Sample Stories



SturgeonLanding

Charlie Budd

(from the book “Sidetracks by Gary Oberg)

My good friend Quint and I had been hunting for a couple weeks, but so far, we didn’t have a thing for all our efforts. 

However, we still had some time left in the season. Determined, we decided to try our luck at Sturgeon Landing, Saskatchewan, over the Thanksgiving weekend in late November 1968. It would give us a chance to hunt on snow, which is always a tremendous advantage when hunting moose.

Sturgeon Landing is an Indian settlement not far from the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border. It perches on the northeast corner of the very large Namew Lake and isn’t exactly the easiest place to get to. 

A long paved highway eventually becomes a rugged logging road. Driving a four-door Ford on that road was no mean feat. The wheel ruts were deep enough to bury a coyote. Few travel that road, which was a good thing because if we ever did come across another vehicle, one of us would have inevitably ended up stuck. Fortunately, the remoteness of the area was nearly complete. It took us two hours to travel 20 miles on that road, hoping and praying that it was the right road, before we finally arrived at Sturgeon Landing.

Sturgeons, as locals fondly referred to it, had a population of 150 Indians, and Ken, the Caucasian. Ken was a blue-eyed, fair-haired, fast-talking guy. He stood about five-foot-ten and was lean. Ken had the complete village under his financial control—a fact that he boasted on.

“I own the general store, and I’m the outfitter, grocer, post master, and banker,” Ken told us proudly. “Government checks come in on the postal-service plane on the third Wednesday of every month. I usually get to keep every one of ‘em because I advance credit against them.”

About the only thing he didn’t control was the police, but the native people had that covered.

“A couple of years ago,” Ken told us, “one Indian boy shot and killed another Indian boy. When the Canadian Mounties came and investigated, they asked a lot of questions but only got a lot of silence. After being stonewalled for a couple days, they gave it up and went back home.”

I guess what goes on in Sturgeons, stays in Sturgeons.

We arranged for a guide on this trip, who turned out to be something of a character. 

Charlie Budd showed up that first morning looking like he’d been beaten with the ugly-stick. Someone had kicked him in the face the night before. Apparently, prohibition didn’t work any better in Sturgeons in 1968 than it had in Chicago in 1928. The locals just made their own hooch, which was a concoction that our guide described as “wicked.” Anyone with eyes could see that Charlie Budd was a man suffering deeply from both a beating and a hangover.

First thing in the morning, after Quint and I got a good, solid sleep, this Charlie guy shows up looking like a carcass. Quint and I just rolled with it—what else could we do?

“Mornin’, I’m Charlie,” he said.

“I’m Quint, this is Gary.” We all shook hands.

We soon learned that Charlie was a man of very few words. “Ken told me you need a guide to get a moose.”

“Yes, are you our guide?” I asked.

“Yeah. Let’s go.” And that was that.

Charlie managed to get us into the woods and set up on a couple of mounds of sawdust, and then he took off, not to be seen until high noon. I suspected he might have been trying to sleep off some of last night’s hooch. We didn’t see any game on the trail that morning at all. When Charlie staggered back to us around lunchtime, all he brought for our lunch was a can of Spam, dry bread, and black tea. Apparently this was a no-frills kind of place.

The key to hunting big game like elk, deer, and moose, is to hunt during the rut, when the animals are sexually active. The females go into estrus, which in turn gets the males pretty rutty. In Minnesota, where I’ve lived my whole life, the rut is usually around November first. The peak of the first rut lasts about a week. Conservationists are well-tuned to rutting times of various species. They want to tightly control animal populations by adjusting the hunting seasons according to the rutting seasons. 

During the rut, the males make scrapes with their feet and rub with their antlers against trees and such to let other males know they’ve been in the area, but it’s not because they’re territorial. It’s more like a teenager tagging a train; they just want to put their mark on things. Most males of most species will go on the prowl, looking for a cute girl they can call their own, but they’re generally looking for a good time, not a long time. One exception to this is the bull elk. Once a bull elk has aligned itself with a herd of cows he’ll stay with them for life. 

There are several ways to attract bulls of any species. For bull elk, I’ve found that the most effective call is to imitate a cow elk; sometimes referred to as a chirp call. I don’t generally use a bull elk bugle because it can scare off any satellite bull elk you may want to shoot. 

For bull moose, I have found that the most effective draw is to use a voice cow-call through a funnel-shaped megaphone that’s about one or two feet long. Bull moose have extremely sensitive hearing because their antlers act as sound amplifiers. Once when I was in Alaska, my guide used a cow call, and it took a full 20 minutes for a bull moose with a 56-inch rack to find us—he was that far away.

Another effective draw for big game is to pour water out of a bucket from a height of about four feet, which simulates a cow peeing. Also, you can beat a canoe paddle against branches to simulate a moose moving through bush. If you’re after moose, it helps to know that they don’t have the best eyesight, so you can wave a couple of pail lids in the air to simulate horn movement. 

Now, no one has ever accused me of being overly intuitive, but both Quint and I sensed that Charlie just wasn’t that into the hunting. It might have been that he spent more time looking at his shoes than the trees, or it could have been that for much of that day he was probably sleeping it off. A lack of enthusiasm about hunting is generally not a quality one looks for in a hunting guide. 

Quint, deciding that Charlie just needed a little motivation, said to him, “Charlie, I’ll tell you what…” Charlie’s chin came off his chest and he squinted at Quint with his one good eye. “If anyone—I mean me, Gary, or even you—bags a moose today, I’m gonna give you a twenty-five-dollar bonus.”

Twenty-five bucks in 1968 was a lot of money. Charlie’s one good eye bulged, and he treated us to a smile that exposed an incomplete set of very yellow teeth. “Sounds good!” he said, and immediately dove into his pack and came out with another can of Spam. 

Quint cocked his head to the side, as in, What now?

Charlie snapped the key off the can and started bending it into a shell-ejecting device. Evidently, he'd broken the ejection pin on his gun and this was Charlie’s fix. It worked well enough but meant that he only had a single-shot rifle. Not so good for moose hunting. He abruptly stood up, which must have hurt, judging by the pain on his swollen face, grabbed his rifle and pack, and took off like a man possessed. That was the last we saw of Charlie until supper. 

After our Spam-and-bread lunch, I was having a lot of thoughts about a nice, hot supper. I conjured up all kinds of pictures in my mind about roasted, dripping meats; colorful, steaming vegetables; and freshly baked bread. Yum! By the time we got back to the village, my stomach was growling like a wolf at a bear. Quint and I sat down in the cookhouse, and as we were waiting for our dinner, I looked out the window and noticed a worker carrying a big ring of bologna across the yard. A small pack of mongrel dogs stalked him, all yipping, licking, and nipping at the sausage he was trailing. I thought to myself, Hmm… And sure enough, a half-hour later, that very same dog-licked bologna turned up on my plate.

The cuisine went downhill from there. The next morning, I found a runny egg on a piece of white bread. I grew up on a farm and learned to despise runny eggs from a young age. I hate ‘em more than a head cold. Runny yolks and snotty whites. My inner culinary-critic gave it four black holes.

Charlie Budd joined us for what passed as breakfast that morning. I noticed that his appetite, unlike mine, was just fine. Ken the Caucasian joined us as well, and he had a piece of information that proved valuable. 

“The mail plane was in this morning,” he said. “I got talking with the pilot and told him that we had a couple of moose hunters staying with us.”

“Oh yeah?” I said, wondering where he was going with this.

“Yeah, he told me that he spotted some moose on his flight in this morning,” he said.

“No kidding! Where?” I asked, excited.

“He says they’re on the other side of the lake,” he replied. 

Charlie looked up from his plate with one-and-a-half eyes, his scraggly beard catching some of the yolk dripping off his fork, “Where?” he repeated, wanting more detail.

“On the southwest end of the southwest peninsula, close to the narrows,” said Ken. 

Charlie frowned and slowly shook his head. I asked, “That sounds great, so why the long face, Charlie?”

“Can’t get there by land from here. Don’t think the ice is thick enough to cross,” he said. 

“How far away is it?” I asked.

“’Bout 10 miles as the crow flies,” he said.

“And if we hiked around?” I asked. 

“’Bout 20-25 miles. But it’s mostly heavy bush and snow. We couldn’t do it in a day, that’s for sure,” he said. “It’s better if we keep trying around here.”

I deferred to his expertise and conceded the point. We finished up our small meal and headed out for day two of hunting around Namew Lake, but like the week before, we saw no moose and precious little sign. The weekend was closing, and we wanted our moose! That night both Quint and I spoke to Charlie about crossing the lake to where they’d been sighted. We wore him down until he reluctantly agreed. We’d leave before dawn to have a look at the ice.

The next morning, dark and early, Charlie picked us up with a snowmobile and an attached sled, and we all headed for Namew Lake. Temperatures had been below freezing for quite a while, so the lake was covered in ice and snow. Charlie drove the snowmobile out about 300 feet, stopped and dismounted. Wordlessly, he rummaged in his pack and came up with a hatchet, which he used to make a hole in the ice. It turned out to be six inches thick: plenty strong enough for a snowmobile and a sled. Charlie grunted approval, so we all piled back onto the snowmobile with the sled in tow.

On a lake that’s so big you can’t see the other side, snow doesn’t usually fall and settle like a blanket. Rather, it blows across the ice and forms large drifts. It piles up in some areas and leaves bald ice in others. 

Exposed, clear ice looks a lot like open water. Furthermore, there are things called pressure ridges. There are two kinds of pressure ridges: overlapped and folded. The overlapped pressure ridges are relatively easy to spot because when one large sheet of ice pushes against another, one will overlap the other, leaving a pile of broken ice lined up down the length of the overlap. Folded ridges are harder to see. They form when the two masses of ice buckle instead of overlap. They’re harder to spot because there is no pile of ice, only a bit of a hump or a dip, and the ice around them is thin, making them quite deadly. They can look a lot like a snow drift or an innocent bald spot when you’re boogying along on a snowmobile in the dark, early dawn. Driving over one of those, or finding a thin spot on the lake, would make for a seriously bad day at best, and at worst, well….

“There!” I would shout and point to a shiny spot ahead of us. Charlie would slow the vehicle down, and we’d cautiously approach the spot. Is it a ridge? Is it a soft spot? Or, is it just bare ice six inches thick? 

“Bald spot,” Charlie would declare, and we’d move on until the next one. 

“There!” shouted Quint, pointing to a jagged line on the horizon, caught in our headlights. Again, Charlie slowed down and carefully approached.

“Pressure ridge,” he said, and turned us parallel to it at a distance he judged safe. That sucker was between six and 10 feet wide! We had to follow it for half a mile before we could safely get across. I was glad we spotted it before it ate us whole. 

At daybreak, we finally reached the peninsula. Surely the moose would still be there. Surely. We started with the assumption that there were moose on the narrow peninsula, which was about two-miles long and only 300-600 yards wide. The game plan was to drive the moose toward the end of the peninsula. Quint would position himself about half-way down. Charlie and I would start at the base and move toward the point, hopefully causing the moose to also move toward the point. Then, Quint could either block or shoot the moose.

After hunting for the better part of the day, I finally spotted just the leg of a moose through the thick timber but had no clear shot at the vitals. A few minutes later I heard a shot from Charlie’s gun. Less than a minute after that, or just long enough for the Spam key to work, I heard a second shot. I headed over to where I heard the sound to see what we had. Sure enough, there was Charlie standing at the head of the huge beast, grinning wide, giving us a great view of those dentals! 

“Good one!” I shouted.

“Yup. He’s a big one,” said Charlie, pride clear on his face. “Recon he’s gotta be ‘bout 900 pounds.” 

Not long later, Quint appeared and we all congratulated ourselves on filling a tag and getting our prize. Then we got down to the business of gutting and preparing the carcass for travel. 

“We’ll come back for it in the morning,” said Charlie.

“What are you talking about?” asked Quint. “We have to get it back to the village tonight.”

Charlie looked at the sky, “No, it’s going to be dark soon. We can’t drag the sled through the bush to load the whole carcass, so we got to bring it out in pieces. There’s not enough time to make all those trips to the sled.”

 Quint insisted. “I don’t want to leave it out overnight for the wolves and scavengers. Besides, we need to leave tomorrow. In the morning, we won’t have time to come back over the lake, load it up, get back across the lake again, and then drive all the way back to Rochester in time for work. No. We have to do this now.”

“Be midnight before we get it all loaded. Then we still got to get over the lake,” said Charlie.

“We don’t have to butcher it all here. We’ll just finish the gutting and use the snowmobile to drag the whole carcass back to the sled,” said Quint. 

Charlie’s good eye rounded and even the still-swollen one looked sceptical, “You think the snowmobile can haul the whole thing through the bush?”

“Sure,” said Quint, “if the three of us help it along and we get a move-on. What do you think, Gary?”

I looked at the huge animal lying on the ground and had my doubts, but Quint was right. We were on a deadline. “Well, we can sure try,” I said.

“Okay,” said Charlie, dubiously shaking his head. He went back to the work of cleaning the moose’s innards. To my surprise, he laid his rain coat down on the snow beside the moose and then scooped most of the guts into it. He collected absolutely everything except for the large stomach: the “bum gut.” 

I found some coagulated blood on the frozen ground and helpfully kicked it in his direction, “You want that too?” I asked.

He grunted, “Nope.” I grinned. He rolled up his goodie bag and said, “Let’s go.”

“Okay. Quint, you want to stay here with the moose while we get the snowmobile?” I asked.

“Will do,” he said. 

Charley and I hiked back to the lake where we’d left the snowmobile. He unhooked the sled and we drove just the machine back to Quint and the moose. 

Back in the ’60s, they built snowmobiles quite simply. This one had a short track with several bogie wheels (the small wheels the tracks roll on). It probably had a small, 15-horsepower Kohler. It was heavy, though. Carbon fiber wasn’t the material of choice on those machines yet. Still, considering the rough terrain, it did a marvelous job. 

When we got back to the moose, we secured it by the nose to the rear hitch with a short piece of rope and off we went. We dragged the carcass through troughs and over boulders, around trees and over stumps. Several times we got bogged down in the brush or had to navigate a fallen tree, we even lost a few of the bogie wheels, but we made it back to the lake just as night was falling. It took all three of us on the front end of the moose to grunt it up onto the edge of the sled, and then all three of us on the back end to slide it all the way in. I was gasping for air by the time we had it loaded. Each breath hit the cold air and turned thick white. Ice formed around my nostrils, and my lungs burned. With no time to waste, Charlie got on the snowmobile, while Quint and I climbed on top of the moose for a nice, warm seat home.

If the trip over was scary, the trip back was terrifying. There was no moon and the night was absolute, save the thin light from our headlight. We still had to contend with the snow drifts. Bald ice spots still fooled us. We still knew there was a man-eating overlap pressure ridge out there somewhere—at least one that we knew of for certain. Only now, we were hauling the extra weight of a 900-pound moose. 

My imagination can be a beautiful or terrible thing. That night, it was terrible. I could just see us going down with the rig. I could hear my good friend Quint crying out in the night, the whine of the tracks underwater as they lost traction. Then, the loss of sound and light as we all sank to the bottom of the black lake. The water would freeze above us, and our bodies would be entombed, never to be found. Truly, I died a thousand times out there on the lake, in the dark. When we finally spotted the glittering light of the village about three miles away, I felt the first twitch of hope. Three excruciating miles later, we pulled into the village, riding high atop our kill. 

I did not realize that getting a moose in that village was going to be such a big deal. Charlie was like the football captain after an end-of-season win. We must have resembled Santa Claus. People descended on us like children after presents. 

“Can I take the liver?”

“Can I have the heart?”

“Can we have the ribs?”

“I will make a good stew with that kidney.”

We were lucky to get away with as much meat as we did. Still, we had a full load on top of the car carrier, and more in the trunk.

That night, we had one last meal of dog-licked bologna with Charlie. Quint said, “Well Charlie, I had my doubts about you when you showed up with that shiner and a hangover, but you came through for us.”

“Yup. Got the job done,” said Charlie, grinning that crooked-tooth grin.

“I know I told you I’d give you a bonus if you helped us bag a moose a couple days ago, but I guess today is close enough,” he said, pulling out his wallet and extracting the bills. 

One last time, Charlie treated us to his appalling dental hygiene as he took the money. I shook his hand and thanked him. Then, after the meal, Quint and I walked over to see Ken the Caucasian and settle our bill. In conversation, we mentioned that we tipped Charlie 25 bucks.

“That’s good,” said Ken. I thought he was glad for Charlie’s sake, but then he added, “It’ll end up in my cash register before the end of the day.” He smiled large.

Sure enough, not 10 minutes later, one of Charlie’s kids came into the store and bought a Coleman lantern. I was just glad it didn’t go to any more of that wicked hooch. 

The road out was just as pitted and grooved as it was on the way in, only now we had the added weight of the moose and the clearance was nearly nil. We had a careful, bumpy ride back to the world of pavement and double lines, but it was filled with a lot of newly minted, fond memories. It was interesting to see such a vastly different culture, and how white men had changed it: for better and for worse. Still, the remoteness of the area and its associated challenges made us decide to stay a little closer to home next time.

###


Ode to Duct Tape

(from the book “Sidetracks by Gary Oberg)

Duct tape is not only an essential tool for plumbers, tailors, pilots, mechanics, and romantics everywhere—it’s essential for fishermen and hunters too. The silver bond is more critical than bullets and possibly more critical than toilet paper. It’s a must-pack item for every outdoorsman. I am constantly amazed at its versatility and usefulness. I was on a trip with a friend once who had to tape half his snowmobile together. He’s often said, “We’re not havin’ fun if we’re not wrecking s**t!” Now, we call him Duct Tape Dale. I have another friend who gave his girl a bouquet of wildflowers with the stems all duct taped together. He declared to her, “If you can’t find me handsome, at least you can find me handy!” If only I held the patent.

In previous years, when hunting in the Wenasaga Lake area, we sometimes brought along a 14-foot aluminum Crestliner boat and a 25-horsepower Evenrude engine in addition to two or three smaller canoes, each with their own smaller engines. It was great to have the bigger boat and engine because it allowed us to cover more ground during the peak moose-spotting times. However, hauling the aluminum and big outboard made the trip onerous instead of just challenging, especially if we were carrying a lot of meat back out. To take some of the weight, we sometimes hired a plane to carry some of our cargo between Wenesaga Lake and the Chute. In 1980, Quint, Tom, me, and my friend Jim, decided we’d portage the aluminum and outboard, two canoes, and all our gear both ways, but we would hire a plane to haul out any meat.

We made our way up the Wenasaga River, portaging around waterfalls and rapids. At that age, I was strong enough to carry the engine on my own. I tucked a pad between the engine and my shoulder and hauled it all the way. Twice, the cowling of the engine fell off, exposing the guts. I had to set the engine down and put the wayward lid back on. We probably should have just duct taped the thing down. Why not? I was using duct tape to keep a tackle box closed. I’d used it to create a makeshift strap for a bag, and I had it wrapped around my lower pant legs to keep the mosquitos from feeding on my legs, per my old uncle Sven’s recipe.

Finally, we made it to the Chute and set up camp.

Jim was gung-ho about getting out hunting, so once we had everything stowed, he said, “Why don’t Tom and I take the boat and check out Whitemud Lake?”

Tom replied, “Great idea! The shores of Whitemud look very ‘moosey’ today.”

They threw a bunch of gear into the boat and headed for the lake. Jim steered from the back of the boat, sitting just to the left of the engine, while Tom sat further forward and just to the right, to keep the boat balanced. Generally, everyone took turns sitting in front, since it’s the best shooting position.

The sky was deep blue, the wind was calm, and the water was glassy. Jim and Tom couldn’t carry a conversation over the drone of the engine during the long ride to the lake, but even in silence, it’s hard to carry a conversation over the beauty of the place.

As soon as the narrow waterways opened to the vastness of the lake, Jim shouted, “Let’s open ‘er up! I want to cover some ground!”

Tom nodded to Jim and made a show of holding on. Jim opened the throttle, causing the engine to dig into the water, and the bow of the boat to point high. After a moment the boat leveled off and they were skimming along the lake’s surface. It was exhilarating: wind in the hair, the boat flying along the water. It was one of those perfect moments, the kind that makes your chest expand right along with your spirit. Tom pointed toward a tall tree with three eagles perched high, and Jim steered a little closer to see them. And that’s when it happened.

Tom was joyfully soaking in the magnificence of the birds, the beauty of the day, and the thrill of the ride when suddenly he was brained from behind and thrown forward into the bow of the little boat. At first, he thought Jim must have hit him in the head, but why would he go and do that?

“Jim! What the—?” he said. Fortunately, his head happened to be as hard as brass, so the braining merely rang his bell. He shook it off and rearranged his limbs back into a sitting position. Once he got himself up, he realized that it couldn’t have been Jim who cracked him in the skull. The boat had come to a standstill, and Jim was sprawled out mid-ship, trying to disentangle himself from several bags of gear. He was looking up at Tom with a bewildered expression.

“What happened?” asked Jim.

“What are you asking me for? You were driving!” said Tom. He reached a hand out to help Jim into a sitting position on the bench that ran across the middle of the boat. Jim took it gratefully and sat, wincing, gently touching his right rib cage. “Are you okay?” asked Tom.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” said Jim with a grimace. “I might have bruised a couple ribs, though.”

“What hit me?” asked Tom, rubbing the back of his head.

Jim reached across him and picked up the motor’s cowling. “This.”

“Uh…?” said Tom, “How did the cowling hit me in the head?” It was a really big cowling, and not exactly light.

“We must have hit a rock that was deep enough for the boat to pass over, but not the skeg of the engine. We were motoring along when the engine kicked, and the cowling flew off and hit your head. I got thrown forward.” Jim added, “Are you okay?”

Tom felt the quickly rising lump on the back of his noggin and said wryly, “Ya. It was just my head. I don’t use it much anyway.”

Jim smiled and said, “Pass me the lid.” Tom handed the cowling over and Jim placed it atop the exposed engine, noting the broken latch that would have secured it there. “I wonder if this thing’ll start?”

He checked that the engine could still move from side-to-side, adjusted the throttle to half-way, and gave a pull on the starter cord.

Blrrrm— It turned over but never caught. Jim, however, lit up with pain. Groaning, he sat down on the bench, holding his ribs.

“Here, let me try,” said Tom. He moved to the back of the boat and got a good grip on the cord then gave a mighty pull.

Blrrrm—

Muttering under his breath, Tom gave another three pulls in quick succession.

Blrrrm— Blrrrm— Blrrrm—

Breathing hard with the effort, Tom said, “Not good,” and sat down. The two men looked at each other and then at the vast wilderness around them. What had been a pleasant journey by boat would be a long paddle back.

One of the eagles issued its sweet, high call.

“Maybe it’s just overheated,” said Jim. “Let’s give it a minute and try again.”

Tom nodded and rubbed the back of his head. It was starting to throb all over. They were drifting along the shore. At that lazy pace, it was easy to see the rocks lurking just below the surface. It was disturbing; like walking through a lovely meadow on a blue-sky day, only to realize you’re strolling through an overgrown cemetery. Tom shivered and said, “I’m going to try it again.”

Blrrrm— Blrrrm— Blrrrm—

“Is the key on?” asked Jim.

“Yup,” said Tom.

“Is there fuel in the line?”

Tom squeezed the fuel ball and found it hard, “Yup.”

“Are we losing any fuel out the back?” asked Jim.

Tom looked over the back of the boat for the telltale rainbow-sheen of fuel on water, “Nope.”

“Is the choke in?”

“Aha!” said Tom, “The choke is out. It must have been knocked when we hit.” He pushed the knob back into the engine. It popped right back out. “Well…” He pushed it in, it popped back out. “Pass me the duct tape.”

Jim rummaged around in a bag for a time. “Hah!” he cried as he pulled the silver ring from the bag and passed it to Tom.

Tom taped the choke in the off position and stood up to face the engine again. Rubbing the lump on his head, he decided to duct tape the cowling down, too. Then, he took hold of the starter rope, sent up a little prayer, and pulled for all he was worth.

VrrrOOOOMM!

Both guys let out a WHOOP of joy and relief.

Tom said, “Okay! Let’s just hope that it keeps running all the way back. I’ll steer. Can you get up to the bow and guide us around the rocks until we’re clear?”

“Will do.” Jim moved forward, guiding them away from the watery cemetery.

Tom headed back to the river much more slowly than they came. Once they made the right-hand turn back into the Wenasaga River, they had to work their way back upstream to the Chute. Every time the engine made any change in sound, they’d hold their breath for a moment. The closer they got to the Chute, the more tension drained from them, but it was still a worrisome ride back.

 

They finally beached the boat, and Quint and I went down to greet them. “How’d it go?” I asked, hoping to hear they’d at least found fresh sign of moose.

“Well,” Jim and Tom looked at each other and then told us the story. I moved to have a look at the engine.

“Wow,” said Quint, “I’m glad you made it back safe. You got lucky today!”

“Don’t we know it?” said Jim.

“Actually, I think you got luckier than you realize,” I called from my place behind the boat. “Check it out.”

The other three came to look at the engine where I was pointing. “See the crack?” There was a crack in the front of the motor’s skag, leaking a little bit of oil.

“There’s not much oil leaking now because there’s not much left to leak. It’s practically drained,” I said.

Tom said, “If that crack was just a little bigger and lost oil any faster…”

Jim added, “Or if we had gone much further along the lake…”

I finished the thought, “The lower unit would have completely seized, and you’d have been paddling back.”

Later that evening, around the fire, we talked about what to do with the engine.

“I say we bring it back to Ear Falls and get someone to repair it,” said Jim.

Tom nodded, “It’s only our first day out. We have a week to go. It would be a shame if we had to do it without a boat.”

I understood where he was coming from. That year, the Ministry had moved the season back a week, to avoid the rut, so the moose were not responding to calls. We’d need every advantage we could get if we wanted a successful hunt.

“Someone would lose a day of hunting,” said Jim.

“Yeah, but we’re so much more restricted without it. Our chances of bagging a moose are way lower,” said Quint. “I want to hunt, but I also want to kill a moose.”

Then Tom said, “I wonder if we could just patch it with duct tape?”

I thought about that. “You know, we probably could.”

“Yeah, we could clean the oil off the paint and put a few wraps around the leg. I’ll bet that would hold just fine until we get it back to Minnesota,” said Quint.

“And it very well could,” I said, “but we run a greater risk of losing oil, and I didn’t bring much extra.”

We all fell silent for a few moments and watched the fire spit sparks into the night sky.

“You know, Quint,” I said. “I have a friend who hit a rock with his brand new 60-horsepower Johnson on his first day out. He was fishing on the Lake of the Woods and was in way too deep to get it out easily. He did just what you said—he wrapped it up with duct tape and carried on like nothing ever happened. He ran it for a week.”

Quint nodded and said, “Didn’t you tell me about a time you fixed the actual boat with duct tape?”

I remembered the incident and smiled, “Yeah. A friend’s StarCraft aluminum boat on Leech Lake. It developed a three-foot stress crack just under the splash rail. We did the same thing you just suggested. We cleaned and dried the area, then ran about three layers of duct tape on both sides of the hull. Fished for a week after that with no problems.”

Jim, who was likely still shaken from the day’s near-miss, said, “Yeah, but I think it’s a bit risky to rely on just duct tape when a welder is available in Ear Falls. Two guys would lose a day’s hunting, but the other two can keep at it here.”

We pondered that as sparks from the fire disguised themselves as stars.

“What do you think, Gary?” asked Jim.

“Well,” I said, “I think you’re right. I prefer calculated risks, and this isn’t a risk we need to take. Two of us should take it back to Ear Falls in the morning and see what can be done.”

“I’ll go,” said Quint.

“Okay, that’s decided. Quint and I will take it back to Ear Falls tomorrow and see if we can find a welder,” I said. “Jim and Tom, you stay here to hold down the fort and see if you can shoot a local moose.”

The next morning, well before the sun came up, Quint and I put the damaged 25-horsepower into the aluminum boat, attached one of the smaller motors we used for the canoes, and made our way downstream. We portaged around all the necessary spots and tied up to the landing, but we still had to haul the heavy engine about 10 miles to get to the nearest mechanic with welding capabilities. It was just after noon by the time we got there.

The mechanic was about five-foot, eight-inches, and must have weighed about 350 pounds. He had a large, round nose with the telltale blue veins of a hard drinker, and long, thinning hair. “Howdy,” he said. He pulled a rag out of his back pocket, wiped his hand, and thrust it toward us. “Bill.”

We shook, then explained the problem. As Bill listened to us talk, he slowly walked around the engine like a sculptor might walk around a raw mass of marble that was waiting to be fashioned into a masterpiece. He leaned over and peered at the crack. He rubbed his finger into it, and then rubbed the oil between his thumb and forefinger. Then suddenly, he stood up and said, “Nope.”

I blinked. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, it can’t be welded,” said Bill.

“Sure it can,” said Quint, “it’s metal isn’t it?”

Bill looked sidelong at Quint and said, “Yyyes, it’s metal, but welding would just make a mess of it. I don’t think it would hold, and it would look terrible.” Then he added, “You can just wrap it with some duct tape for now and look for replacement parts when you get home.” Quint and I laughed. Bill looked confused.

“I say something funny?” he asked.

“I’m not too worried about how it’s going to look,” I said. “All I want is for the crack to be sealed. You can try welding the edges together, or you can weld a patch over it, whatever. Just plug the hole,” I said.

I once watched a guy weld two aluminum pop cans together, so I was pretty sure that Bill, despite his artistic sensibilities, could manage to close a crack in this aluminum engine.

Bill looked skeptical and started his circling again. Almost to himself, he muttered, “Maybe…”

“I just want to get it fixed so I can get back to my moose,” said Quint. “My moose is waiting for me somewhere on the shore of Ogani Lake, and I need a boat to get to him.”

This made Bill chuckle and he said, “Well, I guess I could give it a try.”

“There’s the fighting spirit!” said Quint, clapping Bill on the back.

“Leave it with me,” said Bill. “There’s a coffee shop a few blocks that way,” he gestured with his chin. “Ask for the Megaburger, it’s good.”

We did as ordered. Bill was right, the meal was excellent. We gave him an hour and then paid for our food. When we got back to the shop, we found that Bill had done a fine, albeit not artistic, job of welding the break. We thanked him, paid him, and motored the boat back to camp. It was dark when we finally got there, but not that late.

 

The next morning, it was Quint’s and my turn to take the boat to Whitemud. The sky was dark, and the morning stars were still twinkling when I got into the stern and gave Quint the bow. There was a thin line of light just skimming the treed horizon. I thought I might have detected the faint smell of impending winter, but it was still some distance away. The day had promise.

But promises get broken.

Just downstream from camp there was a tricky bend in the river. It was clearly shallow in several places, and the water rushed over boulders near the surface. It wasn’t somewhere we would typically portage, but it was a place to slow down and use caution, which is exactly what I did. So, I was going quite slowly when I nailed that big rock.

“Oh—COME on!” I said, exasperated, as the boat bobbed its way through the rest of the bend—sans horsepower. I tilted the engine so the leg and prop were out of harm’s way. Quint grabbed the oars and guided us to calmer water. It wasn’t long before we cleared the tricky spot and were able to inspect for damage.

“Well?” asked Quint as I ran my hand down the front aspect of the leg, feeling for breaks. Aside from the ugly weld of yesterday, and some chipped paint, it seemed okay.

“Looks okay to me,” I reported.

“How about the prop?” asked Quint.

I inspected the propeller for chips, dings, or bends, but I saw no damage.

“I think we dodged a bullet,” I said, with no small amount of relief. I felt elated all over again. This was still going to be a good day. The river widened, and I said to Quint, “Hold on!” and cracked open the throttle. It was very responsive and in seconds, I had it up on step, skimming along the glassy green water. I was so relieved that the engine hadn’t been damaged. It felt so good—the wind in the hair, the fresh air.

Then came the grind-crunch-grind-groan-sput-sput-sputter and sudden death of the engine. We had only made it about 300 yards from camp.  

“Bullet—direct hit,” said Quint, pessimistically, realistically.

“Hm—” I tipped the engine up and inspected the lower unit. I could tell the gear unit was frozen solid. Shot. I groaned my displeasure.

“Well?” asked Quint.

“The gears are toast,” I said. “We’re rowing back.”

Quint put his back into the task of rowing upstream the 500 yards back to camp. We beached it, and there it sat for the rest of the hunting trip. In fact, it would be the last time we ever brought the Crestliner or that engine to the Wenasaga. It was a good thing we still had two canoes with us. It meant limiting our range, but as it turned out, there were enough local moose to satisfy everyone.

 

In fact, we limited out before the plane was due to arrive, so we mostly hung around camp the last couple days. It was around noon on the second-to-last day, when three Canadians passed right by our camp, portaging over the Chute on their way to Ogani Lake.

“Afternoon,” one said.

“Hi there!” I replied.

We made our introductions all around, “I’m Gary, this is Quint, Jim, and that’s Tom.”

“I’m Dave, this is Trevor, and that’s Rob,” said Dave.

“Would you like a coffee? We’ve got some black tea if you prefer,” I said.

“Yeah, thanks! I’ll take a coffee,” said Dave.

The three men left their aluminum boat tied to a tree with the gear sitting nearby on the beach—they were halfway through their portage.

Trevor, sitting on a log, noticed our meat pole; it was hard to miss. “Wow, that’s quite the pile there. You get all that just around here or did you have to go further away?”

Quint said, “We got them all within canoeing range. We brought the 25-horse,” he nodded at the dead outboard on the back of my Crestliner, “but we killed that before we killed any moose. It forced us to stay a bit closer to home.”

“Well,” said Trevor, “we haven’t seen a single moose in the three days we’ve been out here.” Dave and Rob nodded confirmation. “It’s like they know we’re comin’ or something.”

“Yeah!” said Rob, “Where are they?”

Tom, who was sitting quietly nearby, listening to all this, nonchalantly said, “There’s one now.” He nodded across the bay to where a moose was strolling out of the woods, not 400 yards away.

“Wha—?” All three Canucks turned in the direction Tom nodded. They watched, open-mouthed, as the bull moose casually decided that would be a good place to lie down. He bent his front legs and went down on his knees, then his hind end soon followed and he settled in, just as pleased as could be. Once he was hunkered in like that, we could barely make out his antlers above the tall, brown grass.

Then, all three Canadians dropped their cups, jumped to their feet, and started running for the boat.

“Thanks for the coffee!” shouted Dave.

“Grab the gear!” shouted Rob.

“Get the line! Get the line!” shouted Trevor.

Dave started throwing all their gear into the aluminum boat, bashing and smashing it all. Trevor was trying to get the boat launched and had thrown the wooden oars against the hull with a bang, then he started shouting, “I can’t get this $%&* knot undone Dave! How many times do I have to tell you? Use a bowline!”

By this time, Rob had jumped into the boat and had the engine down. He pulled on the starter cord and the engine went, VROOOOM! “Let’s GO, Let’s GO!” he shouted.

Meanwhile, Quint, Tom, Jim, and I watched all the commotion with mild amusement. They couldn’t have made more noise if they were a city.

Tom quietly said, “This is like watching Larry, Curly, and Moe.”

“Yup,” Quint agreed. Jim and I nodded, fascinated by the show the three were putting on. “Guess we know why they haven’t seen any moose in three days.”

Rob was on the engine, Trevor was in the middle getting his gun ready, and Dave pushed them off and jumped into the bow.

Just then, two more moose emerged from the treeline. Rutting season had just ended, so the bulls were back to being buddies again instead of mortal enemies. The two newcomers were even bigger than the first one. In fact, the second moose could very well have been a record-setter.

“LOOK!” yelled Dave, and the two others stopped what they were doing. It was like passing through the eye of a storm: it got very quiet and still for a moment.

An eagle circled high above.

Then Rob screamed, “GO! GO! GO!” and the commotion began anew. Could they have been Canadian city dwellers on their first hunt?

The biggest bull startled. He turned and walked back in the woods, sensing bad news on the way. His buddy was hot behind, and in a flash the two huge animals had simply vanished, like some magical woodland creatures.

Rob had his gun trained on the woods, but there was nothing to shoot—until the first moose decided it was time to get out of Dodge. It rose awkwardly on its long legs, but no sooner did it have its feet, then Rob blasted it back down.

“Well I’ll be…” said Tom. “He got it.” He shook his head in wonder.

“Let’s go have a look,” said Jim.

We motored across the bay in our two canoes. The antlers had a 49-inch spread, which confirmed that the bigger one that got away would have been one for the record books. No one from our hunting party could believe that those three could possibly have bagged a moose, much less a big one like that.

Note to self: sometimes hunting is a skill, sometimes it’s just plain, dumb luck.

 

At the end of the week, a floatplane touched down on the smooth lake, leaving a long V behind as it skated over the water and then taxied to the dock. The pilot, a woman in her 40s, said hello and looked at all that we’d amassed on the dock, including the 14-foot Crestliner and the 25-horsepower engine.

“Gee, is that all?” she asked sarcastically.

Tom gave her a sharp look, smiled, and said, “At least we left the piano behind.” Must be a pilot thing.

Laughing, I explained to her that the engine was kaput, “Do you think we can get you to fly the boat and engine out along with the meat?”

“How many pounds of meat do you have?” she asked. I told her. Then she said, “Get on the other end of this,” indicating that I should pick up the bow of the boat while she picked up the stern. I did as instructed. “Hm…” she muttered as she estimated the weight and then we set the boat back down. “And this,” she nodded to the engine. Again, we picked up the engine and she estimated the weight. Then she took a notebook and pencil from her pocket and did some calculations. We were all holding our breath as she scribbled.

“Yup. But I can’t take a passenger.”

I let my breath out with relief and said, “That’s no problem. We can take the canoes and meet you in Ear Falls. Can we help you load this?”

“Absolutely,” she said.

We loaded the boat on the pontoon and then secured it tighter than Fat Man and Little Boy. She had straps and ropes everywhere, then—she grabbed a roll of duct tape just for good measure.  

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