In the valley of the three skulls.

In October, while I and some companions were wandering in a valley of the excellent Malingsbo-Kloten nature reserve, we were suddenly hit by the strong putrid stink of rotting flesh. The autumnal air was being poisoned by something fetid, and we resolved to find the source of the stench. Following our unhappy noses, a brief search of the area yielded a big, stinky, hairy dead moose. 


There was an open wound behind the horns, the lips, nose and eyes were already eaten away, and his entire rear was just a festering, wriggling mass of maggots. 


It was the middle of hunting season, and there was a lot of gunfire during that weekend, so perhaps it was shot? Strange to leave a massive moose to rot in the middle of the forest if that was the case, but who knows what's normal to hunters!? My hiking compadres consisted of four medical scientists with plenty of necropsy experience, but for some reason nobody wanted to take a closer look into this mysterious case. 
The temperature got down as low as 2.8 ˚C that night, but the moose corpse was steaming like he'd just popped out of a sauna, I think the maggots were having a party in him. Considering the high maggot activity but also the encroaching Winter temperatures, I was pretty curious as to how long this thing would take to decompose. So curious, that after a month of wondering I headed out to the same spot with my best buddy Brian to check what happened to this poor dude. 


What a difference a month makes!



The body was pretty much gone, masses of frosted hair were spread all over the clearing, and bare bones poked out of the mess everywhere. Two legs were still in the immediate area of the body. We found a third and fourth leg close by. Then we found the fifth gnawed leg up a hill. Either this was a very curious moose indeed or we were looking at a double murder. 


Then Brian stumbled over another skull. Much older, and totally stripped down to the bones. Another 100 metres away and we found a third skull wedged in a tree. I think Malingsbo moose might have some kind of dying problem. Or actually I guess they don't have a problem with dying. Maybe they have SAD?


The two older skulls were both just bone and horn, but the October moose head still carried a fair amount of flesh on it. Thomas Beecham once said that everything should be tried once, except incest and folk-dancing. No exceptions for hacking up moose heads, so I decided to give it a go. Part of me wanted to take the head away because a few people had put forward the idea that hunters might have shot and left the moose to rot just to pick up some nice antlers after a few months of waiting. That sounded unlikely to me, as far as I know hunters boil heads fresh to get the flesh off and to clean the skull, but perhaps? If so I would deny them their pudding!


Partly I want to take this opportunity to try cleaning a skull at home. This seems like an interesting chemical problem to tackle, as there is a lot of skin, hair and connective tissue left, as well as a fair number of very slow motion half-frozen maggots. I think either burying it in a compost heap for a month or two, or soaking it in sodium hydroxide for a while would clear away any soft tissue and leave the bone to be bleached with hydrogen peroxide. 
The spine I hacked off with a machete, the fourth machete that I have received from my climbing partner Jenny (maybe she wants to make sure I'm ready for any 'Touching the Void' type situations we might encounter). Brian was fairly disgusted by this (he's a writer, not a scientist) and kept well back. He also spent an uncomfortable five minutes dry-retching when a waft of the rotten stench hit him, I guess working in the hard sciences involves a certain level of desensitisation.
I've a little experience with animal surgery, but doing a caesarian in a cozy, rustic barn, or delicate microsutures in a modern, sterile surgery, did not prepare me for this spinectomy. The howling wind, the thick smell of rotting meat, the wriggling maggots, the rising and falling machete blade, Brian retching all over the place and the flying matted lumps of hair and chips of bloody bone ... It was not as delicate as my usual work. Still, a few minutes of intense hacking and the bloody deed was done.


The head was placed on a tree stump, around 30 metres downwind from where we set up Brian's tent. It was a clear night and the temperature got down to -11.4 ˚C. I slept under the stars in my half-finished MYOG bivy-bag (I can't yet decide how to finish the head of it so it's just completely open at that end). I had 2 base-layers (one wool, one synthetic), a woollen Lundhags wrap fleece and a jacket, and then a silk inner and a Warbonnet mamba winter long quilt, all on top of the lovely Exped downmat 7. This was just about comfortably warm, although I would definitely not be happy with colder temperatures with this level of gear. 
At dawn I was half-asleep and half-dreamt that I heard the sounds of a heavy animal walking nearby, cracking sticks and crunching frozen grass. A few hours later we got up and found fresh moose-tracks all around the camp-site. We followed them back as far as a nearby stream, and from there across the valley we'd camped in and lost the track further up in the hills. It was bitter-sweet to come so close to seeing a (live) moose in the wild at such close range and yet miss it. At least next year I'll know a good valley for moose watching.


Later that day we started to pack up, and as I wrapped up the head in a few plastic bags we heard nearby wolf howls from the forest, first from the South, and then eerily, from the North-east where we were headed. Considering the ravaged state of the moose corpse I guess it's fairly certain that a pack was in the area (Malingsbo-Kloten has a reputation for having a healthy wolf population). If we hadn't been in a hurry I would have liked to try staking out the remains of the moose and check if it would be possible to catch some wolves showing up, but time was getting on. The head weighted a ton, but I've been getting very strict with my gear-lists so total weight wasn't too bad, my rucksack was only around seven kg and felt empty.  


Apart from the wolves and the bloody machete work there was also excitement in the 'trying new things' department. Brian had not been camping before and had no gear, and I was worried he might freeze. So he got my toasty warm Meindl Dovres and my Swedish army winter gear. And I thought I'd be a wild ultralighter and try wearing a pair of mesh trainers. 


This was pretty good, it felt weirdly light to hop around with no weight on my feet. All the black parts of the runner were just light mesh, there was no waterproofness at all. I had a pair of heavy Woolpower socks on, so even after they got an inevitable dunking in a marshy area my feet didn't get cold. I guess I'm used to the invincibility a pair of boots give though, as you can see by my ripped trousers above. I spent some time looking down and carefully jumping from tussock to tussock in order to avoid getting wet feet, but it's definitely something I'll be trying again. The really cool thing was how fast they dried after getting soaked. 
I also tried out the Talus cold-avenger balaclava. I bought it to wear when sleeping in a quilt, and for the really cold days of skiing. It wasn't cold enough to need it, but I wanted to try it out. Sleeping in it was great, normally when I wake up there is a halo of frozen condensation around my head from my breath, but this time there was none, although the inside of the mask was pretty wet. It was a welcome improvement in preventing the down quilt from getting too damp.


And of course it looks cool, not quite as cool as the Thermajock, but close. Probably also useful for robbing banks, especially with the machete! The cold-avenger cost a fair bit (especially with the customs), but since I bought it the dollar has dropped like a stone so it's not so steep right now. I hope to write a bit more about it in a future post, because it's a little unusual compared to a normal ski mask and is worth a decent review.


Definitely impressed with this beautiful and gorey trip, and also happy with the few ultra-light edits to my gear-list. I want to follow up this story with a look at how the skull treatment turns out. And I'm impressed with the close encounter we had with the wolves and moose, next Spring I hope to head back to this valley and maybe spend a few days looking out for some live specimens.