Man vs. Moose
Ragnar Jonsson was a 20th century mountain man. For decades he lived alone on the lakes and river at the border of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories.
His home territory centered on Nueltin Lake, straddling both provinces.
Shawn Gurke, the second generation owner/operator of Nueltin Lake Lodge, is a Ragnar Jonsson scholar. The mantle at his spacious lodge is a shrine to the legendary woodsman. Guests are treated to Shawn’s history lessons and visits to the corrugated sheet metal tepees Jonsson constructed on hidden bays and promontories of the lake.
But another of Nueltin’s well-known residents held the interest of North American Hunter’s television team. Moose! These moose hadn’t been hunted by non-natives in recollection.
The invitation came on Shawn and wife Mandy’s decision to add moose and caribou hunting to the season-end of their world-renowned fishing operation. This was no small undertaking – Nueltin is a remote, fly-in only lodge within an hour’s boat ride of Nunavut (the former Northwest Territories). Hunting season rolls around in September, and hunters can often be at the mercy of the good graces of the weather gods.
Nueltin Lake Lodge has the exclusive territory around the lake – before it offered hunts in 2006, non-residents couldn’t hunt there. For Manitoba residents, there are lots of easier-to-reach, less-expensive places to hunt moose. So for decades, the moose were unhunted … until Shawn’s invitation.
We arrived at Nueltin after overnighting in Winnipeg. Flights are chartered by the lodge exclusively for its guests. We came equipped for a week’s hunting on the edge of winter. Instead, temps during our hunt would go above 80 degrees (27 degrees Celsius).
At the lodge, departing guests told stories of great herds of caribou and backed them up with heavily antlered skulls lining the dock. None of the departing hunters pursued moose, but they willingly pointed out spots on the map on the lodge wall where they spotted huge bulls totally undisturbed by the passing of their boats.
Our confidence swelled. The most recent sighting was that very morning – a couple had been fishing near the lodge as they waited for the plane with Ronny Thomas, who was to be our native guide, and spotted a great bull preoccupied with a cow. When they left, the bull stayed on a very stalkable point, guarding the cow.
With that kind of encouragement, it’s amazing how quickly you can unpack, organize gear, down some lunch, check a rifle’s zero and find your way down to the boat dock. What ensued, however, were seven days of the toughest moose hunting to be found anywhere.
That “easy” bull and his cow retreated into the timber by the time we reached the point, and the cover was so dense following the trail that any hope of “sneaking up on them” was pointless. We moved on to explore other areas.
For the next couple of days, running a tiny portion of the thousands of bays, islands and rivers on Nueltin Lake, we caught glimpses of moose—even great bulls—but only very early and very late in the day.
Working The Night Shift
Frustration prompted a new plan. Even though the weather was hot and dry, the rut was on. Calling should work, but it was a long shot to move the animals during daylight. The best bet was calling at night! This was an exciting new option we’d never considered.
Ronny and our second guide Mark Mayert knew where an esker wound for more than a mile down a long peninsula. We could motor in from the lake side and set up spike camp on shore. We’d hike over the esker to overlook a large old burn that was just beyond the long, narrow entrance to another huge bay. From this vantage point Ronny would call to lure a bull to the shore of the narrow channel, or perhaps even to our side.
That sounded normal enough, but the twist in Ronny’s plan was to get up every hour during the night, go to the overlook and call. We’d all get up before sunrise to be in position at daylight in case dawn revealed a lovesick bull on the beach! And we’d be there at lunchtime, too, in case he showed up. And we’d still be there at sunset in case Romeo came looking for love in the evening.
It sounded like a great plan … and it had to be if it was to convince most Neultin guests to go. In addition to great fishing and hunting, Neultin Lodge is known for incredibly comfortable and modern cabins, wireless Internet at the lodge and gourmet meals.
At the esker, we’d sleep in tents on air mattresses. We’d cook fish and potatoes over a spruce log fire and make our own coffee. Lunch would be a can of Klik (Canadian Spam), crackers and cheese. The only communication outside of our own small group would be hearing the howl of wolves and the wail of loons. Intent on moose and memories, I couldn’t get to the boat fast enough!
For the choice of “roughing it” we were rewarded beyond our dreams. No, not with the arrival of a bull moose, but the two nights in spike camp provided the most spectacular displays of aurora borealis (northern lights) I’ve ever seen. The green dancing lights engulfed the sky – they were beyond description, almost beyond imagination. Yet from the hunting end of things, two solid days and nights produced no results—not a single grunting response to the call.
It was time for another plan. If sitting still wasn’t working, then perhaps the ticket was to cover as much ground as possible. After a night back at the lodge, Ronny met us at the dock at sunrise with the boat loaded with an extra fuel tank. Going only by his incredible knowledge of the huge, treacherous lake, we headed out again, this time to look for moose in as many places as we could reach in a long day’s hunt.
On one visit to a remote back bay, Ronny signaled us to join him in the timber a short distance up from the beach. It was there that we saw our first Ragnar tepee. The structure was basically poles wrapped with corrugated sheet steel. The height was no taller than ten feet, and it was maybe eight feet across the base. A crude stovepipe extended from the top and nearby lay the remains of a stove built from a barrel. I’m not sure if I was more amazed by the structure itself or the fact that Jonsson lived in these tepees with only the company of a dog through the long, dark Northern winters—year after year! Ronny told us that even his ancestors generally spent the winters in villages outside the wilderness.
With the sun low in the sky we decided to try calling again … this time on a large flat above yet another huge bay. But this one was different … this was Ragnar’s Bay. One of Ragnar’s many abandoned camps and caches marked the entrance.
We beached the boat and hiked up a steep ridge. At the top the terrain flattened so that we could see a half-mile across ponds, muskegs and tundra. The sun was in our eyes as we glassed the flat, but by turning around we could also look a half-mile across the bay to the far shoreline where the willows were already shining gold in the late afternoon sun. The wind was up, but in our favor by blowing our scent out to the lake.
Ronny called aggressively. This was our second-to-last night of hunting, so he pulled out all the stops. Grabbing large limbs, we smashed and raked them against stunted spruce. Nothing moved. I worked the 10X Nikons until I thought my eyes were coming through the lenses, but no antler tips, no dark horizontal lines, no light underbelly gave away a bull ... until we glanced back across the bay.
There, lit like a painting was a great bull feeding on the far shore like he’d been there a week. We were separated by a half-mile of water and a 5-acre island about two-thirds of the way across, yet there was no way to get to the boat and the island without him seeing and smelling us! We hoped mightily he’d come to the shoreline because he’d heard the call and that he was interested enough to swim the bay. With the sun dropping, time wasn’t on our side. Ronny continued to call, and I smashed the brush. After each session, I raised the binoculars hoping to see the bull in the water. Instead he fed, then bedded, like he didn’t even hear us! I started to believe Ragnar’s ghost was having a last laugh at our expense.
The Race Is On
Then an unexpected sound reached our ears. A boat was coming from deeper in Ragnar’s Bay. We had no idea, but Nueltin hunter and former NHL hockey player Darryl Stanley and his guide William Nambiennare had decided to hunt Ragnar’s Bay that same day. They were on their way out trying to beat darkness back to camp. The island hid their approach from the bull by the island, nor did they know the moose was there.
Ronny realized what was going on and sprinted to the shore to signal the boat. We gathered the packs and camera as quickly as we could and followed. The boat was beached, but still running when we arrived. We hopped in and they ferried us out to the island where we hit the shore like a WWII landing party. We jumped into knee-deep water and broke to the right to use the island to shield our approach.
I led the way with my cameraman right behind me. At first glimpse of the moose through the shoreline brush, I popped out the rangefinder … 300- plus. We needed to get closer. We snuck along, staying in the water as much as possible to silence our steps; then a game trail cut the shoreline, so we used it. The moose was visible again through the trees and now he was starting to sense something wasn’t right.
I ranged the distance again—293 yards this time! Farther than I wanted, but it would have to do. The shooting sticks sank slightly into the mud but held as I plopped down on my butt. Darryl came up to my left, and I asked him to back me up—we wanted this bull down as close to the lake and with as much camera light left as we could get.
I settled the crosshairs behind the shoulder. The hammer came back on the T/C Encore Pro Hunter. When the .338 Federal went off, the reaction was about what you’d expect if the bull was bitten by a fly! He slowly walked to our right. I loaded a fresh cartridge, but now excitement grabbed me! The next shot sprayed water short of the moose. At that, I yelled, “Shoot!” and Darryl opened up with his .300 Win. Mag. The bull tottered, and I fired again. He turned back and started up the tiny beach. Finally, just as he was about to enter the timber, he fell from sight.
A shout of joy went up from our small group in the gathering darkness in Ragnar’s Bay. We went back to the boat and quickly crossed from the island to find our trophy 50 yards from where we’d spotted him. He was done.
The first shot had hit him right where it was supposed to. Given time, it would have been final, but as for so many fatally hit moose it took time for the message to reach all points of his massive body.
It might be easy to say the rest was anticlimactic, but we gathered the best photos and footage that we could, gutted him out and were back in the boats well after o’dark-thirty. The wide-open, two-hour boat ride back to the lodge by starlight was an adventure in itself. Ronny was never scared, but his two passengers didn’t always share his confidence.
With the biggest boat at the dock, Ronny planned to start back to Ragnar’s Bay at first light. We were to fly out in the Beaver with a crew from camp about two hours later. We should all arrive at the moose at about the same time to disassemble and load the massive critter.
The next morning dawned foggy with a low ceiling. Ronny left as scheduled, but we couldn’t fly until after lunch. By the time we arrived, Ronny had most of the work done. When the last bag of meat was loaded in the boat, I looked out to the mouth of Ragnar’s Bay. A crease of blue in the otherwise cloudy sky assured me of what I suspected. The old loner had surely smiled on us.