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The hunt of a lifetime: Grand Rapids man hunts moose in BWCAW

IN THE BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE AREA WILDERNESS -- The campfire flames flickered in October night, casting a peach glow on the faces of the hunters. Their bellies warmed by a hearty stew, the evening's conversation had turned to the moose hunt.

They talked about moose sign they had seen that day. They talked about wind direction. They talked about possible hunting locations for the following morning.

Hunters have been having similar conversations around fires for centuries.

Although all were hunters, only one of them was moose hunting. Mark Johnson of Grand Rapids had drawn one of Minnesota's once-in-a-lifetime moose-hunting permits. By Monday evening, he had already spent three days on Fourtown Lake north of Ely trying to find a bull. He hadn't seen a moose yet.

Joining Johnson, who is executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, were his son, Ian, 28, of St. Paul, and Mark's brother, Al Johnson, 53, of Fertile, Minn.

Mark Johnson had both his bow and his rifle along for this two-week season that opened Oct. 4.

"I'd prefer to take one with a bow," said Johnson, 49. "But it only takes two days of not seeing anything to think, 'I don't care how I take it or how big it is.' There's so much work involved, and it's once in a lifetime -- and I'd really like to eat moose."

Bulls only

Minnesota's annual moose hunt became a bulls-only hunt last year, as biologists grow more concerned about the health of the state's moose. Non-hunting mortality rates in the herd are higher in Minnesota than other parts of North America, and biologists aren't sure why. They suspect that climate change could be a factor.

Johnson had been hunting up Moose Camp Creek and in some moosey meadows off the north end of Fourtown Lake. The camp was four portages and about five miles into the wilderness by canoe.

The Johnsons had borrowed friend Kristian Jankofsky's canvas wall tent and woodstove to ward off October's chill. Mark and Ian had learned last year, without the tent and stove, that conditions in the wilderness can get tough this time of year. Ian had a moose license last year, and rain had fallen for most of his two-week hunt on Thomas Lake east of Ely, 13 portages into the wilderness.

"I didn't have the guts to go back where we were last year," said Mark, who accompanied Ian on that hunt.

They didn't see a moose all season long.

Reports of moose were good on Fourtown Lake, and Johnson had seen plenty of sign -- droppings and tracks -- on a September scouting trip. Jankofsky, of Britt, had taken a bull here last fall. Now Johnson had hunted hard each of the first three days of the season. He was committed to spending the entire season in the woods if he had to, he said. He was getting less choosey every day.

"Young bull or big bull -- I don't care," he said in camp Monday evening.

The fire burned down to a pile of red coals. Tea warmed in a blackened pot on the fire grate. The hunters told the old stories and listened to an east wind sift through the pines.

A new day

Well before 6 a.m. Tuesday, a metallic creaking came from inside the Johnson wall tent. Someone was stoking the stove. After a quick oatmeal breakfast, Johnson was into his blaze-orange vest and cap.

With Ian in the stern, they paddled up Moose Camp Creek in the gray light of an overcast morning. They were headed for a grassy opening in the forest. They left their canoe where the water became too thick to paddle.

Mark Johnson carried both his bow and his Winchester. The two men walked perhaps half a mile through chest-high grasses, climbed over a beaver dam and emerged in a sedge meadow. If Johnson shot a moose back here, it was going to take some hauling to get it out. With feeder creeks coming in from two directions, the spot looked very moosey.

"Matilda," Johnson's cow moose decoy, was placed about 25 yards beyond the lump of granite where he planned to sit. He nocked an arrow in his bow. He loaded his rifle. He looked out over the meadow.


That morning didn't produce a moose. But at 2 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, Johnson's bull appeared. Johnson used voice calling techniques imitating a cow moose. The calling produced excellent results, he said.

"It was coming straight in. I dropped him at 15 yards," Johnson said in a sketchy cell-phone message Wednesday night from the shores of Fourtown Lake.

He had taken only his rifle to the woods that morning, leaving his bow in camp. His friend Jankofsky paddled in to Fourtown Lake to help the Johnsons break camp and haul out the moose, which had a 54-inch antler spread.

Johnson sounded a little drained, as one might expect after he and his companions had lugged perhaps 500 pounds of moose quarters out of the bush.

But he sounded happy.

This winter, he'll eat moose.