Moose Hunting, 2002
The following is the story of a moose hunt a friend of mine (I'll call him Henry) and I took out on the Tanana Flats in September, 2002. We have no photographs of the event, but I've always been turned off by the traditional "hunter with his kill" photos anyway. I hope my words can convey enough of what it was like.
First, I want to answer a common question I often get when telling hunting stories to those who don't hunt: "how can you justify taking an animal's life, and how does it make you feel?"
I've heard people say (about killing) that when the time came to pull the trigger, they were suddenly unable to do it, their hands started shaking, etc. For me it really wasn't like that at all. When the time came to actually pull the trigger, the excitement of the hunt and all the adrenaline running through me made it seem almost instinctual, rather than intellectual or emotional. After I shot her and when we came up on her I was very sad for her, and did feel some regret that I was responsible for the animal lying there dead. And I still feel pangs of regret when I think about what we saw the moose doing before I shot her (eating, walking around, laying in the grass, etc.) -- happy moose doing moosy things, now dead moose lying on the ground.
But I think that my more rational side keeps these more emotional responses in check. I eat meat and use animal products like leather, which means I'm responsible for the slaughter of many, many animals already, even if I'm not the one operating the bolt gun that kills them. I don't think that getting meat from the supermarket absolves you of any of the responsibility of the slaughter, most people just choose to believe that it does.
On top of that, there's the environmental issues related to factory produced meat, compared with my "free-range, 100% organic" moose. If you're interested in reading about cattle production, check out the article "Power Steer" by Michael Pollan, published in the New York Times Magazine on March 31, 2002.
Assuming the Department of Fish and Game is regulating the population properly (which I believe they are), I'm taking an animal that may die anyway of things probably more painful that my bullet was (predation and starvation, mostly). So, I do feel bad about the taking of life and the brutal witness of this activity, but the rational application of morality lessens the impact of it.
Onto the story. . .
Henry and I left from Pike's Landing (a restaurant on the Chena River) at about 5 PM on Saturday evening. We had a bit of engine trouble at first, so we left later than we intended. The Chena is a deep, slow-moving, clear, spring and rainwater filled stream that runs into the Tanana River. The Tanana is a very wide glacial river that eventually flows into the Yukon River to the northwest. The boat ride took about 2 hours. Our final destination was a slough off the main channel that took us to within a few hundred yards of a large section of flats.
We tied the boat to a few alder bushes and set up camp. By the time we had the tent set up and started dinner it was around 8:00. We decided to check out the surrounding area before dinner so we'd have some idea of where to go the next morning. After an hour or so wandering around, we had dinner and went to bed.
The next morning (Sunday, September 1) we got up around 5:30, made coffee and had oatmeal. We got all our gear together, loaded our guns and set out. We both have Ruger M-77 bolt-action rifles, but mine takes .30-06 Springfield cartridges and Henry uses .338 rounds. I was using 180 grain bullets and Henry had 250 grain bullets.
The area we were hunting in is a mixture of black spruce forest, white spruce and birch forest, and swampy meadows. Much of the area had burned within the last three years, so most of the black spruce was dead and charred, but still standing. In between the standing charcoal was open ground, mossy vegetation with a few small shrubs. We hiked through the forested areas, using them to skirt around the meadows. It started to rain around 7:30 AM, and we stopped for a break. Henry climbed a tree to see if he could get a better feeling for the land.
After the break we continued through the forest into a section that was more severely burned. There was lots of evidence of moose in this area -- tracks and fairly fresh piles of moose droppings. At about 9:30 AM we reached the end of this section of burned black spruce, and were starting to plan our next move when Henry spotted a cow moose. We immediately dropped to the ground, slowly took off our packs and began quietly watching the moose. We wanted to make sure the cow didn't have a calf with her. It is legal to shoot a cow with a calf, but I don't think it's an ethical shot because the calf will almost certainly die without the cow. In this situation we would have shot the calf. Less than 50% of moose calves survive their first year in the wild.
After watching her for about 20 minutes and verifying that she had no calf, she crossed in front of us. She was walking through a section of the black spruce forest that bordered a meadow. The downed spruce and other vegetation at the edge of the meadow made a fairly thick screen. At several points I had the moose in my rifle sights, lined up for a shot, but I wasn't sure that the shot was clean enough to pull the trigger.
In retrospect, I probably had a very good opportunity in that first half hour, but this was the first time I'd fired that rifle at an animal and I wasn't very confident in the shot. I also didn't have a good rest for the rifle and would have had to take a standing shot without any support. At this point it had stopped raining, but it was overcast and fairly cool.
The cow kept moving through the vegetation, sticking close to the edge between the meadow and the black spruce. This allowed us to move fairly easily, parallel to her (because we were in the fairly open black spruce), but it meant that we never had a good shot at her through the dense vegetation at the edge. Because the meadow stays wet throughout the summer, the burn didn't affect the shrubs and trees in that section, so there's lots for the moose to eat (and hide in!) at this transition even though the black spruce area was heavily burned.
We lost her in the vegetation at several points, but one of us would pick her back up again a bit later. Henry was about 50 yards away from me, tracking the moose as I was. We continued doing this for about an hour and a half. At about 11:00 AM, she laid down about 100 yards in front of us in a very dense section of black spruce. We could see her ears and the back of her head, and could tell she was lying with her body facing away from us.
We sat down in the tundra and quietly discussed what we should do. We thought about taking a shot at her where she was, but from our vantage point it was very hard to tell where her heart-lung area was. Henry decided to circle around slightly and see if he could get a better shot. As he was crawling away, a goshawk (a forest hawk) attempted to take a black-backed woodpecker off a tree about 10 yards away from me. The hawk missed the woodpecker and landed very close to me. It was really cool.
At about 11:30 AM, the moose heard Henry moving around and stood up, alert to something going on. We were afraid that if she got startled while lying down she would bolt, but she didn't. She started working her way away from us toward the meadow she'd been skirting. She crossed the meadow into a thin patch of burned black spruce and started walking parallel to us.
At this point we were at the edge of one section of burned black spruce and she was on the other side of a narrow meadow in another patch of black spruce. Henry was behind her, and I was tracking her very closely across the meadow. Henry lost sight of her and kept going in the opposite direction, but I was fairly close to her, watching her walk through the spruce. Each time I thought she had walked into the open I'd look through my rifle and brush would obscure my shot. My heart was pounding and I had a hard time keeping steady.
We walked parallel to each other for another half an hour or so until she reached the end of the spruce patch she was in. The vegetation became fairly thin, and I saw that I'd have a shot. She was about 80 yards away from me, and standing perfectly perpendicular. There was nothing near me I could rest on, and when I got down into a kneeling position, I was too low, so I took aim from a standing position, and pulled the trigger. As I mentioned before, I was so pumped up on adrenaline and was concentrating so hard on making sure I took a good shot that I had no opportunity to really consider how I felt about it.
As soon as the gun went off, her head went up she bolted to the right and away from me and immediately disappeared into the vegetation. My first thought was terror that I'd hit her in a non-vital area and that she was running away wounded.
When I got to the area where she was standing when I shot her I started looking for any sign of blood to verify that I'd gotten a hit. Henry arrived about a minute later and we searched for a minute for a blood trail. We saw nothing, which made me think that maybe I'd missed her completely.
I started walking the route I thought I'd seen her run, while Henry looked for a high point to scan. About two minutes later Henry spotted her about 20 yards from me. These were the most awful two or three minutes because at this point I didn't know the consequences of my actions.
When we got to her she was laying on the ground already dead. Henry nudged her with his foot and then moved the end of his rifle around her eye to make sure she was really gone. We were about 30 yards from where I'd shot her, and it'd been about 5 minutes. There was no sign of an injury and no blood at all. We marked the spot with a red bandanna and ran back to where we'd first spotted her three hours earlier to retreive our packs. It was about 12:30 PM on Sunday. The sun was just starting to make an appearance and the sky was moving from overcast to partly cloudy.
When we got back to the moose with our gear, we immediately started working on getting her body cavity open and getting the guts out. This took about half an hour, and after that we could begin taking off the hide, removing the quarters, and stripping the rest of the meat off the carcass. When we entered the chest cavity we discovered that I had shot her right in the heart. The bullet went between two ribs, destroyed the top of her heart (including both atria, the pulmonary artery and the aorta), hit a rib on the other side of her chest and exploded part of her shoulder. I believe she died almost immediately, and probably didn't even know she was running after she'd been shot.
It took us until 7:00 PM to get everything off the carcass and into game bags. This is an exhausting, bloody job, mostly on your hands and knees in the muck. The gray jays and ravens had discovered our kill site and were fluttering around waiting for us to clear out. There was no sign of bears, which was good. Black bears are not uncommon in the area, but they are legally hunted, so we hoped none would show up. If one did, we would probably have shot it (both to protect us, and our meat) and had another animal to deal with.
We removed everything from the animal except the guts, the skull, the backbone and the rib bones. While Henry worked on the last quarter, I shuttled the game bags from there, across the meadow to the place where we dropped her packs. Because it was already so late, we decided to take the hind quarters, backstraps and tenderloins back to our base camp that night, and leave everything else in game backs above the ground on downed trees where we'd first seen her. This way the meat would stay cool, and protected from animals until we could bring it back to our base camp. Before leaving the area, we draped the hide over some branches to allow it to dry somewhat.
At about 8:00 PM we strapped the hind quarters on our backs and started walking back to our base camp. We were about 3/4 of a mile from camp, but it took us 2 hours to walk back. We had more than 90 pounds on our backs in that first trip, and physically, it was the hardest thing I've ever done. Carrying that much weight through the forest and meadows was absolutely exhausting. We got back to camp at 10:00 PM (it was now pretty dark), lit the lantern, draped the quarters on downed logs, and went almost immediately to sleep. We were too tired to eat anything.
The next morning (Monday) we got up late, moved the quarters into the boat, ate a large breakfast and went back to retrieve the rest of the meat. On our first trip back, Henry spotted a big bull moose. I had an antlerless permit, but Henry had a bull tag, so he could have shot the bull. Henry and I were already way too exhausted to think about hunting, gutting, cleaning and carrying another moose. The cow I shot was a fairly small cow, probably around 4 years old. An adult male would probably be almost twice this size.
We took three more trips to and from camp to get everything back (one with organ meat and the trimmings, one with the front quarters, and the final trip with the hide and the lower legs). We were finished with these trips around 4:00 PM. We packed up our camp, arranged everything on the boat, and took off for Fairbanks. We got back into town around 7:00 PM on Monday. It took us a couple hours to get the boat out of the water and unload everything.
On Tuesday morning I took the meat to the game processors. Not including the organ meats (Henry took those), the backstraps and tenderloins, the hide and lower legs, we brought 361 pounds of meat and bone to the processor. After processing we got 282 pounds of meat, including 136 pounds of ground meat, 105 pounds of steaks and the remainder as roasts and stew meat. When all the costs are figured in, the cost was approximately 80 cents per pound, including processing.
Well, I hope you enjoyed the story! Even though it was a horribly grueling adventure and I still haven't recovered from the experience, I'm already looking forward to doing it again someday. Hunting moose is somewhat of an Alaskan rite of passage, and I'm pleased with myself that I was able to come through it with my head held high. The moose didn't suffer, no one got hurt, and we'll be eating meat for a long time to come.
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