• Jared Oakleaf

Speechless

Updated: May 9, 2019

The wrongs and rights of an accidental moose hunt.

This story was originally published in the 2017 Fall Issue of the Backcountry Journal. Edited by Sam Lungren. Proof of Sam's talent is inherent in the fact that he made this story readable.

The computer screen read successful for Wyoming Shiras Moose, but my moment of celebration was quickly replaced by a feeling of sickness and horror. After 13 years of applying, the ramifications of my computer error was a tag for a unit one number higher than my dream hunt. Instead, I drew an area with limited public land and even less moose habitat, included in that prize was the loss of preference points and a five-year waiting period before becoming eligible to apply again. I hurried off a letter to the tag review board in hopes someone in Cheyenne would take pity on me.


The response arrived the following week:

“The tag review board has determined that applicant error caused you to draw moose area 27. Under Wyoming State law, we cannot grant your request as your circumstances do not meet the state’s criteria that provides for the return of a tag and restoration of preference points. In order to return your tag and restore your preference points one of the following must occur: you are injured, you are called to active duty in the military forces, or you are deceased.”

I carefully considered each option. Death, of course, was out, if for no other reason than it would mean I really would never get to harvest a moose. I’m also not sure what good preference points do for a dead man. I’m too old to enlist, so that was out too. Injury was the most likely option, but self-mutilation requires a resolve reserved for only the most questionable of intellects. I realized that if I was going to torture myself, it would have to be the natural torture of a challenging hunt.


Over the course of the summer I managed to accumulate 16 thorough scouting days, but with little success. I was happy for the landscape knowledge I had gained, but my inner dialogue was now overwhelmed with a litany of questions. Maybe I should wait for the rut, or should I wait until the weather brings them out of the high country in a neighboring state? Will I be forced to hunt with a bow during rifle season? Worse yet, will I be forced to set down my bow in order to punch my tag?


I was letting my hackneyed hunting script define success and, worse yet, I was using it to suppress self-pity. I had allowed the pressure of a once-in-a-lifetime tag to corrupt the experience.


My prepared script made its final gasps on day 11 of a 14 day run during archery season. Staring up the steep slopes ahead, I recounted the miles hiked, the adversity and the rare moose encounters. My body responded with an overdramatic sigh. I was beat, the mountain had won. In a shameful climax of self-pity I asked the sky, this is my once-in-a-lifetime moose hunt?


My mind began a silent yet productive self-negotiation, a much-appreciated passenger to the quietude of a solo hunt.


The pessimist in me tapered out with some thoughts:

Why was I letting self-pity cripple my moose hunt? Likely because the distance between my expectations and reality was rather wide and all my plans to close that gap had failed.


Then the optimist took over and won the negotiation:

Adversity on a hunt is merely the topo lines to the map of a great story. Sometimes the lines stack up and the terrain to the goal seems steep, other times those lines widen and the goal comes within sight. I must face topography and adversity to produce a great hunting story. In the end, antlers stand only as a tribute to that story.

From that moment forward, the amount of adversity and adventure governed the measure of a trophy moose—not a mathematical formula.


My 14 day run was nearing the end. As my family and friends began to pack up to return to their own lives, I was starting to think more about my next trip than the few days left in this one. I had noticed a strong uptick in rutting activity. In the previous two days I had seen more bull moose than the last 28 days of combined hunting and scouting time. It turns out that bull moose are far more active once they shed their velvet. As my family and friends departed, they each encouraged me to stay and that is what I needed to grind it out to the end.


On the morning of September 14, I slipped into a promising basin. My plan was to hunt the morning then head for home. I arrived at the basin at sun-up and let out some cow calls. I then waited for 30 minutes before sounding a bull challenge across the basin. I cupped my hands around my birchbark horn and let out a series of sounds that stretch the capacity of the human vocal system: Whoaaa! Whoaaa! Whoaaa!! The calls echoed across the slopes. I couldn’t help but feel like I was shouting a challenge across a moose coliseum.


The woods lit up with sound. Squirrels did their best to imitate thousand-pound mammals, bird songs rang as true as steam whistles and then, off in the distance, I heard what I believed to be antlers smacking trees. The cornucopia of noises left me questioning if I had actually heard a moose.


I waited, then repeated the bull calls. Whack! A clangorous verification from the top of the basin. I answered back with more calls. He countered with booming vocalizations of his own. As the bull continued his bellowing, he cleared the abyss of spruce and fir that lay across the large meadow in front of me. A Shiras gladiator of Alaskan proportions, indeed a monster.


I told myself to relax and took some calming breaths while th paddled challenger took out his aggression on an aspen sapling. He was behaving as if he was trying to loop behind me, so I cupped my hands and threw some bull calls in a direction that might place him upwind and within range. He answered but continued his clip toward my downwind. But, at the meadow edge, he turned 90 degrees and started advancing along the treeline in which I was hidden. He was coming and coming fast.


I drew as the bull passed a thick clump of aspens 30 yards from my position. He kept coming towards me at a quartering-on angle. The angle demanded I wait to shoot until he was nearly in my lap. I kept expecting him to realize that he had been duped and turn to leave, but instead, he and I were on a collision course.


At five yards he finally veered into a broadside position. I nearly rushed the shot, but instead gave myself a little more time to settle the pins. I triggered the release with back tension and the string dumped with a surprise thud. The arrow flew true.


At the shot, the bull wheeled and charged directly at me. In hindsight, I believe he thought his antagonizer had stuck him with antler. An aspen sapling standing at a mere two yards between him and me thwarted the charge and bumped him ever so slightly to my left flank. I could have reached out and touched his gray-brown flank as he charged past.


I bull called at him in a desperate attempt to slow an adrenaline fueled death run. My call seemed to relax and slow his retreat. I watched as the bull circled into the timber and walked just out of sight.


I knew it was a direct hit, but I also knew that the animal’s will was strong. In the meantime, I used my satellite communication device to contact my family and ask for help. My dad readily offered to make the three hour trip. I am lucky to be able to count on family and I have used them in my meat procurement predicaments to a degree that I hope they never ask for reprisal.


At nearly the 30 minute mark, I heard the bull take what I knew to be his final gasps. I felt relieved and at the same time suspicious. Suspicious that such a moose had chosen to cross his path with mine. Suspicious that maybe it had come too easy, after all I had only hunted for 14 days. Most of all, I was suspicious that this hunt unfolded in a way that defied the script of dreams.


I stood up and cautiously snuck up to the timberline where I had last seen the bull. He lay motionless a mere 40 yards from where he had made his last charge. He was indeed a monster. I have no idea what the hell ground shrinkage is, but certainly that day I came fully aware of “ground swell.” I took some quick photos and began to debone the animal.


Over the years I have learned how to make quick work of an elk, but this animal was different. The bull had died with his front legs underneath him and his back legs splayed, which added extreme resistance to this already challenging task. I sweated profusely in the 70-degree-plus weather as I battled to budge the immovable object before me to one side. My script always involved consuming the meat and I was beginning to worry that it was all going to spoil before I could pull it off the carcass—the final contour lines of adversity on my map of adventure.


I forced myself to focus and go back to doing one thing at a time. I gave up on the notion of pushing him on a side and instead began to peel off the hide and extract exposed muscles. Eventually I freed enough weight and resistance to use all the power I had to land him on a side. After that, the pieces came off quickly.


At one point I pulled a hind leg off and tried to squat it up in order to carry it to a shady location. Lifting up with my legs I nearly fell over and lucky for me the crotch seam, not a muscle, tore in my pants. The struggle continued as I fought to bag and hang the anvil-sized hunk of meat. As I looked back at the remaining pieces needing hung I became distinctly aware of the fact that moose are several magnitudes larger than elk.


As I returned to the carcass I looked out in the meadow and, like a beacon of hope, there was my father ambling toward me. My spirit lifted to have help bagging and hanging the remaining pieces.


It took us four trips to pack it all out, eight overburdened backpack loads of flesh. Each of the heavy trips with my father brought about an ephemeral joy and a desire to freeze time. I like to think my father felt the same way, but based on his swearing, I tend to think he just wanted the backpack induced suffering to end. As always, the last load was the antlers and skull.



The antlers on my back intermittently banged on trees as my mind began to finally allow the story to become a reality. I had killed a bull moose; I had killed a bull moose on public land with my bow. He was earned by miles on my feet and was a sporty distance (two miles) from the nearest road. I had called him to five yards before making a solid shot on vitals. I shared in the joys of meatpacking with my 68-year-old father. And how could I forget the part of the script that included drawing the wrong tag and trying to give it back, the self-pity, and the reframing of my expectations a mere 72 hours prior. The expanse between my expectations and reality was again immense, but now in the opposite direction.


As I write this I look across my living room at the bull’s skull and antlers that hang precariously below my woefully inadequate eight-foot ceilings. I still cannot help but shake my head in disbelief. I had reduced my expectations to a representative of the species whose antler size was compensated by the adventure and effort. Instead, what I received was one hell of a testament to the adversity, the exhaustive effort, the family support, the adventure, and the 30 days of my life spent learning a new landscape within my home state.


In this case, my map of a great story displays across a massive set of antlers, but if you look closely, you see the immense topo lines that comprise the paddles, some twisting and turning, others stacked tight, all of them representing a different part of the story. Writing this has taught me that adversity and adventure encountered during a hunt can only be loosely represented by words but it is never fully captured. But, the lines within the antlers tell it all and do so in a way that renders me speechless.



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