Close calls: Tracking the essence of moose hunting

Willows tall and short, thick like bamboo. Through these, appearing vaguely as a shadowy form, sloshes Solomon Carriere into the water-laden marsh. All hint of a moon is gone, the night black as a hole, water shin deep, spilling over our knee-high boots.

We had left the boat long ago. I have a compass pinned to my jacket but can't see it. Periodically I check with my fingers for my quiver and its five arrows, broadheads affixed to each, stainless steel over carbon.

I have come to north-central Saskatchewan to kill a moose with my bow; I have tried here before but got no shots.

On the earlier occasions I hunted with Solomon's brother, Murdoch, whose camp is well downstream. This time I am hunting with Solomon, who lives with his family in the bush 40 miles up the Saskatchewan River from Cumberland House - a Cree, or, more generally, Metis, village at the end of a long gravel road.

Part of an inland delta measuring 2 million square acres, and extending as far east as The Pas, Manitoba, Solomon's country, interlaced still now with waterways, is ever-evolving, a process speeded up by two hydro-electric dams built upriver from Big Eddy.

Big Eddy is what the Carrieres' home is called, also their hunting camp.

Solomon's father and mother, nomadic, tented at Big Eddy to net the plentiful fish that seemed always to swirl in the river there. This has also long been a family hunting place, where moose were killed, loins and chops smoked, also deer, elk and bear.

Fur was trapped, too, particularly beaver but additionally wolf, fox, lynx, coyote, otter, muskrat, fisher and pine marten, the hides skinned and dried to be loaded, come winter, into dogsleds for the trip to town.

Solomon, the shadowy figure in the dark sloshing ahead of me, suddenly stops and sits on a log.

I think: Let's not stop. Time and considerable space separate us from the boat and, subsequently, the dark ride downriver to Big Eddy, rain spitting, everything cold; fingers, toes, cheeks.

My friend Steve Vilks of Stillwater would be back at camp by now, his long day's hunt concluded, boots off, warm in our small cabin, the wood-fired sauna only a short walk away, yellowed windows against the dark, generator humming.

Sitting on the log, gesticulating, Solomon says:

Some time ago, I had an archer who shot a moose right here. It was near dark, not quite as dark as now, and I called the bull in."

Solomon looks up, as if seeing the big animal for the first time.

"The hunter took a good shot. But not a great shot. The bull moved off. It was dark and we tracked the animal. We found him. He had laid down and couldn't get up.

"We couldn't get another shot into him. So my hunter and I sat on a log near the moose, just as we are sitting on this log, and waited in the dark for him to die. We could hear his heavy breathing. A long time passed."

Solomon learned to hunt from his father and grandfather.

Their blood and that of many native Cree long ago were mixed with Europeans' and particularly that of the French who opened this country to fur trading, gnarly men who plied the continent's northern rivers in freighter canoes, mosquitoes swarming, paddling interminable lengths in short summers.

Cumberland House was the centerpiece of this, a place where furs were brought from the west and the north and sold each winter by New Year's, a calendar juncture accompanied by days-long celebrations, after which the furs were toted by horse to The Pas.

In spring the furs were moved through Manitoba over the Hays River to Hudson Bay and shipped to Europe.

Not only Solomon's father and grandfather but his uncles and all of his family before him were part of this, cash economies ensnaring everyone sooner or later.

The Carrieres also fished in winter through the ice with nets, hauling their catches to market by dog sled.

Such, then, was the life Solomon was born into, the land subsequently giving up to him and his family its furs, fish and meat; sustenance.

And the land also taking back.

Buried at Big Eddy is Solomon and Renee's second child, Jacqueline, who died at age 3 of cancer.

Now, sitting on the log, the night dark, the thicket wet, Solomon, who has won three world canoe-racing championships, some of them marathons covering 70 miles a day, four days in a row, seems not uncomfortable at all; or, aware, really, of the degree of separation from this sopping place and Big Eddy, one locale vs. the next; cold and wet vs. warm and dry.

Solomon's father once told him: "The bush is a spiritual place because to survive you must depend on something bigger than yourself."

That something "bigger" includes rituals and traditions, the lifeblood, Solomon believes, of his family; all families.

Also this, again from his father: "Don't make animals suffer or bad things will come to you."

Finally, Solomon throws back his wrists, punctuating his story.

"That moose eventually died," he says. "It was after midnight when I dressed him out."

I first came to Big Eddy five years ago. This was in winter and the temperature never rose above minus-20. Solomon, his wife, Renee, and their two daughters, Michela and Martina, lived in a one-room cabin.

A teacher, Renee home-schooled the girls, as well as their older brother, Real, who is now in graduate school. But home-schooled children in Saskatchewan must attend a conventional school during their senior year of high school. So this winter Michela, 17, lives with Renee's mother in Saskatoon and attends classes there.

Renee, meanwhile, who met Solomon in college - he left after three years, finding the city too stifling - has taken a job this winter teaching in The Pas, about six hours distant.

So Martina, 15, and Solomon will often be alone together this winter at Big Eddy.

A thin, pretty girl, Martina, like her sister, converses easily with visitors, seemingly free altogether of the ironic footnotes that underwrite the comings and goings of so many kids her age. She works as hard around camp as she does on her homework (she travels 40 miles one way by boat to send her studies to distant teachers over the Internet), and cares diligently for her dad's 35 or so sled dogs, including two litters of pups.

She and Michela once sent their entire savings, $240, to the Yukon to buy a lead dog for their father's team.

"I love living here," she says. "It's better than the city."

Solmon paddles silently from the stern of a canoe, the craft sliding on shallow water, a feather over glass.

My bow in my left hand, arrow nocked, I sit in the bow of the canoe.

We don't expect to come around a bend in this small river and find a bull knee-deep in water, languorous, nose ferreting vegetation, a big target.

If that happens - my mind's eye having envisioned it many times - I will draw back, estimating the distance to the animal, needing really to have this benchmark nailed to within a few yards, particularly at distances of 30 yards and more, then choose the correct sighting pin and let go of the bowstring smoothly, not torquing or canting it this way or that, but smoothly, directing the arrow and its laser-sharpened broadhead to the bull's-eye just behind the moose's front leg.

Upriver we paddle, come to a dam, beach the canoe, walk another mile.

Now it is near sunset and we are where we want to be. Moose tracks cross ours, also moose scat and wolf scat are ever present.

I nock an arrow and disappear into the willows, shadowed in this lowland by taller Manitoba maples, spruces, birches, aspens.

A raven barks overhead.

Downwind, Solomon grunts - guttural croaks intended to sound out nearby bulls, enticing them to give up their positions.

Eerily he follows this with a calf-like cry, hands cupped to his mouth, heavy vibrato. Pitched higher and higher, then lower, a sensuous plea that ends sharply.


We want a bull to amble toward Solomon's exact location and, en route, take from me, unseen from the willows, and unscented, an arrow through both lungs, a true ambush.

Nothing happens.

Night settles.

In the dark, we return to Big Eddy, hiking, paddling, boating.

Now it is early morning, an hour or so after sunup, and Solomon and I have a moose 30 yards from us, two of them actually, a bull presumably with a cow.

Steve, with his rifle, is hunting a long distance away, moose and also deer. He has seen none of the former and only junior-sized specimens of the latter.

Paddling and listening, Solomon had heard the bull thrashing its antlers in the marsh and quickly we were out of the canoe and onto hard ground.

The bull can't see us and we can't see him, the tall grass separating us.

A slight breeze drifts toward us; perfect.

Disappeared, Solomon is to my left, maybe 40 yards, grunting, challenging, trying to draw the bull from the cow. This would have been easier in mid-September, during the peak of the bull's rut. But in this part of Saskatchewan moose can only be hunted the first two weeks of October, after the rut, and bow and gun seasons run then concurrently.

No matter. The presence so near of an animal so large; the anticipation, the expectation. This is the essence of moose hunting.

Some years ago I killed a moose in British Columbia with a rifle and my guide and I packed it out on horses, four quarters in four panniers, antlers lashed to the top.

That was good but this is better, the animal needing to be so much closer.

Now Solomon is feeling pressure to bring this bull to within range, 55 yards for me or less.

One winter he dumped his snowmobile into open water and had to walk 60 miles back to Big Eddy, doubtless experiencing less pressure then than he is now.

I want to sling an arrow myself, hit or miss, and relieve him of that.

Surely there are camps where better archery opportunities for moose exist. But indiscriminate traveling sportsmen can find themselves sharing mountain tents for long weeks with boozer hedge fund managers bound up with bravado and girlie jokes; full of themselves.

I'd rather hunt with friends.

Thrashing willows with a moose antler, and calling continuously, Solomon begs the bull to come hither; to fight for his cow.

And to take an arrow from me.

But the bull won't come.

In time, we paddle on.