The mighty moose, felled

moose

“Where still the mighty moose wanders at will” went the words of a song many of us learned in school. This photo is how I like to think of moose – not what they look like when they have been hunted down and killed. (Photo from the website of the Canadian Wildlife Federation)

So there I was, standing at the ATM in the front lobby of the Toronto-Dominion Bank in Madoc, beside a window that looks out onto the village’s main intersection. Vehicles coming from all directions meet, stop, and give each other priority at this busy four corners. Cars pausing at the four-way stop while travelling north may bear people heading home from jobs in Belleville. Vehicles travelling east and west may be taking people to and from those edges of town, or further afield to Tweed (to the east) or Marmora (to the west). Or they may be bound all the way to Ottawa or Toronto or beyond.

As for those coming through from the north, down Highway 62 from Bancroft or places much more northerly than that: often they are huge trucks carrying logs cut from the woodlands up there, travelling to the mills in the south where they will be turned into lumber and/or paper products. Those trucks always remind me that not very far away from us here in the Queensborough area are vast swathes of Canada’s natural resources. In the summertime, meanwhile, you see cars and trucks pulling boat trailers, or with kayaks or bikes on the roof racks – cottagers and adventurers returning to the city from vacations on the lakes and rivers of the near north.

At this time of year, though, you see something else. You see the hunters returning with their trophies.

That is what caught my eye when I glanced out the window for a split-second while waiting for the ATM transaction to finish. There was a big pickup truck pulling a big trailer – nothing unusual so far. Then I saw something huge, pointy and broad. It registered: antlers, probably more than a yard across. And what was that massive rounded mound sticking so far above the side of the trailer? It was the size of my entire upper body. It was, of course, the muzzle of a moose. A gigantic moose. As the truck turned the corner to carry on southward, I could see the moose’s long legs tied together, also sticking up into the air.

My first reaction was shock at the sheer size of the beast. I’ve had few experiences with moose; there was a smallish one crossing the highway once in front of a car I was in (mercifully not travelling very fast); and after that, maybe a couple of stuffed ones in natural-history museums. But even that limited experience told me that the dead one I’d just seen was not your average moose. This was truly the “mighty moose” of that old Canadian folk song we learned in school. In the song, of course, the mighty moose, used as a symbol of the essence of Canada’s wildlands, “wanders at will.” Not this moose. Not any more. Never again.

My sadness about that is the more lasting reaction I’m having to the surprise sighting of the moose though the bank window. The sadness is sticking to me, so much so that I find myself writing about it quite a few days after the fact of spotting the moose’s carcass.

Hunting ad in the local paper

Ads like this in the local paper used to catch me by surprise. Not any more.

We live in an area where hunting season is huge. I have been away from the city long enough now that I am no longer surprised, or even taken aback, when our weekly newspapers have full-front-page ads for guns and other hunting gear come October and November. Or when the parking lots of local restaurants are a sea of trucks and trailers hauling rugged ATVs – groups of hunters stopping for a meal before heading into the bush. I have finally learned not to expect men to be available for social events or anything else in the weeks when deer hunting is open. I understand, and have written about, the camaraderie of the hunting camp. I totally get that hunting is extremely important for this area’s economy. I get it that it takes skill, endurance and hard work to be a good hunter, and that many, probably most, hunters have a deep respect for the animals that are their quarry. I know that they love the woodlands and the wilds that are so important to Canada, and that a lot of them work to protect those wild places.

All those things I know in my head.

But in my heart is this: a sadness that will not go away over the sight of that moose, that magnificent beast, killed and trussed up and being hauled south. And for what? Food? Maybe; maybe. A set of antlers on a wall? Probably. Is that really worth the death of such a magnificent – yes, mighty – creature, a symbol of our country?

Like I said, I get the hunting thing, that there are reasons for hunting to be allowed, that it’s important to many people (many of whom are my friends), for many reasons. All of that.

But I have a very hard time believing that anyone or anything in this world is better off because of the killing of that mighty moose. I mourn for him. And I think I always will.

A-hunting they have gone

Hunting flyer

This is how you know that deer-hunting season is almost upon us. Or at least, this is how I know. The hunters are well aware without having to be reminded by the Canadian Tire flyer!

Remember that old nursery rhyme from your childhood, A-Hunting We Will Go? Well, a-hunting is exactly what a large proportion of the male population (and a few members of the female population too) in our neck of the woods are currently engaged in. Which is why you won’t see all that many men around for the next couple of weeks; they’re in hunting camps in various corners of the back of beyond, shivering in the cold, tracking deer, and generally enjoying the camaraderie and having a whale of a time. It’s not my idea of a good time; in fact it’s pretty much the extreme opposite of my idea of a good time. But it’s a highlight of the year for many people, and I am pretty sure that the camaraderie part is much more the reason for that than the actual hunting part.

You know hunting season is approaching when the flyers for Canadian Tire and similar stores feature spreads like the one in the photo atop this post. Guns, ammunition, camouflage and bright orange jackets and caps – all the stuff a person needs to go hang out in the bush and try to nab some game. On the weekend before the season starts – which would be this weekend just past – the streets of the local towns, Madoc and Tweed, are practically jammed with heavy pickup trucks hauling trailers bearing one or more all-terrain vehicles; those ATVs are what the intrepid hunters use to get to their particular corner of the back of beyond. (When I was talking to my mum the other day about the hunting-camp tradition in the Queensborough area, she cast her mind back to the days when our family lived here in the Manse and recalled how the air would be filled with the sound of tractors rumbling out of town as groups of men headed for the hunt camp. Tractors and wagons are indeed how people used to cross the rugged terrain to get to their camps, but the invention of ATVs has made it moderately easier.)

Also bustling in town on the weekend before the season starts are the grocery stores, where the designated camp cooks are loading up on supplies, and the Beer Store and the LCBO. Hunting can be thirsty work! (As can camaraderie.)

Now, humour me for a moment while I show you this YouTube video for kids featuring the above-mentioned nursery rhyme. Don’t bother watching more than 30 seconds or so of it; I wouldn’t. But I wanted you to see a bit of it because of the funny contrast between the cartoon hunters and the pastoral landscape in which they’re hunting, and the real thing here in the wilds of Hastings County. Okay, here we go for half a minute or so:

Now I want to show you some photos of what the hunting experience really looks like when you’re in the rocky wilderness of the Canadian Shield:

Camp at the Hayrake photos 1

Scenes featuring the local group that for many years has hunted at “The Camp at the Hayrake,” as a book about their adventures (by my friend Grant Ketcheson) is called. What do you think – does it look like fun?

Kind of a stark difference, isn’t it? The area where those photos were taken is an amazingly lonely, barren and forbidding section of central Hastings County immediately north of Elzevir Township, where Queensborough is located. It is called Grimsthorpe Township, and if you think that’s an ominous-sounding name, well – the place lives up to it. Grimsthorpe Township pretty much defines Canadian wilderness. There are no settlements and no permanent inhabitants (as far as I know – aside from the wildlife, notably the mosquitoes and blackflies, that is). When the hardy 19th-century surveyors who helped open up the Ontario backwoods to settlement and farming tried to survey Grimsthorpe, they gave up, deafeated by the terrain and the bugs. It is, as my friend Grant Ketcheson aptly puts it in his book The Camp at the Hayrake, The Land God Gave to Cain.

Which of course makes it perfect for a hunting camp!

And that is what the Camp at the Hayrake is; and in his book (which is available here) Grant lovingly tells the history of that camp, which he and his group have been going to every late fall for many decades. The book is a delightful collection of history, humour, reminiscences, light-hearted poems, photos – and sketches of the leading characters (and they are characters) by Lloyd Holmes. Even as someone who will never ever go hunting, I enjoyed the book thoroughly. (Of course, it helps that I know, or remember, many of the main players in it.)

Here is one more set of photos from The Camp at the Hayrake that I think gives a sense once again of the ruggedness of hunting-camp life, but also that camaraderie that I’ve been speaking about:

Camp at the Hayrake photos 2

From The Camp at the Hayrake, by Grant Ketcheson

I thought I’d leave you with one of Grant’s entertaining poems from the book, which nicely captures the adventure, the fun and the bonding that this group of hunters, and many others like them in our part of the world, experience as they go back to their cherished pieces of wilderness year after year. Take it away, Grant!

The Heroes of the Hayrake

The heroes of the hayrake are known throughout the land
As men whose woodland skills are nothing short of grand.
These gallant guys in Grimsthorpe are mighty men and tall,
They shoot a buck of twelve points or they don’t shoot at all.

They never shave the whiskers from off their thorny hide
They just pound them in with a hammer and bite them off inside.
They eat their meals a’running as through the woods they go.
The weather bothers not these men, rain or sleet or snow.

When they shoot a giant buck, one with a mighty rack,
They go right on a’hunting with it slung across their back.
Meals are taken on the run, they never stop to sleep,
And when they’re done with deer they pile partridge in a heap.

So if you meet a Hayrake Man in that northern land,
Say you’re pleased to meet him, go shake him by the hand.
Then you can tell a story your children sure will keep
Of how you knew the giants from the hayrake by the creek.

– Grant Ketcheson

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad that I know many of the giants, past and present, from the Camp at the Hayrake. And you know what else I’m glad about? That it’s them, not me, who have to spend two weeks in the freezing wilderness stalking those deer.