Like most hunters, autumn lures me into the mountains, away from my everyday life as stay-at-home mom. In the past ten years, my efforts have helped fill our family’s freezer with venison and the tasty lean meat from several elk.
The female hunter is still a rare breed; the hunter/full-time mom, even more so. Over the past six years of caring for babies and preschoolers, I’ve pulled it off by sticking close to home, going early, staying late. Three years ago I killed a cow elk ten miles from home, and returned in time to nurse our infant daughter. Using a GPS to locate the kill, my husband Miles took care of my elk while I took care of our baby.
This fall, after moving from Colorado to Idaho, I drew a once-in-a-lifetime tag for a bull moose. Only ten are given out for this unit for a three-month season. I was thrilled but worried about the logistics. In Colorado, I was able to hunt close to home, and knew the units very well. The Idaho moose unit I drew was hours away from our home. I had spent some time there, but never hunted it.
In mid-September I was able to do one five day hunt with Miles along for help, when my parents flew out to babysit. We hiked at least 40 miles in those five days, exhausting ourselves in the unseasonably hot weather while finding next to nothing. We did see a cow and bull through the spotting scope, but they were so far away over several ridges, that we never could find them again.
By mid-October, the weather had cooled and it was well into rut. It had snowed in the area which helped with tracking. We headed up again, this time with our three and five year old in tow. We started with a few short hikes to look for sign, followed by driving around and glassing, and I quickly realized going solo would maximize my time.
I had seen fresh tracks up a small canyon, so the next morning I hiked out alone before light. I’d never before hunted in grizzly country, and am admittedly afraid of the dark, so my nerves were a bit frazzled. About two miles up the trail I saw fresh moose tracks. I followed them, climbing onto a ridge with views of two drainages. It looked like the perfect spot for a moose to be.
For over an hour, I called and thrashed in the bushes, but saw nothing. Finally I headed back along the ridge to check out some promising meadows seen the day before. I had forgotten my phone and watch, but knew it must be close to when Miles would expect me back. He was anxious about me being out alone in unfamiliar territory. (My how the tables turn sometimes!)
Later, after taking the kids out to look for grouse (my son carrying his BB gun), I headed out again by myself. We planned to meet at the house for an early dinner, then try again together that evening. I chose a road with the best vantage points and spent the next two hours driving eight miles towards the trailhead, hiking short distances and glassing. I found a spot to set up with the family later on, with views of several ridges. Shooting one there would mean a miserable pack-out across steep drainages, but my chances might improve. It was also a spot my kids could probably hike to.
It was nearly four o’clock, but I decided to drive to the end of the single track before heading back – a decision I quickly regretted. Some trucks with horse trailers were coming out, forcing me to back up along a steep drop-off. The trailers squeaked by, and I continued.
Just before the trailhead, a bull moose ran right in front of the truck! Not believing my luck, I swerved to avoid it, then stopped the truck, grabbed my gun and shooting sticks, and ran after him into a willowy creek bottom. About thirty yards on I halted. He had crossed the creek, and was standing broadside about eighty yards away, watching me. While elk or deer would have run a mile, moose don't seem to have the same fear of humans. He wasn't a giant bull, probably three or four years old, but then this wasn’t a trophy hunt, not with kids tagging along. I just needed to get meat in the freezer.
And here it was, no more than a hundred yards from the truck! I was shaking from adrenaline and could barely get bullets into my gun. As the moose stood there staring back, I put one right in the kill zone.
He ran, of course, about fifty yards along the creek-bank, then crashed into willow thickets. I didn't see him fall, but by the sound of it, he was down for good. I waited a bit, then started searching in the thick sprouts. The brush was so dense at ground level, I could see barely a foot ahead. If he were only injured, I would be trapped in these willows and in danger. I worried about him finding me first.
Finding no sign of him, I began to wonder if I’d made the whole thing up. It had happened so fast! I went back to where I’d seen and shot him and mentally replayed it. I crossed over to where he was standing to look for a blood trail, but found only a single drop of blood the size of a quarter. I flagged that spot, and followed his tracks. No blood anywhere. I began to panic -- what if he had crashed and then gotten up and run off into the forest? I would never find him with no blood trail! How could things suddenly go so wrong? I could not lose this beautiful animal.
Gradually I became aware of hearing a four-wheeler driving back and forth on the road. The morning before with my husband and the kids, we had met a group of older men setting up camp for upcoming deer and elk seasons. They were dairy farmers from Tillamook, Oregon, of about the age my grandfather would have been, and they had been coming to this area hunting since 1965. They were excited to be back in the woods, away from the constant work a dairy demands.
Because of the few moose tags awarded, odds were small that other hunters here were after moose. In fact, almost everyone I met was excited about me, a young woman, having the tag. Most were happy to tell me about moose they’d seen, even in the past few years. One couple, (the only other woman I saw the whole time), even offered to come help me pack it out if I got one. The dairy farmers hadn't seen any animals yet but offered to keep an eye out.
I walked back up to the road and found one of them driving the four-wheeler I’d heard. He said they had heard the shot in camp and wanted to know who had gotten what. He headed back to camp to tell the others. At the same time a couple on horses came riding down the road. They offered to help me look as they could get a higher vantage from atop their horses and possibly see over the willows better. I sent them to the area I'd covered to see if I had missed some clue, while I headed back down stream.
After about five minutes, I let out a whoop and started crying with relief and joy – I found my moose! (I had underestimated the crash spot by about twenty yards.) My shot was perfect and clean, going through the lungs and heart. I had gotten my moose and done it on my own -- it was an amazing sense of accomplishment.
I called to the couple on horseback. They were so happy for me, and I was so thrilled and emotional I had to hug these complete strangers. They took a few pictures for me and offered to call my husband when they got back to cell coverage. That was a huge help since I didn't have to waste daylight by driving the hour to call him myself.
After they left, I sat there with my moose in quiet awe. It still felt like a dream. I heard the four-wheeler coming down the road again, and heard the man's voice calling “Lady! Hey lady, are you in there somewhere?” I called out so he could locate me through the willows. Soon, the whole group was tromping through the willows, coming to admire my moose. They asked if I needed help and I told them I was waiting for my husband to start the next step. One said, “Wouldn't it be nice if the moose were lying right next to the truck when your husband showed up? If you like, we could hook it up to the four wheeler and pull it up there for you.”
How could I say no to that? Especially since they were all so excited for me, and I didn’t want to ruin their fun! Before I knew it, these five elderly dairymen -- grinning like schoolboys, hooting and hollering the whole time -- had my moose pulled out of the thick willows, across the creek, and uphill to my truck. Again, it felt like a dream. How did I get so lucky?
I thanked them all profusely, and told them I would be an unofficial spokesperson for Tillamook Dairy products for the rest of my life! (They do make some great sharp cheddar!) I also told them how much they reminded me of my grandfather. He raised cattle in Missouri, and loved hunting in the western mountains with his buddies. He died before I met my husband and started hunting myself, but I feel he’s with me on my hunts. Perhaps all this good luck was his doing!
When my husband finally pulled up in our car, he had a big grin on his face. He couldn't believe my luck either, but he sure was proud of me, and so were the kids. We started field dressing the animal, using the car and truck headlights -- much handier than just headlamps. And the kids stayed warm and content, snacking and watching movies in the back of the car. Can’t think how we would have kept them happy sitting for two hours on a cold, dark creek-bank!
When we finished we delivered a piece of back-strap to the dairy farmers’ camp as a thank you present. I was proud to pull off this hunt; confident, now, that this stay-at-home mom could actually do it alone. But realizing too how much more fun it was having help.