“Remind me why I do these kinds of things with you?”
And he laughed and said it was in my blood.
He wanted a weekend in the wild, paddling a canoe, and invited me along. If there is wilderness and canoes I go. So I went.
We drove three hours north, chasing the water and the Canadian shield, with a disposable camera and a trunk full of gear. We tied the canoe on the roof, realizing we had forgotten half of our tie-on equipment at home, and laughed, since the September wind was already blowing strong. “Hope it stays on”, he said. “It better”, I say, and my speedometer quivers at 120 kl./hr. We choose a lake three hours north and had a rough map, drawn by one of the local men, showing snow machine trails and old railroad tracks.
It was late by the time we pulled into the clearing and saw the bay below, still calm. 6:30 pm. Less than three hours until dark and it had started to rain. We raced the western clouds and the wind, flipping the canoe down and me piling gear out of the trunk while he packed it, tightly, filling in all the corners. We watched the clouds and winced as they rolled closer.
I climbed into the front, he shoved us off, and the water swirled behind our furious haste. The lake was nine miles long and we wanted to get away from the few seasonal cottages that the road access had brought to desecrate the otherwise lonely shores.
“We have to hurry”, he said and I smiled as the canoe leapt with our synchronized stokes and marveled at the blessing of my life and the way we both speak canoe.
We crossed to the middle and turned down the wide channel that stretched as far as the mist would reveal. An hour later the clouds opened and the waves fought our progress and the darkness rolled in around the pines.
Finally, we knew we had to find camp and so followed the bank for the next thirty minutes until, though the rain, we found a tiny bay and pulled the canoe up the rocks.
The ground was too uneven down by the water so he walked to the top of the ridge and found a spot just big enough to fit the tent. While the darkness came steady, he snapped brush and leveled ground and I carried the sleeping bags and the tarp and the backpacks up the ridge and hung the food bucket in the tree away from the bears.
Throwing rope, tied around large rocks, over tree branches in the dark is one of the more finer of my skills. I came very close to knocking myself completely unconscious.
By the time everything was set up it was pitch black and the rain was soaking even the dry undersides of the pines. So we decided against a fire and, instead, climbed into our tent for the rest of the night. We sat, wet, cold, and laughing under the light of our lantern, that swung and sent eerie glows across the vinyl roof. He changed out of his wet clothes, but I was too hungry and so decided to wait until after I ate. We ate our supper/midnight snack and laughed and talked the way you do when there is only miles of empty bush surrounding you and everything is dark. It have been a successful first day, we reasoned.
And as we sat the night matured, and the supper was almost done, with just the last Mars bar to go, when, from the darkness a few feet behind our tiny tent came noise.
And then loud, right in our ears, “NEAAAAARRRRUUUUH UH UH.”
We looked at each other, eyes meeting, as it came again.
“NEAAAAARRRRUUUUH UH UH.”
Right up close. Right there. We looked at each other and out of both mouths, simultaneously, came a gasped “Moose!”
And we didn’t need to say anything else, really. We both had lived in the north, both been raised by a moose hunter and his stories, and we both knew that September was the heat of the rut and that moose in the rut are no pretty tourist sight.
But that was a cow. With a bull in the rut, any noise can be taken as a threat and we had heard stories from our parents and heard of them jumping in a canoe to escape when the noise had caused a bull to come fast and angry. But that was a cow and cows are fine. Unless of course a bull is with her, Dad said. So we turned out the lights and sat, silent in the darkness. The snapping brush came closer and we could hear her breathing, hot and heavy, in the night. She crashed and grunted her way, slowly, so slow around the tent. And we sat, with two layers of plastic between us and her 800lb aliveness. After an half and hour she moved off enough that the snapping brush was more distant and we could whisper.
I climbed in to my sleeping bag, still in my wet clothes, not daring to wake the forest by digging in my garbage bag-lined pack. Still we could hear crashing and was that more than one animal? We couldn’t tell.
There was no point in thinking of our canoe as an escape if a bull did come, like Dad advised. It was too far down the ridge to be any use.
Finally, I decided, I needed to relax. Daniel will listen and Daniel will pray. I’m just going to plug my ears and go to sleep. The cold ground wrapped around my sopping clothes and I smiled at how nature never fails to give me a buzz.
A hour or so later Daniel awoke in the icy blackness and this time he knew it wasn’t a cow. If you have never heard and large bull moose “work out”, rent a National Geographic from the library or something and you’ll remember.
What Daniel heard and recognized was the THUNK of logs as they get picked up by a bull moose’s rack and throw like chopsticks, the SNAP of branched and trees being crushed by body and antler, the THUMP as the bush floor is churned and dug by hoofs and antlers, and the trademark THRASH, THRASH of antlers being rubbed up and down tree trunks, stripping the branches. Bless Daniels heart, he didn’t wake me, knowing how terrified I would be.
The bull came closer and closer and Daniel lay still and prayed. Finally it came too close and suddenly saw us, letting out a large “UUUUUURRRRRRAAA”.
“We’re dead”, Daniel though to himself.
But, after crashing and blowing for a while he slowly moved off. And that’s when I woke up.
As soon as I heard him my heart sank. He had his cow and now any noise we made was dangerous, not just slightly risky.I lay, cold and wet, and scared out of my mind, and Daniel patted me in comfort. Finally the crashing grew more distant and I again made the choice to sleep rather than to worry.
Two hours later he was back and this time both Daniel and I were wide awake, staring at the outline of the moon on the roof as we heard him come again, loud, closer and closer. He came and still came and when he snapped branches 15 feet away I thought my heart might stop altogether. I had to cough and the tarp beneath us crackled with every movement. I could hear his grunts and heavy breaths and once again two sheets of plastic stood between me and an animal who weights anywhere from 900-1500 pounds and carries rack of antlers twice his width.
I knew that all the trees around were poplar and had no branches until 15 feet up, but I remembered that my grandmother, Clara, had climbed a smooth tree with no branches once, when she was lone in the wilderness, and she thought a moose was coming. Grandpa was gone with the gun and when he came back he didn’t believe she had actually climbed that smooth, branchless tree. “Well, if Grandma could climb a smooth tree to get away from a moose, so could I.” I reasoned.
Somehow that didn’t really reassure me.
Dad used a stump to hide from an angry bull moose, I remembered. But that held to comfort since I knew there were no stumps within 100 yard. Dad and Mom had used a canoe to escape a bull, even though he had swam out into the water. But, again, I remembered that the distance between the breathing beast behind me and my canoe was vastly unproportioned. Daniel had pepper spray along but we both knew that would be like trying to stop a train with a toothpick.
So I let Daniel pray in a whisper and reminded myself that I loved adventures like laying, wet and cold, in the wilderness with bull moose standing 15 feet behind me.
Again, slowly he moved off, and the rest of the night is a blur. Every time I woke up I could hear something crashing, but most of the time it was farther off and I was too exhausted to care about being trampled or gorged anymore to stay awake. I woke up at 700 am and could still hear the bull in the distance, doing his little bush work-out.
I woke up Daniel at 730, when the crashing was almost silent, and we, as silent and hurried as we have ever done such, carried everything down to the canoe. Once it was all off the ridge and in safe distance of the canoe we packed it all up and pushed off into the mist. We wanted to, right before we left, smash brush and take our paddles against the trees like Dad taught us moose hunting, to bring him running, but we decided we had enough bull moose for the time being and so just slipped away silently.
We canoed the swamps and creek-like fingers the rest of the morning and found enough moose sign to tell us we were not dreaming. (the third picture below is what the ground looks like after in encounters a bull moose)
We ate a wonderful breakfast on the rocks, and built a fire, and looked at the fall colors and talked, and explored, and generally did things that one normally does on a canoe trip to make up for the bizarre night.
And when we came home we had a great story, and Dad couldn’t get over how lucky we were, and Mom reminded us how much danger we really were in, and I had spent the next two days with a sore throat and achy, fevered bones from my cold, wet night.
But it was all wonderfully worth it and I would do it all again in a flash. Even though I probably will never sent up my tent so far from my canoe in the middle of September.