Sunday, September 29, 2013

Lost

I looked up at the sky, searching for any sign of stars or moon or even the outline of familiar peaks- a black shape silhouetted on a slightly less black background. Nothing. Rain continued to fall like it had all evening and into the night- not the passing showers but a steady cold drizzle that saturated everything. My feet hadn't been dry since morning, yesterday morning at this point, and my pants and shirt were slowly wicking water from the cuffs. My torso was mostly dry and warm thanks to layers of merino wool,good quality mountaineering clothing topped with a layer of impenetrable old school rain gear. I was probably better off than my companions in that regard. I shifted around slightly on the tundra moss to try to get a little more comfortable and get some sleep. What landed me in this position wasn't some cataclysmic event, but rather an ongoing series of common errors whose effect was compounded. I knew (more or less) where I was and roughly where I needed to go but the route to get from here to there was elusive. I was lost.

How I arrived at my uncomfortable position started that morning. After driving until midnight, we had rendezvoused with my long time friend and frequent hunting companion Bill at a spot I'll just refer to as Coffee Creek. He had a camper set up there with his wife and we slept there until daybreak. At sunrise we left on ATVs and headed up the Coffee Creek trail into the mountains south in pursuit of caribou and moose. The hunt went well, despite foul weather and snow, and we hunted hard all day seeing bears, moose, caribou and ptarmigan. Early in the morning we stalked a band of caribou who gave us the slip just before a snow squall hit and we hunkered down out of the weather in zero visibility conditions. Bill's cabbed Argo made waiting out the storm much more comfortable.

After it passed we continued in snow conditions for several more miles, stopping to glass frequently. About twelve miles or so into wilderness of the Alphabets we glassed a covey of ptarmigan and shot several. It had grown late in the day and I must admit, I was cold and tired when we turned the machines toward camp. About a mile on our return trip through the mountains a small bull caribou came prancing out off the mountains. It spied me and approached to within a hundred yards. I shot it and after field dressing, had it stowed on my ATV to be butchered at camp. The rest of the ride to camp was uneventful, when we passed 5000'in elevation the steady snow turned to sleet and at lower elevation the snow turned entirely into rain. The creeks were swollen and the mudholes that dotted the trails were full and we arrived back at camp about 7:30pm.

My son was in the camper and in dry clothes in a flash and was soon eating a hamburger with Bill's wife Laurie. Bill and I pulled my ATV under the camper's wide awning and we soon had the small bull butchered beautifully and we both looked forward to dry clothes and a hot meal before we turned in for the night. Our neighbor in the gravel pit was a guy I'll refer to as Clueless Joe. Joe and his father in law had been there for a few days beside Bill and Laurie and the two had started a casual friendship prior to my arrival. Bill had tracked down a lost caribou for the pair the day before in his Argo and much was said about it's impressive abilities in the difficult terrain that Coffee Creek contained. So it wasn't unusual when Joe showed up in our camp and started the conversation.

"I shot a moose!" exclaimed Joe.

"Great," replied Bill, "How big was it?" and the other usual small talk that sportsmen engage in when describing a recent field success.  His answers were pretty vague and our quizzical glances must have triggered his next response.

"I haven't got it yet, I just shot it!" Joe replied to our glances.

"Not field dressed? Not gutted?" asked Bill, "What are you doing back at camp?"

"Well that's what I came over here about...want to make some money?" Joe replied.

I must admit that the alarm bells were going off right and left. As a sportsman I generally know that most other sportsmen are helpful sorts of folks and there's a kind of Golden Rule and Trail Karma that says we all have to look out for each other out there. I've pulled my share of stuck wheelers from the mud (and been pulled out in turn) as well as searched for lost animals and butchered and field dressed many animals. Most hunters will readily lend a hand because you never know, next week it could be you in need. Joe's immediate appeal to profit motive was a significant breach of field etiquette and when combined with a mystery moose, vague directions, et al it simply set off my radar.

I looked at Bill and could see he was torn about it. He was clearly skeptical about Joe's story and his request was certainly straining their new found relationship. Bill reluctantly agreed and like a good friend let me off the hook immediately, "You're beat man- I got this. Just rest easy." To let Bill ride off into the approaching dark in the Argo would have been to surrender my man card indefinitely. Moose are big and three guys (one of them 75) might not be enough and Bill's discomfort with the idea was apparent. He needed a wing man.

"No way man, I'm not letting you ride on this alone. More hands will make lighter work." I replied. With Evan stowed safely in the camper with Laurie I grabbed a couple of knives, a headlamp and a sandwich. I made my first flawed assumption of the night and said, "This shouldn't take too long."

We made our way several miles, following Joe and his father in law on their ATV. The Argo is an impressive beast albeit a slow one with a rough ride. We arrived at Joe's observation point with just enough light to see. What lay before me was the most inopportune place to shoot a moose in perhaps the entire world. I could see the river, a narrow spit of land perhaps a mile long and a long, large pond. The pond was ringed with marsh grass four feet high for perhaps 20 yards all the way around. Our vantage was a hill that dropped 400 feet into a black spruce forest that encircled the pond for a mile in every direction save the edge that butted to the river. Looking closer at the forest I could see bands of yellow willow and none of the trees were very big.

It was just one huge swamp bordered by steep ridges on three sides and a river on the fourth. Each ridge had multiple fingers that ran sharply down into the swamp. Our observation point was on one of those fingers and under intense questioning Joe revealed the moose's location and it appeared to be perhaps two miles away across a swamp, a bog, and a pond. Presumably the moose had fallen in the marsh grass and was no longer visible. Under more questioning Joe revealed the location he shot from to be on our side of the pond. Distance across the pond had to be 600 yards. When I asked Joe how many rounds he fired to drop the moose his only reply was, "A lot."

This smelled like trouble.

We all boarded the Argo and picked our way down the mountain and into the thick swamp below. While the linear distance was two miles we would have to pick our way around the swamp staying on the most solid ground we could find at the bases of the ridges- a distance of at least five or six miles at least and our progress was impeded by numerous tussocks, bogs and blowdowns since any tree that grew more than about 25 feet tall gave up it's footing in the soft earth and fell over in the areas numerous windstorms. I saw immediately why Joe wanted Bill's help- this was where wheelers go to die. He had thought we'd simply motor down and take advantage of the Argo's amphibious capability and simply boat across the pond to the moose. The only issue was that we were several hundred pounds over the amphib rating of the Argo and while it's true that the Argo would float, it didn't do well in the bog conditions that ringed the pond. The ground wasn't firm enough to hold the weight of the machine and not fluid enough to float it. We'd just be stuck.

After considerable difficulty we managed to maneuver the Argo through the miles of rough country to about where we thought the moose would be. Joe climbed into the marsh grass and went on a stumbling search pattern looking to the moose. High grass, thigh deep water and darkness hampered his effort. I decided that "in for a penny, in for a pound" and I shed my pants and pulled my rain pants back on and waded into the water. My already damp boots filled for water as I waded out. After a few moments of wading in the grass I heard a hissing sound and smelled the familiar odor of ungulate digestion. I wandered toward the noise and there in the murky water was a moose leg and on closer inspection I saw a bubbling wound. The moose had been shot in the gut and was off gassing enough that it was bubbling just under the surface of the water.

I felt around and found the head and pulled the beast's head above surface and saw a small paddle. Not good. I twisted and grunted around and pulled the other side above the water, a three tined antler appears. Doubly not good. "Hey Joe, you want the good news or the bad news?"

"Give me the good," he replied.

"I found your moose," I responded back. "The bad news is that he isn't legal."

Joe started thrashing and wading toward my light, cursing as he went. He soon arrived and looked down and seeing the moose's antler said, "I could have swore it was a fork! Now what do we do?"

"You're going to have to turn it in." I replied. "We're here to recover a moose and we're going to recover a moose. You can turn it in and get a little ticket or not and get a much bigger ticket."

Joe muttered under his breath and we rigged a haul line from the Argo to moose and with considerable effort yarded the moose from his watery grave to the firm sandbar beside the river. Decency prevents me from retelling the numerous field dressing blunders of the next two hours but suffice to say the moose was not done justice and every so often Bill would shoot me a glance that silently said, "How did we get tangled up with these guys?" But finally after much work and instruction we had the moose, now destined for some other family, in the back of the Argo. We were seriously overweight and Bill was worried about making it out of the swamp. A quick decision was made that Joe would walk back, taking a more direct route and father in law would ride on the meat.

One thing was immediately clear, our back trail that one would think would look like a bull dozer had traversed the area looked like nothing at all. The eight foot tall willows simply sprang up once we passed and soon we realized we were driving through the swamp in circles. The overcast night yielded no stars and the steep ridges all around prevented any meaningful look at the skyline. We began a series         of foot recons to try to pick the best path to lumber the heavy machine through. After a couple of hours we decided that we should pick a ridge gentle enough to climb and attempt to get our bearings. We only accomplished this we tremendous difficulty and finally topped out on the summit.

It was 3am.

Bill and I had a brief conference. It was 3am, we were down to a quarter tank of fuel, the air cooled engine was rasping with a burnt valve and we were all exhausted. Bill and I made the decision to simply stop until dawn and with the daylight we could find our way out. This decision caused considerable consternation with Joe who needed talking out of walking out in the dark. I explained that we were fine, no one was hurt but if we kept driving around in the dark we'd either flip the machine, run out of fuel or have a break down. Joe was also pointing in a direction that was certainly not the direction of the highway, camp or the trail system. I was pretty certain where we were; on a different finger of the ridge on which we started and pretty sure we needed to travel south to hit the highway but the terrain between here and there was a mix of steep ridges, deep ravines and watery bogs.

I decided to do the most practical thing possible and that was to build a fire. I used a small bow saw and  soon had a collection of dry spruce boughs. They would burn fast, but daylight was only a few hours away. Bill went to work on the fire and soon we had a good blaze going. Joe had calmed down considerably and his father in law proved to be a pleasant companion around the fire. I even managed to get some sleep, albeit it was pretty uncomfortable.

I was up in the pre dawn light and immediately recognized the ridge to our south as the one that overlooked camp. I stood on a convenient boulder and within a few minutes a truck came down the highway- his headlights easily visible. We were likely one finger over from the overlook our adventure started from and only about a mile from the highway itself. We roused ourselves and when the dawn had developed enough for safe maneuvering we set off. Joe and I took foot recon and soon had a path down the slope but the upslope to climb the ridge was right on the verge of the Argo's tipping point. We fed out the winch line the full one hundred feet. Bill's thinking was we'd use trees to anchor and take up slack as he applied power to the wheels in case the machine tried to tip backwards the winch would catch it. After several harrowing minutes the Argo was at the anchor tree. We would then pull the winch line again in a process we'd repeat eight times before we crested the ridge. From the crest we had only a short ride to the trail. We were only a 1/2 mile from Joe's parked wheeler. But we might as well been on the moon for our ability to navigate the terrain in the dark.

I was 8am by the time I sacked out in the camper- a full 26 hours from the time we started our hunt.

Exhausted.


4 comments:

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Hodge

hardly the most relaxing of weekends afield, but as you point out when you've got to do what's right you've got to do what's right. Is there going to be a part two?
SBW

hodgeman said...

SBW- not for this hunt. Evan and I left for home after some sleep that afternoon. Clueless Joe went to the Trooper station and turned in the moose and (presumably) took his ticket. No one was the worse for wear afterwards- just tired.

Thought about an epilogue that lists the hits and misses of the adventure. May do just that in a future piece. I still have several hunts to write about though...a blessedly full fall season.

Phillip said...

Ah, the things we do to help a fellow hunter. I can only hope Clueless Joe was appropriately appreciative for the assist...

I expect you've racked up a decent tally of karma points after this one. Hope you have space on your trophy wall.

Brigid said...

A most excellent story. Never hunted Moose, that must be quite the experience.