by Jessica Maxwell
featuring Ingrid Shumway
When da dog stops barking, da moose is moving.” Toward us? Bjorn regarded me with lutefisk eyes. “Yes, maybe. If we have da luck.”
He nodded, and Ingrid nodded back. Bjorn Johansen was our hunting guide. Ingrid Shumway is the founder of Five Stars of Scandinavia, the U.S. outfitter that books this annual October trip. We were hunting on the opening day of Norway’s moose season alongside our hosts, owners of a 10,000-acre private woodlands outside Oslo. The family sold its ancestral home, which is now a hotel, Losby Gods Manor. But they kept the surrounding property–a preferred hunting ground since 1850 for European nobility, including Norway’s late King Haakon VII.
The hills are alive with the sound of black and hazel grouse. The bottomlands hide pools of quicksand, plus many mighty moose. For the record, elk, or, in Norwegian, elg, is what Europeans call the animal known in North America as moose (“moose” coming from the Algonquin word meaning twig-eater). The Swedish father of taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, named them in 1758: Alces alces, Latin for “elk elk.” What Americans call “elk” are really wapiti–Eurasian red deer.
Moose are related to the extinct Irish elk, which were the same size as modern Norwegian elk, weighing between 900 and 1,200 pounds, but had enormous antlers. Irish elk had antlers 13 feet across and died out about 10,000 years ago (no doubt from poor posture).
There are an estimated 125,000 moose in Norway–so many that scientists have called for thinning of the population to avoid an agonizing die-off from mass starvation. As it is, hungry moose have shown up in barns looking for food and have sampled Christmas wreaths hung on urban front doors. They have broken into grocery stores, chased joggers, attacked dogsleds. Some, after gorging on fermented apples, have stumbled around drunk and gotten tangled up in hanging laundry. Others have plunged off cliffs, flattening cars.
Last year some 85,000 licensed hunters culled 40,000 moose. The meat was used for such traditional Norwegian fare as moose roasts, ribs, supremely lean steaks and kjottkake, tasty little meat cakes. About a hundred moose roam the Losby estate, more than enough to assure good hunting for the owning family, their friends and up to two dozen paying guests per season. Throw in the comforts of a room at Losby Gods Manor and a meal at its award-winning restaurant and you have a hunting trip fit for Haakon vii.
At Losby some hunters walk with the guide and his dog (as Ingrid and I did the first day), while others remain posted at prime shooting spots. Then everyone trades places. Bjorn’s dog, Piro (“Fire”), is, of course, a Norwegian elkhound, a breed descended from Viking guard dogs, and as such had immediately run off to find moose (elg) and start barking at them.
We chased Piro’s bark all morning. Sometimes it floated to the left, sometimes to the right; sometimes it drew thrillingly near, sometimes it narrowed to a small, distant yelp that could have been mistaken for a hawk’s cry. We pursued it like the siren-possessed, up granite outcroppings and down hillsides slick with tangerine-colored mushrooms and lichen that looked like golf tees. When Piro ran too far off to be heard, we tracked the signal sent from his collar to Bjorn’s insectile, four-antennaed radio.
We crossed forest floors aglow with wild cranberries and raspberry-colored blueberry bushes, then Frankenstein-stepped our way across a lagoon of quicksand, in which I became resoundingly mired for ten sinking minutes. When one of my rubber boots got stuck, I walked right out of it, then had to balance ice skater-like with my other leg pointing out behind, until Bjorn and Ingrid rescued me.
After I’d recovered my breath and boot, we tramped through stands of birch while Piro barked and barked. We had been walking for three hours when at last he stopped. The sudden loss of the hunt’s soundtrack made me nervous.
“We stay now,” said Bjorn, “let da dog bring da moose to us.”
He crouched and took aim while Ingrid and I steadied our 7mm Dakota 76 Travelers, “the best gun on the planet right now for the money,” according to Ingrid’s husband, Bob, an ace shot. We hunkered down into what might at any moment be the path of a galumphing behemoth.
It was hard not to recall what had happened two years ago to a hunter in this same situation. Aurdal Arne, 68, had shot a bull moose one autumnal morn. As Arne approached the “dead” bull, it reared up and lunged at him. Not wishing to be impaled, he grabbed hold of the moose’s antlers as it flailed with the urgency of the dying. “After a minute of madness,” he recalls, the moose expired, “and went on to the eternal forest.”
Conditions all seemed in our favor. We were downwind. Visibility was flawless. Sound–the ratcheting song of a black grouse–carried plainly. But the straight-up truth is that waiting in a clearing for a rampaging moose feels a lot more like pre-op surgery than sport.
There was a thrashing in the bushes as moose sought to get away from Piro.
“I can smell them,” said Ingrid.
Alas, no elg ventured out. Then Piro barked again, and the tension broke like a shoelace. Exhausted, we gave up for the day. Bjorn eventually found the dirt road back to his car, Piro found us, and together we drove to a log shelter called the Resting Place for lunch.
Our hosts had already made a campfire. Cowboy coffee was boiling away in a big black kettle suspended from a rebar tripod minded by Johan Foss, an Oslo surgeon and one of the ten surviving family members who inherited Losby Gods in 1960 when the family matriarch died. His cousin, Danckert Krohn, an Oslo anesthesiologist, cut off thick slices of bacon and fried them in a pan with an ingenious 3-foot sapling handle. His daughter, Kristin, who works for the Norwegian Parliament, readied potato pancakes for the best bacon sandwiches this side of London. Their friend and fellow M.D. Fredrik Hancke helped affix the sandwiches to pronged sticks so we could roast them in the fire, and Bjorn poured thick coffee into hand-carved birch cups.
After lunch Ingrid, Kristin and I posted on a sunny knoll while the rest either walked with Bjorn or posted elsewhere. Just as I had bedded down in the heather for a nap, I heard Kristin say: “There he is!” And I opened my eyes to find a huge earth-colored bull sauntering through brush below us.
Until you have a close encounter with a moose in the wild, you simply cannot fathom how massive they are. Their haunches are hillocks. They stand taller and broader than any horse. This male’s huge, many-tiered palmate antlers called to mind the lyric “he’s got the whole world in his hands.” Ingrid already had her sight on a cow that had climbed the opposite ridge. Before I could say: “Wait, there’s a bull!” Ingrid shot. And missed. Both bull and cow bolted into the pines.
The next morning I walked with Johan Foss. “Normally we would have an animal down by now,” he said as we followed a small, clear creek up a steep hill. “Very unusual.” Few know the property better. From May to October Johan and his wife live in a cabin on the family estate.
“I hunt here. I golf here. I go skiing here, tracking here, pick mushrooms and berries here, go canoeing and swimming and skating on the lakes here. I see things I never see anywhere else.” He pointed to a hoofprint in the new grass. “He has been here today. The moose very often come to this place.”
That place, called the Lunch Sump, is a traditional dining spot for Losby loggers. A granite rise with natural boulder seating, it offers an excellent long view of a tight valley. An hour later Johan pointed to a dark shape on the hillside and took aim. The wind was up, making white noise in yellow birch leaves. Clouds raced in from the west, then vanished. So did our moose.
“Hunting is waiting,” said Johan. He and I departed for a new post near a silvery lake above a sloping V-shaped meadow half a football field wide at the middle. At 12:15 a yellow-backed woodpecker landed on the tree in front of us, just as a message in Norwegian came over Johan’s walkie-talkie. He held up two fingers: two moose.
“Listen for the shooting.”
At 12:35 we heard Piro barking loudly, closing in on the woods by the lake to our left. The dog fell silent. A ringing shot followed. Then another. Two more. And a fifth. Johan interpreted the radio report: “One moose down. A cow. Ingrid’s. Danckert hit a bull, but they haven’t found it yet. They’ll find it.”
They did, of course. Later we all met at an outbuilding fixed with winches and pulleys and tables, where Bjorn and the doctors went about the solemn choreography of butchering the first moose of the season. As night fell and the evening birds began their own hunting, the men moved silently in tandem to tease the rich, red meat from narrowest of sheaths of white fat beneath the chocolate hides. You could smell the sweetness of the forest in it–a miracle of wild nutrition. Isn’t it good, Norwegian wood? The Christmas kjottkake would be excellent this year.