The Moose Chronicles – Don’t Back Up

Bull Moose On A Mission

I’ve been escorting other photographers into Mooseville for the past 10 years. Sometimes small groups, sometimes large groups. There is seldom a dull moment when one travels with me. I like to entertain my guests with “war” stories from my moose hunts of yore. Here’s a war story from our most recent group outing in early August of this year.

Our group shoot was actually scheduled to begin on a Tuesday morning at 5:00 am, but myself and three other participants arrived at my cabin on Sunday afternoon prior to the official start and we decided that we’d take advantage of the situation and make a afternoon photography run into Mooseville, just to get a jump on the upcoming festivities.

Jonathan Steele, Jules Hines and Matt Dirksen were with me and I was driving my Ford Explorer. Their versions of what happened may be slightly different from mine, but I am telling the story now in my own way.

I’ve been using my Explorer (I call it the Exploder) as my main Moosemobile when hunting for moose since I purchased it in 2010. It’s a good vehicle and I recently had everything rebuilt on it to keep it reliable. It’s fairly comfortable, has a 4×4 drive-train, good off-road tires, plenty of passenger and gear space and on a good day I can get about 19 miles per gallon of gas. It still does the job well.

The drive into Mooseville typically takes about 1 hour, along a variety of roads that include dirt forest roads and paved highway. Once in Mooseville, the roads are typically dirt forest roads in various stages of disrepair, but they aren’t so bad that the Explorer can’t handle them, unless of course the driver isn’t paying close attention to what he is doing.

We had just arrived at our intended destination, a long and winding dirt forest road, typically filled with moose. The first trip out is always filled with excitement and to some degree anticipation of seeing that first moose and sometimes to a lesser degree, the fear that we won’t see a moose, but that’s never happened. I’ve always found moose.

Matt is in the passenger seat, Jonathan and Jules are in the back seat. Jonathan is on the passenger side and is watching the scenery around us, looking for that first moose. Jon has a great eye for spotting moose. He’s always great to have in the vehicle because he is always paying attention to the surroundings.

About 5 miles into the forest, Jon blurts out “moose on the hillside to our right.” I’m thinking to myself, “one must assume that “eagle eye” Jon has a sighting so I stop the SUV. Jon says “we drove past it”, so I put the vehicle in reverse and begin creeping backwards along the road hoping he’ll see the critter on a steep wooded hillside to our right. Slowly, I begin backing up along the dirt road, watching the left and right side mirrors and the main mirror, trying to keep the SUV in the middle of the dirt road. As I continue to scan my mirrors I notice that the dirt road is getting wider in my left side mirror and is disappearing in my passenger side mirror. Realizing that I’m drifting off the road a bit, I step on the brake pedal and stop. Jon looks out the window and informs me that we are about to go off the road, down an embankment. Roughly 20 feet of drop off into rocks and dead-fall.

“You’re pretty close to the edge here Gary” Jon says.

I can’t tell where I am, but I take his word for it, slip the SUV into four wheel drive and try to move forward to get away from the road’s edge and certain calamity. The tires spin, the vehicle doesn’t move and we are all just kinda looking at one another in various stages of panic.

Jules and Jon jump out of the back seat on the driver’s side and Matt is sitting next to me with eyes as big as silver dollars. Jon walks to the rear of the vehicle and informs me that the SUV is about to roll off the cliff and that my right rear tire is off the road hanging in the air.

Matt is showing increased panic and wants to get out, but he’s afraid to open the passenger door, as there isn’t really any ground for him to step out on. Myself, I’m doing fine. The SUV feels stable to me, but for some reason, my tires aren’t getting traction in the dirt. I’m staying calm and thinking to myself “why didn’t I put a winch on this thing?” Matt is asking “do you have a shovel?”  I answer “no” never thought I’d need one.

Matt tells me he should get out and lessen the weight on the right side of the SUV. He climbs into the back seat and goes for the left side rear door, grabbing his 400mm prime lens as he climbs out of the car. I suppose he was having dreadful mental images of the car rolling down the hill and he couldn’t bare the thought of that lens bouncing around in the SUV when it happened.

I’ve now been abandoned by everyone in the SUV, all standing around watching me still sitting there, teetering on the edge of disaster. It was a lonely feeling. Jon walks around to the front side of the SUV and informs me that my front left tire is about 6 inches off the ground. I’m thinking to myself “not good” Matt has successfully rescued his lens from impending disaster. Jules is somewhere out there on the dirt road watching the unfolding disaster from a safe distance. Jon stands on the front of the running board next to my window and proclaims “we need more weight on this front side of the SUV”, so Matt runs around and climbs on the running board with Jon to help get the front left tire back on the ground. They are both lunging up and down to rock the SUV and get the tire back on the dirt and I push down on the throttle enough to get the wheels turning. The SUV finds traction and I am able to pull away from the cliff out into the road. All in all, the whole thing only lasted for a minute or two, but it felt like forever sitting there waiting to tumble off the cliff backwards while all my friends watched me disappear into the abyss. If I had gone over, I probably would have survived, but we would have spent the next three days getting a very expensive tow truck up there to pull me out. The trip would have ended before it started.

Jon walks back to the rear of the SUV and is telling me to come back and look at how close we were to running off the cliff. I didn’t take him up on the offer. We survived it and I was in no state of mind to relive the horror only moments after surviving it.

Relief, finally, we all jam back in to the SUV and proceed on up the road, each of us describing the horror with excited voices.

Afterwords, every time we drove by that spot Matt and Jon would point out that my tire tracks were still there in the dirt where I almost fell off the road.

One true regret was that we never saw the moose that Jon was talking about. All that for nothing. The other regret, which I lived out for the duration of the trip was everyone insisting that when I stop the vehicle to look at a moose that whatever else I did, don’t back up.