One of the things that most terrified me about going hunting (apart from getting lost!) was getting cold. I hate being cold and what is worse, I get cold quite easily — much more easily than David, my hunting partner (who I would swear could stand barefooted in sub-freezing temperatures smoking a cigarette and puzzling over the fact that I’m shivering).
This, coupled with the fact that he and his family are serious hunters who will tolerate the worst of conditions, had me quite concerned about my ability to keep up. “Those guys are successful because they work hard at it and are willing to do whatever it takes,” a friend who knows them well warned me. “I’m just no longer willing to work that hard,” he confessed and then added, “For example, David thinks nothing of heading out after dark to return to a downed moose miles from camp and spending the night out there processing the meat.”
The thought of spending the night on the side of a grizzly bear infested mountain with a fresh kill on the ground was a bit beyond my comfort level. I wanted to have a ‘nice’ time and the thought of what he might put me through in order to ‘be successful’ had me quite terrified. As it happened, last year the above scenario did unfold exactly as my friend had described. Luckily I had the excuse of having to return home and tend to my animals that night and, when I declined his offer seeing the moose butchering process by mag-light, I could tell that David was not impressed. He’s a hard man (or at least that’s what I thought then).
This fear of having to face all possible scenarios, coupled with my worry about not ‘cutting the mustard’, were the main reasons I spent last hunting season with David’s father, Clarence. At the tender age of 83, he had finally slowed down — and softened just enough — for me to feel confident enough to ask him to teach me how to hunt. This year however I was more determined to get out there and really experience ‘the bush’, so I mustered up enough courage to head out with the ‘Jr. Edition’. I worked hard to convince myself that I was now brave enough to face any such scenario that might unfold — even if that meant spending the night on the side of a mountain gutting moose while holding a mag-light between my teeth.
Our first day out together I knew we’d be testing both our friendship and our tolerance for each other: it would be the making or breaking of the deal. David is not one to mince words or candy coat things to make you feel good. If you weren’t up to a task he’d let you know and he wouldn’t worry about whether or not he’d hurt your feelings. Facts are facts, period — and there’s no sense taking it personally. As fate and poetic irony would have it, the day was bitterly cold and it was snowing heavily. “I’m a bit worried about my boots,” I said tentatively as we were getting ready to leave. He turned and paused at the door long enough to say, “We’ll know soon whether they are any good,” and then he hoisted his rifle down off its nail in the cabin, slung it over his neck so it rested against his chest, and walked out the door signaling it was time to leave and the end of the discussion.
Not only was it my first day out with David; it was also my first time driving a quad-bike through mountain terrain. Until this point, my only experience with a quad-bike was harrowing the arena where I kept my horse and driving one between my ‘front forty’ that we’d been clearing and the woodshed, most of the distance being paved road. The temperatures had dropped significantly overnight which affected our equipment: the quad-bikes’ rear brakes were frozen and we couldn’t move either of them. It took some time and some monkeying around to get their wheels free, but we were soon on our way. It was cold and snowing as we headed down the trail.
We worked our way through the woods and into an open meadow before heading up an old logging slash to a bench with wonderful views of where we’d come from. “This is as good a place as any to spot moose,” he told me in hushed tones before providing colorful examples of ‘moose spottings of hunting trips past’. He is a grand orator and is continuously describing scenarios he’d been up against or experienced at each spot we came to. After reciting a charming story about a moose and her calf that he’d seen in this very spot years before — replete with sound effects and hand gestures — the task at hand and teacher in him suddenly took over:
“Now, has dad had you practicing loading your rifle and dry firing?”
“A little bit, but I haven’t done any of that since last year.”
“Well, that’s what we’re going to do then.”
I followed his instructions: load the rifle, pretend to ‘spot’ a moose, get into position, and ‘fire’. “Again,” he motioned silently with his hands. We spent the better part of an hour doing this, him scouting for moose while I practiced shooting them. “Even as seasoned and experienced as dad and I are, we still do this… It helps keep you fresh.” When he sees animals he can’t shoot (like a cow moose or a herd of doe deers) he’ll study them and practice dry firing on them. “You can’t do that enough,” he said turning back to where we’d parked the bikes. It was then that I noticed my feet were ice cold.
“Before Judy got her first animal I made her do this for over an hour on a herd of caribou that came through our camp… She was mad at me at the time, but she got her first animal that trip.” His face was stern as he described teaching his wife to hunt. In fact, his face is generally stern. Hunting is serious business and you take it as such. It is not something you do two weeks per year; it is a way of life for him. It was this fact and his stern look that made me nervous last year and hesitant to admit to having cold feet now.
So much so that I was considering suffering through the day as is. Suck it up Princess, you’ll live. He was about to start his quad when I mentioned my feet and almost held my breath in anticipation of his reaction. He immediately took his hand off the starter button, got off the quad, and, face softening, said, “That’s no good. You can’t hunt well when all you can think about is how cold your feet are… Let’s light a fire and get them warmed up.” Well that was easier than I thought it would be.
And so began my first how-to-light-a-fire-with-nothing-around lesson. He gathered enough material and had it lit in seconds. In fact, it was up and roaring so fast that I missed the actual ‘how to’ part. When I said this to him he looked up at me, saying gently, “Don’t be afraid to ask me to do it again.”
Thankfully, I brought another pair of ‘back up boots’ and a change of socks. While tending to my cold tootsies, Dave busied himself with coffee break preparations. Already famished, I got out my sandwich. He motioned towards the grill, then said of the corner of his mouth that wasn’t holding the cigarette, “Toast it on the fire… That ham and cheese will be great warmed up and melting. Um-hum.” And so it was.
With feet securely placed in warm boots, I was now ready to go. We headed west along the trail away from our fire spot and it was not long before we cut our first moose track, then a second. It was this second set of tracks that got Dave excited: “That is more like it… see how he’s dragging his feet heavily?” he said pointing to the tracks in the snow. “Cow moose tend to be like ladies, you know, they go more daintily through the world,” he explained as his hand came up in front of my eyes, fingers pointing downward, walking them daintily through the air. Then suddenly, he stepped heavily through the snow out in front of me and rocked side to side exaggeratedly: “The bulls are more like us males.” He turned on his heel to head back towards me in the same aggressive manner, declaring, “We kind of stomp our way through life, heavy like.” Gender distinctiveness demonstration over, he pointed down at the tracks, and as an afterthought added, “Plus, these are more the size of a bull!”
A little distance beyond the second track we turned south along another trail, this one much more difficult going than the first. The moose track did not cut this trail, “Well, we know he’s still out there somewhere,” he said pointing to the northeast. So, we now knew where he wasn’t on two sides. “We’ll triangulate and box him in,” Dave said explaining that we’d head northeast back towards the original trail where we’d first seen this print. Several hours later we were back on our original trail and near our fire spot. “Well hun, he’s not come out of there… Now we’ve got him boxed in… He’ll be there for the night.”
It was nearing dark and getting cold. Back at our fire spot, this time I lit the fire. “You can’t shoot now, but you can practice some more.” Once again, Dave made coffee while I went back to my stump and practiced spotting and firing on imaginary moose. Bellies warmed by the coffee, we fired up the quads and meandered our way back to camp in the dark. If he had told me we’d be staying out till dark before we left, I would have had ‘cold feet’ about heading out. Reflecting on this, I marveled at the fact that I was warm, comfortable in the dark and completely at peace in the moment. Not once had I been scared all day. It was a nice feeling.
As we neared camp David stopped the quad and signaled that I should pull up beside him. He lit a smoke before turning to me, murmuring, “Now, ain’t that a welcome sight?” nodding through the trees towards the dimly lit cabin. Smoke was billowing from the chimney and the light was beckoning us home to its warm glow. Indeed it was a welcoming ‘site’.
Clarence was relieved to see us and let us know he’d been worried once it got dark. He scolded David for keeping me out that late. I chuckled to myself as I watched the 84 year old patriarch of the family reprimand his 57 year old son for keeping me out after dark. He thought he would scare me and turn me off hunting and that he should take it more easily on me. I felt cared for and protected, like I was part of the family. I also realised that I’d graduated from being scared of the idea of hunting, to being thrilled by it.