A brief tale of squandered opportunity and a chance for redemption
WE HEARD HIM FIRST, the rythmic unkh, unkh, drifting eerily through the morning fog. Closer he came and louder, and suddenly he was on us, wraithlike in the drifting mist, coming straight at us. Nearer now, he solidified, the brush he’d tangled in his antlers jiggling with every purposeful step. To avoid detection, we melted into the side of a large boulder, but he really wasn’t paying attention to us, anyhow. It was September, and he had The Urge.
My son flipped the foam cover off of his rifle scope and kneeled in readiness. The bull was close enough that we could see the dew beaded on his brown hide. The set-up was perfect: legal, close, morning, and not far from camp. What more could my son ask for on his first moose?
“Chris, you better let him go. He’s in full rut, and he’ll taste like crud. We’d best find something more edible,” I whispered.
“I somewhere read that while Luck may be blind, she is not invisible.”
Chris lowered his rifle and darted me with an unbelieving stare. “He’s right here! It’s an easy shot.” I again shook my head, knowing every time we cut into those hams, we’d regret pulling that trigger.
The moose swaggered past us at 80 feet and off into the rest of his life. I looked at Chris’s mom, Crystal, suddenly wondering if I’d made a poor decision. Even at age nine, Chris was pretty tough, but I could see a few tears of frustration squirting out no matter how hard he tried not to show his disappointment.
At the time we lived in a remote trapping camp on the north side of the Alaska Range. We had spent the previous several days spiked out hunting for our winter meat. Our only supplies flew in with us in September and the rest we caught or shot. And what we shot had better be reasonably tasty. A mid-September moose with brush in his antlers and grunting every few steps is a very long way from tasty. All that said, I still felt like a pretty crappy parent right about then. I needed to remember this wasn’t just about dinner. I needed to remember my first moose. I needed to remember what it was like to be nine.
Dejected, we discussed our next move. Crystal and I were kicking ourselves for passing on such an easy opportunity and really questioning our fitness as parents. How could we have squashed such an important moment for our son? Chris didn’t feel much better. I proposed to stay and hunt more, but Chris’s spirit was so low he just wanted to go back to the main camp. We packed up our 4-wheel-drive Coot and began the long five-hour ride towards home. The fog had lifted and we motored down the trail, our progress slow and lurching.
Suddenly, off to our right burst a flutter of wings, and a grey body rose into the top of a nearby tree. Spruce hen! Chris jumped down, grabbed the .22 and quickly dispatched the bird. He fetched the grouse and delivered it to us with an excited smile. When you’re nine, it doesn’t have to be something big.
With the bird cleaned, we again set off homeward. The trail wound through a pleasant mix of spruce and small cottonwood. Our mood slowly improved. After all, it was mid-September in interior Alaska. How bad can that really be on a sunny day?
The trail broke out into open tundra. Crystal suddenly cried out, “Stop, stop. Look!” Over the nearby mountain ridge swirled a mob of caribou, flowing down towards the valley floor.
“Chris, there’s a nice bull in the bunch,” I exclaimed. “Grab your rifle and let’s go!”
While Crystal secured our two dogs, Chris and I hotfooted it up to a bluff overlooking the milling herd. The bull was easy to spot, but it would be a long shot. Chris had proven a decent shot with his 7mm08 at 100 yards, but this was almost three times farther.
“About 275,” I whispered.
Chris lay prone over my backpack. “I can’t see,” came his strained reply. A small piece of tundra blocked his shot. I scrunched up my packsack and placed my binoculars on top. “Try that,” I said.
Chris locked into a steady position, exhaled, and pressed the trigger. The wham of the ignition, followed by a meaty thud signaled success, and the bull collapsed on the autumn carpet.
Off the bluff we raced. Approaching the fallen animal, I don’t know which of us was more excited, probably Chris, but you can bet I was the most relieved! When we parents blow an opportunity, it’s rare that another one strolls down off the mountain so soon. When Crystal pulled up, her tears splashed a mother’s story of pride, and perhaps a bit of sadness for the magnificent creature below.
I somewhere read that while Luck may be blind, but she is not invisible. Once squandered, the Lady’s offering may not come again and you had better be ready if it does. I let one opportunity slip by. I’m just glad I was given another chance.
Eric M. Beeman is a lifelong Alaskan who began hunting as a child and has spent many years in remote areas of the state. He lives with his wife in Kachemak Bay