Bushed Pilot Autumn – Moose from the Air, Muskox in the Willows, Caribou… somewhere north.
It is autumn, and moose hunting season, and around here that has become a bigger deal than ever. From a practical standpoint nowadays moose are the most reliable and attainable large meat animal in the neighborhood. Used to be, twenty years ago, that moose were nice to have but the caribou were the real focus of meat-gathering. I miss those days. Also, in those days, it seemed easier to focus on my moose hunting – to decide, about September 21st (since we don’t have a freezer big enough to stow a moose it has to be cold enough weather for hanging until freeze up) that it was time to start and just get with the program: early morning after morning, out in the boat; down to the old burn east of here; walk, stand, sit, sip cocoa or coffee; try a few amateurish moose bellows and grunts; listen. Go back home.
Eventually that routine, based more on persistence and stubbornness than any real proficiency, resulted in success. There is one place down that way where I could stand right now today and throw a stone to the precise patch of ground where each of six moose fell dead over the years. That includes one that I didn’t kill, a mature bull killed by a big pack of wolves – but that is another story. That one square mile or so was moose central those years, and we counted on it.
Now many aspects of those early hunting years have changed. The burn where I love to hunt moose was burnt back in the late 1970’s. Year by year it has grown in, and it is not nearly the moose pasture it was 20 years ago. Biologists have told me that moose use of a burn habitat peaks at about 14 years after the fire. Here I think it might be a little longer than that, but eventually any burn will grow back and its attractiveness to the moose will decline.
It seems, too, that my ability or resolve for stringing together day after day of steady morning moose hunts has shifted or passed away. We are in a constant state of change here as a family, with the girls growing into young adults, and the demands of running a little air charter business, and the usual round of autumn projects demanding time at home. I think the days of full family support for my 50 or 60 hours of moose hunting (and maybe no success!) began to wane a few years ago, and will likely never come back. There was one memorable year when it seemed like I could not do anything right when it came to moose hunting. I flubbed chance after chance, some of them seeming to be almost too perfect to mess up – i.e. two moose on an island and me, with rifle, in a boat — and we went into freeze-up eating fish and wishing for a caribou herd to show up.
The Bathurst caribou herd began a precipitous decline in the early years of the new millennium, and luckily for all of us (and for them) the Territorial Government wildlife people accomplished a harvest restriction which appears to have saved them from a truly disastrous bottoming-out, a la the cod in Newfoundland. First the resident non-native hunt (i.e. us white people who live in the NWT) was curtailed, then stopped completely. That was followed almost immediately by a complete and total stoppage of outfitted trophy hunting. Then the real political hurdle came – trying to somehow curtail the Native hunt – First Nations, aboriginal, Metis people. Even that has now been accomplished.
Until those population numbers turn around, we will not see the opportunity to hunt caribou here. If anyone had told us 20 years ago that there would come a day at the Hoarfrost River when we could not legally shoot a caribou, and a winter when we might go for months without even seeing a caribou, we would never have believed it. But then again, had the same person told us that one day we would see muskox strolling along the beach here and hardly remember to remark about it at the dinner table, we would not have believed that either. The other night, out cruising the shore with Kristen – looking for moose or a black bear – we spotted two muskox in 10 minutes, both of which were evidently loners and probably old bulls. My trigger finger was twitching, but until our muskox tag comes from Lutsel K’e, we will desist. The muskox in this neighborhood are doing very very well.
So it is moose. The rut is on, the cold weather has begun to set in, and the season has been open since September 1st. It runs until the end of January. This focus on moose meat plays out in several ways here. First, I adjust my flight paths whenever I am out flying, in order to try to include a careful scouting of the shoreline east and west of us. Second, we try to get out at least once a day in the boat or on foot, armed and ready, looking and walking ashore, standing, sometimes calling, sometimes being quiet. And third, I sometimes even go out in one of the planes – preferably the Husky with its quiet ease aloft and its minimum fuel burn – simply to scout for moose.
Which brings us to the question – if you have an airplane, aren’t you more or less guaranteed to get a moose if you try? After all, there is no limitation whatsoever on “land and shoot” for moose here in the Territories. Moose can be shot by a hunter standing on the float of a taxiing plane, and many in the Territories are. I have myself shot several moose that were spotted from the air. But only once, in 1998, have I landed on a moose AWAY from the shoreline of McLeod Bay, shot it, and loaded it piece by piece into a plane (the Husky) to transport it back home. That process is, in short, difficult and unpleasant, and messy and hard on equipment. Small floatplanes make wonderful moose-spotting machines, and terrible moose-hindquarter transport machines, especially for one man working alone.
So I will live the next weeks in hope – there will be moose sighted, I am sure of that. What I really want is that one along the big lake, preferably within two or three hundred yards of the shoreline, preferably early enough in the day that we can find home without having to shut off the outboard and howl from the boat, and listen for the dogs here to answer us and guide us in to our dock through the cold blackness of an October night.