A Canadian Moose Hunt by Madison Grant

1895

In October, 1893, I made an extended trip with my brother into the country around the head waters of the Ottawa. Our original plan, to push northward toward the "Height of Land" after caribou, was frustrated by high winds, which made travel on the large lakes slow and dangerous. The crossing of a ten-mile lake, which could be accomplished in a morning if calm, would consume several days with a high wind blowing, necessitating a tedious coasting on the windward shore. After much delay from this cause and from heavy rains, which made hunting difficult in the extreme, we at length abandoned the hope of caribou on this trip, and turned southward from Birch Lake into Lake Kwingwishe—the Indian name for meat bird. This was about the northern limit of moose, although a few are found beyond it.

Our repeated failures to see this great deer would not form interesting reading, although, if recorded, they would, no doubt, bring to the mind of many a moose hunter memories of times when the hunt was hard and the result—a blank. It is my purpose in this article to merely sketch one or two instances of this sort, which, in contrast to days of unrewarded watching, were red-lettered with excitement. I only give the episodes because too often we relate our victories alone, and missed shots and barren tramps are consigned to ill-merited oblivion, however real they were.

A MOOSE OF THE UPPER OTTAWA.

After hunting the country around Lake Kwingwishe, we at length camped on a small pond near the east shore. Here we watched and called every night and morning; then we visited neighboring swamps and ponds, carrying a canoe through the forest by compass. It was always the same—wet and hungry, tired out with tramping through tamarack swamps, we would call half the night, sometimes startled with false alarms from hoot owl or loon, and then lie down in a rain-soaked tent without a fire, for smoke always scares a moose. The first streaks of dawn came, and again we were up and anxiously watching the shore for the appearance of the monster we were after. There were his tracks a few hours old but we could never catch him making them. It was too early in the season to trail them down, as the bulls were traveling continuously in impenetrable swamps, and our best chance was to run across them on the waterways.

One morning, on a pond we had named "Little Trout Pond," because it looked as though it should have trout in it, but did not; we awoke, after some specially exhausting and disappointing "back pond" expeditions, and found Chabot, one of our two Indian guides, gone. Late in the afternoon he returned. He had been seeing the country, and had found a swamp about three miles off full of fresh tracks, "so big moose," and he described tracks such as must have belonged to the Irish elk. Soon after sunrise on the following day we were there. Cold lunch, no dinner and lots of beautiful fresh tracks, one the largest I ever saw.

We watched motionless all day, saw the sun cross the zenith and sink out of sight, saw the twilight fade away and the moon come up. About midnight we went back to camp, through the woods. Night travel in a forest that you can scarcely get through in the daytime is beyond description.

"So good swamp," said Chabot sadly that night as he crawled into his tent.

The next day we pitched a rough camp on a hogback between two barren plains, about five miles from our main camp. It rained hard as soon as we got the tent up, and we watched a runway at the foot of the hill until dark and then turned in.

The next morning it rained so heavily that we lay in our tent, four of us, until about 11 A. M., when it slacked up a little. My diary says, "No fire and little breakfast." Before this "little breakfast" was finished we heard a moose call close by. Seizing our rifles, we started with Chabot to stalk him. The brevity of a diary is sometimes eloquent. Mine says, "Walked from 12 M. to 4.30 P. M. through the bush. Didn't hear that moose again."

The latter hour found us back in camp to get breakfast, when our other guide, Jocko, who had gone to the main camp for food, came back in great excitement, having found some fresh signs close at hand. Breakfast was dropped and again we started. We got back just after dark from that trip and ate—for the first time that day—some cold partridge and pork.

This was a fair sample of our hunting day, but did not equal the following one. It rained all that night, and the tent, not having been properly stretched, leaked. We were awakened by the crackling of a fire the guides had made. It was direct disobedience of orders, and contrary to the most elementary rules of moose hunting; but, cold and faint for want of food, we yielded to the innate perversity of the Indian. We made a wild-eyed, starved group, warming our fingers around the little blaze as it snapped up through the still, wet morning air. The teapot was just beginning to boil, the pork was just sizzling, when we sprang to our feet. A crash of antlers, as though two bulls were fighting, sounded not a hundred yards away. The noise was perfectly clear, having a metallic ring to it, and was caused by moose horns striking a hard substance.

Again. Without a word, we seized our rifles, and left our breakfast and fire, and I never saw that spot afterward. Again came the sound, still distinct, but further off, this time like a birch canoe dragged through alders. The animal had been on the runway which crossed at the foot of the hill we were camped on when he scented the fresh-lit fire. Well, to make a long story short, we followed that trail three weary hours of running and creeping through frightful swamps and thickets, hearing every few minutes the sound just ahead of us, but with never a sight of the game. His huge tracks, which we crossed now and again, showed he was not even trotting. Nearly exhausted, we kept following the sound directly, and so cutting across and gaining on him. Once he seemed just ahead, and we expected to see him each second; but we had to pay for the luxury of that fire, as for other good things in life, so we never saw a hair of him. When, at last, completely used up, we burst out on a lake and saw the muddy tracks and the water still "riled up" where he had crossed, Jocko swore he heard him crash up the opposite bank; but we were at the end of our strength and could go no further. A man must eat sometimes, even on a moose hunt.

Now comes the really tragical part of this episode; our canoe was not twenty feet from where this perverse animal had entered the water, and we were on the little pond where our permanent camp stood. Still we felt encouraged, for, as Chabot said that night, "Hear him now, see him pretty soon." But not for many days.

One more sample to encourage would-be moose hunters, and then we will kill a moose just to show how easy it is. Two nights after the above adventure we changed our camp and the weather at the same time. It was clear now, but it grew very cold, and made night work in the canoe a horror.

It was my brother's turn to call, and I was just dropping off to sleep in my tent, within a few feet of the lake shore, when from the other side of the water, about a quarter of a mile distant, a bull moose called. On the cold, still air it rang out like a trumpet—a long call, very different from the call made by Indian hunters. Jocko, who was with me in camp, was frantic with excitement, especially as my brother, who must have heard it, did not answer. Again the call sounded. The bull must be on the shore. I thought he might swim over. Then came the answering call, close at hand, of a cow. Jocko laughed and whispered, "Chabot call him." Then there was silence for a few minutes, followed by a final bellow, evidently further off. The mock cow bawled and screamed and bleated frantically, but no sound came back. My brother and his man kept it up until late that night, and then came to the camp almost frozen. That incident ruined my faith in calling, for every condition of wind and weather was perfect, and Chabot's calling apparently most enticing.

After this and similar episodes, we left the Kwingwishe country, after hunting it carefully as far north as Sassanega Lake. We passed Sair's Lake and the Bois Franc, and finally reached the Little Beauchene. Near the last lake my brother killed a young bull moose, whose meat was the first fresh food, except partridge, we had had for over three weeks. It was delicious, and we felt the change of diet at once in increased strength and energy. For continuous use moose meat is much superior to other venison, as it is of a rich flavor which does not readily pall on the taste. The myth about moose muffle being such a hunters' delicacy has never allured me to actually eat it, but I suppose a starving man might, after consuming his boots, manage to swallow it.

There were many fresh signs in the neighborhood of the Little Beauchene Lake, but some lumbermen had arrived a few days before us and had scared the game away. This starting the quarry is the real difficulty in moose hunting; for, when once disturbed, the bull leaves with all his kith and kin, so the only chance in these regions is to find him immediately on arrival in a new district and before he comes across your tracks.

Still working slowly southward, we hunted more back ponds, until at last my turn came on the twenty-seventh hunting day. Let no man say that moose hunting is a picnic.

We had camped on a little strip of land, between a pond and a long narrow swamp, about 4 o'clock on a beautiful afternoon. Leaving my brother and Jocko to eat dinner in comfort, I started to the head of the swamp. The water was so low that we could barely force the light canoe through the lily-pads. Old moose signs were plenty. A family of moose had evidently been there all summer, but until we reached the upper end we saw no fresh tracks. The sluggish stream we were on drained a shallow lake, and, after a few hard plunges, our canoe floated clear of the mud into the silent waters of a circular pond. It was a basin about a half mile across, surrounded by low hardwood hills, and so shallow that a moose, I think, could have waded across the deepest part. The shores were marked up with some very large tracks, but fresh signs had long since ceased to excite in me anything more than a passing interest. We made the tour of the lake slowly and quietly. Nothing was in sight except four wood ducks. This was "last chance" pond, and if I got no moose here, we must return to Mattawa for another outfit, which I had about made up my mind to do. The night settled still and cold—oh, so cold!—and the stars came out with wonderful distinctness.

What was that?

Chabot had started up, listened, and a second later was driving the birch across the lake noiselessly. As we neared the shore, it was inky black—a mammoth would not have been visible ten yards away. Twigs breaking at long intervals told that something was on shore just in cover of the bushes. We waited some time and at last I whispered to Chabot, "Muckwa?" (bear).

"Not muckwa—cow," answered the guide.

As he spoke, the short call of a bull floated out on the cold air from the side of the pond that we had just left. I think Chabot was right about the cow being in the bushes, but he may have been mistaken—one's hearing becomes unnaturally sensitive after a few weeks' continuous straining to catch and distinguish the most distant sounds. But there was no mistake about that bull's call. He was well back from the shore on the hillside. The wind was wrong, and, although he grunted at intervals for an hour, he paid no attention to Chabot's most seductive pleadings. We imitated with paddles the splashings of a cow walking in the shallow water, but this and other devices had no effect. When at last even my Indian could no longer bear the bitter cold of the wind which had sprung up, we started for camp. Long past midnight we crawled into our blankets, and I dropped asleep cursing the day I had first gone after moose.

We were on that pond again before daylight. Not a sound to be heard, not a living thing to be seen, when the sun rose. We took our stand on a small point opposite the outlet and watched. I sat on a fallen tree motionless, hour after hour. Chabot dozed beside me. Those four ducks played and fed within thirty feet, and a muskrat worked at house-building a few yards away. The silence was intense. There was not a breath of wind. I knew my brother was doing the same thing on a neighboring pond, and I fell to thinking whether there was some special Nemesis about this hunt, or it was the fault of the guides. I glanced at the outlet in front of me, about a half mile distant.

There was a moose, stalking with the utmost deliberation along the edge of the woods and then into the shallow water.

Chabot was roused by a hasty shake, and a second later the canoe was flying across the lake. As we crossed, I inspected the moose closely. He was walking slowly, nibbling the long reed-like grass that stuck up from the water. His neck seemed very stiff, and he swung his legs from his hips and shoulders. The hump was extremely conspicuous, perhaps because his head was carried low to get at the grass. He was a young bull, nearly full grown, and with small antlers. He looked occasionally at the canoe, now fast nearing him; but we had the advantage of the wind, and the sun was going down behind us. It was just 5 o'clock. He walked, now out toward us, now back to shore, as though about to bolt for the bush, but working slowly toward the north, where we afterwards found a much-used runway, leading to the marsh my brother was watching, two miles away. I opened fire about fifty yards off, when the moose was standing in about a foot of water, looking suspiciously at us. The shot was too high, but struck him in the shoulder. He started in a lumbering gallop along the shore. I fired again. This turned him into the woods at an old lumber road. We heard the twigs snap sharply for a minute, and then a heavy crash and silence. I thought we had lost him, but Chabot declared that he was down. I sprang ashore the moment the canoe grounded, and dashed in on his trail, which was perfectly clear on the soft moss. Looking ahead through the open woods for the animal, which I thought had turned, I almost fell over his prostrate body.

His head rested against a small windfall, which he had tried to clear—an effort which appeared to have cost him his life. Moss hung from some small spruce trees close by, which had been kicked up in the death struggle. The shoulder shot had been the fatal one, but he had been hard hit in the side too.

He was not full grown, and measured only 5 feet 6-1/2 inches in height, and 8 feet 3-1/4 inches in length, from the nose to root of tail. His girth at the shoulder was 5 feet 11-1/4 inches. His nose showed none of the Jewish characteristics which taxidermists are fond of giving their mounted moose heads. The forehead and shoulders were brownish instead of black, like the rest of the body. The hindlegs were wholly white, as were the forelegs below the knee. I am inclined to think he was a ranger moose, but could not tell with certainty, as his horns were too undeveloped. The velvet was still hanging in places, but very dry. This was unusual, as it was the 10th of October.

Ordering Chabot to dress the moose, I went back to the canoe, having decided to watch until dark, although there seemed no possibility of seeing another moose after the firing. My lazy guide, instead of obeying my order, merely cut the skin, with the result that all the meat spoiled—probably just what he wanted, fearing he would have to portage it out of the bush. We returned to our point and dozed again. At a quarter of 7 it was getting dark fast, and in the north a black, ugly-looking cloud was gathering. We might as well go back to camp if it was going to blow and rain, so I told Chabot to shove off and to give one last toot of his horn, just for luck.

The air was still as death with the dread of the impending storm. Chabot took up the coiled birch, and the echoes rang out with a short grunting call, which so much resembles a man chopping wood. Before they died away, there came from behind us, just to our right, the unmistakable answering grunt of a bull moose. He was probably on his way to the lake, and our call merely hastened him and brought him out into the open before it was too dark to shoot. He was very near and came steadily forward, stopping now and then to listen. We could hear him plainly as his horns broke the twigs at every step—once or twice he lashed the bushes with them. He repeated his grunts, ungh! ungh! every few steps. He was so evidently reckless that, to take no chance, I allowed Chabot to answer only once—with the short call. I say short call, in distinction to the long modulated call which is used to good purpose in Maine and New Brunswick, but which I have never known to succeed in this part of Canada. The moose paused for a moment in the alders that formed a close thicket at the water's edge, and I feared he had seen or scented us; then suddenly and noiselessly he stepped out from a cove a short hundred yards away. He had taken less than ten minutes from the first call to his appearance.

At the first alarm we had pushed off and were floating quietly just by the shore. The water was so shallow that the birch made, to my ears at least, a frightful scraping as it pushed over the dead sticks that lay in the water, and the wind was unfavorable. I never shall forget the appearance that bull made as he stepped fiercely and proudly out, with his head up, swinging a splendid set of antlers as lightly as straws. He did not see us, but strode about ten yards into the shallow lake, where the water scarcely covered his hoofs, and, first glancing away for a second, turned like a flash and faced us full, looking down on us in surprised disgust. He was greatly excited and the mane on his hump was erect, increasing his natural height, and there was nothing timid or deer-like in his appearance. I have seen in the arena a bull step out from the darkened stall into the glare of sunlight, and gaze for a moment at the picadors with a sort of indignant surprise; so this great bull moose looked.

We gazed motionless at each other, I knowing that it was one of the grandest and rarest sights on the American continent, and he thinking, no doubt, what a disgraceful imitation of a cow the motionless canoe made. Chabot's breath was coming hard behind me, and I felt the birch bark quiver.

As I raised my rifle, I realized that it had suddenly grown very dark under this western bank, and the bull precisely resembled in color the background, and, large as he was, made a very poor mark. The tall grass, which I had looked over in watching him, now sticking up in front of the sights, bothered me. I fired at the root of his neck, and the rifle gave a suppressed roar in the heavy air and the smoke hung like a pall. The bull ran straight forward, hesitated as though about to charge, then turned and made wonderful speed along the lake shore. The moment I could see him I fired again. In the dim twilight he was almost out of sight. When the smoke cleared he was gone.

Neither of us moved. It was too frightful to miss such an immense creature at that range. We heard him crash up the hillside and then stop a short distance back in the wood. Then I knew he either was down or had turned, unless he had found an open lumber road, where his horns would make no sound; for a moose can go in the most mysterious manner when he chooses to be quiet—but there was nothing quiet about this bull.

Chabot declared that he had heard him cough, but I did not believe it. I pointed to the spot where he had entered the bush, and a moment later the canoe grated on the beach. There were the huge tracks with the hoofs wide spread, and the trail entering an old lumber road.

All this took less time to happen than to read, and yet it was now dark, so quickly had night fallen. By straining my eyes I saw it was 7 o'clock—just two hours after the first bull was killed. Chabot wanted to go back to camp, which was the proper thing to do, especially as I had now just one cartridge left. I had only taken a handful with me that morning.

We entered the forest foot by foot, Chabot following the trail where I could scarcely see to step. A few yards in and the track turned from the old road into the thick bush, and we knew the moose was near. A little further, and we scarcely moved—stepping like cats from tree to tree, expecting every second to hear an angry grunt and have the bull emerge from the impenetrable veil of night that hung around us.

At last we came to a windfall, and we were for some time at a loss to find whether he had gone across or around it. In lighting a match with extreme caution, the light fell on a tall moose wood stem about as large as one's finger. Four feet from the ground it was dripping with bright red blood. The coughing Chabot had heard was now, we thought, explained, and the game hard hit. We decided to go back to camp; for, as my guide put it very clearly, the wounded bull would either fight or run. I wasn't anxious for the first alternative in the dark and tangled wood, with one cartridge; and the second meant a long chase on the morrow. If we left him until the morning, he would be either dead or too stiff from his wound to go far.

So back we went to camp, amply repaid by the events of two hours for weeks of hardship and exposure. Just at daylight the next morning, as we were leaving camp, prepared to take and keep the trail of that bull if it led to Hudson Bay, my brother appeared with Jocko. He had had no breakfast, and had come a long distance through a frightful bush in order to be in at the death, as he had heard the firing, and shrewdly suspected that in the dusk a wounded moose was the result.

"From the tracks at my lake," said he, as he strode up to the fire, "there are two bull moose around here—a large and a small one; which did you get?"

"Both," replied Chabot.

We took the trail at the water's edge, and found it smeared with blood. The bull could not have gone far. A short walk brought us to the windfall where we had turned back the night before, and which had seemed so deep in the woods.

A hundred yards beyond it lay the bull on his right side. The second shot had struck him in the center of the left ham and ranged through him. The meat was spoiled, as was the hide—that is, the hair came out so badly that it was not worth while to prepare it; but the neck and scalp were perfect, except a bad scar on the forehead, received in fighting.

He was a grand sight as he lay dead in that silent autumn forest—for I never can get over the impression that somehow or other the moose is a survival of a long past order of nature, a fit comrade for the mammoth and the cave bear. He was short and thickset, with immense chest power—probably a swamp moose. The neck was short and stout, and he had a Jewish cast of nose. No bell—merely the common dewlap. He measured at the shoulder 6 feet 6 inches; 9 feet 8-1/2 inches from nose to tip of tail; girth at shoulders, 6 feet 2-1/2 inches. We skinned and decapitated the moose, one after the other. The meat of both was completely spoiled, and it seemed wicked to leave those two huge carcasses to the bears and wolves; but there was no help for it, so we started for Mattawa. I doubt if we could have carried out any of the meat if we had tried, for we had to throw away everything not absolutely necessary on the long portages that followed. At last we reached Rosiceau's, on Snake Lake, and, with the welcome the old man gave us, felt quite at home once more. Then passing by the scenes of a former hunt, we reached Fort Eddy, an old Hudson Bay post, and then the Ottawa River. We ran the Cave rapids, and at sundown on a beautiful day the town of Mattawa swung in sight, and the hunt was over.

The country we had traversed contained little except bears and moose. We saw a few caribou tracks, and brought home with us a curious caribou antler, which we found in the woods.

The fur animals have, within the last five years, been exterminated, and the very few beaver that survive have abandoned their old habits, and live in holes in the banks of the larger streams. We found traces of one of these bank beaver, but he was probably traveling and we could not catch him. A few mink were shot, but the country is completely stripped of everything else of value. If the present law, prohibiting the trapping of otter and beaver, can be enforced, perhaps the land may be restocked, but it will take years. It is fit for nothing except fur and timber, and, with efficient game wardens, could be made to produce a large return from these sources. Partridges and loons abounded, but ducks were seldom seen.

The lakes form a complete system of communication by means of easy portages, but there are no streams that contain trout and no springs to supply drinking water. This lack of fresh water caused us considerable suffering, as the lake water is supposed to be dangerous, and a pail of spring water, which we got at the start, was carried for days over portages as our most precious baggage. We did not see a sign of a brook trout during the entire trip, and I do not believe that there were any in the waters we traversed. There may have been lake trout, but our trolling produced only pike and pickerel.

This absence of small game and fish makes the country very uninteresting, and the long monotony between most exciting events is the greatest drawback to hunting on the Upper Ottawa.