What animal do you fear most in the wilderness? Experienced backpacker or novice, the majority will say “a bear of course”. Whether it is the Appalachian Trail that runs from Georgia to Maine, the Alaskan backcountry, or the thousands of mountain trails in Colorado it is the bear. Stories of bear attacks are legend and millions of words have been written on how to avoid a bruin assault. There is no doubt in any hikerÕs mind that they are not Yogi.
Barely a word has been written warning of an animal we have found more unpredictable then any bear. No cautionary advice like wearing a bell, singing songs, talking loudly, or never hiking alone to let this animal know you are around.
It took personal experience and the words of a sage man before we understood the danger these mammals presented. They definitely are not Bullwinkle.
Moose are the largest cervids (members of the deer family that include elk, caribou, mule deer, and white-tailed deer) on the American continent. Averaging 6.5 to 9 feet at their humped shoulders and weighing up to 1400 pounds for a mature male, moose are enormous. Sure they look kind of goofy with their long bulbous nosed heads, wattled necks, and gangly legs that look to thin to support their bulky bodies. Did you notice the antlers though? Palmate (means broadly flattened) and sometimes spreading 5 feet across and capable of fending off the bear that most hikers fear. Did the wide hoofed feet escape your attention? The legs might look spindly but a kick that connects will cave in the skull of a bear.
The first picture accompanying this article is of a moose we encountered on the well-trodden East Inlet Trail in Grand Lake, Colorado. Just a young one, five years old or so, probably weighing in around nine hundred pounds. I dropped my pack, left the trail and got within 25 yards to take some photos. He was not impressed in the least. His vigorously shaking his head, pawing the ground, and rattling the young aspen trees with his antlers convinced me that I should leave the area.
Photo number two is of Jack (yeah, we named him) taken at Skeleton Gulch, Colorado. Jack was roaming around the meadow when we first arrived. He was content to wallow in a nearby mud hole, nibble at the young shoots of grass in the meadow, and paid us little attention. Mid-afternoon that day we were relaxing at the edge of the meadow about 30 yards from the mud wallow where Jack was snoozing in the sunshine. We saw him rise and start to wander across the meadow. He stopped, looked at us over his shoulder, turned and plodded toward us. Mary and I got up and walked, watching over our shoulders, toward our tent. Jack followed. We circled the tent (like two thin layers of nylon would stop the gargantuan mammal) and he followed. Up close his moist brown eyes did not show anger, more like curiosity. I admit to being nervous but not scared. Mary was frightened and ducked in to a close grove of pines. To be supportive I joined her (and by then I was starting to get scared) because the moose was determined to get real close to me. I am 6 foot tall and JackÕs humped shoulders were level with my head. He was a big guy. Jack decided he had harassed us enough and wandered away.
Late in the afternoon of day two a man and woman came walking across the meadow from the direction of Mt. Richtofen. They told us about their hike and the herd of elk they had watched. We told them about Jack. The man asked if the moose had shown any interest in us. We told him the story.
He told us how fortunate we were. Twenty plus years spent as a moose researcher in Rocky Mountain National Park had proven to him that moose were more dangerous than bear. Rutting males (September to October is mating season) were extremely territorial. Females with calves (May to June is birthing season) did not tolerate any intrusion near their young.
Jack visited the meadow a couple of more times while we were there. We gave him the respect he deserved.
The day we hiked out on the Ditch Road we rounded a curve and stopped. Fifty yards ahead, walking slowly away from us was a really big moose, with a calf. Our hearts started beating real fast and loud enough that she must have heard them. Mary focused her camera on the sight and saw another calf. Twins. Remembering what we had been told, we stayed far back. The trio of moose finally crossed the Ditch and was soon out of sight in the trees. In the photographs (not included in this article) they are difficult to make out. We were not going to try to get any closer.
There are three foolproof ways to know if a moose in the area. Tracks that look like white-tailed deer on steroids. Scat (that is poop) in the form of oval pellets. The most telling, and easiest to notice results from their feeding habits. Moose love to graze on the young foliage of willow, birch, fir and aspen trees. Young trees broken over to a 45 degree angle happen when they “ride down” the tree by straddling it. They push it down parallel to the ground so they can nibble on the really juicy bits.
Be aware, keep your distance, take good photographs, but do not expect them to pose. Boris and Natasha respected the moose. You should, too.
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