Moose Encounters of the Close Kind

Kass Wood

© Copyright 2023 by Kass Wood

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I can’t truthfully say I’m an avid hiker. Not compared to my sister, Laurie, who will hike anything, anywhere at anytime there is anything resembling a trail. But I usually say yes to an invitation to hike with her or other friends who invite me. But for not being an avid hiker, as I review many of my vacations they were spent hiking the Tetons, Jasper, Pagosa Springs, Valley of Fire, Zions National Park, Banff, Glacier National Park, Yellowstone and of course, my own backyard, the stunning Wasatch Mountains in Utah.

It only makes sense that I would encounter deer, elk, moose and the barely-seen bear. But the operative word here is “encounter.” Of course I see these magnificent creatures on many of my alpine hikes. We consider ourselves lucky to see them. From a distance. Perhaps across the lake we’ve stopped at. Perhaps as we approach a meadow or up a decent span of the mountain. Those are nature’s treats and we scramble for our pocket binoculars and gasp with delight watching them munch foliage or stroll in slow motion through the forest. It is a gift to spot a wild creature when you are a healthy distance from them. But you can zoom your camera lens to later post on social media you were much closer to them than you were. It’s only natural and I’ve done it more than twice. But nature has a way of making you pay for your false claims. If you say you were within yards of a bull moose, she will put you within yards of a bull moose. Or five.

One afternoon in mid September, I headed up a beautiful trail in the Wasatch mountains with my sister, Laurie and her husband, Reed. The mountain was saturated with aspen and heavily dotted with pine trees. The gradually steep incline was made more gentle by wrapping the hike in the golden amber light and crisp temps typical of early fall in the Rockies. The smell of sweet rot from fallen leaves crunched between my boots and damp earth. The sunlight couldn’t stay put, playing with the breeze in the trees. Staccato chirping of some unseen rodent, boots chomping the path, uneven breathing, and distant twigs snapping created a sensory intoxication that often happens to me on a trail. It’s the absence of my adult life. It’s nature accepting me to be there in a respectful way. It always buzzes me.

I do this thing when Laurie and I hike together. I name flowers. I don’t ever know their real names, although you’d think by now I would have learned them. No…I make up names that are ridiculously silly and usually clever: Fairy’s Parasol, Muggle’s Wart, Alpine Sparkle, Timberline Toadstool, Diva Daffodil. We laugh at our own doltish innocence and share our updates as her husband hikes ahead of us taking flawless photographs with his digital Pentax and finding no humor in our self-assigned silliness.

As we approach the lake destination, a returning hiker and his buddy warn, “hey, there’s bull moose at the lake, just so you know.” We thank them but hear that on almost every hike, and if we see them, it’s usually safe. Usually.

Years ago, I was hiking with several friends and we were anything but quiet. Someone was recalling a story that was hilarious and we were all laughing and chiming in with our own memories of it. But as we turned a traverse on the trail, we came face to face with two enormous female moose. And that is not figuratively. I was in front position and was face to face. Within six yards. Everyone scattered but I froze on the trail. I am not one of those cool, granola types who instantly assesses the situation and confidently knows what to do in a crisis. I’m the one that gets paralyzed with fear. A career as a paramedic or emergency nurse would have been short lived for me…and probably my patients. Through primal survival instinct, my feet finally heard my screaming brain and slowly, almost undetectably, I moved behind the huge tree right next to me. I remembered moose don’t see well, but their sense of smell is keen. I hoped I didn’t stink. The moose followed but didn’t appear to actually see me. My heart defied medical explanation and moved behind my eyes while simultaneously staying in my chest. I was certain she could hear it. She continued to munch grass by my sanctuary tree. As she moved around the tree, so did I, keeping out of her sight. I could have reached out and touched her rump, where two horseflies had landed and I was oddly tempted to swoosh them off. I heard her heavy breath with occasional snorts, her grinding and swallowing, and at one point, I saw the whites of her huge eyes protected by heavy, thick lashes. It was terrifying. It was exhilarating. I kept moving around the girth of the trunk and she finally moved on and up the mountain. My boots had apparently rooted to the earth and I remained there.

My friends had had their own not-as-close encounter with its partner and when we felt safe (well, safer) we met up and screamed in hushed tones with excitement and exhilaration. I felt a bit transformed and decided right then and there that the moose must be my spirit animal!

In another experience, while hiking the Tetons years ago, my hiking companions and I were alerted to some moose wading in the river that followed the trail. About ten minutes later, we encountered six young bulls in or around the water. So had about eight other hikers. They had stopped to observe this amazing presentation. One guy had set up a tripod and mounted a very expensive camera with a lens the size of a Dachshund. I never figured out if it was the congestion of spectator-hikers, the thick mosquito cloud around the moose, or the testosterone of all the young bulls, but several of them became suddenly agitated, then aggressive, then almost frantic. They churned the water with their antlers, they ran up and down the bank, they snorted and twisted. Within seconds, three of them charged up the slight hill from the river right at us. It was like a magic trick. They were at the water, then they were approaching the trail…and it looked like it was blood they were after. We must have looked like bowling pins getting hit with a strike ball. We all ran in every direction leaving our packs, hiking sticks, water bottles and even the expensive camera left helpless on a tripod whose legs wouldn’t carry it to safety. I think even the men screamed. I felt ashamed of myself for just running to safety with no regard for my husband, Laurie and Reed, or the other hikers who were less agile. It was survival mode and it did not flatter me but I discovered we had all “run for our lives!” I think the only casualty was the guy’s camera, but I will never, ever underestimate the speed of a moose. Or it’s tolerance level.

So, after these specific moose encounters (as well as many other wildlife episodes,) we heeded the hikers warning. As we arrived at the lake, good to their word were bull moose. Five of them.Two of them on the trail. Also two cows. Also, it was mating season. We bushwhacked around them to a sheltered spot about 20 feet from the lake shore for our traditional hiking dinner. After a not-thought-out discussion of staying or heading back down, we slowly and quietly pulled out our wine, cheese, salami, crackers and fruit and cautiously began to eat.

Minutes into our mountain meal, two of the bulls became agitated. It seems the cow was flirting, sort of teasing the males. She was prancing through the water looking very sassy and sure of herself. The bulls seemed twitterpated by her. The other female must have been older (and wiser) because she stayed on the far side of the lake and took no interest in the antics of these hormone-driven creatures.

The other three bull moose took this personally and trotted across the trail and lake to participate in the wooing ritual. This mating dispute was within 30 yards of our secluded patch. Their wide dull antlers dug at the ground and they moved their enormous bodies effortlessly to paw the earth, creating dust clouds that we could actually smell. There was snorting, pawing, and charging each other only to stop short with a head toss. I hid behind the large bush and wondered if we had not chosen wisely. Reed warned to keep quiet and still and I was thinking, “Seriously?” Except for my heart, which much have sounded like a kettle drum, I once again, froze, but observed acutely, in spite of fear.

The ritual was fascinating and forced me to relinquish control of the situation. There was no reasoning with the bulls, no way to interfere, no way to prevent harm to the younger bulls, no convincing the cow to just choose one for crying out loud and let the other’s leave peacefully. No. I had to just watch. And I did…in awe and powerful respect.

The courting went on too long and it started getting dark. But the trail was blocked and even bushwhacking out would signal invasion of this competition.

As dusk approached (and we still had to return down the trail), the victory was apparently awarded to the larger bull. The younger bulls admitted defeat and spread out in different directions hoping for another shot tomorrow.

With three bulls still near the trail, we respectfully and reverently headed down. It had been a grand adventure and a wild experience. We needed our headlamps to finish the trail which created mythical shadows and conjured creatures along the way. We passed two of the rejected bulls a ways off the trail but we knew their defeat made them more docile. Probably. Hopefully.

We regaled our story all the way back to the freeway where they dropped me off at my car. I was buzzed with wildness. It was nature blessing itself and we witnessed it.

I had taken some pictures on my phone. I did not zoom in because I didn’t need to. The moose were 30 feet away and I did not need to exaggerate when I posted them on my page. Nature will sometimes give you what you want, if you are diligent. So, when you elaborate on having a close encounter, she is listening and will very likely give it to you. So, be ready. You can bet I will be from now on.

I’ve always had a deep respect and love for all wildlife, which usually keeps nature-goers safe! In my many encounters with moose, these three take the spotlight in my wilderness memories. It was a delight to craft it into words with the hopeful possibility of sharing and perhaps even plugging into other’s similar experiences.

Kass Wood began story telling and writing at the age of ten after reading the Box Car Children.  Her stories, novellas, poems, lyrics and journals have been shared for years by her Cedar Chest.  Excluding some freelance writing and proofing for Salt Lake’s premier local monthly magazine, on-line and in-person writing classes, she has considered her writing a hobby. However, after encouragement of friends, she recently began working on a compilation project with the intent of publishing. Her working background ranged from managing a metaphysical bookstore, administrative assistant, marketing, high-end retail and a decade working with profoundly disable children and young adults.  She is currently retired, living in Salt Lake City, Utah with her husband, dogs, family, and enjoying a life of her own design.  

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