By Chris Niskanen
As my canoe slips along the shoreline of Horseshoe Lake, a stranger emerges from the dense cedars on the portage from Allen Lake. He stands stiffly on the boulder-strewn landing, regarding me with apparent familiarity.
Then he waves. It's the second day of the Minnesota moose hunting season, and I'm two miles inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness—headed for a rendezvous with two Minnesota hunters on the primal adventure of a lifetime: hunting moose in Minnesota's canoe country.
It's not a typical early October day in the moose rut, or mating season. Nothing in the weather suggests a frosty autumnal scene from a Les Kouba wildlife calendar. Instead, it's downright hot. A morning of paddling has already soaked me in sweat.
Online Extras:Photo Gallery of Moose Hunt
Now another man appears on the portage. Both men carry heavy sacks. As my canoe noses the landing, I see a pair of huge moose antlers lying at their feet.
These men are not strangers after all. They are Pat Rivers and Joe Mewhorter. And they stand alongside a canoe, packed with paddles and lifejackets and a moose head with heavy-beamed antlers, and cotton bags loaded with freshly deboned moose meat—maybe a quarter-ton in all.
But that's half the story.
The hunters have already canoed and portaged the moose three miles. And their urgent chore in the autumn heat is apparent: carry and paddle the moose back to civilization before it spoils. I offer to help shoulder the burden, if they'll tell me their story. "Boy, are we glad to see you," chortles Rivers. "And do we have a story to tell."
Minnesota is among only a dozen states where moose are hunted and among fewer where the experience can demand wilderness canoeing and backcountry woods skills—the makings of an exquisitely primitive hunt. Only Minnesota residents can apply for and win the once-in-a-lifetime tag.
"I knew a BWCA moose hunt would be work—a lot of work," says Rivers, a DNR large-lake fisheries biologist whose name was chosen randomly from thousands of hunters in the annual moose lottery. "I guess I view it not as romantic, but rather the right way to do it because of its primal appeal. But, like they say, the real work starts once the shot is fired."
Moose are North America's largest deer species. Minnesota specimens, known as the Canada subspecies, can weigh up to 1,300 pounds. For their size alone, they capture the imaginations of hunters, present and past.
In her book Woman of the Boundary Waters, Justine Kerfoot wrote about killing a moose in the late 1920s. She marveled at the bulk of the beast, noting that three people took two days to pack it out of the woods. Her hunt, however, took place in Canada, reflecting a low point in Minnesota moose history. The Minnesota animals were hunted without adequate management until 1922, when hunting seasons were closed.
The late Boundary Waters ecologist Miron Heinselman speculated that a parasitic worm—carried by the white-tailed deer that followed logging, but fatal only to moose and woodland caribou—may have contributed to the canoe country moose decline, beginning in the early 1900s. Boundary Waters moose began to recover as early as the 1950s, when the deer population collapsed due to maturing forests and severe winters. Hunting seasons reopened in 1971 after the DNR developed a management system that strictly limited hunting.
Today Minnesota allows moose hunting only in the far northeastern corner. Moose also live in the tallgrass aspen parkland in northwestern Minnesota, but the DNR closed the moose-hunting season there in 1997 due to the herd's long-term population decline.
Scientists closely monitor the northeastern population of about 7,300 moose. The DNR launched a five-year study in 2002 to identify levels of nonhunting mortality and evaluate the productivity of the northeastern population. In the first four years of the study, scientists have documented nonhunting mortality that averaged 18 percent, well above the 8 to 12 percent elsewhere in North America. DNR wildlife biologists say hunting quotas are set safely below a threshold of 5 percent of the population.
Moose hunting is enormously popular in Minnesota. In 2005 the DNR received applications from 3,060 parties of two to four hunters for 284 moose tags in 30 zones. However, only a few hundred parties applied to hunt in the 10 zones that fall largely inside the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The wilderness hunt is appropriate for "those who have the necessary experience, equipment, and commitment," warns the DNR Web site.
Says Rivers: "Shooting a moose and backing a truck up to it seems to miss a great opportunity. I like to get away from the crowds, and the rules that govern the BWCA make that possible."
Rivers, who lives in Laporte, and Mewhorter, who lives in Rochester, are cousins; they grew up hunting together on the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area. Until last fall, their biggest adventure was elk hunting in Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains.
For a wilderness hunt in their home state, they decided to apply for a moose permit in a zone south of the Gunflint Trail. After studying the DNR's moose-lottery statistics, they concluded the odds of drawing a tag in that zone were slightly less than 6-1, which is considerably better than in vehicle-accessible zones.
After three years of applying, Rivers and Mewhorter scored a tag last July for their first-ever moose hunt. Then their research began: to learn about moose-hunting tactics; to find an area with lots of moose-attracting browse, such as recently burned or blowdown forest; and to find an area "where we would not see another moose hunter," Rivers says. They bought a list of the previous year's moose lottery winners from the state of Minnesota bookstore, and they interviewed the people who hunted their zone to see where they found moose. They studied DNR maps where moose had been shot in the past and aerial photos to look for meadows, young forests of aspens, and marshy areas that would attract moose.
They watched moose-hunting and moose-calling videotapes and attended the DNR's mandatory moose-hunting seminar. In August they scouted their zone, looking for a spot where they wouldn't encounter other hunters (based on DNR maps where past moose were shot) but also from where they could still physically haul out 400 to 500 pounds of moose meat (remaining bones and offal can be legally left in the woods for other animals to consume).
Their scouting trips in August and September paid off. Around a cluster of lakes seven miles inside the wilderness, they spotted six moose, including two large bulls.
Thursday, Sept. 29, two days before the moose season opened, the two men paddled into the Boundary Waters with a week's worth of supplies. They each had a 30.06 rifle. Rivers carried a birch-bark moose call, which he had fashioned into a small megaphone shape—in the same style used by Ojibwe hunters.
The men covered seven miles and six portages in half a day and camped on Henson Lake, where they saw ample moose sign, such as trails, evidence of browsing on trees, droppings, and trees where bulls had rubbed their antlers. They spotted a cow moose Thursday morning close to their camp and another on Friday. After Friday night's dinner, they spent the evening lying on their backs at their campsite, looking at stars and talking about how they missed their families.
Moose season opened the next morning. The hunters could legally take either a cow or a bull. The moose rut is a period of high sexual energy in the north woods as aggressive bulls compete for cows. Calling a moose involves imitating the soft whine of a cow or aggressively thrashing brush or trees like a worked-up bull. Some hunters do both. Either way, you're tempting a half-ton of hot-blooded bull to charge you in the brush.
Calling a pumped-up bull into shooting range was the sort of experience Rivers and Mewhorter were after, but their first day of moose calling and stalking failed to turn up a bull. Around 4 p.m., they returned to camp and cooked a pot of fettuccine Alfredo. The extra carbs would give them energy for the long night ahead.
After dinner, the hunters left camp to hunt the nearby lakeshores and marshes, where moose were likely to be feeding. With Mewhorter in the bow and Rivers in the stern, they settled into a pattern of slow paddle strokes.
They rounded a point and about 70 yards away stood a large bull moose at the edge of a swamp. They uncased their rifles, both bolt-action, and injected shells. As prearranged, Mewhorter began their countdown—one, two—to time their shots simultaneously and share the kill. But the canoe drifted in the wrong direction, and Rivers said, "I can't see, Joe. Let's back up."
They back-paddled around the point to hide themselves from the moose and get into shallower water for a safer shot—in case the canoe tipped when the action started. They knew if they shot the moose near water, they would risk the possibility of having to drag it out of the water with their portable winch. Yet the bull was on the edge of a thick black spruce and cedar swamp, in the open for a clear, broadside shot. They decided no better shot awaited them.
They paddled within range again, staying close to shore. They could see the bull's antlers reflecting the evening light "like a big neon sign," Mewhorter said. On the count of three, both men fired.
Their two shots entered the bull's ribs, puncturing the lungs. The massive animal ran along shore. Rivers recalled a moment of doubt: Had they missed? They counted again—one, two, three—and fired.
The bull turned around and ran in the opposite direction, and they counted—one, two, three—and shot again. The bull plunged into the lake, began swimming, and died in 5 feet of water. It was 5:30 in the evening.
The men's adrenaline was tempered by the situation: They now had to winch the moose to shore. They returned to camp for the winch, lanterns, knives, and meat saw. An hour later they began winching the moose, shoulder and headfirst, onto the boggy shore. But the huge animal barely fit between the closely growing black spruces and moss-covered boulders.
"We couldn't believe how big it was," Mewhorter said.
A little past 8 p.m., they were butchering the moose by lantern light, a task that would take until 1 o'clock in the morning. Immersed in their work, neither man noticed a slight breeze until Rivers looked up and asked, "Joe, where is the canoe?"
The canoe had drifted away in the darkness. It was now 1:30 a.m. and the men were stranded, exhausted, and without food. Camp was two miles away and reachable only by an exhausting walk through the surrounding swamps.
But the hunters were in luck. Just before they'd left home, Rivers' wife had insisted on buying them two emergency space blankets. They had the blankets in their backpack, along with matches and iodine tablets for treating water. They decided it was fruitless, maybe even dangerous, to look for the canoe in the dark, so they hunkered down in the sphagnum moss to sleep. That night the temperature only dipped into the low 50s.
In his exhaustion, Mewhorter couldn't rid his mind of a disturbing thought: Their moose was apt to attract wolves. "Here we are, in the middle of the wilderness, sleeping next to a moose kill," he said. "I didn't sleep a wink all night."
At first light, the men hiked out of the bog to walk the shoreline and find their canoe. They got a lucky break: It had washed ashore only a quarter mile away.
It was going to be another warm day, so they decided to leave their gear in camp and get the moose meat packed out quickly. They would return the next day to break down camp.
When I met up with them, I added a third strong back to their endeavor. As we labored to haul out the bags of moose meat—like carrying bags of wet cement—the hunters told their story and I was struck by how their hunt, albeit short, went precisely to plan: They had hunted alone in the wilderness and bagged their bull. But weeks later, I asked Rivers if he was disappointed the hunt had ended so quickly.
"I wish we could have called a moose in," Rivers said, "that would be the pinnacle of success. However, we did shoot a tremendous moose, had fantastic weather, and I didn't use up all of my vacation time."
We reached the Gunflint Trail at 6 p.m.—exhausted, but nary an ounce of meat had spoiled. The hunters took their moose (which they had tagged in the field at the kill site) to Buck's Hardware in Grand Marais for registration. Its antlers measured 50 inches wide. The moose qualified for Minnesota's record book, scoring 163 1/2 inches on the Boone and Crockett antler measurement scale. Rivers and Mewhorter ended up with 400 pounds of moose meat, which they divided equally and processed into steaks, burgers, chops, and sausage. They sent a tooth sample to the DNR for aging and found out the bull was more than 7 years old, which puts the moose close to middle age and explains why the meat is tough. "Other than the burger, every piece of meat has to be cooked very slowly or marinated most of the day," Rivers says with a laugh.
The meat will run out, but the hunters say the memories will endure. "It was the biggest adventure I've had yet," says Mewhorter. "Nothing, not even our elk hunting trips out West, can hold a candle to it."