Moose at Komushikoba
I stepped off the plane in Duluth, Minnesota feeling like a backwoods James Bond. I was traveling incognito.
Minnesota is my native land. I grew up loving its woods and wildlife. I cherish memories of that land. But, I was afraid of bumping into a relative or someone I knew from a previous life. We could not afford those complications. We were on a mission.
My best friend, Tom Stone (Stony), and I were going to hunt moose!!!
Stony and I have been friends since age thirteen. Though my plane was an hour late, and it was ten years since we last met for a hunt, I knew Stony would be in his truck, precisely where he said he would be.
We now have white beards, not much hair on our heads, and more weight than either of us will admit to. As I threw my gear into his truck we exchanged appraising glances. Then we headed north on Highway 61, along the North Shore of Lake Superior.
Stony lives up there, someplace. We stopped at his house long enough for me to try on some of his hunting clothes. I arrived with my carry-on. Stony furnished everything else. His truck was loaded.
After twenty minutes we hit the road again. The next day we arrived at Nakina Air Service in northern Ontario. There were paperwork drills, and careful loading of the plane, but we soon boarded. This whole thing was coordinated through Seven Lakes Wilderness Camps. Stony has made numerous fly-in fishing trips with them.
This was my first flight in a float plane. I got to sit in the cockpit, and the take-off was exhilarating.
Once we hit altitude, only about 300 feet above the deck, the scenery was like a spectacular letter from home. This is flat country. Flat! But it is laced with streams and lakes, beaver dams and ponds. There is a good mix of dark green spruce, white and golden aspens, and willows, brown and red. The predominant plant life however is the tamarack. By the millions, they were ablaze in their brilliant autumn yellow.
There were thunderheads and showers in the air. Our pilot, Doug, avoided the bigger ones but often plowed that DeHavilland Otter through them to stay on course. Our airspeed was about 110 knots. Doug said, “The Otter ain’t fast, but she’s a workhorse, eh?”
We landed on Kamishkooboo Lake. I doubt I have the spelling right. It is an Ojibwa term that means “red willows”. The Ojibwa got it right. Red willows were in great abundance.
Our guide, Joe Baxter, then boated us to our “cabin”. It’s an old trapper’s shack. A bear recently ransacked the place. Stoney and I gave each other the look that says, “What have we gotten into?”
Joe chuckled and got to work. He was so sure of himself, so confident and happy that any doubts we harbored were soon gone. We pitched in and before long, with pieces of tarp, we fabricated a new door. We replaced a couple shelves on the walls, and we had a working stove pipe.
I can not say enough about Joe Baxter. This was my first hunt with a guide but Joe was everything you’d expect.
He has spent his life in the “bush”, eh? He is Ojibwa and dedicated to that. He doesn’t hide his love of the bush but he is also well acquainted and up to date with the rest of the world. We had many stimulating camp fire conversations.
After camp was settled I was restless. I strolled along the lake shore. I went at least a mile but saw very little moose sign. There were wolf tracks and plenty of spruce grouse. I found an old muskrat trap which I kept as a souvenir. Otherwise it looked bleak.
That evening Joe and I took the boat across the lake and upriver. While it was stunningly beautiful and beavers, ducks and geese were beyond count, there was very little moose sign. As we returned across the lake Stony lit a large fire as a beacon. By then we were frozen so the heat was appreciated. To keep things positive I told Stony, “That trip was worth the price of this whole hunt. I am already satisfied.” I meant that too.
Next day we cruised, upriver and down. Joe tried calling. He used the barrel from a Remington 870 shotgun as his moose call. No moose, no sign.
That evening Joe and Stony fished for walleyed pike. Nothing is better than fresh caught, cold water walleyes.
I strolled the timber behind camp. I ran into dozens of grouse. I could easily have head shot a good supper. But, I realized the sound of a shot would excite Joe and Stoney, and probably disrupt their fishing, so I held off.
They returned to camp with a nice mess of fish. Joe quickly and expertly filleted those fish and we had a fine supper.
Standing outside the cabin Stony and I talked about the lack of moose sign.
The next morning we went down river. We stopped at a huge beaver dam. Joe tried calling for a while. Joe and I then walked around a bit. There was very little sign.
We pulled the boat over the dam and proceeded. Again it was a beautiful ride. After a couple miles we found a nice bend in the river with good visibility up and down stream. We beached the boat on the point of the bend and Joe went to work with his shotgun barrel moose call. Directly across the river was a willow flat about forty yards wide. On the far side it was lined with spruce and birches. The river was probably twenty yards wide.
I was to Joe’s right watching downstream. Stony was to his left. I was daydreaming when I heard Joe whisper, “Shoot. Shoot.”
I turned to look left. A huge bull was in the willows across the river. I swung my rifle up. It was a .300 Weatherby borrowed from Stony. I lost the bull in the willows. As I looked for an opening I heard Stony shoot.
Joe said, “You got him. You got him.”
We frantically piled into the boat and crossed the river.
Joe held the boat steady against the bank. I handed my rifle to Stony and got solid footing on the bank. Then I reached for the rifles so Stony could get out.
He got out and tripped, fell hard. Joe hollered, “The moose is moving! He’s still moving!”
Like a deserter I left Stony lying in the muskeg and hustled through the willows to where I last saw the bull. He was down and done, I think, but he was flailing his legs around. Stony had put a .375 into his upper chest. I have read about shooting moose in the hump with stunning results only to have the moose recover and run off. I stood at about five yards with my rifle raised and ready. I could hear Stony and Joe approaching. As they neared I said to Stony, “You wanna put another one into him?”
He said, “Yeah,” and fired. The bull gave a couple more kicks and then settled down.
I have shot some big game and I’ve butchered some cattle but this was the biggest animal I’ve been involved with. Joe went to reposition the boat. Stony and I stood around wondering what to do next.
Suddenly, the mood, the psychology, of the whole trip changed.
We were there for an experience-but now we had meat! And a huge head. What can we do next?
Joe went to work. First he started a fire. Watching Joe start a fire is like watching magic. He appears with a handful of birch bark or dried moss. He sets it on fire while lighting a cigarette, drops it on the ground and feeds it something. A minute later you have a blaze to warm your hands, your feet and your mood. You also have smoke to keep the wolves away.
When Joe was satisfied with the fire, like a skilled surgeon, he gut and quartered that bull. Stony and I helped as much as we could. With muck and mud under every footstep, when Joe was done, the meat was clean and on solid ground.
Stony and I thought we’d hurry the meat to camp but Joe insisted we would hunt. I hunted and they fished. That ain’t all bad.
The next few days are a blur in memory. We retrieved the moose quarters and the head to camp and hung them. With no care at all to our presence, pine martens fed on the scraps under the meat pole.
One morning Joe and I were floating downstream. On a midstream rock there was a grouse. He was bending over almost pecking at the water. It suddenly occurred to me. “Joe, he’s looking at his own reflection. That’s a narcissistic grouse.”
Joe added that he was ready to fight his own image in the water.
Grouse would stand in the timber and let us approach to within mere feet before they would waddle away. One day I ran into some and one actually flushed and flew away. Back at camp I mentioned that to Joe. It was about noon, the sky was clear and the wind was gentle. Nonchalantly Joe said, “That means it will snow, eh.” It was about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Stony and I looked at each other again with those smirks. Four hours later it was snowing!
Brad, of Seven Lakes Wilderness Camps, wants to assure all his hunting parties get a bull so he allows one bull tag per party. Each party gets a bull and a cow-or if cow permits run out then a calf permit.
Since Stony set this up I insisted on him taking the bull tag. I am glad things turned out that way but I ended up with a calf permit. That didn’t excite me. I almost went along as a “non-hunter”. I was appalled at the idea of shooting a calf but I immensely enjoyed the next few days of hunting with Joe. I told him I didn’t much care if I got a calf but he insisted, “We have a tag to fill!” I felt no pressure but looked forward to hunting as hard as Joe wanted to. To me this whole thing was a great adventure. We explored and saw numerous moose, including one young bull that Joe called to within ten yards or so.
Then one day, Joe and I silently, slowly pushed the boat up a narrow, grassy channel. After Stoney got his bull, while Joe and Stony fished, I hunted that area. There was a narrow strip of solid ground with timber on it. That timber, and the channel, ran in a gentle northeast curve for about a mile. In that timber I found abundant moose sign, including sign of a calf.
We beached the boat and from higher ground (four feet above water level next to a cluster of birches) we could see along the channel for several hundred yards. The water was very shallow and I had seen many trails criss-crossing through the swamp grass. We thought we’d sit there until dark.
We hadn’t been there ten minutes when, about two hundred yards up channel, an animal dashed through the water and weeds. It was running flat out; splashing, dodging and weaving. Light from the setting sun caused every splash, every drop of spray, to sparkle and shine. The animal was headed right at us.
Joe said, “That’s a calf, shoot.”
For a guy who’s been hunting the rain forest of Washington for thirty years, this was a long shot and I don’t like head-on shots. The calf was bouncing around, Joe called it dancing, but when it finally stopped and turned broadside I touched off a round. Nothing happened. I really concentrated and fired another round. The critter stood absolutely still.
I felt both shots were good but I asked Joe, “Could you see my bullets splash in the water?”
Joe said, “No, I can’t tell where you’re hitting.”
I just said, “I can’t believe I missed,” when the calf took off. Again, it came straight at us. I held fire to let it get closer.
At about 100 yards it suddenly collapsed.
All around wolves immediately began to howl. Joe and I then realized the calf was being chased by wolves. That’s what drove her into that open channel.
Gutting her on the bank we discovered festering wounds on her left hind leg and on her neck. Her left rear hock joint was broken as well.
I was relieved to learn I hit with both shots. The 200 grain Bearclaw bullets, perfect medicine for a big bull, just didn’t open up. Later, I mentioned to Stony I might have been better off with a .270.
By the music of wolves we got her into the boat. We made a spectacular moon light ride up river, to the lake, and to camp.
My feelings were still mixed about shooting a calf. Stony was more proud of me than I was. “Al,” he said, “if you hadn’t shot her, she’d have been dead in the next five minutes.”
Joe added, “It’s a hard life in the bush, especially if you’re a moose.”
With Jack London and Robert Service whispering in my ear I knew they were right. Thirty years ago I knew those facts of life. Possibly I have been on the west coast, and away from the North country, too long.
Stony’s bull also had old wounds, including a couple broken, but healed, ribs. We wondered who won that fight.
For the next two nights wolves howled and moaned outside camp. Then the weather turned warm. Joe used the satellite phone to call Nakina Air Service a day early. “Get us out of here,” he said. “Our moose meat is rotting and we’re surrounded by wolves.”
Stony and I had quite a time with customs (maybe it’s the white beards) but we finally made it back to Minnesota. I even made my scheduled flight back to Washington.
The moose meat was just fine, excellent, in fact.
When I go again, I will take a favorite Marlin 45-70, for fun and sentimental reasons. If you go, take any rifle you want. Joe says the best is an iron sighted 30-06. The shots probably won’t be long, but they could be. The .30 caliber magnums are great. The .338 Winchester might be the best of all. Like Stoney, you can exercise your .375. But many moose have been shot with the .270 and such. Joe’s “go to rifle” is a beat up 30-30 Winchester. About any rifle will “work” but remember; you can’t track far in those swamps. You don’t want your moose to get far from boat access either.
I can’t imagine going anywhere like this without a camera. I had a couple. Because we always used the boat and we were always in or around water I mostly used a water-proof, shock-proof, dust-proof, little Pentax digital.
The main thing is: if you go to the bush, don’t forget your hip boots, eh?