Shades of red are splashed like blood across the woods: scarlet bearberry leaves by my freezing toes, a sprinkling of rosehips and rusty fireweed fronds among the trees. Even the mountaintops blush in the sunrise that’s doing nothing to warm me - yet. The drawn-out call of a loon drifts in from another lake, a reminder to listen. Listen for a moose, because that’s why Sam and I are here.
Ghostly tendrils of mist rise into the chilly air where the creek comes in. I burrow deeper into my jacket, already cold although there wasn’t even any frost this morning. It’s just the usual moose hunt, a slow battle against encroaching hypothermia surrounded by unearthly beauty.
I can hear Sam inhale deeply, then pause for a second before the imitation of an amorous moose cow issues from his lungs. The longing call fills up the valley and echoes faintly off the mountains before it is absorbed by trees, the moist earth and calm water. Silence settles as if everything is straining to hear now. Sam calls again and is just about to sit down when there is a sharp crack on the other shore. Two ravens begin croaking, then a stone rattles and something cracks again.
My glance sweeps over the opposite mountainside, the familiar rock slide and dark spruces, the glowing patch of poplars and orange cottonwoods, automatically searching for a shape that’s out of place, that’s not a tree and not a rock. Nothing. One of the ravens cackles, then there’s quiet.
I sigh and wiggle my toes in a vain attempt to restore something close to normal body temperature to them. Maybe if I brought a hot water bottle and put my feet - what’s that? Down by the creek, a dark thing in the yellow-greenish willows, two long shapes on its head? “Sam!” I whisper. He stops scanning the other shore and raises his eyebrows. “Moose,” I say and point my chin towards the willows. Another sharp crack comes from where the ravens are.
The cow in the willows hears it too. She stands still, her ears rotate between our location and that of the mysterious cracker. The mist reaches for her belly, turning her into a calendar picture against the backdrop of yellow and rusty leaves. I forget about my numb feet. If there’s a bull on the other side, surely the appearance of the cow will draw him out?
Please come, I urge silently. We’re down to two-year old cans of meat and a disgusting inbred turkey that came for free last year at the supermarket with an equally disgusting grocery bill.
But all is quiet. The cow lowers her head and slowly splashes through the water towards the creek, her long nose dipping into the mist, ears twitching this way and that. Suddenly she stops, whirls around and runs for cover into the willows.
What, what? Sam and I crane our necks, frantically searching for whatever it is that spooked her. Nothing. The cow stops and looks back the way moose do, ponders her next course of action and then determinedly walks back into the woods. I frown, feeling stupid as I often do when I realize how little of my environment I actually notice, as compared to animals. I look over at Sam but he’s just as puzzled.
“Bear?” he mouths and nods to the opposite shore. I shrug and fight the sinking feeling that the highlight of this hunt has passed. Now it’s back to my cold feet and waiting for the sunshine to slide down the mountains and spill a bit of precious warmth. The ravens croak again and fly off, their wings swishing loudly in the quiet of the valley.
“Maybe it was the ravens? Fiddling with something by the rock slide and making the noise,” I suggest. We’re forever trying to piece together what made which sound why, since visual clues to what’s going on in the woods aren’t always plentiful.
“Hm.” Sam looks doubtful. “Maybe.” He gets up and calls again. I strain to hear more cracks, a grunt, anything. Instead, a beaver slaps his tail. Ever so slowly, the low mist over the water dissipates and finally, sunshine washes over me like a benediction. As we sit and wait, the sun seeps through my boots and pants, its warmth hungrily soaked up by my skin. The crimson and orange leaves glow with new fierceness, a blood-red sprinkling that did not turn out to be an omen for a successful hunt this time.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.