How Not to Kill a Moose, from the Archives

Thick country, picky guides, blown stalks, and long shots make for tough—but not impossible—hunting in British Columbia

ΟUR PACK TRAIN edged over the lip of the glacial valley and down toward the headwaters of the Prophet River. Renie Dhenin, riding near the rear, pulled up his mount for a moment to look over the terrain.

“Right there,” Renie said, as he pointed to a fold of the river. “That’s where I spotted the biggest rack of Canadian moose antlers I’ve ever seen.’ He half turned in his saddle to make sure that we were impressed. 

He might have saved himself the trouble, for we were impressed already. Here on the upper Prophet the moose grew bigger than in any other part of British Columbia. Not only had some of the finest heads in all Canada been taken from the valley stretching before us, but few hunters had ever penetrated this far. Even as we sat on our horses and looked down at the river below, there might be some giant bull moose lurking in these willows, carrying on his head a set of horns larger than any now on record. 

Everyone in our hunting party, including the guides, felt a thrill of anticipation as we urged the horses down the side of the slope. A large caribou with his horns still in the velvet trotted across a small clearing. He turned to stare as we went past. Had we been out for caribou, that bull would have made a fine trophy. But we were after moose this trip. 

Bill Burk and I had endlessly discussed the technique of moose hunting prior to this. But now that we were actually on the hunt, we had little idea of how to go about it. As we followed the trail upstream, we saw moose tracks in every direction on the gravel bars. Some of these prints were obviously of bulls that had passed only a short time before. But the banks of the river were lined with solid masses of willow and brush that grew as high as the head of a man on horseback. How would we ever be able to see moose in that wilderness? 

Even as we discussed the situation, there was a crash in the alders almost next to us. At first we thought a horse had gone down. But the crash was followed by a mighty, asthmatic snuffle that sounded like a vacuum cleaner sucking up an old sock. The crashing was renewed, but more faintly, and ultimately it died away in a distant stand of timber. 

“Jumped a moose,” said Art MacLean. He was one of the capable guides who were going to lead us to the big Prophet River bull moose on this trip. 

This area fascinated Art, and well it might for it was moose heaven. The river flows through a large valley carved out by ice in ages past, and it swings from side to side with graceful undulations. In the sweeps of these curves are oxbow cut-offs and numerous lakes and ponds which offer sanctuary from wolves. In these wet and swampy places the lush water grasses grow abundantly. They, and the several species of willow which were all around us, form an inexhaustible supply of food for moose. 

Art had been in country like this many times before. He turned his horse away from the river bottom where the moose tracks cut through every clump of willow. We followed, belaboring our mounts up the slope on the edge of the valley. Here the sphagnum grew deep, and the horses sank to their knees in the yielding stuff. Finally we dismounted and led them the rest of the way. We came out on a sharp hill overlooking the river. Here there were scattered aspens and spruce, but we found a spot where we could look down onto a bend of the river and a large pond that lay to one side. Art and I seated ourselves so we could see different parts of the area below, and we set to work with our binoculars. 

The blast set off pandemonium. The great horns above the willows swept in a wide arc, leaped upward, and disappeared. The crash of branches was deafening as the great bull galloped away.

After a while Art came over to where I was sitting. “See anything?” he asked. 

“No,” I answered with some disappointment. “I did locate an old pair of shed moose antlers down there in those bushes. But there’s no moose to go with them,” I added with an attempt at humor. 

Art quickly seated himself and focused his glasses on those bushes. “Where are those antlers?” he asked sharply. 

“But Art,” I protested, “those horns are pure white. They’re old, like that set we found down along the river yesterday—”

“All moose horns are white this time of year, just after the velvet is off,” he answered as he combed the area with his glasses. “Later on, they get yellowish. Ah! I thought so. Look!” 

I focused my own glasses again. Yes, there they were. Two white spots. What was Art getting so excited about? I looked at the things again. They certainly hadn’t moved. Or had they? Just then—was that a flick of motion on the edge of the white? Yes, it was! It was an ear. A large, furry ear that moved forward and back.

“It’s a moose!” I said aloud. “There he is, lying down behind those bushes. Only his horns show.” The chocolate-brown body of the beast blended perfectly with the brush. Art gave me a patronizing smile. 

“About 65 inches,” he said, staring hard through his glasses. “Might be 70.” I’d had experience with Art MacLean before. He was one of the most conservative guides in British Columbia, where all guides are conservative. I knew that if Art said a moose had a spread of 70 inches, they might well be 75. Again I seized the binoculars and fell forward on my belly to steady the glasses. The horns looked enormous, but the moose was so far away it was impossible to tell with any certainty just what the spread might be. As I looked, the animal moved his head to one side. The sweep of the tremendous horns emphasized their magnitude. 

“Art, they’re as far across as a tall man. Look at those palms,” I said excitedly. “They look a yard broad.” Art smiled indulgently and nodded his head in assent. 

“Better get your rifle and start shooting,” he said. “That wind might change.” 

Shooting had never occurred to me. “Shoot from here?” I asked incredulously. “Why it’s—it’s 600 yards, maybe 700. I couldn’t hit a moose at that distance—not for sure.” 

Art had learned long ago it makes no sense to argue with excited hunters. I quickly outlined a plan to him. 

“I’ll circle down this ridge so as to have the wind in my face,” I said. “Then I’ll drop down to that lower point there, and come out on that terrace of dead trees. That’ll be a couple of hundred yards from where that moose is lying.” 

Art shook his head ever so slightly. Then he said, “I’ll stay up here and signal you which way he goes.” 

I was halfway along my circuitous route down the valley before I paused for breath. What did MacLean mean by that crack, “I’ll signal you which way he goes”? That moose wasn’t going anywhere. Not if I could help it. But I shrugged off Art’s pessimism, and continued my stalk. Already I had closed the range to about 300 yards. I calculated my position by a dead spruce that stood out over the brush like a brown sentinel. 

As I dropped lower onto the terrace at the edge of the valley, I entered the first of the clumps of buckbrush. This stuff, a variety of willow, grows thick with gnarled branches and unyielding stems and has brittle leaves. I avoided contact with the bushes so that no sound might reach the fanning ears of that moose. Here on the edges of the valley were clumps of arctic birch so thick with buggy-whip stems that it was almost impossible to walk through them. Between the buckbrush and the arctic birch, I had to move in zigzags and semicircles to work my way down to the terrace. The farther I progressed, the worse it became. Not only did the bushes grow closer together, but they were by now higher than my head. I could see practically nothing. I thought momentarily of turning back, but that would never do. I’d show Art MacLean that I could stalk a moose in its own habitat. 

Judging my distance by the lone dead spruce that showed above the brush, I wormed forward. By my calculations, I must be less than 100 yards from the bull, yet the slope of the valley was not steep enough to present even a fleeting glimpse of him. I realized that the closer I got to the moose, the less were my chances of getting a shot. Still I went on, with the desperate hope all hunters have that somehow luck will compensate for errors in judgment.

original magazine illustration of moose in shrubs with mountains behind him

IN SPITE OF the coolness of the morning and the steady breeze sweeping down from the glaciers, I broke out in a sweat. It was hard going. Everywhere there were dead branches and clumps of dry twigs through which I had to wiggle carefully so as not to make any sound. It took me a full half hour to go the last fifty yards. The closer I approached the moose, the worse off I was. I had already slipped off my coat and dropped it behind so that the stiff creases would not catch on the twigs as I slid forward. I dropped my hat, also, and my gloves. I must be close, very close. 

I had calculated the distance and the angle a dozen times by craning my head to see where the dead spruce stood in relation to the other brush. Perhaps beyond that next bush or through that little opening ahead I would catch a glimpse of my prize. 

I slid my body forward slowly for the next step. Then I pulled back the branches and hunched my shoulders to slip through. Suddenly there was a crash and a whip of branches and leaves. My heart stood still, my mouth open. The bull had gone. After all my painstaking effort, he had heard me and galloped away. I straightened up, easing some of the cramped muscles in my shoulders. As I did so I heard a slight sound just ahead—a snuffle. Something moved in a wide sweeping arc just above the bushes. 

THEY WERE HORNS! Great big horns, and coming straight at me! Sweeping tines pointed out from the edge of the broad palms, and I could see that the underside of the points was light yellow and the top was gleaming white. The breadth of those horns must have been at least six feet. 

As I stood there practically paralyzed, one massive ear swung back and forth searching for sound. I sensed that the animal’s muzzle was thrust forward, also. Perhaps it had been a whiff of human scent that had caused the great bull to jump to his feet and whirl around. 

My mind was in a turmoil. I must pull myself together. I must make this good. Desperately I glanced to one side and then the other. Stiff-branched bushes hedged me in closely so that I couldn’t move in either direction. But I had to do something. 

I reached up furtively to wipe the sweat from my forehead. I could see a bare outline of the bull’s back, and one hoof, too, below the bushes, and the outline of a shoulder. The moose stood quartering toward me, the hump of his back just the height of my head. The distance couldn’t be more than 50 feet, perhaps 40. I slid my rifle forward slowly between the branches, and glanced through the telescopic sight. I slipped off the safety of my .30/06. The muscles beneath the brown hide twitched a little at the faint click. I shifted the muzzle slightly downward and squeezed hard on the trigger. 

The blast set off pandemonium. The great horns above the willows swept in a wide arc, leaped upward, and disappeared. The crash of branches was deafening as the great bull galloped away. Frantically I clawed forward through the willows. There was no log or stumps on which I might climb to get a view. I could hear the animal now, splashing through the swamp beyond the brush. I looked quickly at the spot where the bull had been lying. There was no blood, no indications at all that the bullet had taken any effect. I had botched the chance of a lifetime. Looking up at the hill where Art stood, I focused the binoculars. He was waving his arms to show me that the moose had crossed the river and was gone. 

“High-velocity bullets won’t go straight through brush,” Art said as I climbed the last few yards to the top of the hill. I could make no reply, and simply hung my head. 

“Don’t feel so bad. We’ll find another maybe as big as that one,” Art said cheerfully. But as I sat there gasping after the climb, I felt that never again would I see a moose with a spread of horns that would cradle a tall man. 

The dubious distinction of missing a monster bull moose at the distance of 50 feet provided ample material for camp conversation that night. Fortunately, Bill Burk hadn’t fared any better. He and his guide had seen moose, but all with small racks or no horns at all. 

A hundred times I went over in my mind how the thing could have happened. I saw the horns of that moose towering above me every time I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. 

We hunted along the Prophet for several days. On the evening of the third, Art MacLean and I rode down the sandbars near the river. We had glassed the country above camp where a side stream cut a U-shaped valley. There were moose in this place, too, but they all seemed to be women and children moose, with not a horn among them. It was 10 o’clock in the evening, but the arctic twilight lingered on as we jogged through the many fords of the river. 

“There’s a bull over there,” said Art shortly, pulling on his reins. I saw the animal at once. He was feeding on the willows across the river and was in plain sight. Again I was impressed by the whiteness of the massive horns. 

“It’s a monster!” I said hoarsely, and reached for my rifle. Art had dismounted and was looking at the feeding bull through his binoculars. 

“Not bad,” he said. “About 50 inches. But we don’t want him.” 

A SUDDEN THOUGHT struck me. Bill and Deb were on that side of the river today. They ought to be coming along pretty soon. At least Burk would get a shot at the moose, even if Art wouldn’t let me take one. I focused my glasses on the bull as he circled among the bushes, gathering in mouthfuls of leaves. As I did so I caught a glint of something beneath the willows close in front of the moose. It was a gun barrel, held by a white hand. 

“It’s Burk,” I said excitedly to Art. “Burk’s going to get the moose. We’ll see the whole show from here.” 

Bill Burk and Deb Fleet were almost under the moose’s nose. They crouched beneath the willows, and they seemed to be moving to one side so as to get a better view. I waited for the shot, but none came. As I looked more closely, I could see that they were motioning to each other as though in argument. Minutes passed, and still there was no shot. Suddenly, the two men stood up. The moose was so startled by their appearance that he reared back on his haunches before he whirled to go. The horns of the great animal looked like white boards on each side of his head as he plowed through the willows and disappeared. 

“I didn’t think Deb would let Bill shoot that moose.” Art MacLean said confidently. “It’s too small.” 

As the days passed, our requirements for a set of moose horns diminished considerably. During these trying times, we had been impressed by two things. First, really gigantic moose were hard to get, and, second, Canadian guides can be very firm about letting you shoot just any moose. 

“But fellows,” Bill Burk said for the dozenth time, “any of those horns would look big in my den.” 

To add to our troubles, as our hunt drew to a close, the weather turned foul. Clouds fanned out across jagged peaks at the headwaters of the Prophet, obscuring the green ice of the glaciers. The likelihood was that we would be able to make only one more foray up the valley, and then we would have to pull out or be caught in the snow that was sure to come. 

The blast was whipped away by the wind. For a moment it seemed as though the dozing moose had not even heard. Then he slowly raised his massive head and got to his feet. I flipped the bolt and pushed another cartridge into the chamber.

On that last day, there was a sense of urgency in the air. The wind was increasing in volume every hour and it was getting much colder as we mounted the sidehills and swept the muskegs and open swamps with our binoculars. Our eyes smarted from the cold and the sting of the wind. The animals felt the changing weather, too, and had gone to surer shelter than their usual bedding places. In a whole morning of hard riding and careful glassing we didn’t see a single moose. Art and I ate a glum lunch in the lee of a glacial boulder. 

“Looks like we’re skunked, Art,” I said gloomily. “We’ll have to leave without getting moose at all.” 

“We’ll see,” Art answered. He pulled out his glasses and climbed to the top of a boulder. 

“I’ve been watching a white thing for some time,” he commented, “and I think it moved just now.” 

With new hope rising, I quickly shinnied up the stone. “Where?” I asked excitedly. Art pointed out a single white spot that showed above a clump of bushes near a bend in the river about half a mile away. 

“It’s a piece of driftwood,” I said as I looked at the thing through the binoculars. I turned to slide off the boulder and resume my lunch. Art continued to look at the white spot in the bushes. “Now look,” he said. 

I looked again. The white thing was gone. Only the willows tossed in the waves of cold air that moved down the valley. 

“It’s horn. It’s moose horn,” I yelled. “That palm must be big, or we couldn’t see it at all at that distance.” 

Outdoor Life cover with mallards coming in to land, November 1953
The November 1953 issue cover featured a painting by Grancel Fitz. Outdoor Life

ART AND I slid off the boulder, trampling the remains of our unfinished lunch as we untied our horses. We had difficulty turning the heads of our mounts into the wind and urging the reluctant animals farther up the slope to get more altitude. As we climbed above the river, we passed through scattered patches of spruce. Once Art slid off his horse and focused his glasses on the white splotch in the distance. 

“Looks like a big one,” he said. 

Near that particular bend of the river, there was a small glacial terrace which reached out above the valley. The spruce grew thinly on it, but it was an elevated place from which we might be able to look down on the moose. In half an hour of difficult and slow riding, we came to the wooded point and tied up our horses well back in the trees. Quickly I checked my rifle and cleaned the scope, then motioned to Art that I was ready, and we walked out to the lip of the point. 

“There he is,” said Art with some excitement. From this slight elevation, we looked down into a pocket where the river had once cut a channel that later dried up when the stream changed its course. It was now a grassy depression lined with low bushes and coarse sedge. Behind this bank, out of the wind, lay a bull moose. He seemed to be asleep. His horns were massive and tilted upward from his head at a decided angle. The spread of the antlers was not great, but the horns were big and symmetrical. I knew that this was our animal, but my heart sank when I mentally calculated the range. 

“Art, it’s 500 yards if it’s an inch,” I said dejectedly. There was a vicious crosswind, too. Art looked at me quizzically. 

“You don’t want to try sneaking up on another one, do you?” he asked. He raised one eyebrow. 

WITHOUT A WORD I began to make preparations. Just in front of us, a dead spruce had fallen and lay crossways on the stubs of its branches, three or four feet above the ground. I cleared away several dead twigs, and laid my coat on top of this natural rest. I carefully polished the telescopic sight and glanced through it. Even in the magnification of the scope, the bull looked small at that distance. He lay quartering toward us. If I shot too high I would hit his horn. If I shot too low I would miss him. And I had to figure how high I’d have to hold, for the bullet would drop considerably over that range. 

Suddenly, during these preparations, the bull threw up his head. Surely no crackle of brush could have reached him above the noise of the wind. Perhaps it was some swirling current of air that had swept a whiff of human scent past those sensitive nostrils. Whatever it was that put him on his guard didn’t come again, and his head slowly sank back to the ground. 

Quickly I knelt behind the spruce log and brought the scope to bear. Twice I held my breath for the shot, and each time sensed that the crosshairs were not quite right, for the wind was complicating things. Then, with a final feeling that I was holding just right, I squeezed off the shot. 

The blast was whipped away by the wind. For a moment it seemed as though the dozing moose had not even heard. Then he slowly raised his massive head and got to his feet. I flipped the bolt and pushed another cartridge into the chamber. The big bull, apparently dazed, took a step or two toward us. One of his shoulders hung limply, but he managed very well on three legs. 

He broke into a hacking run, coming diagonally toward us. I sighted the crosshairs high for a chest hit, and pulled the trigger. The bull went down. I half rose from my place with a shout of elation: “We’ve got him, Art! We’ve got our bull moose!” 

But had we? The great animal got up on his feet again. Another few strides of those wobbly legs and he would be in the timber to one side and below us. Frantically I pumped in another cartridge. As soon as I found his heaving back in the telescope, I pulled the trigger. At that instant the great bull disappeared among the trees. 

Both Art and I started on a run. Down we went through the scattered spruce. I just might get one more shot. I had to get one more shot. In a few minutes we broke out on the lower slopes where the trees were mixed with scattered buckbrush and willow. The top of one of these jerked violently. I saw a gleam of white among the green leaves. We parted the branches, and there he was on his side, with one white horn almost as high as my shoulder. 

“If it weren’t for those white palms, we’d never spot a bull moose in this country,” Art commented. 

“You can say that again,” I answered smiling. “White palms is right—and long range, too, I might add. But it’s worth it. Let’s get this old boy out of here. I can’t wait to see what’ll happen when the fellows back home fix their eyes on this!”

This story, “The White Rocking-Chair,” originally ran in the November 1953 issue. Read more OL+ stories.