Over breakfast one morning last week I asked Kristen what she would like as a gift to mark our wedding anniversary. It had been thirty years to the day since we had tied the knot on a mild January day in Minneapolis. Ever practical, and with a twinkle in her eye, she didn’t miss a beat: “A moose would be nice.”
Moose, and more precisely moose meat, were much on our mind that morning. Kristen, Liv, and I had spent most of the daylight hours of the previous day roaming on snowshoes, toting rifles, up and down some small drainages east of the Hoarfrost valley, looking for fresh moose tracks. But alas, by the close of the day, we had not looked at any moose. The moose-hunting season in the Northwest Territories ends on the 31st of January. Time was getting a little tight. But we had been here before and there was still a glimmer of hope.
It has been very cold here this January, and in between cold snaps the snow has deepened with small incremental snowfalls. Moose do not truly migrate, yet over our many winters here I have noticed that around Christmas or New Years we always start to see more moose sign down in the lower ends of the drainages that fall into McLeod Bay from the north. My pet theory is that as winter’s snow starts to build up and drift into the hollows of the landscape, especially up near the taiga edge and the tree-line, the scattered moose that make their summer homes up there do shift south a few miles to easier movement and better browsing. Every year around Christmas we start to see moose sign again, even if we haven’t seen any at all since mid-autumn. In recent years, when most of the milder part of the hunting season has been spent pounding nails and sawing lumber up at the new house site, or in years when some other work or distraction has disrupted the prime autumn hunting time, the Hail Mary move is to make one last effort for moose meat during January. Sometimes it works.
Like all who dwell in the remote outbacks of the world, we wind up speculating a lot about the movements of wild animals, their tracks and sign, the patterns of local weather, changes in the water level of rivers and lakes, and the constant interplay between and amongst all these things. I suppose this ongoing theme of our home conversations strikes urbane and worldly types as quaint, or downright odd, as would Kristen’s wish for a Moosemeat Anniversary (a la silver anniversary, or emerald, and so on, as listed on the chart in the jewelry store. It’s a pearl for 30, if you must know.)
This year we have had a new source for long conversations about our chances of re-filling the meat cache, starting on the day I last posted some writing here, December 30th. That morning Kristen and our two daughters had three dogteams all harnessed for a run up into the hills. I was inside, worshipping the woodstove, and planning to go out with a small dogteam later on. Liv burst through the door, breathless, and said, “there’s a big pack of wolves out on the ice,” and bolted outside again. I grabbed a coat, hat, mitts and binoculars, and hurried out the door. Kristen was pointing toward the lake. Just beyond the rocky island where our windmill stands was the biggest assembly of wolves I have ever seen in one place. There were 22 of them. Most were standing still, some were pacing back and forth; a couple were half-sitting, and several were howling – I could clearly see heads tilted back and even the steam of breath, but their voices were drowned out by the clamor of two dozen huskies all yelping to get going. It was an awesome sight, and I choose that drastically over-used word only when nothing else will serve. Twenty-two wolves, none small, several of them hundred-pounders. I have never seen such a group – the other big packs I have seen have been eighteen, once, thirty years ago, and a few groups of fourteen.
I thought about what we should do. Here was a cadre of strong and savvy carnivores, right on our doorstep at forty below zero, in a place where food for them was not abundant. The sheer size of the pack and its individuals put a new perspective on our situation. I went back inside and grabbed a 30-30 carbine, and when I got back down to the shore, the wolves had grouped together on the ski trail leading off across the ice, where the girls had been out skiing, in the dark just after dusk the night before. (Grudgingly toting pepper spray and a firearm, after some family discussions about a much smaller pack of wolves we had seen on the ice earlier in winter.) I lifted the gun and fired into the air above that herd of wolves, three shots in rapid succession, and they scattered instantly, sprinting off to the east-southeast whence they had come. Clearly they got the one plain message I wanted to convey, which was simply this: “Not welcome here. Come no closer.”
The dogteams and mushers all departed on their outing, with a change of route to remain on this side of the river that day. We have seen no sign of that big wolf-pack since that morning. A few days ago there were tracks of a few wolves and a file of musk ox together, on the trail uphill from home.
Wolves have long elicited wild swings of unreasonable attitudes from us humans, ranging from steely-eyed hatred to misty-eyed adulation. A new book sheds some needed clear light on these amazing animals, and on their situation today. I am reading it, and I recommend it. (Wild, Paula. Return of the Wolf: Conflict and Coexistence. Douglas and McIntyre (2013) Ltd.)
Seeing that enormous group of wolves led us to some long discussions and rudimentary calculations on calories, body size, and predation. It is deep winter and we know, better than most people, what a volume of feed and fat it takes to keep our 34 sled dogs warm and healthy day after day, week after week. If a pack that size stays together for long, they must bring down a sizeable animal – a moose would do nicely, for instance, or better yet a cow-calf pair of moose – every few days, just to sustain themselves. This line of thinking had convinced us that the already long odds of our finding and killing a late-season moose had just dwindled even further. Having seen the competition face to face, it was clearly their game to lose. We could only hope that they had moved out of the area, up toward treeline east or north where there are some caribou herds.
Liv and I went out hunting on that wedding-anniversary morning, and Kristen stayed back to await word. We had our open-sight rifles and a limited amount of 30.06 bullets we had re-loaded. First we split up; Liv snowshoed north and I circled around by a different trail to cut for fresh tracks, and then we joined up and drove by skidoo up the Gyrfalcon trail east of the river. I will skip the Field and Stream hunting saga and only say that on that day we were lucky. I make no great claims as a hunter, or as a marksman. In fact my biggest attribute in the field, over the years, has been just dogged perseverance. By mid-day we had a beautiful moose lying dead on the snow, about two miles from home and about a quarter mile off the trail. And as with many aspects of the hunting and gathering life, once the primeval thrill of the chase ended, the work began.
The dinner that night, here in the log workshop that has been home since the fire of 2014, was one I will never forget. The table was spread with a fancy tablecloth, the good tableware was out, and the entrees included garden potatoes, boletus mushroom sauce, sourdough garlic bread, and – trumpet fanfare – medallions of moose tenderloin. What put our Hoarfrost River stamp on the night, though, was the ambience of the room out beyond the edges of the elegantly set table. There, five feet from the candles, still dusted with slowly thawing snow from the forty-below night outside, was a big sled piled high with the glistening quarters, ribs, neck, back, and choice inner bits of a butchered moose. A thick brown hide draped over it all. A couple of feet past that sat a big construction-grade generator, two chainsaws, various tools and axes and stained coveralls, and beyond that the makeshift cage where our ancient barn cat Razor – now incontinent – is living out his final days in the warmth of the house. Past that sat another big tub of parts and pieces saved for the dogs, and on top of that a severed moose head, one opaque eye staring upward. And on and on: stacked firewood, buckets of lake water, shelves of canned goods, layers of outer clothing and winter boot parts drying on racks and pegs. A laundry-drying line slung high above it all, festooned with clean undies, socks, long johns, and tea towels. Way up along the north wall, our bed with its sidebars of books and pillows and flashlights… Are you still with me? A decidedly gruesome scene to some, and completely beyond the comprehension of many. And maybe not an elegant dinner setting for the squeamish or the prim and proper, I admit.
This is local eating, in this land beyond agriculture. Those mounds of muscle, fat and sinew — those are the miracle, and they are a gift not to be purchased on the shelves of the stores of the world. That frosty pile of meat that will grace our table for many months ahead, a hide that in summer will become smoke-tanned leather, those enormous marrow-bones and racks of fat ribs — all given to us by a fellow denizen of this cold white January world. A moose that spent countless mornings of life standing knee-deep in snow, in dim twilight and wan sunrise, at forty below zero, munching on twigs! The onus is now upon us to stand and be worthy of such a gift.
Out there beyond our tiny cluster of warmth and light and buildings, those big packs of real hunters are endlessly on the hunt. I would not want to be on their to-do list. Strong and stealthy, they excel where we blunder. Hunting for meat is their entire life, not just a fleeting facet of it bound by distractions, alternative sources of food, and closed and open seasons. This time we lucked out and snatched the prize they would like to have had for their own. Happy anniversary, sweetie!