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No moose yet, but enriched by the time spent afield in Alaska

Heather Lende
Heather Lende photo

Yes, we are still moose-less after 10 days of hard -- and I think smart -- hunting. I figured Chip would be disappointed when we left camp last night without a moose, but he said, "That was another great weekend. We've had some really good hunting, haven't we?"

And the thing is, he meant it. Also, he was right; we have had a very good hunt so far. (And we still have a week left. There have been 18 bulls taken in the area, and the season runs through Oct. 7.)

So much to notice

Spending time outdoors trains you to pay attention in such a different way than you do in town, and there's so much to notice. Are the tracks, trails and poop fresh or old? When did moose sleep in these matted beds in the meadow? Last night? Or last week? Are the scrapes on the branches from a bull moose raking his antlers or from a cow chewing off the willow bark? When were they made? Has it rained on that print? Is there a dew claw on that track? Can you tell if it was left by a bull or a cow -- and where is he or she going? What broke those branches? How fresh is that pawed-up mud pit? Can you smell the moose?

Was that crack a moose stepping, or leaves falling from the wind in the cottonwoods? The sudden ripple beyond the bushes -- is it something walking in the creek or is it a stick caught in the current? Is the river rising or dropping? Will we be able to cross back the way we came in our hip boots?

This is what we do all day, and you'd be amazed what you can see and hear and smell when you pay such close attention to everything, and how much is communicated without a word. There really is a parallel universe operating right alongside us.

A sound and scent to everything

It's just like the late Alaska poet John Haines said about "reading" the tracks in the snow near his interior cabin. You really can "read" this wild world as clearly as sentences on a page. In addition to "reading" the area for signs of moose and walking miles in the wet brush through beautiful, wild country, I watched an owl take off from a branch about six feet from me, saw trumpeter swans turn their necks like snakes when they flew overhead, didn't step on the little black bear tracks that looked like large cat paws since their claws -- unlike the paws of brown bears -- are retractable. A mouse almost ran right over my boot as I stood very still in deep leaves for a long time.

I learned that there's a sound and scent to everything in the woods and swamps. Also, rain is not that bad if you are dressed properly; a thermos of hot tea goes a long way; and when the sky clears there is time to notice the new snow, and the new feeling of being really, really lucky to be standing there, right then.

So that's hunting. It is peaceful and purposeful. Hunting really is the best part of finding a moose for winter stews and steaks so I'm glad it takes time. The kill is scary, swift, violent and bittersweet. It's why we came, but also why I don't shoot. I don't want to. That's also when the work of it really begins. Packing out hundreds of pounds of fresh meat and bones is hard.  

A wise basketball coach once told my kids at a local camp that you don't play the game to get to the end of it, for the same reason you don't sing a song to finish it. So no, we don't have a moose, and yes, the hunting has been very good -- so good that I'm looking forward to one more long weekend upriver.

Haines writer Heather Lende's third book of essays will be called “Finding the Good.” This post originally appeared on her blog. It has been reprinted with permission.