Moose on the Loose
(This 878th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 20, 2008.)
A bull moose as often seen from a canoe
in Algonquin Park or the Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area
Richard Gast in an excellent article about moose in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, aptly describes this strange animal as "burly and imposing and at the same time gangly, graceless, top-heavy and strange." He continues, "They often stand more than six feet tall at the shoulder; their brawny, humpbacked bodies with short, stubby tails set atop long, somewhat spindly legs that, although they may appear weak, in reality are remarkably powerful. They have very large heads with protruding, bucket-nosed, droopy-lipped snouts. Beard-like flaps of skin covered with long hair, called bells or dewlaps, dangle from their throats. Mature Adirondack bulls usually carry a rack of antlers between four and five feet wide."
Everything Gast has to say about these animals is accurate and certainly those characteristics are far from flattering. Despite that, however, on each of the dozen or so times I have seen a moose, my first impression was always, "What a majestic beast."
I add that this impression was always accompanied by concern for the safety of my companions and me, because moose can be formidable and dangerous animals. This is especially true of cow moose with calves or bulls during the September-October rutting season when they are competing for mates.
Remember that these are very large animals. Full-grown bulls in the Lower 48 States weigh almost a half ton. (Alaskan bulls are even larger, weighing up to 1800 pounds.)
Most people see moose from cars. A group of us driving through Algonquin Park early one March morning came upon two cow moose grazing along the highway. The animals were undisturbed at our approach. We could just imagine the damage done to a car and its occupants if it ran into one of these giants.
But most of the moose I have seen have been while I was on canoe trips in the Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Usually we would come upon one belly deep in a swampy area feeding on marsh grasses: sometimes a cow with a youngster nearby; equally often a bull. These animals we could approach to within about twenty yards while keeping our canoes in deep water for easy departure.
The moose always recognized our presence. The bulls usually continued to feed longer than the cows, only turning occasionally to keep us in view. But then they would slowly and deliberately move up onto solid ground and disappear into the forest. Disappear is the right word because one minute we could see them, then just the undergrowth moving, then in what seemed an eye-blink no sign of them at all. It was like a magician's trick.
That, of course, is the fun aspect of moose sightings. Less entertaining are the episodes meeting them on a portage or campsite. Once three of us stopped for lunch on a Boundary Waters Kawashaschong Lake campsite. At the end of an arduous trip we sat on logs eating the last of our supplies and critiquing our experiences over the last six days. (This discussion was supposed to improve our experience, especially dietary, the following year.)
A loud noise interrupted our conversation. It sounded like a horse galloping through the undergrowth. It wasn't a horse: a bull moose suddenly burst out of the forest into the campsite. Although this happened years ago, I still recall that animal's wild eye turned toward me as it came within about twenty feet. Thankfully it never broke stride but veered off and continued out into the water. It swam across the lake leaving the three of us speechless.
I have never knowingly met a moose on a portage -- you see very little carrying a canoe -- but friends have. When they did meet one, they simply had to wait until the moose moved off.
Now the New York Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that about 500 moose inhabit our Adirondack State Park, an amazing number since the species was unrecorded in the state (except for two attempts at reintroduction) between 1861 and the mid-1980s. These moose moved in on their own from nearby Vermont and Ontario.
It is great to have this wilderness-defining animal back and Adirondack hikers should be on the lookout for these wonderful, even though intimidating, giants. Drivers too, especially at dawn and dusk.-- Gerry Rising