A Widowed Homesteader Learns to Hunt Moose, or Die Trying

At 26, I was a homesteader-trapper’s widow. I was left with a log cabin, my three hungry children, and a .30/30 rifle

Olive A. Fredrickson wrote six stories for Outdoor Life about her life as a homesteader, trapper, and subsistence hunter in Canada. Eventually, she turned her experiences into a novel, The Silence of the North, which was co-written with former OL staff writer Ben East and ultimately made into a movie in 1981. This was her first magazine story, published in 1967 under the title “I Had To Have Moose.”

THE CANOE WAS a 30-foot dugout that the local tribe had given me on credit. They’d be along in the fall to claim payment in potatoes.

It had been hollowed out from a big cottonwood with a hand ax, but the tree wasn’t straight to begin with, and the canoe had inherited the character of its parent. Otherwise they would not have parted with it. As a result it was not only heavy and unwieldy but also so cranky you hardly dared to look over the side unless your hair was parted in the middle. 

I was in the stern, paddling. My six-year-old daughter Olive was wedged firmly in the bow. Between us were Vala, five, and the baby, Louis, two. We were going moose hunting, and since there was no one to leave the children with, we’d have to go as a family. 

We weren’t hunting for fun. It was early summer, and the crop of vegetables I had planted in our garden was growing, but there was nothing ready for use yet, and we were out of food. 

The moose season wouldn’t open until fall, but at that time British Columbia game regulations allowed a prospector to get a permit and kill a moose any time he needed one for food. I was not a prospector and, anyway, I had no way to go into town for the permit unless I walked 27 miles each way. But my babies and I were as hungry as any prospector would ever be, and we had to have something to eat. I was sure the good Lord would forgive me, and I hoped the game warden would too, if he found out about it. 

So one hot, windless July day—shortly before my twenty-eighth birthday—when fly season was getting real bad, I called the youngsters together. 

“We’ve got to go try to kill a moose,” I said. I knew the moose would be coming down to the river on that kind of day to rid themselves of flies and mosquitoes. 

I had never shot a moose, but necessity is the mother of a lot of new experiences, and I decided I could do it all right if I got the chance. I got Olive and Louis and Vala ready, loaded them into the big clumsy canoe, and poked four shells into my old .30/30 Winchester Model 94. I jacked one into the chamber, put the hammer on half cock, and started upstream against the quiet current of the Stuart River. 

It was a little more than a year after the June day in 1928 when a neighbor, Jack Hamilton, had come to our lonely homestead 40 miles down the Stuart from Fort St. James, in the mountain country of central British Columbia. He had a telegram for me from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at Edmonton, and had to break the news that my husband, Walter Reamer, a trapper, had drowned in Leland Lake on the Alberta–Northwest Territories border. Walter’s canoe had tipped over in a heavy windstorm. 

That was almost 40 years ago, but I still remember raising my hand to my eyes to wipe away the fog that suddenly clouded them and Hamilton leading me to a chair by the kitchen table. 

“You’d better sit down, Mrs. Reamer,” he said. 

I looked around at my three children. Olive, then only five years old, stood wide-eyed, not quite taking it all in. Vala was playing with her little white kitten, and Louis lay on his back, reaching for his toes. What was to become of them and me?

Olive leaned her head against my skirt and began to cry softly for her daddy, and I felt a lump in my chest that made it hard to breathe. But that was not the time for tears. If I cried, I’d do it out of the children’s sight. “Will you be all right?” Jack Hamilton asked before he left. 

“I’ll be all right,” I told him firmly. 

All right? I wondered. I was 26 and a homesteader-trapper’s widow with three little children, 160 acres of brush-grown land, almost none of it cleared, a small log house—and precious little else. 

From left: A bull moose with a fine rack swims the Stuart upstream from the author’s homestead; the author shown at a time when “my wilderness life was quite easy.” Outdoor Life

That was just before the start of the great depression, the period that Canadians of my generation still call the dirty thirties. There was no allowance for dependent children then. I knew I could get a small sum of relief money each month, maybe about $12 for the four of us, but I did not dare to ask for it. 

Olive and Louis had been born in Canada, but Vala had been born in the United States, as had I. I was afraid that if I appealed for help, Vala or I or both of us might be sent back to that country. In the very first hours of my grief and loneliness, I vowed I’d never let that happen, no matter what. It was the four of us alone now, to fight the world of privation and hunger, but at least we’d stay together. 

My father had been a trapper, and my mother had died when I was eight. We had been a happy family, but always poor folk with no money to speak of. And after I married Walter, his trapline didn’t bring in much. I had never known anything but a hard life, but now I was thankful for it. I knew I was more up to the hardships that lay ahead than most women would be. 

I don’t think I looked the part. Please don’t get the idea that I was a backwoods frump, untidy and slovenly. I was small, five feet two, and weighed 112, all good solid muscle. And if I do say it, when I had the proper clothes on and was out dancing, I could compete with the best of them in looks. 

There were a lot of moose around our homestead, some deer, black bears, wolves, rabbits, grouse, fox, mink, and muskrat. I decided I’d become a hunter and trapper on my own. 

We had a little money on hand to buy food with. We had no horses, but I dug potatoes, raked hay—did whatever I could for our few neighbors to pay for the use of a team. By the next spring, I had managed to clear the brush and trees from a few acres of good land. 

Olive was housekeeper, cook, and baby-sitter while I worked outside. I planted a vegetable garden and started a hay meadow. I hunted grouse and rabbits, and neighbors helped out the first winter by giving us moose meat. We managed to eke out a living. It was all hard work, day in and day out, dragging myself off to bed when dark came and crawling out at daylight to begin another day. But at least my babies and I had something to eat. 

Then, in July of 1929, our food gave out. I couldn’t bring myself to go deeper in debt to my neighbors, and in desperation I decided on the out-of-season moose hunt. With the few odds and ends we had left, we could make out on moose meat until the garden stuff started to ripen.

We hadn’t gone far up the Stuart in the cranky dugout before I began to see moose tracks along shore and worn moose paths leading down to the river. Then we rounded a bend, and a big cow moose was standing out on a grassy point, dunking her ungainly head and coming up with mouthfuls of weeds. 

I didn’t want to kill a cow and maybe leave a calf to starve, but I don’t think I was ever more tempted in my life than I was right then. That big animal meant meat enough to last us the rest of the summer, and by canning it I could keep every pound from spoiling. I paddled quietly ahead, whispering warnings to the kids to sit still and keep quiet. The closer I got, the more I wanted that moose. She finally saw us and looked our way while I wrestled with my conscience. 

I’ll never know what the outcome would have been, for about the time I was getting near enough to shoot, Olive let out a squeal of pure delight, and I saw a little red-brown calf raise up out of the tall grass. That settled it. 

The children all talked at once, and the cow grunted to her youngster and waded out, ready to swim the river. We were only 200 feet away at that point, and all of a sudden she decided she didn’t like us there. Her ears went back, the hair on her shoulders stood up, and her grunts took on a very unfriendly tone. I stuck my paddle into the mud and waited, wondering just what I’d do if she came for us. 

There was no chance I could maneuver that cumbersome dugout out of her way. But I quieted the youngsters with a sharp warning, and after a minute the cow led her calf into deep water and they struck out for the opposite side of the river. I sighed with relief when they waded ashore and walked up a moose trail out of sight. 

old magazine images of moose, kids, and dog
The author’s canoe frightened this young bull from his feeding in the shallows; daughter Vala and her brother Louis pose by their cabin in the spring of 1932; Louis and Chum play in a cleared area of the homestead. Outdoor Life

A half mile farther up the river we landed. I took Louis piggyback and carried my gun, and the four of us walked very quietly over a grassy point where I thought moose might be feeding. We didn’t see any, and now the kids began to complain that they were getting awful hungry. I was hungry, too. We sat down on the bank to rest, and I saw a good rainbow trout swimming in shallow water. 

I always carried a few flies and fishhooks in my hatband, and I tied a fly to a length of string and threw it out, using the string as a handline. The trout took the fly on about the fifth toss, and I hauled it in. I fished a little longer and caught two pikeminnow, and we hit back to the canoe. 

I built a fire and broiled the rainbow and one of the pikeminnow on sticks. The kids divided the trout, and I ate the pikeminnow. As a rule pikeminnow have a muddy flavor, and I had really caught those two for dog food. But that one tasted all right to me. 

A little farther up the Stuart, we came on two yearling mule deer with stubby spikes of antlers in the velvet. They watched us from a cut bank but spooked and disappeared into the brush soon after I saw them. A little later the same thing happened with two bull moose. They saw us and ran into the willows while I was reaching for my gun. I was so disappointed and discouraged I wanted to bawl. 

That made four moose we had seen, counting the calf, without getting a shot, and I decided that killing one was going to be a lot harder than I had thought. And my arms were so tired from paddling the heavy dugout that they felt ready to drop out of the sockets. 

I had brought a .22 along, as well as the .30/30, and a little while after that I used it to shoot a grouse that was watching us from the bank.

I had about given up all hope of getting a moose and was ready to turn back for the long paddle home when I saw what looked like the back of one, standing almost submerged in the shade of some cottonwoods up ahead. 

I shushed the kids and eased the canoe on for a better look, and sure enough, I was looking at a young bull, probably a yearling. Just a dandy size for what I wanted. 

He was feeding, pulling up weeds from the bottom and putting his head completely under each time he went down for a mouthful. I paddled as close as I dared, and warned Olive and Vala to put their hands over their ears and keep down as low as they could, for I had to shoot over their heads. 

I put the front bead of the Winchester just behind his shoulder, at the top of the water, and when he raised his head I let him have it. He went down with a great splash, and I told the kids they could raise up and look. 

Luckily for us, the young bull did not die right away there in deep, muddy water. I don’t know how I’d ever have gotten him ashore for dressing. When I got close with the dugout he was trying to drag himself out on the bank. My shot had broken his back. I crowded him with the canoe, feeling sorry for him all the while, and as soon as I had him all the way on dry land I finished him with a head shot. 

The bull, fighting mad by now, came for the canoe, throwing his head this way and that. I was scared stiff, for I couldn’t swim a stroke and neither I could Olive. I knew that one blow from the moose’s antlers would roll the dugout over like a pulpwood bolt. 

I had always hated to kill anything, and by that time I was close to tears. Then I saw Olive leaning against a tree, crying her heart out, and Vala and Louis with their faces all screwed up in tears, and I felt worse than ever. But I reminded myself that it had to be done to feed the children, and I wiped my eyes and explained to them as best I could. About that time a porcupine came waddling along, and that took their minds off the moose. 

Dressing a moose, even a yearling bull, is no fun. I went at it now, and it was about as hard a job as I had ever tackled. The kids tried to help but only succeeded in getting in the way. And while I worked, I couldn’t help worrying about my out-of-season kill. What would happen if I were found out? Would the game warden be as understanding as I hoped?

WHEN THE JOB was done, I built a small fire to boil the partridge I’d shot and a few pieces of moose meat for our supper, giving Louis the broth in his bottle. I felt better after I ate, and I loaded the meat into the dugout and started home. But it was full dark now, and I was so tired that I soon decided not to go on.

We went ashore, spread out a piece of canvas, part under and part over us, and tried to sleep. The mosquitoes wouldn’t let us, and I finally gave up. I sat over the children the rest of the night, switching mosquitoes off with a willow branch. Daylight came about 4 o’clock, and we got on the way. 

I’ll never forget that early-morning trip back to our place. My hands were black with mosquitoes the whole way, and the torment was almost too much. Joel Hammond, a neighbor, had given me some flour he’d made by grinding his own wheat in a hand mill, and the first thing I did was build a fire and make a batch of hot cakes. The flour was coarse and sort of dusty, but with moose steak and greens fried in moose fat, those cakes made a real good meal. Then I went to work canning meat. 

That was the only moose I ever killed out of season. When hunting season rolled around that fall I got a homesteader’s free permit and went after our winter’s supply of meat. It came even harder that time.

The first one I tried for I wounded with a shot that must have cut through the tip of his lungs. He got away in thick brush, and I took our dog Chum and followed him. Chum drove him back into the river, and he swam across and stood wheezing and coughing on the opposite side, too far off for me to use my only remaining shell on him. Chum swam the river in pursuit, and started to fight him in shallow water. 

Another neighbor, Ross Finley, who lived on the quarter section next to ours, heard me shoot and came up to lend a hand. He loaded Olive and me into our dugout, and we paddled across to where the dog was badgering the moose. When we got close, Finley used my last shell but missed. 

The bull, fighting mad by now, came for the canoe, throwing his head this way and that. I was scared stiff, for I couldn’t swim a stroke and neither I could Olive. I knew that one blow from the moose’s antlers would roll the dugout over like a pulpwood bolt. 

I had the bow paddle, and I moved pretty fast, but at that the moose didn’t miss us by a foot as I swung the canoe away from him. He was in deep water now, and Chum was riding on his shoulders and biting at the back of his neck. The dog took the bull’s attention for a second or two, and I reached down and grabbed Finley’s .22, which was lying in the bottom of the dugout. 

I shot the moose right at the butt of the ear, with the gun almost touching him. He sank quietly out of sight, leaving Chum floating in the water. The dog was so worn out from the ruckus that we had to help him ashore. 

We tried hard to locate the dead moose. But the current had carried it downriver, and it was days before we found it. The carcass was lying in shallow water at the mouth of a creek, the meat spoiled. 

There were plenty more around, however. We could hear them fighting at night, grunting and snorting, and sometimes their horns would clash with a noise as loud as an ax hitting a hollow log. In the early mornings I saw as many as five at one time along the weedy river shore. I waited and picked the one I wanted, and that time I killed him with no trouble. 

The Stuart was full of ducks and geese that fall, and there were grouse everywhere I went in the woods. I had plenty of ammunition for the .22 and always a few .30/30 shells around. I canned everything I killed and no longer worried about a meat shortage. Life was beginning to sort itself out. 

A few unmarried men came around and tried to shine up to me, but I wasn’t interested. All I wanted was to get more land cleared and buy a cow or two and a team of horses of my own. The young homestead widow was proving to herself that she could take care of her family and make the grade. 

BUT BEFORE the winter was over I had another crisis. By February most of our food was gone, except for the canned meat and a few cans of vegetables. We had used the last of the hand-ground flour that Joel Hammond had given me and were desperately in need of groceries. I had no money, but I decided to walk the 27 miles to Vanderhoof, on the Prince George-Prince Rupert railroad, and try to get the supplies we needed on credit. I knew I could pay for them with potatoes the next fall, for by that time I had enough land cleared to grow a bigger potato crop than we needed for ourselves. 

I left the three children with the George Vinsons, neighbors a mile and a half downriver, and started out on a cold, wintry morning. I had a road to follow, but only a few teams and sleighs had traveled it, and the walking was hard, in deep snow. Two miles out of Vanderhoof I finally hitched a ride. 

I didn’t have any luck getting credit against my potato crop. Those were hard times, and I guess the merchants couldn’t afford much generosity. I tried first to buy rubbers for myself and the kids. We needed them very badly, and they were the cheapest footgear available. But the store turned me down.

A KINDLY WOMAN who ran a restaurant did well by me, however. She gave me a good dinner, and when I put her down for 50 pounds of potatoes, she just smiled and shoved a chocolate bar into my pocket. I saw to it that she got the potatoes when the time came, anyway.

Another storekeeper told me that he couldn’t let me have things on credit, but he gave me $2 in cash and told me to do the best I could with it. I knew where part of it was going for the oatmeal and sugar I had promised Louis and Vala and Olive when I got home. But I couldn’t see any way to pay for another meal for myself or a room for the night, and I walked around Vanderhoof thinking of how wet and cold our feet would be in the slush of the spring thaw. 

I was about as heartbroken as I’ve ever been in my life. 

Finally I decided to make another attempt. Some of my neighbors on the Stuart River traded at a store at Finmoore, 19 miles east of Vanderhoof. I also had a friend there, Mrs. John Holter. I’d walk the railroad track to Finmoore and try my luck there. At the time I didn’t know how far it was, and I expected a hike of only 10 miles or so. 

It was about dark when I started. The railroad ties were crusted with ice, and the walking was very bad. My clothes were hardly enough for the cold night, either: denim overalls, men’s work socks, moccasins, and an old wool sweater with the elbows out, worn under a denim jacket. 

I had never been brave in the dark, any time or any place, and I can’t tell you what an ordeal that walk was. All I could think of were the hobos I had heard stories about, the railroad bums, and I was afraid of every shadow. 

I got to the lonely little station at Hulatt, 15 miles from Vanderhoof, at midnight and asked the stationmaster if I could rest until daylight. I lay down on the floor by the big potbellied stove. It was warm and cozy, and I was worn out. I started to drift off to sleep, but then I began to worry about the children and the likelihood that if I was later in getting home than I had promised, they might come back to the house and get into trouble starting a fire. Things were hard enough without having the place burned down. I got up and trudged away along the track once more.

The May 1967 cover featured a painting by Tom Beecham. Outdoor Life

It was 2 o’clock in the morning when I reached the Holter place. Mrs. Holter fixed me a sandwich and a cup of hot milk, and I fell into bed. She shook me awake at 9 o’clock, as I had told her to. Those scant seven hours were all the sleep I had in more than 36.

Mrs. Holter loaned me another $2, and I went to the general store and struck it rich. The proprietor, Percy Moore, stared at me in disbelief when I poured out my hard-luck story. 

“You’ve walked from the Stuart River since yesterday morning?” he asked in amazement. “That’s forty-six miles!” 

“No, forty-four,” I corrected him. “I got a ride the last two miles into Vanderhoof.” Then I added, “I’ve got fourteen more to walk home before dark tonight, too.” 

The first thing he let me have, on credit, was the three pairs of rubbers we needed so desperately. Then he took care of my grocery list. Eight pounds of oatmeal, three of rice, five of beans, five of sugar and—for a bonus-a three-pound pail of strawberry jam. 

I plodded away from Finmoore at 10 o’clock that morning with almost 30 pounds in a packsack on my back. 

Three inches of wet snow had fallen that morning, and the 14-mile walk seemed endless, each mile longer than the one before. My pack got heavier and heavier, and sometime in the afternoon I began to stumble and fall. I was so tired by that time, and my back ached so cruelly from the weight of the pack, that I wanted to lie there in the snow and go to sleep.

But I knew better. After each fall, I’d drive myself back to my feet and stagger on. 

TO THIS DAY I do not know when it was that I reached our place, but it was long after dark. Chum met me in the yard, and no human being was ever more glad to fumble at the latch of his own door. 

I slid out of the pack, pulled off my wet moccasins and socks, and rolled into bed with my clothes on. The last thing I remember was calling the dog up to lie at my feet for warmth. The children awakened me at noon the next day, fed me breakfast, and rubbed some of the soreness out of my swollen legs and feet. 

Next fall, when I harvested my potato crop, I paid off my debt to Percy Moore in full, except for one item. There was no way to pay him, ever, for his kindness to me when I was broke and had three hungry children at home. 

I was to make many more trips to Finmoore in the years before I left the Stuart, for I did most of my trading at his store. And when times got better, he and his wife and daughter Ruth often came out and bought vegetables and eggs from me. I remember walking back to his place the next year, carrying six dressed chickens, selling them for 50¢ apiece, spending the money for food and packing it home. Three dollars bought quite a heavy load in those days.

This text has been minimally edited to meet contemporary standards.

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