LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska — “BWAA-AA-RR!”
The disagreeable bellow sounding from just a few hundred feet behind my little tent sounded a bit like Bart the Bear from TV, a grizzly-sized roar of discontent in a black September night. With a little smile, I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag.
I had heard the cow moose approaching thorough the swamp backing the river bend, splashing loudly in my direction until a squirrelly little wind carried my scent in her direction. Sounding grievously annoyed, she made a noisy retreat.
After our neighbor got a moose and wanted to split it with us, I didn’t hunt much this year. With Julie recovering from hip-replacement surgery and me about a year behind on chores, I had plenty of other things to do. Still, I couldn’t stand not being out for at least a few nights.
I waited in the dark, listening for a bull, but that didn’t happen until the following night. My morning and evening hunts were quiet, but at 1 a.m. a cow started wailing half a mile back off the river.
“MMM-EEE-OOO-EEE-EH! MMM-EEE-OOO-EEE-EH!” From 1 a.m. until 3 she moaned and groaned dismally. Then, finally, I heard what I was waiting for.
“Unk ... unk ... unk ... ”
The bull was close but quiet, grunting softly for some time without ever rattling his antlers, making me think he was a small one, good eating but harder to catch up to. By the time light filtered back over the swamps he had fallen silent, but at least I knew where to start: right behind the tent.
When no one answered my call, I started poking around in the dense willows and soon found a cow feeding at the edge of a marshy lake. Moments later, without warning, a bull came smashing through the dense brush, antlers raking a loud challenge.
I was shoving a shell into the chamber when I heard that loud “Whack!” where you don’t know if a bull is coming or going, but you know he’s doing it fast. Then I heard his rack smashing rapidly away. The squirrelly little breeze had warned him of my presence.
I motored the boat around the wide, looping bend to approach from the opposite direction. Walking upwind to the curving tail end of the marshy lake, I spied another cow in the water. Then, just around a little point of land, a third one began to squall.
“MMM-OOO-EEE-OOO-UH!” Fog enshrouded the marsh, giving her a magical ghostly quality as she stood a hundred yards from shore, belly-deep in water, marsh grass reaching high up her sides. The cow alternately browsed on pond weed and lifted her head to moan irritably. “MMM-OOO-EEE-OO-UH!”
I stood quietly watching her for several minutes before I heard a soft snapping of twigs in a birch grove farther along the marsh edge. A large shape materialized from the birch, sliding through brush and fog: A small bull, the perfect size had he not been well off the river and moving into waist-deep water.
I thought about trying to call him closer, but he was intent on the cow so I hunkered down to watch, no longer a hunter, just an unobtrusive observer, “Eee-uuu-nnn-eh!” the cow squealed.
“Uh ... uh ... uh,” he replied, muttering in soft seductive grunts as he approached slowly. “Uh ... uh ... uh ... .”
“Moo-uu- eee-eee-eee-EH!” she complained.
Undeterred, the young bull crept up behind her, his whispered grunts sounding continually. Reaching out with his giant droopy nose, he gave her a thorough sniffing, working his way gradually forward to her shoulder as she squealed like an angry mare.
For a couple minutes she put up with his advances. Then, moving like ghosts through the fog, the pair, cow in lead, bull at her shoulder, circled to splash through the marsh back to the secluded birch grove.
I didn’t want to shoot a moose that far from the river when we had meat already offered to us, but they were angling toward the river. Moving quietly after them, I tinkled my antler call lightly through brush, just loud enough to mask the sound of my clumpy rubber boots moving across wet fallen leaves. I knew the little guy would be more likely to flee than come to another bull’s challenge.
I found him several more times as he moved back to the river. But whether he thought I was another bull lurking around or was onto my true identity, he had no intention of letting me catch up. At one point I heard a much bigger bull, probably the one that had first accosted me that morning, but opted to go after the little one heading to the river rather than the big one well away from the boat.
In the end that may have cost me a moose. The little bull slipped away, and I just didn’t want to spend several days packing out a big old one when I could just pick up the extra meat from our neighbor.
After all, I had what I was really after, my magical moments in the marsh.
Trappers and life-long Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books, which are available at Gulliver’s Books in Fairbanks. They live in Lake Minchumina.