Of all the critters you may happen upon in the north woods, the moose is most likely to leave a lasting impression. Watching a moose from the safety and comfort of your vehicle is a passive experience. Meet one in the woods–say along a forest trail–and you get a different view.
We were hiking out after fishing for brook trout in the West Branch of the Split Rock River when I met my first moose, standing in the middle of the trail, browsing on an overhanging willow. She was so intent on eating that she ignored our approach. But we couldn’t ignore the hungry cow. We had to get past her to reach our vehicle.
Dad shouted at the moose and she reluctantly sauntered out of the trail and stopped about 25 yards away. A curious 12-year-old, I wanted to pause and look as we passed her, but Dad hustled me along. He knew better than to linger near an irritated moose.
Moose and trout fishing go together like butter and bread. On a teenaged fly-fishing vacation, I was wading up one side of Wyoming’s Gros Ventre River while a friend worked the other side. Suddenly, he suggested I cross to his side of the river. I didn’t know why until I rounded the next bend and saw a mature bull moose standing on my bank. I crossed the river.
As we walked past the bull on the opposite bank, he never looked our way, instead staring into the woods behind him. Later, when we met a man staying in a nearby campground, we learned why. The man said he’d brought his two small children within a few feet of the bull so they could see the magnificent creature. He clearly had no idea that a moose may be dangerously unpredictable.
I learned about that unpredictability shortly after daybreak on a fall morning many years ago. Sneaking around a beaver pond in search of mallards, I suddenly heard what sounded like a bulldozer crashing through the young aspens. Then a bull moose burst into view. With my hunting dog at heel, I began putting some distance between me and the moose, which was about 30 yards away and looking peeved. The bull held his ground while I circled the pond, taking the long, but safe way to get the heck out of there.
On another occasion, a wintering cow caught me off guard. She’d spent a week browsing on the brush just outside our bedroom window. One morning, she wasn’t there. So I went for a walk to see where she’d gone. I stumbled upon her bedded down in front of the nearby unoccupied cabin. The cow was clearly unhappy with me as she rose from her bed, so I beat a hasty retreat. I stood beside the cabin so, if necessary, I could slip around the corner and get away. The cow approached within 50 feet and stared at me. I watched her for a few minutes before leaving; keeping an eye to my back trail in case she decided to follow me. Later in the day, I returned to see if the moose was still around. I got no further than the corner of the cabin where I’d been standing. The cow had circled around and approached the cabin from another direction, almost certainly looking for me. My tracks in the snow had been obliterated by moose hoof prints. It was an instructive and somewhat chilling lesson in moose behavior.
Another lesson came not from a moose, but from an old moose biologist. “For a moose, offense is defense,” he told me. This makes sense. Wolves eat moose. To survive, healthy moose can successfully fight and deter an attacking wolf pack. Thus they are likely to respond the same way to whatever else they perceive as a threat, including humans.
Perhaps this explains the behavior of a bull I met while deer hunting a few years ago. Or maybe he was just in a bad mood. The bull responded to a grunt call intended to attract a whitetail buck, though I didn’t realize it at the time. He walked directly toward me and suddenly was too close for comfort, standing broadside, somewhat menacingly, about 20 yards away. I had a feeling the encounter wouldn’t end well. Since I was carrying a deer rifle, I contemplated shooting the bull, but decided against it. I waved my arms and told the moose to go away. Instead, he rushed forward and stopped. His ears were laid back, the hair on the back of his neck was up and he was wild-eyed.
Now the moose was very close and appeared ready to charge. I was standing behind the trunk of a large aspen. Again I contemplated shooting the bull, but decided the light, .243 caliber would not make an instantaneous kill. I couldn’t afford taking that chance. Instead, I fired a shot over the animal’s head, triggering (pardon the pun) a charge. Head down, the moose hit the aspen I was standing behind, making a loud crack I’ll never forget. As I quick-stepped to keep the tree between us, the moose tried to reach around for me with a foreleg. Then, just as suddenly as the charge began, the moose was gone.
It took me a moment gather my wits. Curious, I then followed the moose’s tracks in the wet leaves. I jumped it from a balsam thicket within 40 yards, where it appeared to be waiting for me. It didn’t go very far before stopping in another thicket. Deciding not to press my luck, I headed off in the opposite direction—wiser and with a good story to tell.
Actually, only a handful of the moose I’ve met seemed dangerous. Most were like the young cow that joined me for an evening of fly-fishing on a secluded pond. She found me standing amidst the water lilies she intended to eat for dinner. She hung around within casting distance for an hour or so, patiently waiting for me to leave. I talked softly to the moose and she seemed to listen, which is more than I can say for some people.
I think about that cow moose and the many others I’ve met, while wandering in the woods these days. It’s been five years or more since I last met a moose. I still find tracks in the mud while out walking and on rare occasions see a moose cross the road ahead of my vehicle. But moose are now so few that chance encounters, once a common occurrence, are unlikely. But the moose I’ve met have left a lasting impression. And I’m grateful for that.