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Waiting and watching for a big bull moose to show on Alaska hunt near Haines

Heather Lende
Finally, we see alders shaking across the meadow and hear the guttural "unk-unk" sound the males make. We snap to. Binoculars up. We watch and listen and wait on high alert. Slowly, the moose emerges. An antler. A hairy side. Finally he appears on the edge of the meadow in full view. Loren Holmes photo

The first weekend of the Haines moose hunt is over, and we have survived. So have the moose -- near our sites, anyway. I hear four have been taken so far. We have until the first week of October -- or until 25 or so have been shot.

Chip and I camped out on the river so we could be hunting at first light on opening day. We were up Sunday at 4:30 a.m. When we couldn’t stand to wait another minute, we tiptoed through the woods to our tree stand -- through alder and cottonwood, wild roses and cranberries, Devil’s club, willow. Underfoot it’s rutted, riddled with blow downs, and the way is not clear. We tried not to crack dead branches, or trip, or snag the rifles. We climbed over and crawled under logs.

It was really foggy, and wet. We crossed a silty slough, feeling with our feet -- it was that opaque. There were soft muck, gravel and logs under there. The water climbed to two inches below the upturned cuff of my hip boots. We walked down a gravel bar where I stepped at the same time Chip did -- making one crunch rather than two. The tree stand is in a tall cottonwood on the edge of swampy meadow dotted with alder and willow islands and rimmed by brushy breaks of higher ground. It looks like a Virginia hayfield, except when the fog lifts there will be mountains on either side of a wide valley, some with glaciers -- and no barns or houses. You can see the weather moving all the way to Canada. There are moose trails in here, and it smells musky-moosey.

We climb up the ladder to a metal bench 14 feet up, one step at a time. There’s a narrow seat with a bar we pull over our heads once we are both in it, shoulder to shoulder. Lucky neither of us is very wide. Think old-fashioned chair lift. I don’t look down. Fourteen feet seems like 50. Packs and rifles are hung on nails behind us. We watch the meadow with binoculars. Listen to every crack and squish. Double-check every dark shadow. We don’t speak except in whispers or sign language. Chip makes a cow sound. It’s a long nasal whine. He pinches his nose and sort of sings out of it through his cupped hands. He is very serious. I look down and smile. It makes me love the moose hunter in him. How can he do this with a straight face? Leaves drop. Birds flit. A hawk hovers, and in the distance trumpeter swans honk. An airboat runs up the river out of sight and far away, sounding like a small plane. A glacier calves way up high and it rumbles like thunder. But no moose. We sit like that, sometimes standing up, sometimes shifting for about three hours, then we climb down and head to camp for a snack and a nap.

By the time we go back out, it’s hot. 70 degrees. And sunny. Too hot for moose hunting. Figuring no moose will be out ‘till dusk, we do some trail work then cut a few alders blocking our view. We crash around and talk at full voice and then about 4 p.m., climb up in the stand and wait for the evening to cool and the moose to move. There is a lot of activity now. Nuthatches zip around us. Crows and ravens flap over the fields, flocks of ducks V overhead. Boats buzz the river. Chip does his cow call again, but I say it's silly, as there are no moose out yet in the sun, and I open my book, “The Art Forger,” about a stolen Degas in Boston.

That's when we see alders shaking across the meadow and hear the guttural "unk-unk" sound the males make. We snap to. Binoculars up. We watch and listen and wait on high alert. Slowly, the moose emerges. An antler. A hairy side. Finally he appears on the edge of the meadow in full view. He’s the size of an elephant, at least to me. I duck behind the burlap hanging from the stand’s railing. "Is it legal?" my husband whispers. I glass it. "It has spikes like tusks," I whisper back. The antlers are not 50 inches wide, the legal limit. There are no brow tines. Just those angry-looking spikes. And he does seem ticked. He’s banging into alders and pushing them down. Snorting and grunting, even growling, as he swings towards us. Our brush work has attracted him. He thinks we are another bull moose picking a fight.

"Will he knock down the ladder?" I ask as he snorts our way. When my husband answers "maybe," I say, "Do we have a rope?" When he says no, I wonder why we are still whispering. If we talk won’t he go away? "Can you shoot a moose in self defense?" I whisper. "No," he says. “But I could fire a shot to scare it.” Instead, Chip makes grunting, bull-moose sounds, and the mad moose comes closer with those nasty spikes.

The book I finished just before “The Art Forger” was “The Paris Wife,” about Hemingway's first wife. There is a gory scene from Spain’s famous running of the bulls in it that I try not to think about.

Still, it's pretty exciting to be so close to that big moose, and hiding in plain sight, just above him. He circles around, is lost in the brush, then comes back again for a while.

The show lasts longer than it should. It’s late. There are long shadows. I don't want to walk back to camp using a headlamp with Gorewinkle out there. Chip coughs. The moose pauses. I still don’t think he’s seen us. But he hasn’t seen a cow either, or another bull to fight. Maybe he’s too tough to be scared of a cough, or to let anyone who may be watching him know that’s the case. Whatever the motive, our moose is done with this scene too, and he walks slowly, very slowly, across the meadow and disappears in two steps behind the curtain of brush. We wait a few minutes, scramble down, and get the heck out of there, until the next morning, and the next, until the very end of moose season, or the end of a very good moose, whichever comes first.

Haines writer Heather Lende is finishing her third book of essays, “Finding the Good.” This post originally appeared on her blog. It has been reprinted with permission.