the berm in the same photo. Compared to a wolf (or a pack of them), I am a clumsy, smelly, nearly deaf hunter who can barely function in the woods. It’s natural to feel bad (amongst other negative emotions) about the death of the animals but I really think it’s disrespectful of them to think they are ill-prepared for a hunt.
How capable are moose at running through the woods? A number of years ago I had the chance to see an adult female running at full speed. Dana was with me at the time. The cow suddenly veered into the woods and maintained her speed (I would estimate it at 20-30 kilometers an hour based on the fact that we had followed her at a distance on the ATV shortly before she turned into the woods). She kept her pace and I turned to Dana and said, “Listen.” We watched as the cow through her head back and charged through the forest without making a sound. Look again at the four photos above. Imagine a moose swimming across the lake or running up that near-cliff, hopping over the running water or stepping over the fallen trees. Know that they could do any of that at full-speed and leave little trace or sound. They are truly remarkable animals – and that’s what I spent most of my turn ‘dogging’ thinking about.
Our walk was near fruitless. It appears that there may have been moose in the area shortly before we arrived. We weren’t able to see them but we knew we had been close.
Tonight was movie night at the camp. Several guys huddled around the television well into the early hours of morning. I snuck off to bed and curled into the darkness that swallows my bunk and faded into a slumber…