LAKE POLLY -- The most difficult steps of the day were made on all fours, crawling out of the tent.
Pitch darkness, a chill and damp wind, and the weary feeling that follows a sleep ended too soon invariably led to thoughts of retreating to the sleeping bag.
But the hope of what could happen always won out. Coffee and instant oatmeal were soon in the making. Sluggish movements gave way to hurried preparations. We had places to be before sunrise, and only our own power to get there.
For eight straight days, the hope that a bull moose would emerge into view of our rifles' sights kept us on a rigorous schedule. After paddling and portaging several miles to Lake Polly in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness last October, we were enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hunt moose in Minnesota.
Each day, we rose well before sunrise to paddle canoes and portage into smaller, seldom visited rivers and creeks or trek into pathless woods. We'd climb a tree or hike atop a rock ledge and look out over tamarack swamp or browsed hillsides of dogwood, birch and pine.
From our separate vantage points, the three of us periodically sounded calls, doing our best to sound like moose cows desperate for mates. We also did our best to vex the bulls by leaving the same kinds of signs they did to mark their turf for both rivals and hoped-for mates to find.
We took tree limbs the length of canoe paddles and thrashed the brush in strategic locations to mimic the antics of a rival bull. During the rut, bulls will knock down brush with their antlers in certain areas. Like their cousins the whitetail deer, bulls will also scrape the bark from a single tree here and there to leave a calling card of his daily routes.
In certain areas, they will also rub a patch of ground to the bare soil and urinate in it. Called a wallow, cow moose in heat are attracted to these sites and roll around in them.
We searched for these fresh signs of moose -- especially the scrapes and wallows made by bulls -- and focused our hunting on these areas.
Our hopes raised higher, we'd return to camp for lunch, take care of chores like cutting fire wood, and return to hunt until dark.
Our most promising site brought us three portages and an hour's travel from camp. We sloshed through muddy portages in the dark and navigated waters as black as the night sky to return to camp.
We'd crawl back in the tent with our hunger satisfied by meals made over wood fires.
Months earlier, sons Ryan and Erik and I submitted our names as a party in a lottery held for the hunt. We were among 2,851 parties to do so.
We were drawn the first year, one of only 233 party licenses awarded.
Ever since the letter arrived telling us we were among the lucky, it had been like Christmas: a constant feeling of expectation.
Hunters apply for specific zones within the state's moose country. We had applied for a zone that included the Lake Polly area and was entirely within the BWCAW where motors and vehicles are banned. Having made trips to the BWCAW over the course of more than two decades, I could think of no area where I've seen more moose than in this south-central portion that was our zone to hunt.
One vivid memory kept coming to mind. I was hosting my nephew on his first ever BWCAW trip, and I wanted him to see his first moose in the wild. On our final leg of the trip, we portaged to a small pond where a big bull moose munched on aquatic vegetation. The moose paid little heed to us as my wide-eyed nephew hastily pulled a camera from his pack, and I gently set down the canoe.
I knew to the story of the 1,100-pound bull taken on the north side of Lake Polly some years earlier by Tom Kalahar of Olivia. After five, brutally cold days of hunting, he snapped a branch climbing a tree in the early dawn. He thought his morning hunt was ruined until he realized that the black, frost covered form huffing towards him like a locomotive was an angry moose mistaking him for a rival.
Prior to our hunt, we heard many incredible stories as we tracked down anyone who could offer advice. One hunter told me how he was just minutes away from the end of a nine-day hunt in Alaska when he tore his scripture book in half. With the bright pages in each of his outstretched hands, he copied the movement of a bull's antlers and to his own surprise attracted the ire of a big bull one mile distant.
Another hunter told us of how his boat sputtered out of fuel on a large wilderness lake in Canada. By an incredible stroke of luck, he beached the craft where he found a partially buried canoe paddle, which he used to return to the water. He spotted a moose browsing the shoreline.
The stories we heard from hunters was followed by the facts offered by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at a mandatory class held prior to our hunt.
There are an estimated 7,600 moose in northeastern Minnesota, although the habitat is managed for over 12,000. Wildlife officials report that Minnesota is seeing a steady decline in its moose population. The mortality rate for adult moose is between 25 to 34 percent, as compared to eight to 12 percent experienced in other parts of the natural range for moose.
There is no one single cause, but it is suspected that warmer temperatures are playing a factor in the moose decline in Minnesota. The limited harvest of moose by hunters is considered inconsequential to what is happening to the population.
We can't blame global warming, but we suspect the weather we experienced played a role in our fate. We never unpacked our cold-weather gear, but frequent and heavy rains made hunting conditions challenging. We never saw a bull.
We returned home disappointed, especially since we couldn't work out a way to return for the final days of the hunt when the rains stopped and colder weather increased the likelihood for moose activity.
We learned later that hunters harvested 155 bull moose in the 2007 hunt. It was the first year that hunters were restricted to taking bulls only. In prior years, parties could take either sex.
Since it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, there is really no getting over the disappointment of not having harvested a moose.
But for the same reason, there are no regrets. All hunting requires a combination of hard work, skill and luck. We planned and prepared our hunt as well as we could. We worked hard, and learned all we could in advance about the area we were to hunt and the tactics of moose hunting. These many months later, we still feel confident we did the right things.
And these many months later, we still wish we could do it again.