(Draft of “Ruby Takes up Hunting,” in the upcoming book, The Bush Doctor’s Wife.)
Dishwater gray skies with thin drizzle dimmed the memory of the high summer sun. Berry foliage darkened daily, from bright red to crimson and purple-burgundy. The grass around the lakes and swamps was rusty-orange. Chainsaws buzzed by woodpiles. A sense of urgency filled the air. Urgency to prepare for the swiftly approaching winter; even though it as only the middle of September. Urgency of bull moose to fight other bulls to mate the cow moose that were not certain they wanted the wild, dramatic seasonal attention of the bulls. Urgent hunters needing to provide for their families. Adrenalin. Testosterone. Nervousness. Excitement.
Elmer loved nothing better than hunting, unless it was flying – or practicing medicine. Now he was ready for moose hunting. He had cleaned his .300 magnum and 30.06 rifles. His hunting knife was sharpened. His gear was sorted and ready. And, unlike most of the other people in the village, he had an airplane, which greatly increases the hunter’s success.
The Natives depended on moose meat for their winter grocery supply and hunting wasn’t for the thrill of the kill or for a trophy. In most cases, they had to walk into the woods to see what they could scare up. Elmer recognized their plight and was generous with his time and aviation gas to assist whenever he could.
First, he took out Pete Miller, the hospital maintenance man. It had been a terrible day with heavy rain and wind. “Can’t you wait to see if it will clear up tomorrow?” Ruby had asked, kneading the palms of her hands together and trying to catch his eye. “No,” he had replied without looking at her. “This is moose hunting season. They like this weather. They won’t be as cautious as usual. They will be out challenging each other and following the cows.”
Pete and Elmer brought back a moose before the day was over. Both men were soaked to the bone. Both men were as thrilled as little boys catching their first fish or shooting their first rabbit.
Next up was Roy Gronning. They took off into an unsettled, restless sky with low-hanging clouds and an undefined horizon. As soon as the Family Cruiser was in the air, clouds bunched against the windows with only fleeting patches of visibility below. At only several hundred feet above the ground, Elmer circled back to the airstrip to land, meanwhile getting a dim bird’s eye view of everything beneath him. As he did, he spotted a moose three-fourth a mile off the end of the airstrip and near the road to the village dump. “Hey, Roy!” He yelled. “This could be easier than we expected.”
The men traded the airplane for the hospital dump truck and Ruby told the rest of the story in her family letter:
“They drove the truck as far as they could go and then hiked into the woods and after awhile they listened and heard the moose come towards them, the wind in their favor when the moose got real close Rev. G plunked him with one shot, it was a 900 lb. bull. It took them all day to get it in and of course I did not know where they really were and so I always wonder if every thing is alright. This is the 3rdone he has helped get.”
In quick succession, there was another hunt and Ruby reported, “Elmer just informed me that he and Leonard Lane, the Eskimo who helped him get the polar bear, shot another moose.”
Elmer never spared details of his adventures, which were often shared over a bedtime snack with the children, who listened as they ate chocolate pudding, homemade ice cream, or a bowl of cold cereal at the table beside him. Ruby felt proud of her husband’s successes and that he helped other men. He was the hunter. She was the gatherer of wild berries and the vegetable garden.
Her hunter husband did what he could to get her to go with him, not only to accompany him, bur to shoot a moose herself. He dried dishes after supper. He tried to reason with her, reminding her what a strong farm girl she was. He solved the problem of what to do with the children if they flew out after work to hunt. “The new Mennonite nurse, Olga Neufeld, can watch Mark and Mishal, and then Anna and Harriet can come over after school is out and the girls come home.”
Finally, he wore down his wife with his good deeds, solutions to her obstacles, and his confidence in her ability to actually shoot a moose.
“Okay,” she said wearily one evening, following another pep talk by him. “I’ll go with you. Perhaps we should do some target shooting first.”
That they did after work the next day. She was a good shot. She kept her eyes open even though the tremendous boom of the rifle jarred her entire body. She braced herself well for the recoil and did not fall backward. After each shot, she inhaled the acrid smell of the gunpowder and observed the warmth of the gun barrel. Her husband cleared his throat, patted her on the shoulder, and said, “You’re ready.”
By this time, Ruby was quite a savvy Alaskan woman and knew how to dress for the outdoors, which was really not that much different than for her chilly-day hot dog roasts or berry-picking. In this case, however, she needed better footgear. Between the two of them, they found boots that were waterproof and tall enough to manage at least some marshy terrain. Just like her husband, she had an army surplus coat, albeit a size too large. A green wool scarf, or muffler as she called it, was added to the assembly, not for fashion, but to keep the chill from traveling down her neck. The rosy pink lipstick? Well, that was standard for her, no matter the circumstance.
As could be expected, her letters home documented this new experience in the Last Frontier.
“We have been out nearly every night this week moose hunting. Last night we spotted two bulls l with large racks so we landed on a sand bar and started hiking through the woods. It got dark on us and we got a bit confused as to direction but the Lord brought us out near the same place we had entered the woods. When we get to heaven I will ask the Lord why we did not get to the moose. I feel it was devine guidance, as Elmer has never gotten confused in the woods before. It scared me a bit and I hardly have the nerve to hunt moose again until I can get one on the sand bar, which is impossible.”
Remarkably, this initiation did not completely ground her from taking off for another hunt. Elmer most likely was amazed himself. He didn’t even have to dry more suppertime dishes. She just dried out her wet clothes and looked at him expectantly. Away they went.
“Last Wednesday night he took me out and we spotted a bull just across the river from this village so we landed on a sandbar and found ourselves in a bit of soup as the sand was not dry enough but we ignored that and hiked to find the moose and to our dismay we could not cross a small stream of water so back to the plane we go and we pus it out of the soft sand on higher ground and take off to spot something better along the Yukon. 35 miles down river we spotted one on a sand bar, we flew low and sure enough he has a small rack, we landed and started firing, I always shoot first and Elmer after mine, I was so excited the gun did not even hurt my shoulder but my ears stopped up from all the noise, we hurt the mooses back leg and he took off faster than we would follow. We hunted for a while but couldn’t find a thing. Back to the plane we go, it is now 5:50 and as we started back for home and decided to see if the first bull was still in the original spot and he was! Elmer looked for a better place to land so that we could cross the stream, he found a strip of sandbar that was good but it was such a long way to hike but hike we must! After I thought m legs would come off with woods to go through, high meadow grass (always hoping a bear was there taking a nap), swamp to cross, we finally got close to where we thought he should be, we smelled moose, Elmer called him by rubbing a small (piece of moose) rack across some trees and sure enough we hear the same type of noise a bit farther away (bulls act that way during rutting (mating) season) so we crept along the low brush along the meadow around another bend and then Elmer backed up (he always is the trail blazer) and says there he is and there he was all 900 lbs of him slowly meandering our way to see who was calling him. I says “Hope he doesn’t charge”, Elmer says “SHOOT, I was so tired I could not fully appreciate it all and it thrills me more as I recall the incident as I write this. There the monster was sprawled out. Elmer looked at his watch and it was 5:00 and not long till sunset. We not skin him since it was so late but Elmer just gutted him and left him on him on the ground for the nite in the freezing temperatures.
Then we marked our trail back to the plane with toilet paper and we took a short cut from the way we came I and we had a 45 minute hike back to the plane and got home by 6:30. Boy, how hot coffee hit the spot. I wished I could do it over again when I wasn’t so tired.
The next morning Elmer got up at 6:00 and Rev. Gronning helped him skin, pack out and fly in the meat. It took them till 1:00 noon. The Leonard and Elmer went back to get the head and rack and if it is possible, we will have it mounted! Of all things, while they were working, what did they see but two more bulls so Leonard plunked one and they had to pack that one out, they scared the other one away as we just can not use any more moose meat. We plan to share some with the school teachers and probably furnish some for the Village Potlach at Christmas time.
She had done it. Moose hunting season was over for her. Well, all except picking hair off the raw moose quarters, cutting up the meat, and determining what would be roasts, little minute steaks, or hamburger. She knew the process. In Anchorage, after Elmer’s first moose hunt, she had learned about packaging the meat tightly in slick, white freezer paper. The packages were labeled for an easy selection later. Was this process difficult? No. Tedious? A bit. However, it came with the satisfaction of standing beside her husband and working as a team; it was a rare and special occasion where her husband wasn’t off tending medical emergencies or pushing the limits of his curiosity. She had him to herself. They recounted the hunt. They laughed. They wondered aloud what their families would think when they received her letter describing the event. Her emotional reservoir was filled with happiness.
After all was said and done, the meal provisions of her moose were stacked in the large hospital freezer, along with her husband’s. Soon after, and many times after that, she would pull out a package of steaks, pound them for supper, dip them in flour, sprinkle on salt and pepper, fry them in oil until the outsides were crispy and the insides tender, and marvel at her amazing accomplishment. Her husband had been right: the bush doctor’s wife could shoot a moose.
The Northern Lights newspaper credited her husband for his successes but said nothing of hers. His write up demonstrated his virility as the bush doctor.
After shooting a moose and spending 4 hours packing the meat to a sandbar on which his plane was resting, Dr. Gaede spent the night in a sleeping bag only to get up the next morning and fly the meat to the airport and then haul it back and forth to the hospital. But the exercise didn’t hurt him for the next day he was to be found playing basketball.
Perhaps a write-up about the doctor’s wife would have been something like this:
After following her husband and wandering around in the woods, pushing through tall grass, stumbling across soggy marshes, surviving frightening landings and takeoffs on sandbars, and being overcome with fatigue, Ruby Gaede held her ground against a charging 900-pound bull moose, which she downed with her first shot. This was her first moose hunt. But the experience didn’t hurt her. The next week she was found making Christmas gifts of aluminum trays with Alaskan scenes sketched on them and the edges uniformly bent up and crimpled like a piecrust; as well as melting, tinting, and forming candles, complete with white whipped wax and adorned with sparkling sequins.
Following this initial moose hunt, she did not volunteer to go hunting again in Tanana, by airplane; however, several years later, when the family relocated to another part of Alaska that was on the road system, she was more than willing to get up early or drive at dusk, with two guns between her husband and herself.
The Incredible Journey of the Moose Head
In the fall of 1959, the moose head mount was sent to Ruby’s parents, Solomon and Bertha (Litke) Leppke’s in Peabody, Kansas. Later, it was transferred to Elmer’s parents in Reedley, California. In a third move, it resided at Elmer’s brother, Harold Gaede’s, in Fresno, California.
Several years after Harold died (2011), his wife, Marianna, decided to move to a retirement community. The moose would not be moving with her. She and her family decided it should be returned to the Elmer and Ruby Gaede family on the Gaede-80 Homestead, outside Soldotna, Alaska.
The re-transplantation could not happen with a quick trip to UPS, a Large Priority mailing box, or Fed Ex; in fact, nothing about this reloction would be easy. The moose head was put into a custom-made wood box 57-inches wide, 65-inches tall, and 61-inches high, and took up space equivalent to one-and-a-half pallets. This Alaska-size box was loaded onto Wanda and Dan Doerksen’s 18-wheeler fruit truck, which for many summers had been driven up the Alaska-Canada (Alcan) Highway, with driving times of four to five days, to provide California fresh fruit to Alaskans, in particular, peaches.
On June 29, 2015, the truck headed north with Ruby’s moose head, surrounded by cherries, berries, oranges, and other fruit. On July 6, 2015, Elmer and Ruby’s son, Mark, met the truck in Anchorage, Alaska, loaded the crate onto his utility trailer, and hauled the moose two-and-a-half hours back to the Gaede homestead, outside Soldotna. Fifty-seven years later, the moose was back in its natural habitat, most likely needing to reacclimatize after being in warmer climes for decades.
(Do you have questions, comments, or suggestions for a rewrite of this chapter? Let me know. Thank you.)