On The Margin of Survival

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Billy McCrae sent word to me, by way of moccasin telegraph, he needed to see me in Fort St John. I didn’t even think he knew who I was; I was surprised and a little proud. He was a man of legends. Billy was a packer, guide, and trapper from the old days; he was in his 80’s, still had a full head of coal-black hair and could easily outdistance me in town with his pronounced bow-legged stride. I would be embarrassed to try to keep up with him on snowshoes.

Although he was fit and strong, more so than most men in their 30’s, it was rumored he had some medical issues and wouldn’t be out on the trap line this winter and it was just as well, the winter of 81-82 turned out to be one of the coldest winters in the Peace Omineca Country since they began recording temperatures.

Aurora Borealis puts on a display during the coldest nights

Aurora Borealis puts on a display during the coldest nights

 

I knocked on his door and Billy met me with a smile and a handshake; people say, I have a strong grip, but the power in Billy’s right hand let me know, he could crush my hand as easily as a child’s hand. There is something about some of those old-timers, they were often men of iron. He invited me in, and told me he was glad I could drop by.

His neat little house was a model of bachelor efficiency. Everything was in its place and cleaner than a dinner plate. There were little artifacts from Scotland and old prints of Highlanders in kilts doing battle with English soldiers. I didn’t recognize the period of the English uniforms and weapons, but I would have guessed late 18th Century. We had a cup of tea.  Billy was a strict teetotaler, a fact that only added to his legend in the Peace Country.

He was a WWI vet and had been given a land grant for 160 acres after the war. Like many vets, he settled in the Peace country after the war, because of the name. He always seemed to be in a hurry, a rare habit in the North, it might have been a touch of shell shock syndrome: I had no way of knowing and I wasn’t going to ask.

He came right to the point of our meeting, he was worried about the far North end of his trap line. There were too many Pine Marten that were mature and had not been trapped for several years. Unlike many of the views promoted by Animal Rights groups, the Pine Marten and several other fur-bearing animals will mature and the old ones will eat the younger ones, until the only ones left are too old to reproduce, and then the area becomes depleted of Pine Marten for years if not decades. If the area is trapped, there will be a variety in the age groups and a healthy population will be the result. Over trapping like overgrazing will deplete the population also, but if the trap line is mountainous or huge, it is difficult to trap that much area. The older Pine Martens command the highest price on the fur market, but if you manage your resources well, they will represent approximately 10% of your fur harvest.

Billy had not trapped this area for five years because of the distances and his advanced age. He had planned to trap it this winter, but now, with his medical issues he wouldn’t be able to get there. He talked as if he was going to live forever and he needed to manage the trap line correctly; thus, was the reason he sent for me, he wanted me to trap that area for at least two weeks. It was an adventure to be sure, since Billy’s trap line was on a remote region of Lake Williston, one of the largest man-made lakes in North America. It really isn’t a lake, the water is always moving with the overflow from the hydro-electric damn in Hudson’s Hope and when that is compounded with warm springs beneath the surface, and the continual flow of the Ingenika, Ospika, Manson, Finley, Parsnip, Nation, Nabesche Rivers and numerous creeks pouring warm water into extremely deep water.  The lake has steep canyon walls that function as a giant wind tunnel and the ice on Williston has been known to be unpredictable and dangerous.

I’ve broken through ice on several occasions and I’ve helped pull people out of the broken ice, it isn’t easy. Wet ice is slick, and the human in winter usually has several layers of clothing that become soaked and much heavier, and the situation is complicated because cold water drains the strength and life force from a person very quickly. I don’t fear many of the things that other people fear, but slipping under the ice has been a frequent  nightmare for me.

Normally, Billy would make several trips in his freighting canoe to stock his cabins before freeze-up; of course, those cabins weren’t stocked up with supplies now. He figured I had a snowmobile and could pull a sleigh in with enough supplies for a couple of weeks. Yes, a couple of weeks was no problem, but what if there was a problem. There would be no reliable source of food and a man could starve if there was an accident. There’s moose, caribou, and elk; however, without carbohydrates a man can starve to death while eating ten pounds of meat a day. The men of the Lewis and Clark, Journey of Discovery were eating ten to twenty pounds of meat a day; yet, they were always hungry. Without the carbohydrates, the body can’t break down the protein in the meat efficiently and people find they eat more and more. This was a major concern for me, the temperature had been near 40 below for most of the winter and things break and go wrong during extended periods of severe cold.

To be honest, I figured Billy was going to offer me a chance to buy his trap line at a good price; since, he was surely too old to be going back in that country. His trap line had been a major producing trap line for decades and had made Billy a nice estate in life.

There was a part of me that wanted to explore this Omineca-Peace Country, but I was also listening to an inner voice that was warning of the dangers of traveling on Williston Lake. They built the damn in the 60′s and tried to log all the timber that would be flooded over: it was a forlorn hope, 60 foot trees were still being launched from the bottom like wooden missiles to erupt through the surface at an immeasurable rate of speed, until the tree reached its maximum height and fell with deadly force in an unpredictable direction. There had been several close calls with boats and there had been several boats that never made it home; did some of those trees come through the hull after their roots gave up or did the trees rise up out of the water and then fall on the boat? Those questions wont be answered until Judgment Day.

Even though I had a feeling of dread for heading into an unknown area during an exceptionally cold winter, those trees shooting up from depths of over a hundred meters were also a nightmare if you allowed yourself to think about them for any length of time. Billy had trapped the area his whole life and had done quite well for himself, despite the fact that a portion of the trap line was now under water.

I told Billy I’d trap out the area as well as I could and set close to 50 Marten and Fisher traps and snares; if there were coyotes, lynx, wolverine, and wolves in the area, I’d trap them as well. He thanked me over and over and gave me an old hand made pair of snowshoes, we shook hands and I left with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I had a foreboding about this expedition; it didn’t really make sense to be running off on a wild adventure, I had all the work I could handle on my own trap line.

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The local trappers probably offered to buy the line and refused the chance to trap Billy’s line.

I drove away thinking a promise is a promise and with a little bit of luck, I might make a handsome profit on this deal: in two weeks, I could probably catch every Marten and Fisher in the area; with a little luck, I might get some other high dollar fur bearers and make a handsome profit.

In the early 80′s, the snowmobiles weren’t like the Formula One looking machines of today, they could easily travel at 50 mph, but the opportunities to go that fast were limited. That far north, the skies are usually gray and overcast all winter and snow conditions on a large lake can be deep powder or solid ice; besides, I’d be pulling a sled that resembled the hull of a small sail boat and that would slow me down considerably. There would be at least 30 gallons of gas in five gallon plastic jugs, traps and snares, a small chain saw, an ax, food, survival gear, tarps, and my blanket roll. The gasoline was a bulky commodity; therefore, I’d need to be careful how much I used each day and use my show shoes as much as possible.

I parked my truck at a customer’s house in McKenzie and took off through town with my snow machine and sleigh. McKenzie is in an area called the Parsnip Reach.  I was quite the conversation topic as people watched the train like machine travel down the city streets. Once I was on the lake, I opened the machine up, I was anxious to leave the city people behind with their finger pointing and condescending laughter. They lived on the edge of the wilderness, but they would die in a few days where I was headed, that’s why their superior attitudes never really affected me, I just felt pity for them.

It seemed easier to take the Hart Highway to McKenzie and travel on the frozen lake rather than trying to reach the lake from North of Fort St John on the Alaska Highway. I could spend days fighting deep snow and blind passes. With a topography map and a compass, I could at least judge where I was on the ice and hopefully find the trap line.

The fierce winds had blown all the snow off the ice making the surface rough; the extreme extended cold temperatures and the flowing warm waters of the rivers had created huge fissures that would protrude from the surface almost four feet high. Snowmobiles on ice have minimal braking and almost no steering, so the trip was not only jarring from the rough surface, it was way too dangerous to develop any speed, with snow coming down and a high wind there was also very little visibility.

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Suddenly, a cow moose and calf passed me on the left, they were flying across the ice and two seconds later I saw why: a wolf pack was loping behind them. I gunned the engine and figured if I watched the animals at this high rate of speed, they would tell me where the ice ridges were. It was a big wolf pack and they were in no hurry, they could run all day at this speed, but the cow and calf were sure to be dinner if they didn’t get off the ice where the wolf had the advantage, they needed to get in the trees and deep snow or on a steep icy hill side, they could then leave the wolves like they were sitting still. However, there was a hazer on each side of the moose pair to keep them on the frozen lake and the rest of the pack was gaining on them.

I picked out one of the wolves in the back, he was resting before taking his turn on the flanks or biting at the hind quarter. I was gaining on him and young enough to think I might stop this age old tragedy that was playing out in front of me. I looked up to see one of the wolves leap up and bite into the right hind quarter and hang there while enduring the hind leg and hoof bouncing him back and forth as the cow moose kept up her momentum. Three strides later the meat tore loose and the wolf stopped long enough to swallow the huge bloody piece of flesh and join the chase once again. At that point, I knew it was hopeless. Foolishly, I pulled up next to the wolf; I put a round in the chamber and held the rifle out to the left with my left hand with my right hand on the throttle. I’d shot this 8 mm x 06, the poor man’s magnum, with one hand before, it is not like the movies, it hurts, but I wasn’t thinking clearly or maybe I wasn’t even thinking. It had a scope, but with the bumpy ice at 35 mph aiming was hopeless. I was only about five feet away, I aimed the barrel at his massive chest and pulled the trigger just as he looked at me like I was I need of professional help. The rifle snapped my wrist upwards with a force that almost felt like it had broken my wrist. The wolf never broke stride, I had missed him. I brought my knees up to the handle bars so that I could chamber another round. This time, I’d put the barrel right next to him and used both hands with my right knee holding the throttle. The barrel was only two feet away and I started my trigger squeeze, but I was bucked off the machine as high as any horse has ever bucked me off. The rifle was gone and I was airborne for the longest time. Landing on dirt can seem really hard, but landing on ice is even harder. I had a perfect one point landing on my right kneecap. The lightening flashed in front of my eyes from the pain, and I cursed my stupidity.

My machine was still traveling without me and it was imperative that I know where it was headed. Just ahead of me, the wolves were tearing the moose and calf to pieces. If they knew I was wounded and defenseless, I might be dessert. I saw my rifle about ten feet away and rolled over and over to pick it up, I wasn’t crying, but I had tears in my eyes because of the pain. I stood on my left leg with the realization, that if I lost my machine and the sled, I was likely to die out here in the 40 below within a few days. I could just barely hear my sled through the gray mists and it seemed like the sound was coming back towards me. The machine roared past the wolves as they were pulling the two moose to the ice. It hit the ice expansion crack that had bucked me off and started traveling along the ice ridge with one ski on the ridge and one ski on the ice surface. I backed out of the way to avoid getting hit when the machine hurried past me to turn over about thirty yards beyond me with the throttle wide open and the drive belt spinning so fast I thought it might come off before I could get there and shut the machine off.

My nice machine was wrecked, but it looked like it could still travel. My left wrist was sprained and my knee was on fire and swelling fast. I could easily shoot one or two wolves now, but I had more important things to consider, like finding Billy’s trap cabin and surviving the night. A snow machine and loaded sleigh is heavy and hard to turn over, but on one leg while standing on ice it is much harder.

Once I had the sleigh upright, I took off at a much slower pace. I shot azimuths of land that protruded into the lake and eventually determined my position in the gray void. I had about twenty miles to go and at 20 mph I would be at the cabin in one hour, if I was correct with my map plotting. I pulled into a large bay after dark and headed into the bush about a mile. There was the cabin, luckily Billy had placed it on a windswept ridge and the roof was still showing above the snow. I pulled the machine up near the front door and after digging out the door, I started a fire in the stove before unloading my supplies. The thought of a moose steak with mashed potatoes, peas, and a glass of Irish whiskey kept me working through the pain and the thought of crawling between the warm blankets while taking a few more sips of whiskey seemed like a vacation in the tropics at this time.

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I only ate about half my meal and figured I’d have the rest of the steak with my eggs in the morning and make a couple of potato pancakes with the mashed potatoes. I didn’t have much of an appetite, but the whiskey was delicious and soothing. I banked the fire and drank enough whiskey to forget about the knee and fall asleep.

I slept through the night and the cabin was letting the 40 below seep in by the time I woke up. I hobbled around to get the fire going and cook some breakfast.

I felt much better than I thought I would and decided to set a few traps and snares close to the cabin and scout out the terrain for sign of fur bearers and a likely trail up the steep hill sides.

It would be easy to trap the shoreline; unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be much activity near the lake. There were several valleys that I could explore for miles on the snowmobile; however, I’d need to try the higher elevations after a few days. Everything was so steep, I thought if I’d brought cross country skis, I could get some great skiing; of course with this knee that would just be another disaster waiting to happen. I set out a dozen Marten sets and went back to the cabin to warm up and rest.

When you are hurt in a frozen wilderness, no one knows of your situation, there will be no ambulance to rush you to the emergency room. You must use your own ingenuity to overcome your misfortune or give up and die a horrible death locked in the frozen arms of a nightmare. I was lucky, I’d missed having a terrible accident and only suffered a sore knee. The thought of being torn apart by the wolves like they were tearing apart the still kicking moose pair would be a horrible way to die, but at least it would be fairly quick. Laying there on the ice and letting the forty below claim your fingers and toes as the cold slowly but relentlessly works its way through your body while you shake and your teeth chatter until the hypothermia claims your life in a fit of delirium seemed a far worse way to die; especially, if you had lost your rifle and couldn’t expedite the inevitable and avoid the final agony.

I let the thrill of the chase and the exuberance of youth overwhelm my common sense;  I had cheated death by a slim margin once again. I had to stop relying on luck, if I was going to live to be an old man; yet, little did I know, my will to survive was yet to be tested.

I managed to get a dozen of the mature Pine Martens over the next two weeks, they were all large, there were no young animals. They had long given up breeding or else they were very efficient at eating the younger generations. Now that there was a dent in the population, perhaps younger Martens would have a chance to repopulate the area and produce a healthy population once again. I managed to get one Fisher, its partner was in the area, but seemed to be trap wise after losing his best friend to one of my traps. The wolves were out on the lake on a regular basis, so I tried an old trick that used to be used to bring in Grizzlies. I walked back in from the shore of the lake about a hundred feet and started a little fire, once the fire was fairly hot, I threw on a chunk of beaver carcass and a scrap bit of beaver fur to barbecue a few minutes. The beaver has a peculiar odor that the animals find fascinating; especially, when it has been seared over an open fire. I suppose humans in the city find the odor fascinating as well; since, the beaver castors are the essential ingredient for those expensive French perfumes. I cooked the pieces a few minutes and nailed them to two trees about six foot in the air. Animals would be coming from twenty miles away to check out my perfume; if the Frenchies could get their perfume to work this well, it would be priceless.

The next morning I had a fine timber wolf. Unfortunately, a lynx had been enticed by the bait, but once he saw the dead wolf he forgot about his curiosity and left. All things considered, I’d made a nice tidy profit for my effort; it could have been better, but I was handicapped by the knee. That night the wolves sang their sorrowful lament for their lost pack member. Normally, when you hear the odd wolf howl, it is much more melodic than the yipping cries of the coyote, but when a pack member dies or is killed, they actually sing to the night sky and all who will listen. It is not a chorus from a single location, but more like a succession of individual songs from a variety of locations. On this particular night, while sitting back in my bunk and having a small glass of whiskey to dull the pain in my knee, their singing seemed to convey an ominous warning. My communication skills with animals has been overrated, but I took this as a warning to be heeded, for the wolf is probably the most intelligent of all the animals in the mountains and they are probably trying to communicate; unfortunately, we don’t have the ability to comprehend their strange language of the mind. Unlike most people, I love to listen to the wolf and his song: tonight the song had a message of warning for me, of that I was sure.

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My grub was nearly gone and I had just enough gas for the ride over the ice to my truck in McKenzie. I decided to collect my traps and fur the next day, spend the evening skinning and stretching whatever was caught tomorrow and head home the next morning. I was anxious to head home; yet, I had just started to become comfortable with my new surroundings. This was a hard country, but a country a man could come to love in time.

I had caught another Marten the next day and gathered up all my traps and snares without incident. That night I prepared to secure the cabin until next winter and wondered whether Billy would ever make it out here again. He was a Hell’uva man, but he was in his eighties: he was one of a dying breed, that was for sure.

I had coffee and oatmeal at 4 AM and headed out into the 50 below morning. I kept the snowmobile idling at 20 mile an hour and listened to the ice wearing away the steel of the skis in front and the steel studs on the rubber track. The drop in temperature was causing the ice to groan and crack with loud noises that were happening all to frequently. Ice expands as it freezes and when the temperature drops quickly, I think the ice must expand even more, causing the bigger ice buckles or ridges on the lake. When I’d come to an ice ridge, I had to take it at a right angle or the skis would just slip off and the machine would be pushed away from the ridge. It was a delicate balance to go slow enough to avoid an accident, but fast enough to have the momentum to push the sled on over the ridge. The studs I had bolted into the belt were nearly worn away at this time and I was motoring along with no steering in front and no traction from the belt, it was a peculiar situation. The cracks and rumbles from the ice were becoming louder and longer and I could feel the ice shaking like an earthquake. I wanted to get off the ice, but I was in a section with steep canyon walls on each side of the lake.

One of my horse customers was from Norway, he was the CEO at one of the local lumber mills and had been raised on North Atlantic fishing boats. He said he considered the lake to be very safe, until he was caught in a storm in this same area and he thought he was going to the bottom that night.

There was an unusually large pressure ridge in front of me and I gave the machine a little gas to get some extra momentum. I crossed over the peak and started down and on the other side, into a nightmare. The ice was broken about six foot from the bottom of the ridge and was under rushing water, while the rest of the ice was slowly moving over the top of the ridge ice. I tried to gun the engine and jump to the solid ice, but it was a forlorn hope with the sleigh on the back and the steep angle of the ridge. The machine slammed into the sheet of ice and only the body of the machine stopped it from heading straight to the bottom. I crashed through the plastic windscreen like it wasn’t there and sprawled out on the ice in front of the machine, my upper body was on the ice and my legs and butt were in the water. I pulled myself out of the cold water, once I collected my thoughts and figured out what had happened. The front of the skis were bent down and locked under the ice. With the weight of the machine pointed straight down and the sleigh still hitched to the snow machine, there was no way I could save the machine, it was headed for the bottom, that was a foregone conclusion. I needed to get back across the rushing water and salvage my emergency gear or I might as well ride the machine to the bottom.

My lower clothes were already frozen, my feet felt warm inside my moccasins and rubber overshoes, but my long john cuffs and moccasin tops were frozen to my skin above the ankles. I jumped to the machine and grabbed the end of the seat, but the vinyl of the seat and my frozen Carhart trousers caused my legs to slip off the left side into the swirling waters and when I pulled my lower body from the ice, another layer of ice quickly formed over my legs. This layer of ice actually helped because it acted as an insulating layer and my legs felt warmer now, but it was getting harder to move by the minute. As fast as the water was freezing, I figured the temperature had to be close to 60 below now. I untied the ropes keeping my goods in the sleigh and started throwing everything off as fast as I could including about three gallons of gas in a plastic jug. It was slippery working on the sides of the sleigh and I knew I was in a desperate race against time.

The ice roared and sent three great jerks through the ice beneath my feet. I watched as my snow machine and sleigh slowly slid into the blue black water to glide to the bottom, nearly one hundred and fifty meters down. I loaded everything on my pack frame except my rifle and my ax, I carried the rifle and ax and headed to the Eastern bank or wall about a quarter mile away. There was no need in going all the way to the wall because there would be no wood for a fire. I was just waiting for the ice to freeze well enough for me to cross the pressure ridge without getting wet again. The cold was seeping through my body, I was getting weaker and disoriented; unless, I found a place to make camp and build a fire, I was going to die.

The ice was still groaning and moving, but I had to cross that little ridge if I was going to live through the night. I climbed up on the ridge and threw my pack across the ice to be lighter on the new ice. I walked out on the ice and it held. It was clear and easy enough to see that it wasn’t all that thick, but it was thick enough for me to make it across. I kept the canyon wall on my left and kept walking and angling towards the wall. If I didn’t see trees soon, it would all be for nothing; because I needed a fire, and I needed it soon. After walking through the short daylight of four hours, I was walking through the near darkness, before I noticed trees only a few yards off my left shoulder. I walked towards a big spruce and fell into the snow hole beneath the tree. There was an immediate illusion of warmth, the hole was about eight foot deep and about twelve feet wide. There were lots of dry branches for fuel, I just needed to get a fire going. I pulled off my mitts with great effort and opened a 35mm plastic film container. My mind wasn’t functioning properly, I had opened the matches before laying out the fire. I unloaded my pack and looked for a birch bark roll. Birch has an oil in the bark that makes it burn like it is semi-explosive. I scooped some snow out of the way and laid the birch bark on edge, so that it formed a circular pattern, then I broke off some of the lowest branches and started paring off thin pieces. They were going every which way and some were lost in the snow. With my stiff hands, I picked up many of the pieces and tried to place them so that they were leaning against the birch bark. I broke off a few more branches and piled them on and then made a nice little pile next to the fire. It was difficult to get a match burning, but the third one didn’t break and flamed up, I started the bark burning and felt a relief when it started burning and smoking. There was no heat yet, but seeing the fire in the dark gave me a warm feeling. I used the small stuff, until I had a nice blaze. Feeling more secure, I reached up and started breaking off one to two inch pieces and put them around the perimeter of the fire. I used the two tarps I had left and laid one beneath me. There was only tea and coffee left, and a couple of teaspoons of oatmeal. I put the coffee on and heated some water for the oats. At least there was plenty of water, even if it was in the form of snow.

The feet of my moccasins were dry and fairly warm, they had been protected from the water by the tight fitting rubber overshoes, but the socks and leather above my ankles were frozen solid and extremely painful against the skin of my lower leg. The cold was causing the spruce and pine trees to crack and split, they sounded like sporting rifles being fired all around me. That meant the temperature was close to 60 below. I had to plan carefully if I was going to survive the night. I pulled out the wolf pelt and split the hide length wise along the belly and wrapped the fur around my shoulders and back, then sat on the hind end. I slipped the some of the mature Marten furs over my hands and feet. I cut the Fisher pelt like the wolf hide and slipped it inside my flannel western shirt. My body was shivering so hard, I could hardly drink the coffee or eat the half bowl of oatmeal. The food gave me energy, but the cold was still trying to kill me. It was going to be a long night. My teeth were chattering so hard they were sore: I put a piece of wood in my mouth to soften the blow and to keep from biting my cheeks and tongue, but I quickly had it chewed to a slobbered mass of splinters. I drank two ounces of whiskey to help endure the pain of the cold, but the cold was already in my bones and I would be lucky not to slip into hypothermia during the night. I tried to think of holding beautiful women next to me under sheets and blankets, I tried to think of the beach in Southern Mexico and the sun warming my body; it worked for a while and then I’d wake up and need to throw more branches on the fire or I’d have a nightmare of sliding beneath the ice and sinking deeper and deeper into those cold dark watery depths. Needless to say, it was one of the longest nights I have ever been through. I awoke from a torturous sleep thinking that someone was looking at me. I am often right about these feelings, I looked around, but it was a million to one that another human was within 20 miles of my little camp. I stared through the foggy mist on the ice and saw a dark shape on the ice. It was too cold to be a Grizzly, it could be the wolves, a moose, or humans on snow machines. Maybe they smelled my fire and were curious. If it was humans, I’d hear them start their machines and fire my rifle, but it just might be an animal, I needed to eat if I was going to walk the 40 or 50 miles to McKenzie. I pulled my rifle up to the edge of the snow and peered through the gray mist and waited. In a minute or two, I made out two forms breathing out huge amounts of ice crystals. They weren’t humans, no human could breathe that heavily. Soon I saw a cow and calf moose.

I had to shoot the calf, what a tragedy, but the calf wouldn’t survive without the cow and half of the moose calves are eaten by the wolves during the winter anyway. I was shaking too much to touch the rifle with my body, I rested the stock in the snow and aimed through the scope and hoping it was still sighted in on target. With a painful effort I tried to squeeze the trigger correctly and the rifle took me by surprise when it fired. It was a poor shot, I am ashamed to admit the poor 500 pound calf was shot through the shoulders and fell to the ice in agony in front of its mother. The cow looked at the calf as if she couldn’t understand what had happened. I couldn’t fire a finishing shot because the cow was now standing behind the calf and pushing it with her muzzle trying to get it to stand and run. I stood and yelled at the cow, but she didn’t want to desert her calf. I crawled through the deep snow to the edge of the lake and the cow was still standing beside her stricken calf. This is the only time a cow moose is dangerous, while protecting her calf; I fired over her head from 30 yards away and she finally gave up her vigil. I finished the calf with another shot and started to field dress the calf while the cow watched from further out on the lake.

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This was a terrible situation, I have been a hunter all my life and have always tried to treat the animals as humanely as possible, it was dreadful, a situation that would have never happened if it was not a matter of survival under extreme conditions. I skinned the calf, took the hind quarters, the stomach, the heart, and the liver. I wrapped it all in the hide and dragged the heavy load to my fire. There wasn’t anything in the stomach that looked fit to eat, so I cleaned it out with snow and cut up the heart and liver into small chunks and packed them into the stomach and tied the entrance and exit shut to simulate a pressure cooker and put it on the fire. My cooking utensils were sitting on the bottom of the lake, waiting to be discovered by some archaeologist of the future. The stomach would do for at least one meal and it had an advantage over regular cook ware, in that you can take it with you and eat it along the trail.

My simple meal was done in about thirty minutes; although, time had lost all relevancy. There was 20 hours of darkness and four hours of daylight, those were my only references. I had lost my watch somewhere along the way.

The meal revived my strength, but I thought I should spend another night and have another meal of roast moose steak or two before attempting the 40 mile walk home, at least I was no longer disoriented and just as likely to head in the wrong direction. I made a bed from the moose hide by laying it skin side down. The hair was four or five inches long and stiffer than a boar’s bristly whiskers. The moose’s hair is hollow and provides superior insulating qualities for the moose and the odd trapper in a desperate situation. Right now, my new bed felt so warm and comfortable, I drifted off into the best sleep I’d had since leaving my home.

I awoke just as the sun was peaking over the eastern horizon. I knew that I was not alone. I took note of everything around me and heard noises out on the ice. I put my rifle in the same ice groove I used the morning before and looked through my scope into the gray. The wolves were making fast work of the calf carcass. They were done and cracking the leg bones open like chicken legs with just the slightest effort from their powerful jaws. One of them finished early and walked over to my trail through the snow. I swear it was the same one who looked at me just before I crashed my snowmobile. He sniffed the trail left by me and the moose hide and ventured up the trail a few strides before stopping to look directly at me. The hair stood up all over my body; it felt like he knew who I was, where I was, and what I was doing. From 25 yards away he stared at me for the longest time and then slowly backed up and trotted over to the rest of the pack and they were gone.

That was one of the strangest confrontations of my life. I swear he knew everything about me and what I had in my hands aimed right between his running lights. The temperature had warmed up to at least a tropical 40 below and it felt balmy. I made up my pack and loaded about ten pounds of prime moose roast. My meal had been so refreshing yesterday, I wasn’t hungry and didn’t want to waste daylight cooking a steak. I figured I could make 20 miles a day easily and be in McKenzie in two days without straining myself. I said goodbye to my little campsite that had revived me and hit the ice in high gear.

I made it to McKenzie the next afternoon and put a propane torch under my ford one ton with stove pipe directing the intense heat to my engine and batteries until they thawed enough to start the truck without effort. I drove home and tried not to think about my losses; instead, I thought about how fortunate I was to still be alive.

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Billy died in surgery while I was out on the trap line. He left the trap line to a nephew who couldn’t have trapped out there if his life depended on it; at least he was smart enough to sell it, but the guy who bought it never got up the nerve to try and trap it; after that I lost interest in the trap line. I was sure I didn’t really want to go back there in the winter. I hunted Grizzlies there in the fall for a couple of years; at night, I listened to the wolves and wondered if one of them was my buddy who was so close to me at least twice.

My ankles feel the cold before the rest of my body to this day and if I close my eyes, I can still feel those frozen moccasin tops tied around my ankles.

A few days later the skin on my ears, fingers, cheeks, toes, ankles, and nose turned white and peeled away. There was only a slim margin between survival and disaster.

Epilogue: This story is not meant to glorify my ability to survive difficult situations, for many trappers have survived in that country and tougher areas, and they still work these areas to this day. If anything, I failed to function well in that extreme environment. However, reaching deep inside and making an extra effort, when everything seems like a forlorn hope, will make the difference between success and failure.

Most of us will never be faced with extreme cold, but in all our lives, there will be enjoyment and contentment if we can just put forth that extra effort to hang in there, until good fortune swings our way. Then the little things in life will have so much more meaning; the sky will seem so much bluer, the water will taste so much better, and the grass will be so much greener. Thus the celebration of life will open doors for us as we continue life’s journey.

 

5 thoughts on “On The Margin of Survival

    • Welcome aboard, Lee, I will try to have a new story up every week or two. The Oregon Trail book is nearing completion and should be ready in a month or two.

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