Ever since my first ride in a canoe, I’ve dreamed of someday paddling with my dad, Denny, on a wilderness moose hunt, much like how the voyageurs of the past used to pursue their quarry. It was a dream that was always kept on the back burner because of other obligations, but thoughts of the hunt were always on my mind.
Finally, I decided the only way to make my dream a reality was by taking some initiative and at least start applying for a moose tag. In my home state of Minnesota, residents can apply for a “once in a lifetime” moose license. Competition is high, and I knew the odds of drawing were low. After only 2 years of applying, however, my dad and I received notice that we’d drawn a tag. The area we chose to hunt was the
1-million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the perfect location for a wilderness canoe adventure.
Although my dad was excited at the prospect of spending quality time in the woods with me, he wasn’t too keen on the idea of hunting for moose via canoe. But just as he’s always done, he bit his tongue and accommodated my visions of grandeur, trusting I’d be prepared for any obstacles we might face.
An Eye-Opening Moment
The first 4 days of the hunt were largely uneventful, but the fifth day will be imprinted in our minds forever. We were paddling our Wenonah canoe down a 4-mile-long winding creek with my birch bark canoe in tow.
Based on our previous experience on this creek we knew there were two beaver dams, and we expected extra work at each. We were able to traverse the first dam easily. Dad stepped out of the canoe and pulled our canoe string over, and I then paddled over to the bank and picked him up.
The second dam was a tad more tricky, to put it mildly. Minimal water trickled over the top of the alder debris-laden dam, and Dad stepped out on top and again pulled us over. I cozied up against the bank of the creek and waited for him to step back in. As he raised his leg and put his hand on the gunwale, his other foot slipped and before I knew it, the canoe was flipped and I was sipping “tamarack tea!”
Struggling to keep our packs inside the canoe by righting it, Dad was waist-deep in the creek. As I popped up to the surface, the frigid October water oozed into my inner core, and I could feel my body heat rapidly diminish. With my head barely out of the water, I started to wade to the bank.
“Dan wait, we’re missing a gun!” my dad exclaimed as he scanned our inventory of floating gear. Knowing the gun’s approximate location in the canoe and where it could have fallen, I fished underneath the water with my feet and, by pure chance, felt the gun’s barrel on the creek’s soft bottom. I brought it up and quickly climbed the bank.
There was no time to discuss what had just happened, because the freezing air was rapidly sapping our energy. We found a pack with a waterproof liner and dug for dry clothes. I stripped down and dried myself off head to toe,
as did Dad. Amazingly, we’d never flipped a canoe in all our years of paddling, and it was a sobering moment for both of us. Needless to say, few words were spoken as we thought about how close we came to tragedy.
We established base camp that afternoon on a large lake that connected to the creek. Despite our setback, our spirits remained high. As I sat on shore cleaning my water-soaked gun, I sensed a change in the air. The clouds and wind that had been with us all day were breaking, and the expansive lake became very still. That evening we set off in the Wenonah.
More than ever after our canoe tipping event, I realized we were a team on this hunt. It was a sensation I’d never felt before. We weren’t in a pheasant field chasing in all directions after birds, or hunting deer where I was in a tree miles from Dad wondering if he was seeing anything. We were canoe-bound, hunting together like voyageurs.
A Dream Realized
As we paddled into the first bay, the wind changed in our favor, and we cozied the canoe up to an island to break our outline and then began calling.
The anticipation built at each bay we stopped in, and we uttered hardly a word to each other. I paddled along the shoreline and around a sharp point and then Dad whispered, “There’s one!” As the stern cleared the point, I spotted the regal animal against the shoreline. The image was breathtaking—the great symbol of the Northwoods was right in front of us!
As Dad reached for his .30-06, I turned the canoe to give him a good shot. The moose was about 75 yards away and Dad locked onto the target like a Lab on a falling mallard. As the bull started to take a step toward the tangled woods, Dad fired. The bull threw his head back and rushed full speed into the lake! The moose was well hit and on his last bit of energy, but he still managed to plow 30 yards into the water before coming to a halt in the bay.
As the bull floated in the water, we both raised our arms high in celebration! My dad turned to look at me and we both felt the pinnacle of success. After the congratulations had ended, we realized the massive work that lay ahead of us and prepared for an all-night winching and butchering party.
Butchering the moose actually turned out to be a labor of love for both of us, but more so for my dad. His family owned a small town butcher shop during his younger years, and we were dressing the moose with knives that had probably taken cuts off a beef quarter 50 years ago. Even though Dad never expressed it himself, I know those knives hold a lot of sentiment for him.
After a long night of winching the bull to shore and quartering the meat, we loaded the entire moose and boarded the Wenonah as the sun slowly rose above the horizon. We paddled back to camp and fell asleep in our tent. A light rain started to fall as we loaded the moose meat into the birch bark canoe. With the bull’s rack propped high in the canoe and 400 pounds of quartered meat securely loaded, I paddled hard to propel the laden craft back toward civilization.
As we unloaded the moose quarters at our eighth and final portage, Dad eagerly stopped to show me how his uncle used to carry beef quarters in the butcher shop. I watched him load one of the front quarters on his shoulders and make his way down the rocky trail. As the cold rain continued to fall, a beaming smile spread across my face. In the process of helping me step back in time, Dad had also found his own way of stepping back to his childhood. I loaded up a hindquarter on my shoulder in similar fashion, turned down the path and followed in his footsteps.