We had been looking for nearly an hour. The tundra is deceptively flat tundra, a blanket of low vegetation stretching from horizon to horizon. It’s a wrinkled blanket, however, and we drove in and out of small depressions and up and over small hills, negotiating a trail of basketball-sized tussocks, shallow bogs, and golden-robed willows on our Honda 4-wheeler. The object of our search remained frustratingly invisible.
“I know it’s around here somewhere,” I said. “It was in the willows to the right of that abandoned cabin.”
“Well, let’s keep heading in that direction then,” Fred answered, as he steered the Honda through a break in the willows. As I bounced along behind him, unable to see much of anything through the brush that rose just above my head, I wondered how I would react when we finally did come across the moose. This was my hunt, an event I had anticipated for over a year. Twice I had been out and unable to shoot. Yet the challenge persisted: to eat meat, a necessity in this cold, harsh environment, I felt the need to participate in the harvest. To know firsthand the sacrifice made to sustain my life. Would I fail yet again? Which would be worse, to pull the trigger and become a successful hunter, or to refuse to shoot and continue living a façade.
Suddenly, Fred brought the 4-wheeler to a halt on the edge of the willow and horsetail lined drainage. On the other side of the narrow creek stood a small bull. “There it is,” he whispered. “Get the rifle ready.”
In the best of situations, I move with a slowness and deliberation that companions often find trying. Now, the uncertainty of my intentions weighted my hands and I fumbled with the sling holding the 270 across my back. The moose had ample time to escape; despite their bulk and ungainly appearance, they can move quickly on the uneven ground and disappear into the willows. This one, however, did not flinch. Like a king surveying his kingdom, he regarded us with a calm eye.
I finally found a position from which to shoot, but was unable to locate the moose in the rifle scope. The stock on this rifle is a tad long for me, so I ended up resting it on my shoulder, instead of bracing the butt of it against me shoulder to absorb the kick. The barrel, at Fred’s suggestion, rested on his shoulder. In this position I finally located the moose in the scope.
The long hours of daylight were fading from the early September sky. Geese, swans and other migrants had settled down for the night. Stillness descended. I held the moose in sight for a long time. He continued to gaze at me, his large brown oval of an ear twitching occasionally, probably in response to a buzzing mosquito. I waited for him to turn his head, unable to pull the trigger while looking him in the eye. He refused to cooperate.
“I can’t do it,” I whispered.
“Just take your time,” Fred responded. “It’s perfect. You couldn’t ask for more.” There was an interval of silence. “It’s being given to you.”
I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Again. Infused with the peacefulness of the surrounding tundra, a whispered a prayer of penitence – “Father, forgive me.” I pulled the trigger.
With a bang the rifle jumped. I staggered and crumpled to the ground. From my prone position I thought I saw the rump of the moose walking away from us, still with a sense of stately calm. Bright flashes of light seemed to dance around the periphery of my vision. My eyes were wet; my head was throbbing.
Fred put his hand on the bridge of my nose. “You need to get a paper towel and put some pressure on that,” he said. “Okay if I go finish him off?”
I put my fingers to my face and discovered I had a large, bleeding gash running diagonally across my nose. The rifle scope. I nodded, whispering “Don’t let him suffer.” Fred nodded and headed toward the creek while I rummaged in the backpack for paper towels.
The icy water was nearly over the top of his chest waders where he crossed the creek. I watched Fred search the willows for the moose. Images of an injured moose staggering unseen through the willows went through my mind and I wondered if I had made a mistake. Maybe I shouldn’t have pulled the trigger. Maybe it wasn’t given to me. Maybe. . . . The anxiety built as I watched Fred continue to walk in ever widening circles. Then, he squatted down out of sight. A few seconds later he popped out of the willows and gave me a thumbs up. He had found the moose.
It took some maneuvering to get our Honda and old beat up basket sled across the creek. I approached the moose with a sense of reverence and awe. For a small bull, its body seemed massive, its coat a beautiful dark brown with shades of black. I reached down and stroked its soft nose. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “Thank you.”
I straightened up then, and looked at Fred. “You did good,” he said quietly. “A nice clean shot.” I smiled weakly.
It took several hours to gut and skin the moose, and then cut it into pieces we could load onto the sled. By the time we were ready to move again, the sun had sunk beneath the horizon. We weren’t sure the 4-wheeler would be able to move 500 pounds of meat and bones across the soggy tundra in one trip. Our biggest concern was finding a way to cross the creek before dark. We went a long way out of our way before we found a place to attempt a crossing. Surprisingly, we got Honda, sled and meat across without much trouble at all. We arrived home in the dark, exhausted.
Three days later, as we sat down to a meal of moose brisket, the reality of what I had done hit me. The gash on my nose, though healing, throbbed as I cried over our dinner. Shame and grief shook my body while Fred held me silently.
The fish-hooked shaped scar on my nose will fade eventually, but the memories left by this hunt will challenge me for a lifetime. Each time I eat some of this tender meat, I participate in the story again, finding new levels of meaning in the simple story of a successful moose hunt. It is a story of symbol, going beyond the physical act of providing sustenance. Through it, I begin to understand the ritual of sacrifice, the life of one creature expiring so another may live. It is a ritual as ancient as human thought, and a concept that lies at the heart of my Faith. As I continue to hunt, I will struggle to find the balance between pride in providing food and penitence for taking the life of another creature, and hopefully move closer to the heart of the story.