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On the same day I shot a moose. Just after landing in Ptarmigan Valley we spotted an antler reflecting sunlight from the dense foliage at the base of the north mountains. An hour later we were on the high, south bank of Happy River, a fast glacial stream which separates the tundra from the slopes. Through the spotting scope the single antler we could see looked good. But the country it was in didn't.
"Not worth it," Dennis said, "unless we get a better look at the whole head."
"Let's call him," I suggested, and pulled out another of my strange collection of calls. Dennis found himself a couple of sticks, and the two of us crouched behind a bush, banging on the sticks, bugling on the horn and periodically grunting and groaning like sick cows. The scene was so ludicrous that half the time we were laughing too hard to control our moose music. But whatever it sounded like must have reminded the old bull of something, because finally he pulled himself to a standing position and gave us a perfect view of both antlers. Immediately we started in on Boone and Crockett mathematics again.
"Good one," Dennis said, and I said, "Let's go."
We crossed the Happy River, then fought through a stretch of alders and cottonwoods, waded another river—invariably every river I crossed in Alaska was two inches over my hip boots—and finally came out at the base of the mountains. We didn't expect the kind of country we found.
The brush, which in our glasses had looked two and three feet high, was anywhere from five to 11 feet, all of it grown into a tangled wall. The slope was only reasonably steep, but visibility was zero. We had a rough idea of where the moose should be but were forced to zigzag to make any progress. Several times we came upon patches of grass, but these, like the brush, grew over a maze of dead and broken limbs.
"We probably stirred him up with all that calling," Dennis whispered. "So don't be surprised if he comes barging out on top of us. They can be mean when they want to be."
Suddenly the dense thicket broke abruptly onto another grass patch. Immediately there was a snort and a loud breaking of brush. Dennis yelled, "Here he is," and I flung up my rifle and fired. Everything happened in a matter of seconds, but I remember the form of a huge brown animal, the heavy sound of his hoofs and a tremendous thrashing of brush as he disappeared into the thicket.
The shot was a mistake. We had not been charged, as I had thought in the moment of Dennis' shout. We had stumbled unexpectedly almost on top of the moose, and in his surprise the animal ran for the nearest escape. But my firing had been reflex, triggered by the tension of the stalk, and the shot was poorly and hastily aimed. Though we searched the area for the next several hours, there was nothing to indicate that the moose had been hurt. When finally we had to abandon the search or not make it back to the plane before dark, I left with the terrible feeling that I had wounded an animal and failed to recover it.
There was still a little daylight left when we got to the plane, so to put my mind at ease Dennis flew over the area and circled it low. About a mile from where we had hunted I spotted another flash of light down in the thicket. It was too much to hope that this was the same moose. I pressed my face against the glass for a better view. It was my moose. He was lying down in the side of a brushy culvert and across his back was a dark stain. It didn't make me feel any better to think of him suffering through the night.