Answering the Call
“Who could be coming this early in the shift?”At the first glimmer of a light in the tunnel, I raised my safety glasses from their perch on my chin, up to where they were supposed to be. Over the roar of the drill, you couldn’t hear it, but I sensed the boss’s jeep pull up close (too close) and my little cave world lit up in the glare of headlights.The focus on my cap lamp jiggled and danced as I leaned hard on the drill, exaggerating the effort. Working the final, of 7 long graveyard shifts underground , I was nearly played out. His shadow loomed across the face, then, over mine and the spot of his Mag-light flitted around the workplace, looking for trouble. I peered back over the rim of mud caked lenses, hoping he hadn’t found any. He smiled. Nodded his head appreciatively and gave me the thumbs up!I leaned in again, thinking "Good shifter, that Curtis! Silent supervision."That's when he tapped my shoulder and handed over the note.
“CALL HOME A.S.A.P.” How many times had I asked her not to call me at work unless it was an emergency? I hope everyone is O.K.... Curtis sensed my urgency and gave me a lift up to the lunchroom, where I made the call. Boy, what a woman I’ve got!
It seems that the outfitter, where my wife worked, had a bull moose tag available for the archery season in a nearby zone. I could fly in, at a discounted price, if we’d construct a camp frame for his bookings that were to hunt in the rifle season. I had recently purchased a new crossbow and, though we had never bow hunted, Alan, my brother in law and hunting buddy, was available and a nice compound. It would be a five day hunt (weather pending). “But,” she stated “You’ll have to leave tomorrow, and he’s gotta know tonight! Do you want to go?????"
So, you see, it really was an emergency!
My fellow miners were envious at lunch time, once everything was confirmed. Many were northern boys, like me, with keen hunting blood in ‘em. Frosts were heavy most mornings now, and there were still ten days till we could gun hunt. And in 10 days, we’d be back in here, slavin’ at work. Yeah, the fellas were itchin’ pretty bad, once I rubbed it in. A lot!. I drove home from that mine like a man possessed, a violent stream of dust, howling due south into the rising sun! Sneaking up a little early at the end of shift, I blew out the gate ten minutes ahead of anyone. The roadway kicks up a blanket of gray stuff that rises thick, and very slowly fades to hang, like fog, over the northern lowlands. No one would catch me today. Two hours to civilization. Four hours, home. Hammer down!I rustled the feathers of a few road partridge as I flew into the dawn that day. No time to stop. I had bigger fish to fry. Saw a cow and calf scamper to the bushline and hardly touched the brakes. Sorta’ in a hurry! An hour out, I hit flat hard pavement and stepped on it a bit. The sky was lit with orange and pink wisps of high cloud. A good sign!I daydreamed of hunts past, and started to get pumped.
I am a Hamilton lad who let the fickle road of life take him north, at 18 years old, to expansive waterways and wilderness. Mining and money led me away and now the bush has me in its grip. From hunting bullfrogs and squirrel, to moose and bear, it's quite a transition. Success was limited, at first. Luck would flourish periodically. But, living and working in the moose’s back yard, certainly has it’s benefits! Like hunting almost daily for six weeks, or a quick hunt on the way to work. Or getting one, on the way home. Spend a lot of time in the bush and opportunity will come your way. I credit the tag allocation system for much of my knowledge regarding moose behavior. In my early hunting years, one could shoot any kind of moose and they could be brought down two and three at a time. If you saw a moose you simply shot at it. Now, we must often watch cows, calves and bulls interact with each other, with other animals, and with humans. These observations evolve into insight and intuition that can add a great deal to one's success rating. Still, "many a moose made a monkey out of me." But each failure brought new insight, and each kill greater confidence. My, soon to be, father in law, was inspirational in those early hunting years. A true northern Ontario Ojibway, he was born in the bush and his youth was hunting, fishing and trapping. Wise in the ways of the moose, (world calling champ 1964) he straightened me out on many an issue. Our outings were always a lesson and an adventure and, most often, successful. In his later years he would pour over the maps with us, listening to our daily results and give great advice for tomorrow’s hunt. A Zen Moose Master. Sadly, he’s now hunting in a far better world and, thanks to him, I’m a better hunter in this one. I was home at 8:30 in the morning. A 3 ½ hour trip out. Funny, after seven long days in the bush, I was dying to head right back into her. The wife had my sleeping bag rolled and a selection of hunting clothes laid out on the couch. She gave a status report on the arrangements and supplies while I threw them into a hockey bag and wolfed down a beer and toasted western. What a woman I’ve got! Kissed her thanks, and goodbye, and thanks again, and I was off and on the dock by nine.
Alan was transferring lumber out to the waiting Beaver. George Theriault, our outfitter host and pilot, was handling load placement along with Andre, a carpenter friend of ours. Both he and Alan had worked with George at one time or another, so it wasn’t long before we taxied out onto the lake, smooth as glass, and powered up. Andre and I flew in with the first load without Al, as surely the big fella would have put us over the load limit! As it was, we took a long run before lifting off and rising, ever so slowly, into the western sky. Banking right, we climbed northwest on a picture perfect fall morning. The landscape below was a splash of paisley, gold, orange and green, with ominous dark patches of bush still in shadow. Pothole lakes wore a faint mist of gray that glistened snow white where the rising sun met the western shore. The sky was cloudless. We passed over my usual moose hunting area and I stared down, fascinated, comparing the scene to what I had perceived from ground level. I spotted a brand new pocket of prime real estate, seemingly, just a short walk to the west. Scouring the brushlines, I caught a quick glimpse of faint paths running along the edge of the cut. And quickly , the scene was behind and lost, but not forgotten. Insight from 2000 feet. We began our descent fifteen minutes out, as we crossed the broad expanse of Kap Lake and picked up the C.N. Line. A bright red-headed southbound freight snaked out below us and the heat from its three mighty engines distorted the scene below. More than a mile long, it wound in and out of view, flashing here and there through the trees. But it was soon behind and I returned to the panorama ahead. That sinking feeling was now in full effect and contours of the landscape became evident, as a monster hill loomed to the north. We skirted south of it, our shadow racing across the hillside ahead of us. George banked sharply right and bore down on a banana shaped lake, curled in the mountain’s shadow, that was just catching its first rays the of the day. A ghostly mist scurried and parted as the pontoons touched water in a quick, smooth landing. We taxied to a rocky point on the western shore and blew away the fog that was rising into the quickly warming forest. A thin frosted trail led uphill from a small dock that was sheltered by the point. Lumber, supplies, and two adventurers were unceremoniously dumped on the rocks and the Beaver was roaring back into the morning sun in minutes.
Andre and I were just-a-grinnin! We sucked in a hearty breath of fresh energy and just got at ‘er. When George zoomed in, 90 minutes, later with another full load, plus Big Al, we had already carted load #1 to the camping area and set up housekeeping. The new gear was baled off of the plane and Andre bailed wonderful fresh, hot coffee. George sat down and mapped out the lay of the land, the location of our boat and canoe, and arranged a fly by for Friday. Al and Andre were reminded of the carpentry at hand, and with a big smiles all around, our pilot was up and gone. It was half past eleven .
Chainsaws wailed and hammers rang throughout the day, as we cleared a spot for the campframe, cut firewood and shored up our own tent and facilities. Breaks were taken regularly. We pulled out the bows and a target was set up in the length of the clearing. My little Horton Legend was broken out of it’s box and bolts were readied with broadheads, leaving one with a field tip for practicing. Choosing a neutral sight, I was quickly on the board, but after a few pin adjustments, I found the range and could center hit a paper plate regularly over the twenty-five yard distance. I was impressed by Al’s shooting (for never having hunted with a bow). We also learned that each third cast or so, from the rocky point, brought in a follower or landed a scrappy two or three pound pike. So, even with big Al here, we would not run short of food! During a mid-afternoon super-sandwich break, Al pulled a moose calling tape out of his pack and we listened, laughed and critiqued the whole thing. We started exchanging stories of calls and answers and heart-pounding near misses, and that was it! There would be no more working today. A tour of the lake was in order. Our rocky point lay in the middle of the outside curve on the mile long, shallow lake. It was perhaps 200 yards directly across to the opposite shore, where the large ridge of tall birch and poplar rose sharply. It dominated the eastern horizon for the length of the lake and carried on south, highlighting a creek valley that ran into our lake. At the north end, the ridge flattened to a nice looking hayfield with a small creek running through. Moose Heaven! The ridge would bounce sound wonderfully and I wondered if the moose here had even heard a hunter’s call. A little four-horse pushed three men in a car topper to the south end, where I was surprised to see a rickety old stand, high in a large cedar. Countless tracks littered the sandy beach and weedbeds, offshore, had been trashed by feeding moose. A well worn trail ran along a nearby grassy shoreline The stand wasn’t ideal, but good shots were certainly possible. I vowed to bring back a saw and open up some shooting lanes.Small boulders at the water’s edge made the eastern shoreline a difficult walk for moose, but just inland, a moose highway had been pounded into the moss. Near the northern end , tag alders and a thin hayfield bordered a narrow, sandy bay and outlet creek. Trials crisscrossed everywhere. The main highway ran directly beneath one very old, very dead, leaning cedar. Feeble rungs led to a thin platform, which perched questionably on a bare limb on the upper side of the tree. Finger thin railings, to guard against falls, were held together with faded, brittle twine. This was a very old stand. Perhaps the tree was alive when it was used, but now there was little cover in its scraggly branches. I figured if a guy brought some extra boughs with him, it would still be a dandy spot. The big fella volunteered to go up and Andre and I struggled not to laugh as the smooth, white trunk sagged and groaned under his weight. But, he made it to the perch and gingerly tested its soundness. He was wearing the dirty white-gray jogging suit that he’d been working in all day and I told him he looked pretty good up there in his pyjamas, ‘cause they blended well with the dead cedar. He smiled, “Oh yeah, I’ll take this one!” It was after 5, by the time we patrolled the northern shoreline back to camp. Al and I quickly geared up and fired a last practice shot. Though he did not hunt, Andre said he was pumped up just watching our growing excitement and seeing all the evidence of moose nearby. Good feed and sign were everywhere. No one had hunted here in years, and the weather was unbeatable. I hadn’t seen a cloud all day. A light breeze was, just now, dying and though it had warmed considerably through the day, bringing out more than a few hungry pests, a definite chill was now in the air along with the promise of a heavy frost for the morning.
The sun was dropping to the treetops as Al and I paddled silently up to the north end. I figured on dropping him at his stand in the hay, then stroking halfway back, making a call, and heading to the south stand. After that, he and I would both call. The canoe bottomed out twenty feet from shore. It was dead calm, and each splash, knock and step, bounced around the bay as I pushed away. Al’s labored breath carried across the reeds and I laughed again on hearing the cedar creak and groan. Looking back, Pyjama Boy was up and, somehow, vaguely hidden against the twilight. He took his orange hat off, and I almost lost him. It was incredible. No cover or cammo, and he was barely visible! Little noises, the rustle of my coat, reeds against the gunnel, swirls behind my paddle, each pained my ears while I slowly stroked the weedline back for about 200 yards and drifted to a stop. I managed to stow the paddle silently and did the long listen. The sun was almost down and, looking west, the shoreline was dark and indecernable. Andre was standing on the dock a ways to the south, but to see directly across was futile. Orange above, black below. My ears rang already. A deep breath, a muffled cough into my hand, a little listen, another breath and I called. Long and low, back to the hayfield. And again, pleading to the hillside. My eyes watered from the effort and my pulse pounded in stereo, but I heard it. Right away. Where, what? I wasn’t sure. Yep, there it was, a distant “pop”, west, in the blackness. Or was it my belly? I strained forward, to close the distance, and pointed one ear. Four beats of my heart and, snap, the branch that only a moose could break. Unreal! This is it! Red Alert! I waved frantically to Pyjama Boy. Why? I couldn’t even see him! It seemed to be a fair distance off, across the lake, in the dark, low lying bush. But, from the uniform, well spaced answers and frequent crashes, it was obvious that he was on his way, and determined. While he was moving fast, I backstroked towards shore, beached, deftly grabbed the Legend and tiptoed, through 6 inches of water, to the alder cover on land. Suddenly breathless, I took refuge in a lovely trio of boulders at water’s edge, huffing like a locomotive. His distant pop had become a subtle bark, descending, quietly now, to lake level. Caution had entered his mind as he closed on the opening and, though his footfalls had stopped, the barking was steady, at 20 second intervals. My eyes were useless, but I felt his big ears scoping across the lake. He was locked on to this locale and I dared not move. A waiting game. All was still, and he called no more. The silence was electric. Sitting in the rocks, one leg started to vibrate. My leg was electric! But I’m good at that game, and in the state I was in, knew better than to try a call. Instead, I poked around for a thin stick of driftwood, and snapped it sharply in the air. The report echoed back from the far shore, almost overlapped by a coarse “woooff” and crush of branches. Within seconds, he was stepping in the shallow water. I could only imagine his impressive rack, striding proudly, wading straight out towards me. The splashes deepened with the water, as did the tension, for it seemed he was soon to be swimming across and I had yet to see him. There was plenty of hunting light remaining and though I was blind to that direction, he would have a better view. My canoe floated ten critical yards offshore, directly in line. A move was required. The moose had stopped, knee deep, I suppose, and was staring me down. I figured the next time he moved, I would too, along the shore, north, closer to Al. If he swam the lake I’d try to pull him to where one of us may get a shot. The wait seemed forever, but at last, he grunted and stepped out once again and, on his third splash, I trotted four quick steps. He stopped and I sloshed four more, pulling up beside an overhanging alder. He was in motion again, but seemed to have more spring in his step and I realized that he had turned and now paralleled me as I looked north. Either he had spooked or decided to circle the lake. But his steps were plodding and steady and he called often, and, deep inside, I heaved a sigh of relief. He was coming around and I was pretty sure I could drag him past my partner. Time was the only factor. I had to keep him moving.I tugged the brim of my hat down to shield against the bright sky and stared hard at the sounds coming from the far shore. A hulking shape loomed out of the darkness, floating like a black ghost against the treeline. He sloshed along, ten yards offshore, becoming more defined as the background bush dropped to the horizon. Covered by his noise, I hop-scotched from boulder to boulder, making good time while staying close to shore, but soon ran out of rocks and had to stop. He plodded on until a brushy point jutted out, blocked his way. Sensing him roll his head around to listen, I swished the water with one boot while gulping my best calf call. At that, he “woofed” heavily and plowed onto the point, disappearing, but emerged shortly, on the waterfront, and stopped where the thin strip of hay began, highlighting his silhouette. The head was tilted back, long nose high, and, when he lowered it, a small tight rack was noticeable. I rustled some alders with my free hand and mewed as a calf until he moved once more. And so it went, alternating steps, call and answer, up opposing shorelines into the bay. Each call became easier as my voice loosened and confidence rose. But his treks grew shorter, stops more frequent. These stalls were painfully quiet and testing. A thousand crickets seemed to ring in my ears. Dare a call? Swirl a foot or shake a tree? One errant sound and he could be off. Pounding pulse and patience. Often, pure silence coaxed him on, and a bark, loud and gruff, would explode, in time with his first step, and echo across the bay. Moving and halting with the moose, for the better part of an hour, I had worked myself into a fine position, beneath a clump of alder, 60 yards from Pyjama Boy. I could vaguely see his pale figure, crouching in the stand, against the quickly darkening sky. The young bull, contrasted, bold and black against the hay, was broadside less than 100 yards beyond, steam spouting from his upturned nostrils as his head nodded slowly in a small circle, searching for a scent. His ears, standing at attention, focused on my hideout. The silence was deafening. One last delicate barrier lay twenty yards ahead of him. The outlet creek, 10 yards wide, the outer limit of Al’s shooting range. If only I could move him across. And soon.Our silent staredown dragged painfully . He stood motionless. Frozen, stone still. And I gave in.Grabbing a handful of brush, I gave it a gentle shake, then, cracked the heaviest branch. “WHOOOF” The entire body of the bull convulsed, as he let out a thunderous grunt and trotted the short distance to the creek. The deep roar had scarcely bounced from the hills and back to my ears when he jerked to a stop at the bank. I rattled the bush again. Instantly, he roared and shook and, to my dismay, turned and ran down stream, out of sight. I gave a desperate call, loud and pleading, and heard his splashing hooves, going away. My heart dropped. Then, pounding through the grass, there he was, on our side, barreling right down the trail towards me. I’m not sure why, if he saw me or smelled pyjamas, but he halted, dead in his tracks, straight under Al. I saw Al draw, heard a whir and a whack, and that bull spun on a dime and plunged, headlong, into the deep creek and lumbered up the other side to shake off, exactly where he had stood a few short seconds earlier. With a disgusted look back, he trotted away through the hay. Twigs rustled and snapped as he hit the bush. Then all was silent. Except for the heartbeats.
Again, I waved my arms frantically at Al, hoping for some kind of response, but I guess he’s not much on sign language. So I strained my ears for a short while then, carefully, slipped along the shore and waited for him to come down the bare cedar. He had stayed up to listen and now was having a hard time descending. He was wide-eyed, quivering noticeably, and gasping as he tried to whisper.“Unreal” was all he could manage.“Did you get him?” I had to ask.“Better than sex” he babbled, “never been so excited!” “Did you get him?” “Oh yeah, stuck him good! Up here!” And he reached around for the part of his back that he couldn’t reach. “ Just the feathers left sticking’ out! Buried it. Was gonna take another shot when he stopped there, but couldn’t get it off! Last I heard him, he crashed thru that feed over there and that was it!” Al pointed down the creek to where it bent around a thick tangle of red willow. “I’m pretty sure he’s dead meat! Man, that was something else!I pumped his big mitt and slapped up at his shoulder. “Exxxcellent!”Al rambled on. “I thought we’d lost him when he took off that last time. He musta’ known it was shallow over there. Drew on him as he ran in, the railing was in the way. I had to get up on my toes to shoot. Couldn’t really aim, I just shot. Man, oh man. Un******real.”
It was last light and we briefly searched for blood at the scene of the crime. None could be found and I left Allen flicking his bic and slogged back to retrieve the canoe. From the sparkle in his eye and smile on his face, I was confident there was a moose down, somewhere, across that creek. By the time I stroked in, Al was at the water, on the trail, with no blood yet. Thick gouges and craters scarred the other bank where the bull had hauled up and out. Al jumped in and I swung him across. No blood. It was hard to pick out the proper set of tracks, given the number at hand, but the thin crystal frost, quickly forming on the grass, had been disturbed in his wake and we found a couple small dots of red a short distance from shore. On finding a second patch of blood, I placed my hat over it and we retreated to the canoe and paddled hard for home. Man, I was thirsty! It was a moonless, starlit night. Marvelous.
Andre waited by a small fire at camp. He had heard it all! The grunts and bellows, snapping and splashing, and was completely amazed. He was nearly as excited as the two of us. We hurriedly told him the story, so far, while gulping down an ice cold beer and rounding up lights, rope and axe. And we all piled into the boat and motored back up the lake to pick up the trail. It had been forty minutes since the shot.
We must have been quite a sight that night, in the hay. Three of us, side by side, puffing steam. Ice crystals sparkled all around. Al sported a miner’s type cap lamp and gripped two hands on my cocked crossbow. I walked slightly ahead, Coleman lamp held high, axe at the ready. Andre waved a Maglight, sweeping for eyes, far ahead, side to side. The blood trail was scarce, but steady. One or two drops every five yards. The swath through the frosted grass gave us a good look ahead and the trail was never lost. It led into the patch of willow and we found our prize laying just on the other side. A three year old bull with a chunky little rack. Allen’s arrow had worked its way out the bottom of the belly. The feathers no longer adorned his back. His final run had covered less than 100 yards. We raised a little cheer, did a little dance, and made quick work of gutting him, leaving the tip of his heart on a nearby branch. (a tradition passed from my late father-in-law) With our moose propped open under a cloud of rising steam, we headed back, starry eyed, into that marvelous night.
The next afternoon brought 3 days of warm rain, but our spirits were never dampened. George popped in Friday, as scheduled, and flew our quartered moose out, to hang in the cooler at the lodge. The bows were stored away, and the camp frame was completed. One quiet morning, a young bull chased a cow and calf along the far shore. Wanting nothing to do with him, she clipped along thirty yards ahead, each splashing hoof sending up a little rainbow. We found some time to catch a few fish and fix up tree stands and shooting lanes. The old bare cedar was deemed worthy and left untouched, ready for the next brave hunter Monday morning, under heavily overcast skies and steady drizzle, the Beaver came and three happy campers were homeward bound, jam packed with memories..