I Moose Be Confused by Gary Benton
A few years back, in 1997, I was living in Anchorage, Alaska. The country, for those of you who have never seen it, is breathtakingly beautiful. The town of Anchorage is surrounded on most sides by tall snow capped mountains. While the winters in Alaska tend to be rough, Anchorage actually has a mild winter, when compared to most of the state. And, after a winter of “cabin fever” most residents are ready for some outdoor fun. I have never met a person who lived in Alaska by choice (there are a few non-volunteers at nearby Elmendorf Air Force Base) that did not enjoy nature.
It was mid-June, if I remember correctly, and I had just lined up a fly-in fishing trip with a local bush pilot. For the meager fee of around five hundred dollars he would fly us out to a remote lake, miles in the deep Alaskan bush, then pick us up eight days later. At first I thought the expense was too great, but as I thought about it, hotels rooms in Anchorage were going for over one hundred dollars a night, so it was a bargain. I quickly called John and told him the trip was on. Also, as soon as I got home, I informed my son David that we were leaving in the morning. My son, as you would expect was one very excited boy.
His excitement toned down and his mood quickly became one of concern as he watched me take my guns down and prepare them for the trip. I was taking a 30.06 and a 12-gauge shotgun with slugs. Additionally, I cleaned and packed my .44 magnum pistol for a backup. Seeing his concern, I knew I had to talk with him. At fifteen years of age, he was no stranger to weapons and had attended a number of safety courses. He also understood that in Alaska, when a person stepped out into the bush, they became part of the food chain, well, as far as some large game were concerned.
“Dave, on the trip you will carry the shotgun. I will have the rifle and the pistol. I don’t need to tell you about weapons safety, but this will be your first time in the remote bush. The odds are we won’t see a bear or even an angry moose (both are considered potential dangers in Alaska at times), but we need the weapons for protection.”
My son gave me a weak grin and said, “Well, the salmon will be running, right?”
I gave a laugh, patted him lovingly on the shoulder and said, “Sure they will. But, bears are hungry now and that is another reason we are going armed. We will also carry a cowbell each (the noise is suppose to scare the bears and it must work, I never saw a bear when I carried a bell), and pepper spray. Nonetheless, the weapons go with us for safety reasons.”
Early the next morning the weather looked dismal with mild winds and a light rain. Not the best time to be heading into the Alaska backwoods country for eight days, I thought to myself. I met John and the pilot at the plane and we quickly loaded up all of our gear. I remember the pilot saying we were traveling light for eight days, and I assured him we knew our business. John and I had both graduated from a number of Air Force Survival Schools, so I was not worried at all about either our equipment or our abilities. Most of our dried foods had been repacked in zip-locked plastic bags to cut down on weight and we had dehydrated meals (commercial) that we would use after our fresh foods were gone after a few days. No, we were ready.
We were soon airborne and flew over snow filled valleys below. The country almost immediately became rough and unspoiled. Anchorage only has one main road in and out of the city, it runs north and south, and we soon failed to spot any indications of mankind. The color and beauty was breathtaking! While it was mid June, there was still snow on some of the mountains, and the ground below us had patches of snow in the shade. We flew over a glacier that was a source of no end of excitement for my son. While I couldn’t hear him due to engine noise, he continued to talk to me. I could only shrug my shoulders to indicate I didn’t hear him.
We touched down on a very large lake that was situated in a valley, between a series of mountains. The water, unlike at Anchorage when we took off was calm. The pilot of the floatplane made a very smooth landing and taxied up to the shoreline. As the four of us unloaded the aircraft he reminded us that he would not be back to pick us up for eight days. He also stated that he would fly over us periodically as he took other fishermen out to see if things were ok. If things were not well, we were to set out emergency signals, which we had discussed before the trip, to show we needed assistance. But, we knew once he flew off, we were on our own.
The silence after the plane departed hurt our ears. There was not a single sound to be heard, until I said, “Well, guys, let’s get the campsite ready.” I could not but help notice the look in my son’s eyes as John and I unpacked our weapons, made sure they were on safe, and then handed David his shotgun. He quickly checked his and we moved off toward the tree line.
We soon found a nice camping spot in the trees that was a sort of small field of maybe forty yards by fifty yards. A small stream flowed from the lake near by. The stream was close enough for quick access but not so close we had to worry about critters needing to drink or wanting to feed on fish. Now, I am not talking about bears here, but rather the smaller pests that just love to bother campsites. I could tell by looking that there were beavers nearby and I had already seen the footprints of a large cat of some kind. I notice John had seen them too, but he had kept quiet as well.
It was as we sat up our camp that we had our first laugh. David and I had brought a fairly large, but lightweight four-man tent. The idea was we could store all the weapons and gear in our tent when they were not actually being used. John, however, had picked up a tent at a local department store, on sale of course, just the day before we left. And, he had not even opened the box prior to the trip. His face was one of shock as he opened the container and pulled out a kid’s tent, bright pink, with a famous girl doll design on the sides. His face turned bright red as he threw it down in complete disgust. After a few not so choice words, during of which I sent my laughing son to gather firewood (I reminded him to take his weapon), he starting putting his tent up. I was curious as how his six foot four frame was going to fit into a tent just a little more than half that length.
Well, we didn’t need much firewood, because at that time of the year in Alaska the sun never seems to fully go down. It simply grows a little dusk and you only really need the wood for cooking. We intended to be in bed before midnight, so our woodpile was small. I placed about half of it in the tent in case of rain over night. The earlier wind and slight drizzle had died. With the tents up, the fire wood ready, and our fresh foods secured on a rope hanging from the top branches of a evergreen tree about two hundred feet away, we were ready to do some fishing! The clatter-clink sound of three cowbells could be heard as we walked to the stream.
The stream was not very wide, but the water was crystal clear. We could see an occasional salmon swimming up stream into the lake. David, like most boys his age and even some men my age, became very excited when he saw the silver fish. We all knew the colors would soon turn red as the spawning season end and the fish started to die.
David made his cast and was instantly rewarded with a fish on! However, his luck was to be poor that on that cast as the fish was quickly lost. John soon had a nice salmon on the bank and was taking a breather. I continued to cast and while I had some hits, no luck with getting more than that. Just as I was about to give up and to have lunch, Dave caught his first one of the day. If I remember correctly, we could legally take three, but we had already agreed that one each would be enough. The fish were large, in the six to eight pound range. The fish would be dinner for us. Fresh salmon sounded wonderful to me. But, if I didn’t get busy, I would have a cold dinner that night.
No sooner had John and David cleaned their catches than I had mine. I was excited as I reeled the fish in and listened to the two of them give me expert advice on how to land it (that was the first salmon either of them had ever caught)! I soon had the fish up on the bank and I must have been smiling, because my son said, “Well, Dad, at least you won’t go hungry tonight!”
We put the fish fillets in our ice chest and did a little exploring of the area around us. It was rugged country and more than once we stopped to look at the tracks of animals in the area. There seemed to be mostly moose, but we did notice a few bear tracks. John and I pointed out all of the tracks to my son, so he could learn from the trip as well. I saw no reason to bring him along, unless we were to educate him as well.
It was at the first bear track he surprised me when he said, “I saw a track like that near our fishing spot by the river.”
John and I exchanged glances as John said, “Dave, are you sure? Your dad and I saw cat tracks and beaver tracks, but not any bear tracks.”
“Well, I am not sure, but I think so.” Davie admitted he might have made a mistake. In a few minutes though, the conversation of bear tracks was forgotten as we headed back to camp for a dinner of baked salmon. I am sure our cowbell noises totally confused the local wildlife.
Our meal consisted of a potato and corn on the cob wrapped in heavy-duty aluminum foil. The vegetables where then placed on a bed of hot coals. Two of the salmon were cooked on the grill, while I wrapped mine in aluminum and added a couple pieces of onion and a slice of lemon. The meal was excellent as we sipped freshly mixed fruit drinks and made small talk about how much we were enjoying the trip. I had to admit, it was great so far.
Evening was soon upon us and we turned to bed. John had his legs and feet extended out of his pretty pink tent as I zipped up the door to ours. It was time to call it a night. Surprisingly, both Dave and I were instantly fast asleep.
It was near early morning when I heard a loud noise and awoke with a start. Ever so slowly I picked up my pistol, unzipped the door to the tent, and looked out. I felt my heart pounding loudly as I suddenly realized we were very remote and this could be a very serious situation. I think I honestly expected a large grizzly bear as I scanned the campsite for the source of the noise. I saw absolutely nothing. Finally, taking my pistol, and telling David to stay in the tent, I stepped out into the cool morning air. It was then I saw it, and I had been right about the size, it was huge!
At the same time I saw the animal, I heard John give a loud scream as his tent fell on him. In the process of exiting his tent, he had collapsed it! I turned once more to the animal and instructed David to stick his head out of the tent and take a look. There, slowly walking through our campsite, without a care in the world was a very majestic moose. I was surprised at how coordinated the movements of the large beast seemed to be. As the moose got farther away from our site, I had David come out and take some pictures. The noise I had heard must have been when the moose had accidentally brushed against our now cool cooking grill. The fire had long been out and the grill had been cleaned and placed leaning on a rock under a nearby tree.
One of the photos David took is of John as he is attempting to climb out from under his fallen pink tent. The moose is walking in the background, so it looks as if the moose had collapsed the tent on John. Later we had it enlarged and then presented to the man. He keeps it in his den as a memento of his trip. He constantly tells anyone who will listen how an angry moose attacked him. Funny, I don’t seem to remember that part of the trip.
After getting John cooled down, which took some time, we spent the remainder of the morning fishing without much luck. Though the fishing was poor we still had a good time, well, David and I did as we teased John about his tent and wild moose attack. It was a special time for the three of us and we all enjoyed it. Even John joined in with a few jokes and who took the ribbing better after I told him we would move the gear into the “pink house,” and he could move in with us.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. We continued to fish and each day we caught fish. We had great meals and even greater conversations. We told jokes at night and made up stories as we spent hours around the unneeded campfire. It was time of relaxation the days were quickly gone. On the morning of the eighth day the pilot returned and pick us up. As we took off from the lake, and turned toward Anchorage, I noticed my son looking back at that remote spot. I knew then, he would always remember the time he spent with his dad in the backwoods Alaska. It had been a time for the three of us to live by our own skills and we had enjoyed every moment of it. It was a time when David learned that nature is to be enjoyed and respected, not feared. It was the day my son grew up in the woods.