Probability and the Angry Moose

This was bound to eventually happen although I must admit that up until an hour ago I still viewed it as an abstract event; one of those things people think about and reflect upon but somehow never actually expect to see it become reality.  I had a run in with an angry cow moose when solo backpacking in Kachemak Bay State Park in June of 2000 but she was just protecting her spring calf which was hidden in some waist deep grass in a forest clearing.  In this sense her protective reaction was entirely expected and even normal but then what just transpired maybe half a mile from my place also falls into that category.

As it looks like rain I decided to get the ‘kidz’ – as I jokingly refer to my 120 pound female Alaskan Malamute ‘Anana’ and my 86 pound male German Shepherd Dog ‘Qanuk’ – out for some exercise such that I might spare my home of the mud and gravel they track in when wet.  We started off heading east down East Barge Drive towards the Riven cut off; in the past year we’ve walked this road more times than I care to remember.  In typical fashion the dogs were ranging out in front of me by 15 to 75 feet and making many side trips into the boreal forest which surrounds this area.  I had passed John and Ruth’s driveway and was most of the way across the swampy muskeg area to the north of East Barge Drive and starting up the hill when I saw both dogs freeze.  In perfect harmony they raised their noses almost straight up into the air and then swiveled their heads to the west which is boreal forest.  Qanuk was continuing to sniff the air but Anana had dropped her nose and was scanning the forest with real intensity.  She has the best eyesight of any canine I’ve seen and she was definitely employing it at that moment.

Suddenly she shot into the forest like a rocket with Qanuk in pursuit.  I was looking but couldn’t see anything although given it was overcast and rather gray anything under the forest canopy was in deep shadow.  I started fumbling for my Canon SX-260 PowerShot ‘point and shoot’ camera which I often carry with me because it is so very portable and takes great images.  I started extracting it from my jacket pocket when I heard Anana yelp and then a loud conundrum broke out within the forest.  Anana came running from the forest onto the road with a wild look in her eyes and she was heading straight for me.  A few seconds later I saw a large brown cow moose break the cover of the forest and take to the road in hot pursuit of Anana.  Time immediately slowed to that adrenaline enhanced crawl and I can now remember distinctly what transpired over the next maybe 20 seconds which seemed like an eternity.

 

Qanuk on East Barge Drive

Qanuk on East Barge Drive

My first thought was; “Oh Shit, this isn’t good!” as I saw Anana closing on me with the moose in hot pursuit.  My second thought was; “Damn, I didn’t bring the pepper spray!” and my third thought was; “Time to run…NOW!”.  Thankfully there are lots of sizable spruces and birch trees right along the side of the road and I immediately tried to put one of these between me and the charging moose.  I remembered from my experience in Kachemak Bay State Park that moose are incredibly fast when they want and they appear about the size of a freight train locomotive when they are bearing down on you.  Anana ran to me and the moose followed but Anana only waited by me for a few seconds before she realized I wasn’t going to be much help and headed further into the forest.  The moose snorted as she raced by me but thankfully kept going after Anana.  At this point I saw a brown/gray blur whiz past me and into the forest after the moose; it was Qanuk.  With his appearance I breathed a sigh of relief because he obviously wasn’t injured and he was going to help his buddy Anana.

I heard the sounds of a lot of breaking branches and heavy breathing in the direction the ‘kidz’ and the moose had disappeared; within maybe a minute Anana popped out on the road perhaps 50 feet west of me and Qanuk was right with her.  I briefly saw the moose pop out of the tree line but I think she figured she made her point and she probably rethought the wisdom of messing with two large dogs so she just stopped, gave the dog’s one last look as if to say; “Take That..!” and then reversed direction and headed back into the forest.  To my surprise Anana looked like she was going to follow but I immediately intervened.  I called both of them back to me and checked them over; thankfully no cuts were in evidence and they had all four limbs, both ears and a tail to boot!  I then hustled them the final third of a mile or so to our driveway and put them in the house.

Just the previous week I’d shared a story with a college buddy via e-mail involving the kidz chasing a local moose; in doing so I said I’d confirmed Anana would run back to me if frightened and remarked this would not be good if she’d irritated a grizzly.  In addition I’d mused I should probably start carrying the pepper spray once again as I’d become lax in doing so across the summer.  I hadn’t heeded my own advice and almost ended up paying a nasty price for my negligence.  There’s no need for people just walking or biking around this area to carry pepper spray but because I have two dogs with me and I allow them largely free reign I need to be better prepared.  I knew this yet I allowed my ‘comfort’ with the area to get the better of me.  In true Alaskan fashion I was just reminded that this area is home to many large mammals and because I’m invading their home I’d best be prepared!!

Moose cow in my 'back yard' last October

Moose cow in my ‘back yard’ last October

Bullwinkle’s Revenge or ‘Watch Out Where Them Moosies Go”..?!?

Before I get started with this piece I want to assure anyone reading this that I do not believe moose are ‘Bullwinkle’!  Indeed, they are pretty much the opposite of the cartoon character in that they are smart, fast and extremely adept at traversing the thick boreal forest or open tundra.  I learned this hard way back in June of 2000 while solo backpacking in Kachemak Bay State Park across Kachemak Bay from the town of Homer.  I’d finished up a three day hiking/camping trip into the park and was heading back to the ranger station on Halibut Cove Lagoon via the China Poot Lake Trail to pick up my ride back to Homer with Bay Excursion’s water taxi service (highly recommended – Captain Karl Stoltzfus is the best!!).  I was part way back and entered an open area around a couple of acres in size that was relatively flat with tall grass.  Diagonal from me was a lone moose cow munching some willow bark.  As this was an easy to hike area compared to the wet and muddy trail I availed myself of the grass and figured I was far enough away from the moose to not be an issue.  Even so I watched her and I was puzzled by the fact the she stopped eating and was closely eying me; as I continued her ears went back against her head.  I was wondering what the heck her problem was and started angling away from her but still moving forward.  Then I realized what was happening when her spring calf stood up from the grass no more than ten feet in front of me.  Time kinda stood still as I looked at the calf, immediately thought “OH SHIT!!!” and looked back at Mom to see this brown blur the size of a freight train bearing down on me.  I jettisoned my backpack and ran to the tree line just beating her; we played ‘keep away’ with me hiding behind tree trunks for maybe a minute until she decided I wasn’t a threat, collected her calf and sauntered off.  It was this experience which caused me to re-think the wisdom of solo backpacking in remote areas (the park is accessible only via air or water) and completely altered my opinion of moose.

With this said I learned the hard way a few days back that with snow conditions like we’re experiencing now – compressed snow about a foot in depth with a strong, icy covering atop which just a bit of new snow has fallen – one absolutely must watch where one steps!  Even at my heavy bulk the icy snow cover is strong enough to allow me to walk atop it; however, moose do break through and leave a circular area that slants inward towards the actual hole where their hooves break through the icy surface.  Normally this is easy to see but after just an inch of snow atop this the indentations become very difficult to see and this makes for hazardous walking.  Not realizing this to be the case I wasn’t being careful as I was walking Anana and Qanuk a few days back and I paid for it.  As I was in the swampy area just to the west of ‘Exercise Hill’ I inadvertently stepped into a moose track which caused my foot to slide into the actual hole and twisted my ankle.  It was just enough to hurt and give me a slight limp.  I started trying to watch where I was placing my feet after that but managed to step into another such track with the same foot and once again twist the same ankle.  This time it really hurt to the point I sat down in the snow for a few minutes and cursed a blue streak while condemning my inability to recognize such dangers.  Once the initial pain resided I managed to gimp up the hill and back to my place but even today the ankle remains sore and I’m staying off it as much as possible.

I’d never have imagined one could founder in a moose’s tracks but once again Alaska has shown me I have much to learn!  Normally walking in moose tracks is no big deal; I’ve done it before to keep from having to break a fresh trail through 20 plus inches of snow but that was in more ‘typical’ snow conditions.  The icy nature of Talkeetna’s snow cover which is due entirely to the warm winter has changed how one must handle walking in the snow; until last Monday I didn’t realize this was the case.  I love learning more about ‘getting along’ in rural south central Alaska but I’d prefer my lessons be a bit less painful if possible.  Still and all I know I won’t forget this hard won piece of knowledge; one must evaluate the snow conditions when expecting to walk in it and be aware that based on these conditions what one chooses to do must be weighed against those conditions and the influence of other factors like wildlife, temperature, sunlight and similar.

Wildlife At 62 Degrees North Latitude

I knew when I moved up here I would be seeing far more large mammals than I did anywhere else I’d lived mainly because few places in the lower 48 can boast such a variety of big wildlife.  I also knew from my spate of visits from ’96 through ’05 the density of caribou, moose and bears was much higher in the Interior than any place in the lower 48.  While many folks seem to feel I’m borderline crazy for wanting to live someplace where seeing grizzlies or moose in their natural setting is more the rule than the exception I find this to be a most exciting environment; just knowing that such large and powerful mammals are in the vicinity kinda charges the atmosphere and makes one feel more ‘at home’ with Nature.  Prior to making trips up here I’d seen a few black bears at great distance in Great Smokey Mountain National Park and spent hours trying to break Anana from her desire to chase the ubiquitous white tailed deer in SE Michigan but that was about it for larger mammals in the wild.  Before I made my first Alaskan visit I spent weeks reading everything I could find on the state and figuring prominently in most of those readings were discussions of the wildlife.  By the time our plane landed at the Juneau airport in early September, 1996 I thought I was pretty well prepared to handle observing bear, moose, caribou and Dall Sheep ‘up close and personal’.  It only took seeing my first moose along the West Glacier Trail in Tongass National Park to show me how wrong I was in this belief!  However, said encounter was at a safe distance and the two moose cows were much more interested in the dwarf willow they were munching than three lower 48er’s so I came away wide eyed and already well and truly bitten by the ‘Alaska bug’.

During that same trip we spent four days in Denali NP&P and while the weather was not great we did see lots of wildlife around the Teklanika campsite where we camped in tents.  I had an experience I still remember vividly to this day when I arose one morning – I was almost always the first one up – and was getting breakfast underway.  I dug the white gas camping stove out of the back of our rental Ford Explorer, primed it and managed to get it started; I then went digging for the quart pot, filled it with water and set it on the stove to boil.  Finally I went searching for the instant coffee and instant oatmeal.  This was before I learned the value of staging the morning’s necessities the previous evening!  I found the instant coffee first and noticed the pot was almost boiling so I dipped my mug into it, added a couple spoonfuls of coffee, stirred it and then turned back to hunting for the oatmeal.  I finally found it, freed it from the pack and turned around…and froze.  A large Timber wolf was no more than ten feet away from me and was stretching its neck in the direction of the coffee.  He had the most beautiful yellow eyes and I also noticed he was fitted with a radio collar; later I learned from a ranger that he was one of the alpha males from the pair of wolf packs that called the Teklanika area ‘home’.  We stared at each other for what seemed like minutes but was undoubtedly no more than a few seconds; I remember feeling no fear but rather a sense of awe that such a magnificent creature was so willing to share my immediate space.  I slowly turned to get my camera but when I turned back he was no where to be seen.  I soon learned I had been far too close to this wolf although it was he that had initiated the close proximity; seeing wolves even in Denali is a rare treat and I felt humbled that I’d been so close to such a gorgeous top predator.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Denali NP&P; every trip I’ve made to Alaska during the aforementioned span I spent at least three days in the park except on spring trip to the Kenai.  I always camp at Teklanika and usually will tour the Visitor’s Center if its not too crowded just to look at the displays of grizzly ravaged camping gear.  I find seeing the huge teeth marks in pots or massive claw tears in the remnants of a steel drum serve as good reminders of the raw power of these apex predators.  On virtually every trip to the Park I’ve seen grizzlies but generally from the safety of the Park buses.  However, that’s not always the case; while solo camping in 1998 I heard grizzlies snuffling and snorting outside my tent in Teklanika as they hunted for roots and berries; that’s a humbling experience lying wrapped up in a sleeping bag looking at two thin layers of nylon forming the only barrier between you and the bears!  On that same trip I hiked to the ridge line across the Teklanika River and while walking the ridge saw a grizzly boar maybe 100 feet down the side of the ridge in a blueberry patch.  He saw me the same time I saw him; thankfully I’d paid attention to the rangers when they explained how to handle such a surprise and far too close encounter.  I slowly raised my arms up over my head and talked very softly to the bear while slowly moving my arms back and forth; in this case the bear did exactly as I’d been told and stood up on its hind legs (when it did so I darn near peed my pants!), snorted a few times, dropped to all fours and walked away from me.  Needless to say I slowly backed away from him and once I crossed the ridge and was out of sight I really beat feet down the hill and back across the river!!  During another trip in 2001 I was sharing my tent with a college buddy; one morning I awoke to hear him softly calling my name.  I was still very much asleep when he said; “There’s something big outside!”.  I listened and could hear something definitely large moving around; I stayed in the tent until I no longer heard any sound and then scrambled out of my sleeping bag, into my boots and out of the tent.  All the sites in Teklanika feature a small pull out area for vehicle parking, a fire pit and a picnic table; it had been a cold night and the picnic table was covered with a thick layer of frost.  On the corner of the picnic table closest to the tent I found the imprint of a bear paw; the pads had melted the frost (see image below).  Without question we had a grizzly within ten feet of us who was probably investigating the white gas stove which we’d left atop the picnic table albeit sans any food or food containers; both these kinds of items were stored inside the rental vehicle.

Grizzly paw print in frost on Teklanika picnic table

Grizzly paw print in frost on Teklanika picnic table

Given my wildlife experiences which have all been positive save two – one involving a black bear when I was solo camping in Kachemak Bay State Park in the late spring of 2000 and another involving a moose cow with her spring calf during the same trip – I’ve come to really enjoy observing wildlife although I prefer to do so from a safe distance and I will never make the mistake so many people do of thinking any wild animal is something I can approach and try to interact with in its natural setting!  I’ll never forget walking along the Park Road on a warm, sunny September day and seeing an adult grizzly foraging well off the road on a hillside. There was a man with a young child part way up the hill; the man was encouraging his child to move closer to the bear as he set up his camera!! I was all set to call out to him when a Park bus rounded the corner and the driver saw what was happening, stopped the bus, pulled the man and child back to the road and proceeded to read the man the ole riot act. Its this kind of stupidity that finally led to Denali’s first human death from a bear attack in 2012.  Some idiot was solo hiking around the Toklat River and apparently spied a grizzly. Although no one witnessed what occurred his camera was found with his remains and showed a series of images of the grizzly getting larger and larger; if memory serves the last one looked to be taken at maybe fifty feet! Keep in mind anything under a quarter of a mile is considered a close encounter with a bear and is way too close.  Sadly this eventually ended in the death of the grizzly which was probably only protecting its own personal space…

I have seen a number of grizzlies since settling in up here although most have been a distance; with this said I know they’re around because I’ve seen their scat, tracks and a few weeks back I caught sight of the south end of a north bound grizzly in the boreal forest that exists on my 2.4 acres and indeed surrounds this entire area. I would never have known it was there if I hadn’t heard the dogs going bonkers on the first floor. Just yesterday morning the dogs once again alerted me to wildlife in close proximity; in this case it was a moose cow with her yearling calf foraging on my land:

Moose Cow In Back Yard 2

Moose cow foraging in the back yard – October 13, 2013

Probable yearling moose calf in the back yard

Probable yearling moose calf in the back yard

I apologize for the poor lighting; it was only around 08:15 AKDT and it was overcast and raining so there was just too little light.  These moose remained in the yard for maybe fifteen minutes before sauntering away to the east.  I was pleased to see it was a cow and calf as we’re into the rut now and I want nothing to do with any bull moose during that time!  Moose are responsible for more human deaths in Alaska than bears and during the rutting season the bulls are just full of blood lust and will go out of their way to kill any creature they feel is a threat or even just an annoyance.  Having had to run for my life from a moose cow protecting her spring calf in Kachemak Bay State Park I know these magnificent animals are not just big, dumb and slow ‘Bullwinkles’.  Believe me when I tell you they can move lightning fast even in dense forest and thick underbrush and they are surprisingly agile to boot.  I was not pleased to see Anana’s reaction; she would have loved to try to chase them and that could easily be a death sentence for her.  I saw what their hooves can do as I was forced to jettison my backpack during the aforementioned altercation and the cow ran over it tearing a large hole all the way through it and destroying my favorite compass in the process.

Most folks would probably prefer to just not have to deal with such issues but for me sharing the land with these creatures is part of the magic I feel living in Alaska.  Indeed, I really am not even so much ‘sharing’ the land as I am intruding into the wildlife’s terrain; after all, this is truly their home!  Because of this I really do try to be respectful and always remember that I am a visitor to the wildlife’s home.  I want to make every effort to peacefully co-exist with all the animals that may wander in this area and that means learning as much as I can about their lifestyles, habits and range.  I very much enjoy being able to watch them without disturbing them and especially to capture their beauty and power in video and still imagery.  The more I learn about the moose, caribou, bears, foxes, eagles and other wildlife the closer to Nature I feel and that’s a wonderful feeling.  It really is an honor to be able to share this land with so many large mammals and I wouldn’t trade my experiences – past, present and future – for anything!