We are pleased to bring you a great story from our friend Gary Oberg. In his book “Sidetracks“, he has 40 entertaining and enlightening lessons that he has learned from over 70 years in the outdoors. If you enjoy this story of his, checkout what he has going on because, we assure you, it will be worth your time.
Without further ado…
My good friend Quint and I had been hunting for a couple weeks, but so far, we didn’t have a thing for all our efforts.
However, we still had some time left in the season. Determined, we decided to try our luck at Sturgeon Landing, Saskatchewan, over the Thanksgiving weekend in late November 1968. It would give us a chance to hunt on snow, which is always a tremendous advantage when hunting moose.
Sturgeon Landing is an Indian settlement not far from the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border. It perches on the northeast corner of the very large Namew Lake and isn’t exactly the easiest place to get to.
A long paved highway eventually becomes a rugged logging road. Driving a four-door Ford on that road was no mean feat. The wheel ruts were deep enough to bury a coyote. Few travel that road, which was a good thing because if we ever did come across another vehicle, one of us would have inevitably ended up stuck. Fortunately, the remoteness of the area was nearly complete. It took us two hours to travel 20 miles on that road, hoping and praying that it was the right road, before we finally arrived at Sturgeon Landing.
Sturgeons, as locals fondly referred to it, had a population of 150 Indians, and Ken, the Caucasian. Ken was a blue-eyed, fair-haired, fast-talking guy. He stood about five-foot-ten and was lean. Ken had the complete village under his financial control—a fact that he boasted on.
“I own the general store, and I’m the outfitter, grocer, post master, and banker,” Ken told us proudly. “Government checks come in on the postal-service plane on the third Wednesday of every month. I usually get to keep every one of ‘em because I advance credit against them.”
About the only thing he didn’t control was the police, but the native people had that covered.
“A couple of years ago,” Ken told us, “one Indian boy shot and killed another Indian boy. When the Canadian Mounties came and investigated, they asked a lot of questions but only got a lot of silence. After being stonewalled for a couple days, they gave it up and went back home.”
I guess what goes on in Sturgeons, stays in Sturgeons.
We arranged for a guide on this trip, who turned out to be something of a character.
Charlie Budd showed up that first morning looking like he’d been beaten with the ugly-stick. Someone had kicked him in the face the night before. Apparently, prohibition didn’t work any better in Sturgeons in 1968 than it had in Chicago in 1928. The locals just made their own hooch, which was a concoction that our guide described as “wicked.” Anyone with eyes could see that Charlie Budd was a man suffering deeply from both a beating and a hangover.
First thing in the morning, after Quint and I got a good, solid sleep, this Charlie guy shows up looking like a carcass. Quint and I just rolled with it—what else could we do?
“Mornin’, I’m Charlie,” he said.
“I’m Quint, this is Gary.” We all shook hands.
We soon learned that Charlie was a man of very few words. “Ken told me you need a guide to get a moose.”
“Yes, are you our guide?” I asked.
“Yeah. Let’s go.” And that was that.
Charlie managed to get us into the woods and set up on a couple of mounds of sawdust, and then he took off, not to be seen until high noon. I suspected he might have been trying to sleep off some of last night’s hooch. We didn’t see any game on the trail that morning at all. When Charlie staggered back to us around lunchtime, all he brought for our lunch was a can of Spam, dry bread, and black tea. Apparently this was a no-frills kind of place.
The key to hunting big game like elk, deer, and moose, is to hunt during the rut, when the animals are sexually active. The females go into estrus, which in turn gets the males pretty rutty. In Minnesota, where I’ve lived my whole life, the rut is usually around November first. The peak of the first rut lasts about a week. Conservationists are well-tuned to rutting times of various species. They want to tightly control animal populations by adjusting the hunting seasons according to the rutting seasons.
During the rut, the males make scrapes with their feet and rub with their antlers against trees and such to let other males know they’ve been in the area, but it’s not because they’re territorial. It’s more like a teenager tagging a train; they just want to put their mark on things. Most males of most species will go on the prowl, looking for a cute girl they can call their own, but they’re generally looking for a good time, not a long time. One exception to this is the bull elk. Once a bull elk has aligned itself with a herd of cows he’ll stay with them for life.
There are several ways to attract bulls of any species. For bull elk, I’ve found that the most effective call is to imitate a cow elk; sometimes referred to as a chirp call. I don’t generally use a bull elk bugle because it can scare off any satellite bull elk you may want to shoot.
For bull moose, I have found that the most effective draw is to use a voice cow-call through a funnel-shaped megaphone that’s about one or two feet long. Bull moose have extremely sensitive hearing because their antlers act as sound amplifiers. Once when I was in Alaska, my guide used a cow call, and it took a full 20 minutes for a bull moose with a 56-inch rack to find us—he was that far away.
Another effective draw for big game is to pour water out of a bucket from a height of about four feet, which simulates a cow peeing. Also, you can beat a canoe paddle against branches to simulate a moose moving through bush. If you’re after moose, it helps to know that they don’t have the best eyesight, so you can wave a couple of pail lids in the air to simulate horn movement.
Now, no one has ever accused me of being overly intuitive, but both Quint and I sensed that Charlie just wasn’t that into the hunting. It might have been that he spent more time looking at his shoes than the trees, or it could have been that for much of that day he was probably sleeping it off. A lack of enthusiasm about hunting is generally not a quality one looks for in a hunting guide.
Quint, deciding that Charlie just needed a little motivation, said to him, “Charlie, I’ll tell you what…” Charlie’s chin came off his chest and he squinted at Quint with his one good eye. “If anyone—I mean me, Gary, or even you—bags a moose today, I’m gonna give you a twenty-five-dollar bonus.”
Twenty-five bucks in 1968 was a lot of money. Charlie’s one good eye bulged, and he treated us to a smile that exposed an incomplete set of very yellow teeth. “Sounds good!” he said, and immediately dove into his pack and came out with another can of Spam.
Quint cocked his head to the side, as in, What now?
Charlie snapped the key off the can and started bending it into a shell-ejecting device. Evidently, he’d broken the ejection pin on his gun and this was Charlie’s fix. It worked well enough but meant that he only had a single-shot rifle. Not so good for moose hunting. He abruptly stood up, which must have hurt, judging by the pain on his swollen face, grabbed his rifle and pack, and took off like a man possessed. That was the last we saw of Charlie until supper.
After our Spam-and-bread lunch, I was having a lot of thoughts about a nice, hot supper. I conjured up all kinds of pictures in my mind about roasted, dripping meats; colorful, steaming vegetables; and freshly baked bread. Yum! By the time we got back to the village, my stomach was growling like a wolf at a bear. Quint and I sat down in the cookhouse, and as we were waiting for our dinner, I looked out the window and noticed a worker carrying a big ring of bologna across the yard. A small pack of mongrel dogs stalked him, all yipping, licking, and nipping at the sausage he was trailing. I thought to myself, Hmm… And sure enough, a half-hour later, that very same dog-licked bologna turned up on my plate.
The cuisine went downhill from there. The next morning, I found a runny egg on a piece of white bread. I grew up on a farm and learned to despise runny eggs from a young age. I hate ‘em more than a head cold. Runny yolks and snotty whites. My inner culinary-critic gave it four black holes.
Charlie Budd joined us for what passed as breakfast that morning. I noticed that his appetite, unlike mine, was just fine. Ken the Caucasian joined us as well, and he had a piece of information that proved valuable.
“The mail plane was in this morning,” he said. “I got talking with the pilot and told him that we had a couple of moose hunters staying with us.”
“Oh yeah?” I said, wondering where he was going with this.
“Yeah, he told me that he spotted some moose on his flight in this morning,” he said.
“No kidding! Where?” I asked, excited.
“He says they’re on the other side of the lake,” he replied.
Charlie looked up from his plate with one-and-a-half eyes, his scraggly beard catching some of the yolk dripping off his fork, “Where?” he repeated, wanting more detail.
“On the southwest end of the southwest peninsula, close to the narrows,” said Ken.
Charlie frowned and slowly shook his head. I asked, “That sounds great, so why the long face, Charlie?”
“Can’t get there by land from here. Don’t think the ice is thick enough to cross,” he said.
“How far away is it?” I asked.
“’Bout 10 miles as the crow flies,” he said.
“And if we hiked around?” I asked.
“’Bout 20-25 miles. But it’s mostly heavy bush and snow. We couldn’t do it in a day, that’s for sure,” he said. “It’s better if we keep trying around here.”
I deferred to his expertise and conceded the point. We finished up our small meal and headed out for day two of hunting around Namew Lake, but like the week before, we saw no moose and precious little sign. The weekend was closing, and we wanted our moose! That night both Quint and I spoke to Charlie about crossing the lake to where they’d been sighted. We wore him down until he reluctantly agreed. We’d leave before dawn to have a look at the ice.
The next morning, dark and early, Charlie picked us up with a snowmobile and an attached sled, and we all headed for Namew Lake. Temperatures had been below freezing for quite a while, so the lake was covered in ice and snow. Charlie drove the snowmobile out about 300 feet, stopped and dismounted. Wordlessly, he rummaged in his pack and came up with a hatchet, which he used to make a hole in the ice. It turned out to be six inches thick: plenty strong enough for a snowmobile and a sled. Charlie grunted approval, so we all piled back onto the snowmobile with the sled in tow.
On a lake that’s so big you can’t see the other side, snow doesn’t usually fall and settle like a blanket. Rather, it blows across the ice and forms large drifts. It piles up in some areas and leaves bald ice in others.
Exposed, clear ice looks a lot like open water. Furthermore, there are things called pressure ridges. There are two kinds of pressure ridges: overlapped and folded. The overlapped pressure ridges are relatively easy to spot because when one large sheet of ice pushes against another, one will overlap the other, leaving a pile of broken ice lined up down the length of the overlap. Folded ridges are harder to see. They form when the two masses of ice buckle instead of overlap. They’re harder to spot because there is no pile of ice, only a bit of a hump or a dip, and the ice around them is thin, making them quite deadly. They can look a lot like a snow drift or an innocent bald spot when you’re boogying along on a snowmobile in the dark, early dawn. Driving over one of those, or finding a thin spot on the lake, would make for a seriously bad day at best, and at worst, well….
“There!” I would shout and point to a shiny spot ahead of us. Charlie would slow the vehicle down, and we’d cautiously approach the spot. Is it a ridge? Is it a soft spot? Or, is it just bare ice six inches thick?
“Bald spot,” Charlie would declare, and we’d move on until the next one.
“There!” shouted Quint, pointing to a jagged line on the horizon, caught in our headlights. Again, Charlie slowed down and carefully approached.
“Pressure ridge,” he said, and turned us parallel to it at a distance he judged safe. That sucker was between six and 10 feet wide! We had to follow it for half a mile before we could safely get across. I was glad we spotted it before it ate us whole.
At daybreak, we finally reached the peninsula. Surely the moose would still be there. Surely. We started with the assumption that there were moose on the narrow peninsula, which was about two-miles long and only 300-600 yards wide. The game plan was to drive the moose toward the end of the peninsula. Quint would position himself about half-way down. Charlie and I would start at the base and move toward the point, hopefully causing the moose to also move toward the point. Then, Quint could either block or shoot the moose.
After hunting for the better part of the day, I finally spotted just the leg of a moose through the thick timber but had no clear shot at the vitals. A few minutes later I heard a shot from Charlie’s gun. Less than a minute after that, or just long enough for the Spam key to work, I heard a second shot. I headed over to where I heard the sound to see what we had. Sure enough, there was Charlie standing at the head of the huge beast, grinning wide, giving us a great view of those dentals!
“Good one!” I shouted.
“Yup. He’s a big one,” said Charlie, pride clear on his face. “Recon he’s gotta be ‘bout 900 pounds.”
Not long later, Quint appeared and we all congratulated ourselves on filling a tag and getting our prize. Then we got down to the business of gutting and preparing the carcass for travel.
“We’ll come back for it in the morning,” said Charlie.
“What are you talking about?” asked Quint. “We have to get it back to the village tonight.”
Charlie looked at the sky, “No, it’s going to be dark soon. We can’t drag the sled through the bush to load the whole carcass, so we got to bring it out in pieces. There’s not enough time to make all those trips to the sled.”
Quint insisted. “I don’t want to leave it out overnight for the wolves and scavengers. Besides, we need to leave tomorrow. In the morning, we won’t have time to come back over the lake, load it up, get back across the lake again, and then drive all the way back to Rochester in time for work. No. We have to do this now.”
“Be midnight before we get it all loaded. Then we still got to get over the lake,” said Charlie.
“We don’t have to butcher it all here. We’ll just finish the gutting and use the snowmobile to drag the whole carcass back to the sled,” said Quint.
Charlie’s good eye rounded and even the still-swollen one looked sceptical, “You think the snowmobile can haul the whole thing through the bush?”
“Sure,” said Quint, “if the three of us help it along and we get a move-on. What do you think, Gary?”
I looked at the huge animal lying on the ground and had my doubts, but Quint was right. We were on a deadline. “Well, we can sure try,” I said.
“Okay,” said Charlie, dubiously shaking his head. He went back to the work of cleaning the moose’s innards. To my surprise, he laid his rain coat down on the snow beside the moose and then scooped most of the guts into it. He collected absolutely everything except for the large stomach: the “bum gut.”
I found some coagulated blood on the frozen ground and helpfully kicked it in his direction, “You want that too?” I asked.
He grunted, “Nope.” I grinned. He rolled up his goodie bag and said, “Let’s go.”
“Okay. Quint, you want to stay here with the moose while we get the snowmobile?” I asked.
“Will do,” he said.
Charley and I hiked back to the lake where we’d left the snowmobile. He unhooked the sled and we drove just the machine back to Quint and the moose.
Back in the ’60s, they built snowmobiles quite simply. This one had a short track with several bogie wheels (the small wheels the tracks roll on). It probably had a small, 15-horsepower Kohler. It was heavy, though. Carbon fiber wasn’t the material of choice on those machines yet. Still, considering the rough terrain, it did a marvelous job.
When we got back to the moose, we secured it by the nose to the rear hitch with a short piece of rope and off we went. We dragged the carcass through troughs and over boulders, around trees and over stumps. Several times we got bogged down in the brush or had to navigate a fallen tree, we even lost a few of the bogie wheels, but we made it back to the lake just as night was falling. It took all three of us on the front end of the moose to grunt it up onto the edge of the sled, and then all three of us on the back end to slide it all the way in. I was gasping for air by the time we had it loaded. Each breath hit the cold air and turned thick white. Ice formed around my nostrils, and my lungs burned. With no time to waste, Charlie got on the snowmobile, while Quint and I climbed on top of the moose for a nice, warm seat home.
If the trip over was scary, the trip back was terrifying. There was no moon and the night was absolute, save the thin light from our headlight. We still had to contend with the snow drifts. Bald ice spots still fooled us. We still knew there was a man-eating overlap pressure ridge out there somewhere—at least one that we knew of for certain. Only now, we were hauling the extra weight of a 900-pound moose.
My imagination can be a beautiful or terrible thing. That night, it was terrible. I could just see us going down with the rig. I could hear my good friend Quint crying out in the night, the whine of the tracks underwater as they lost traction. Then, the loss of sound and light as we all sank to the bottom of the black lake. The water would freeze above us, and our bodies would be entombed, never to be found. Truly, I died a thousand times out there on the lake, in the dark. When we finally spotted the glittering light of the village about three miles away, I felt the first twitch of hope. Three excruciating miles later, we pulled into the village, riding high atop our kill.
I did not realize that getting a moose in that village was going to be such a big deal. Charlie was like the football captain after an end-of-season win. We must have resembled Santa Claus. People descended on us like children after presents.
“Can I take the liver?”
“Can I have the heart?”
“Can we have the ribs?”
“I will make a good stew with that kidney.”
We were lucky to get away with as much meat as we did. Still, we had a full load on top of the car carrier, and more in the trunk.
That night, we had one last meal of dog-licked bologna with Charlie. Quint said, “Well Charlie, I had my doubts about you when you showed up with that shiner and a hangover, but you came through for us.”
“Yup. Got the job done,” said Charlie, grinning that crooked-tooth grin.
“I know I told you I’d give you a bonus if you helped us bag a moose a couple days ago, but I guess today is close enough,” he said, pulling out his wallet and extracting the bills.
One last time, Charlie treated us to his appalling dental hygiene as he took the money. I shook his hand and thanked him. Then, after the meal, Quint and I walked over to see Ken the Caucasian and settle our bill. In conversation, we mentioned that we tipped Charlie 25 bucks.
“That’s good,” said Ken. I thought he was glad for Charlie’s sake, but then he added, “It’ll end up in my cash register before the end of the day.” He smiled large.
Sure enough, not 10 minutes later, one of Charlie’s kids came into the store and bought a Coleman lantern. I was just glad it didn’t go to any more of that wicked hooch.
The road out was just as pitted and grooved as it was on the way in, only now we had the added weight of the moose and the clearance was nearly nil. We had a careful, bumpy ride back to the world of pavement and double lines, but it was filled with a lot of newly minted, fond memories. It was interesting to see such a vastly different culture, and how white men had changed it: for better and for worse. Still, the remoteness of the area and its associated challenges made us decide to stay a little closer to home next time.