Winding down the Yukon’s Big Salmon River, I discover my inner hunter
SEEING ANIMALS IN THE WILD HAS ALWAYS made me feel better about the world, a reassurance that despite the planet’s ecological woes, there are still patches of wilderness humans haven’t trampled. But standing here watching a moose lazily blink and chew grass, my heart is breaking. My hunting guide, Clayton White, is a few metres ahead, tiptoeing across the hummocky slough with his .300 Winchester Magnum slung over his shoulder like a guitar case. He looks back and motions for me to keep up. There’s a steady drizzle so I’m in full Gore-Tex regalia, probably the noisiest outfit I could’ve chosen. To keep from swishing, I walk slow and exaggerated, like I’m a teenager sneaking past my parents’ bedroom at 2 a.m. As Clayton and I inch closer, the moose periodically pricks up his ears. We freeze. He freezes. Then, when he’s satisfied he’s alone, he resumes chewing. Apparently moose can’t see well, but have bionic skills when it comes to hearing and smelling. Luckily on this cool September afternoon our prey is upwind and, so far, unsuspecting. I secretly hope it somehow hears us and bolts. Though I’ve come to these Yukon wilds to experience my first-ever hunt, I don’t feel ready for what comes next.
It’s not that I’m one of those animal-rights types who declares their ideologies with cutesy T-shirt slogans like “friend, not food.” And though I’ve dabbled in vegetarianism, I’ve always respected hunting. It’s just that I’ve never been exposed to it. Growing up in the suburbs of southern Ontario, the first time I even saw a dead animal was when I was eight. My father had brought home a dead pig to roast in our backyard in honour of relatives visiting from the old country. It arrived in the back of a truck already impaled. I remember studying its tiny eyelids with their soft, white lashes, and the bits of dirt still in its snout. Seeing it was chilling, exhilarating and significant in a way my kid-brain didn’t quite comprehend.
Now, more than 20 years later, I’ve made no advances in the realm of hunting – though in principle I’ve come to admire it, especially since moving to the North, where wild game is important to local cultures. So I signed up for a guided moose-hunt with Clayton White and Nansi Cunningham. The Whitehorse couple runs Cedar and Canvas Adventures, an outdoor-guiding outfit that caters to people like me who want to forge some kind of relationship with nature beyond just pitching a tent in it. The arrangement works well; Clayton bags his yearly moose and I get to witness the classic man-beast struggle – and hopefully not be a baby about it.
Our course for the next 10 days is the Big Salmon River. It’s narrow, shallow and winds like a country road. Burrowed in the territory’s boreal terrain, the 200-kilometre river is lined with pretty hills, and by late September its flanking sloughs are crawling with frisky moose. This is the rut season, when cows are belting love-calls to bulls, and when hunters descend with their own calls.
The night before we leave, Clayton demonstrates his best cow-call in his home on the outskirts of Whitehorse. Cupping his hands around his mouth, forefingers pinching his nose, he emits a nasally “aaaaaaaaaaahhhh.” It sounds ridiculous in his basement, but in the wild, he tells me, it can lure a bull right into your camp.
Clayton is tall and twinkly-eyed, with a Tom Selleck mustache that fills out his long face. The 52-year-old has the lean, leggy frame of a teenage boy, and has been hunting since that age. He grew up in Spirit River, Alberta, and when development ramped up in the 1970s he fled to the Yukon’s plentiful backcountry. He is an old-fashioned conservationist, deeply protective of both the wilderness and the hunt. His wife, Nansi, is an ex-hippie from the West Coast. Small, wiry and impossibly cheerful, she is a staple of this hunt.
Day One on Quiet Lake, the source of the Big Salmon, is mercifully sunny, though a sharp, cold wind blasts through my wool layers. The six-metre freighter canoe – rebuilt by Clayton with, of course, cedar and canvas – is loaded with plastic bins, boxes, a cool waterproof chainsaw, a couple of rifles, and an excitable black lab named Gunner.
I settle into my seat and rest my boot on the gunwale. Apart from scanning the banks for moose and taking in the view, I have no responsibilities, really. Clayton has the biggest job – to constantly read and navigate the twisty river while checking his tattered map for good campsites and sloughs known to be rife with moose. Nansi makes lunches, dispenses snacks and good conversation, and spends a lot of time leaned over the bow watching for jutting rocks.
Just before we reach the Big Salmon, we spot a dark lump on the water. Clayton groans. As we get closer, the form of an animal carcass takes shape, but it’s sunken and mangled. It’s soon obvious that humans have made this mess; the antlers are sad, jagged knobs. Clayton guesses the moose was a few years old and maybe a few hours dead. The hunters had taken only a third of the meat, leaving a generous buffet for ravens and other river scavengers. “They must’ve shot it in the water and then couldn’t get it out,” Clayton says. “It’s embarrassing, gives us all a bad name.” We bob there for a few minutes before carrying on, all of us quiet and me slightly queasy from the scene. Then I remember that I’ve come on this trip to watch a hunt, in all its gore and glory.
The next morning we awake to the dead-calm of a fresh snowfall. Lying in my tent I watch little avalanches slide off the tarp, hardly conditions that make me want to leave the musty warmth of my sleeping bag. God love him, Clayton is already up, boiling coffee and stirring oatmeal. He’s even whistling. By the time I emerge from the tent, he’s standing on the bank, his head cocked, belting out a long, trailing moose-call.
Barely a few kilometres on the water, we’re stopped by a thick tangle of trees that, over the years, have died slow, upright deaths and keeled into the river to be pushed around by currents and beavers. Clayton and Nansi hop out of the boat and survey the jumble. In their tall rubber boots and matching rain-gear they wander around like they’re in a department store, pointing, discussing, nodding.
Clayton returns to the boat to grab his chainsaw and I hound him with inane questions: Will we get through? What if we can’t? Did he need help? He gives me one-word answers, slightly amused by my concern and anxious to get moving. His nifty saw easily melts through a few pivotal logs, and within minutes a narrow path emerges. Gunner and I sit in the boat while Clayton and Nansi line us through on foot.
Feeling pleased with ourselves, we’re back on the water not even 10 minutes when the boat motor suddenly quits. Clayton does all the requisite motor-checking things, then pours some of his hot tea into the water-outlet tube, thinking it’s frozen. Nothing works. I suddenly feel silly for thinking the logjam was a predicament.
Clayton pulls off the motor and sets it down on a tarp to dismantle it. He says (chuckling) that if a crucial part is broken, we’ll have to satellite-call in a helicopter delivery. I look for a sign of panic, but he’s unruffled, practically in a good mood. Meanwhile, Nansi is making onion-and-cheese sandwiches and humming.
It turns out the problem is a fingernail-sized crescent of steel called a woodruff key, which helps with engine-cooling. Ours has been sheared, and without it we’re not going anywhere. Clayton chews his sandwich thoughtfully until struck by an idea. From his tool kit he pulls out an ordinary wrench, and begins hand-filing off one of the jaws, which is roughly the same shape and size as the woodruff key. After a half-hour of filing, the new key slides into the slot and the motor fires up. Out of giddy relief I start clapping. Nansi joins in and Clayton looks embarrassed. We pile into the canoe and push on in the lightly falling snow.
The scene is serene, which matches our pace. We meander unhurriedly, enjoying each bend that reveals a new vista of snow-dusted hills and drunken spruce trees, which lean over the river forming welcoming little archways. The water is so clear and shallow you can almost scoop up a handful of the smoothed stones that line the bottom. Above, the sky offers up glorious Vs of sandhill cranes, the odd hawk and a pair of swans. But mostly, time passes slowly, measured by logjams and shore lunches, leaving me ample time to ponder life, death and moose hunting.
WHEN THE GUN GOES OFF the moose falls backwards into the marsh. His legs thrash and kick up water in dramatic plumes. He does this for about five seconds before his body gives up. My face crumples and I cry one little tear, of which I’m immediately embarrassed. I run back to the boat, where Gunner is bounding with frantic excitement, nearly choking himself on his collar. Nansi is already standing up, ready for news. When I give the thumbs-up, she has the same reaction I’d had. She covers her face with her mitts, like she’s saying a little prayer.
When I see the moose up close I’m hit with another pang of grief. He’s young, his antlers just little branches, and his lidded eyes look through me like a drunk’s. Seeing him slumped there in the slough, I feel guilty and complicit in this sucker-punch slaying. Part of me knows these are reflexive, Bambi-inspired sentiments, the result of watching too many talking-animal movies. But part of me is still fixated on the loss of life.
Allowing only a few moments of emotional musing, Clayton gently reminds me that the moose must be skinned, gutted, carved and quartered before we lose our daylight, and we still have to haul it out of the water. To do it, Clayton and I wade shin-deep into the marsh and each take hold of an antler. Nansi is ahead, and will pull with ropes. We heave and ho the 300-kilo beast, creeping a few centimeters at a time. It’s exhausting work, like we’re dragging a sedan out of quicksand. Half an hour later we’ve managed to pull the carcass about 70 metres onto a drier patch of the slough where the field dressing can begin.
Before Clayton makes the first incision into the hide he looks at me as if to say, “Are you ready for this?” Years ago he took one of his teenage sons on a similar river moose-hunt and the poor guy got all woozy and had to walk away from the butchering before he vomited. I don’t think I will, but I’m not sure. The only gore I’ve seen has been on TV medical-dramas. And I know that along with the blood, there’ll be other foul aspects, such as escaping gases, breaking bones, slippery organs and their veiny, fine skin.
Thankfully, I endure the first cuts without even a cringe. The skinning part seems easy; after a few strategic slices Clayton and Nansi peel the hide with minor effort, like they were pulling up old carpet. But then comes the gruesome part. The breast bone is sawed open, and the flesh cut down to the abdomen. The stomach seeps out of the gash like a helium balloon. “You really want to avoid nicking the stomach,” Clayton says, still cutting. “Then you’ve got shit all over the meat and you have to wash it.”
As the grey, bloating bag grows with each cut, Nansi tries to rein it in and away from Clayton’s knife. Slowly, they begin unearthing the organs – the heart like a cantaloupe, the liver the size of a baseball mitt. Clayton tells me that normally you can’t eat the liver of a rutting male. “If you tried to pick it up it would fall apart in your hands,” he says. “Like tapioca.” But our moose is only a year old, so his liver is thick and dark and good for eating.
It takes a good five hours to carve out every last morsel and split the moose into quarters. Clayton shows no signs of exhaustion. He’s in his glory, oblivious to time, focused, yet still telling corny jokes and hunting stories. Nansi and I, however, are weary, ready to leave this muck and goop behind. All I want to do is take off my bloodied boots and sit by a fire.The final days on the water roll along with luxurious aimlessness. I’ve become used to our dead moose, now a pile of velvet-red meat weighing down the boat. Even the sweet, metallic smell that wafts up from the heap is almost pleasant. Clayton is still moose-crazy, still calls them every day and talks about them like a proud father.
On our final stretch of the Big Salmon, just before it merges with the broad Yukon River, we follow a strapping old bull into a slough on foot. Clayton coaxes it with a call. It creeps toward us, making clipped, throaty sounds, and stops close enough to check us out. I look him in his wide, scared eyes and my toughened heart pounds with the thrill of the chase.