From the Archives: The Great Hunt

Garry Whyte makes a moose call. See what it sounds like here.

EDGE is taking some holiday time, from December 20 to January 4. While we’re off we’ll be re-running some of our favourite stories from the year, and some hits from deep in our archives. Here’s a unique moose-hunting tale from December 2012:

A grizzled veteran takes a hunting virgin on a life-altering moose harvest

story and images by Jay Bulckaert

The boat went into the water without a hitch. We threw in our gear and Tetris’ed 12 jerry cans of fuel into the stern. Our little canine companion Heidi took her command post at the bow as we blasted out into the darkness. This last point is important…it was full-on dark still at 4 a.m. in October. There were reefs all over, islands jutting out. The lake can go from 80 feet of water to three feet in a matter of seconds.

We had no GPS, no depth finder and were motoring along at full throttle — but I wasn’t worried. Garry Whyte knew this lake like the back of his hand. He’s been here hunting around 20 times since he moved to the NWT from Sointula, B.C., seven years ago. Raised on the water and a commercial fisherman for most of his life, Garry has dealt with way bigger boats, in way bigger water than this. If it was just me, I’d already be lost, crying and contemplating having to eat Heidi to survive.

You might be asking yourself why I’ve forgotten to tell you where we were. Seems like an important fact, right? Rest assured I have not forgotten. I’m simply not going to tell you. I learned several things over the course of that hunt and one of them is there are unwritten rules to hunting.

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Rule #1: You don’t disclose your hunting hole to anyone, especially other hunters. So for all of you Elmer Fudds out there, you’ll be happy to know I won’t break that rule, just as much as you’ll be pissed to know that I won’t break that rule. Garry goes to moosetopia a lot to “chuck some lead at swamp donkeys,” as he likes to call them. He has never gone home without his moose, and I want that to continue.

I met Garry about five years ago at a dinner. He brought over $300 worth of seafood and spent the whole evening cooking it for us. He is a boisterous character. Burly, unrefined, offensive at times, funny and clearly likes to have a good time. He is your classic rough-around-the-edges hardworking man with a heart of gold. That night, he didn’t have a single bite of the feast he had prepared; he just sat there happily watching people eat, making sure they found it delicious, sipping his rum and Cokes.

He wasn’t in the mood for company on this trip however. Just as we rounded the bend to our campsite, we spotted something ahead, every hunter’s worst nightmare — another hunter. Garry knew exactly who it was.

Rule #2: If you tell another hunter where you might be going hunting, make it vague. And if that hunter guesses the location, he is not welcome to come out and sniff around. This guy knew he was in violation, because as soon as we approached him, he blasted off ahead of us because, Rule #3: The first person to beach on a location gets it and the connected bays for hunting. This put Garry in a do-or-die mode, so we headed straight towards his prime moose hunting grounds. Once they saw where we were headed, they pulled a full 180 and came in hot on our tails.

As we finished tying our boat to a tree, the pursuing boat pulled up and the air became thick with tension. Garry let them know he doesn’t like hunting on peoples’ backs, nor does he like people hunting on his. There were a few minutes of men staring awkwardly at their feet. We had a choice, do we hunt or do we sleep? Obviously, the decision was to stake our territory and start walking the two-kilometre portage to Garry’s stashed aluminum boat.

Continued.

The long 2-kilometre hike.
Garry’s successful shot.
Garry’s dog Heidi sniffing the quartered cow. Each of these things weighed easily 100 pounds.
 Garry lugging out the hindquarter like a viking god. I had to stare at this gore for two straight kilometres.
The author.
My first moose.
Our kitchen.

With the kicker fired up, we putt-putted out into the bay. We were officially hunting now, scanning the shoreline. At any given moment a moose might show up and we had to be ready. The emotion I was experiencing was one of anxiety, almost panic. The same emotion one has about fighting another man. What will it be like when it actually goes down? Will I panic at the wrong moment? It hit me that I might feel really bad about shooting this animal. I have hunted ptarmigan, duck and have done tons of fishing, but a moose is different. Did I really have it in me to take the life of a massive animal like that? I felt like I was involved in some serious man-business that I had no right to be a part of. I was out of my league. But deep down, it felt right. I eat meat and consciously put myself into situations where I’m forced to get my hands bloody in order to enjoy the meat I eat. If we choose to eat meat, then we are part of that process whether we like it or not, and I think I should take responsibility for that. Suddenly, Garry killed the motor and pointed to a bay about a kilometre ahead. Two unmistakable black forms jutted from the shoreline…swamp donkeys.

We shored the boat and crept Vietnam-style towards our potential dinner for the next winter. About 300 metres from us stood a cow and a calf. Garry instantly went into kill mode, which is something to behold. He is calm, fiercely focused and methodical. Three rounds in the clip, three extras in his right pocket, he rested the gun on a boulder for stability, breathed, aimed and let the lead fly. The first shot was high and the moose didn’t even move. She just perked up her ears. Second shot, third shot, all misses. Reload. The fourth shot, just high. The fifth round was chambered, a slow measured breath and CRACK. The moose dropped. I decided to shoot for the calf. I fired three shots in a total panic — free arming the rifle — and shot way low. The calf bolted into the forest. This wouldn’t be the last moose I would miss on this trip.

We had to drag the cow back through the water to the shore of the portage. As we approached, the hunters from before stood and stared. I could tell they were jealous. One of them mentioned that they thought World War III was going down out there. After all, we did shoot almost 10 rounds in a matter of minutes. The cow was dragged onto shore as far as we could get her, and then the real work started.

It is abhorrent at times, the array of liquid and colours that emit from an animal that size. Then again, it seemed like the animal was made to be taken apart, something that probably has more to do with Garry’s hard-learned expertise than anything else. I remember checking in with myself to see what level of guilt I felt for the now motherless calf and I will fully admit, I felt very little. This was meat now. I respect animals, but somehow I locked into that primal part of humanity that allows you to kill and clean a 500-pound animal over the course of five hours and still manage to get hungrier by the minute. Ten hours into our day we finished cleaning the animal and, completely exhausted, took a moment to collect our thoughts before hauling out the meat.

If you’ve ever moved a mattress that has no handles on it, you’ll know what it’s like to carry freshly killed meat. The quarters each weighed easily 100 pounds and there was no way to get a good hold on them. They are slippery, gooey and floppy. Garry let me use his pack board because I am a pussy. He took the heaviest meat, the hindquarter, and lugged it out on his shoulder like Conan the Barbarian. The only thing worse than lugging a hindquarter two kilometres through a forest, is having to turn around and do it again. As we approached the final meat to be packed out, Heidi stopped dead in her tracks. I was first in line behind her and had the gun, but I just thought it was another squirrel she was about to bark to death. Then I saw the flash of black fur. The hairs on my neck stood up. I was drenched head to toe in moose blood, exhausted to the core and about to come face-to-face with a hungry bear.

I chambered a round and took a step forward to get a better look. Garry came up right behind and I handed him the gun. Scampering up a tree, a wolverine glared at us, snarled then tried to climb higher. We could see it had just been in a fight, probably with something bigger, its ear was almost torn off. BOOM, the gun echoed through the forest. The warning shot Garry fired sent Hugh Jackman snarling off into the forest. The final trip to carry the last quarters was completed in double time.

We got out onto a bay early the next morning because Garry figured the previous hunters had made calls there, and it’s always a good idea to double back when others call out a bay. Sometimes, moose will come from miles away when they hear a call. Watching and listening to Garry make a moose call is as educational as it is bizarre. His eyes roll back in his head, his face contorts, and once he’s done it sends shock waves through his body. He’s also really good at it. But no calls were needed in that bay because five minutes cruising into it we spotted a bull standing on the shoreline, staring at us. I grabbed the gun. This was my moose. This was my chance to face the reality of taking an animal like this. Some people hunt for years up here and never get their moose and Garry had just gotten me within 100 yards of a broadside shot on Bullwinkle.

I was so anxious, so excited that I had trouble keeping the gun steady as I cracked off three rounds, every one a miss. The moose gave me the finger and disappeared into the willows. Garry assured me that every hunter misses, but it didn’t matter, I was crushed. I sat there silently staring at my boots, replaying it in my head. I knew the next time — should I get another chance — I needed to breathe, be methodical, be patient, but most importantly, be calm. Calm as a Hindu cow Jay Bulckaert (that’s pronounced bull kart). We left Heartbreak Bay and went back to camp in silence.

On our final morning, we got up at the crack of dawn and headed back to a bay we had called out the night before. This time we beached the boat on the other side and ambushed through the forest. Taking from Garry’s playbook, I had the clip in the gun, three rounds in my right pocket and reminded myself sternly to be calm. As we broke through the trees on the other side, I instantly recognized a set of racks and backed up before the bull could see me. Garry switched to kill mode and walked me through the process, which was basically shut up and don’t make a sound. My heart pounded in my head as we crept towards the bull.

We came to a small opening about 40 feet from the animal and I was sternly told to sit down. We both sat in silence for a minute, but the moose was onto us and started to walk away into the brush. I couldn’t believe it. Garry let out a call and we waited. Nothing. Then suddenly, a few branches cracked, then some more and I could hear its hooves sucking in and out of the bog coming towards us. Then I saw it. Coming straight at us was a three-year-old bull, waving his racks back and forth. I raised the gun out of sheer panic, but Garry told me to wait. It’s hard to explain what it feels like to see an animal that size come at you — a huge, feral beast — but somehow I found my nerves and waited calmly as Garry continued to call. That bull stopped 20 feet from us, staring right down my scope. With the green light to fire, I raised the .300 savage, aimed and CRACK — the round zipped just past his shoulder. The bull turned and started to walk away. I had missed again.

But all of Garry’s hunting experience told him this wasn’t over yet, so we walked out of the brush onto the open shoreline as Garry kept calling. As I stepped onto the shoreline, there stood the bull, broadside to us 15 feet away, just staring. Something in me had changed and it just took over. In an instant I raised the rifle, aimed right behind his shoulder, took a breath and fired. The bull went down like a bag of hammers, dead before it hit the ground, like someone had just pulled the plug.

Shaking with every emotion I’ve ever had, Garry and I high fived but I was so overwhelmed that I bear hugged the man. And then it dawned on me, now the real work started. We had to clean this massive animal and lug him out of the forest. I instantly wished there was a cart around to wheel him out, a bull cart if you will, get it…a bull kart.

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