By Jim Zumbo
I’d been applying for a Wyoming moose permit for years and finally hit the jackpot.
“Kill every one of those sons a bitches,” said the rancher who invited me to hunt his place. Moose ate his cattle feed and damaged his fences. Then he told me he’d seen the biggest moose of his life a couple days prior and pointed to a huge willow bottom where he saw it.
That brought me to attention. He was a fourth-generation Wyomingite and grew up on the ranch. He’d seen hundreds of moose in his lifetime and, unless he was a bullshit artist, would know a monster bull when he saw it.
I had five days to hunt until the season ended. My plan was to pass on every bull I saw for the first four days. I was looking for the big boy. If I didn’t find him I’d shoot any moose on the last day. My tag allowed me to shoot a bull or cow, and I wanted the meat, as I think it’s better than the finest cut of beef.
On the evening of day four my tag was still unpunched.
With 10 minutes of shooting light left on day five I called it quits. Temps were dropping quickly as the sun slowly sank over the western horizon. The forecast called for 20 below that night.
As I turned to leave I was astounded to see a big cow moose 100 yards away, busily chewing willow leaves. Decision time.
My brain processed the next steps to take if I pulled the trigger. Assuming I put her down quickly I’d have a few minutes of light to begin the field dressing chore. I’d be finishing in the dark and I was already shivering.
Then too, where the fuck was my pickup? I hadn’t been paying attention as I snuck around in the willow swamps. There was no GPS, no hunting app, to guide me in those days. It was all dead reckoning. I had a compass, but my flashlight was dead.
I had no more time to waste pondering the unknowns. Screw it. There was a cow within easy range. A gift.
I sent a bullet into her chest, and she collapsed where she stood. I immediately started toward her, but instead of bypassing a small frozen beaver pond between us I ran across it.
Bad move. I was almost across when the ice gave way. My right leg plunged into the water up to my thigh.
Fuck me. I was in big trouble. Now it was a race to get the cow gutted and find my truck. I knew my Wranglers would be frozen stiff in moments. Why I wore those damned cotton trousers I’ll never know; I had perfectly fine woolen garments at home.
I gutted the moose in record time, tossing out the innards as I slashed with the blade. My hands were warm from her blood as I worked inside her body, but I felt my wet pant leg freezing. It was a lousy gutting job but I knew she’d be almost frozen solid by morning. When I finished I tried to lope along on my good leg. The other was encased in ice. I had to drag it. I was in big fucking trouble.
Where was my truck? After staggering into the willows the moon peeked out from a cloud and I saw a glint of reflected light. Could that be my windshield? It was. Thank God.
I hobbled as fast as I could and was able to force myself through the snow but collapsed 20 feet from the truck. My lungs were on fire and my body was numb. My hands were useless; my legs hardly worked. As I laid there in the snow to rest I knew I was experiencing the onset of hypothermia. I had to move. I started crawling but had to stop every few feet. I was exhausted and for a moment I fought the urge to close my eyes and doze.
I was shivering violently and knew I’d die right there if I fell asleep. I crawled more, willing every cell in my body to forge ahead. Finally I was at the truck door. I needed a huge surge of energy to simply raise myself up and grab the door handle. I mustered all the strength I had and reached it but lost my grip. I collapsed down to the ground. I summoned images of my family and realized I’d never see them again if I didn’t open the door.
I was successful on the next try and swung the door out and somehow grabbed the steering wheel. The next chore, which was monumental, was to turn the key in the ignition. I was halfway in the truck and reached for the key but my frozen hands wouldn’t cooperate. Worse, my truck had a manual transmission with a stick shift on the floor. I had to move the stick into neutral with my right hand and depress the clutch with my left, then turn the key after letting go of the stick.
I was able to get my fingers on the key and just had to twist it in the ignition. Only I couldn’t. I tried again. I gritted my teeth, cussed and prayed and completed the twist. The engine started. It was the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard.
The heater was in the on position and blasted cold air until the engine warmed. I lay there in the truck allowing my upper torso to warm. Then I crawled across the seat, grabbed the passenger door handle for leverage and continued until I was in the fetal position with my feet and frozen pant leg receiving some heat.
Finally, finally, my body began to thaw. I closed the truck door and felt the wonderful sensation of my fingers and toes regaining feeling.
Normally I’d have returned to my camp trailer for the night, but I said fuck that and checked into a motel. I immersed myself in a hot tub and laid there until I almost felt normal. I reflected on the outcome of the ordeal and thought happy thoughts. I had a moose to cut up and pack out in the morning.
But what a price I almost paid for moose meat.