My biggest personal fear when mushing is falling through ice to deep water. Earlier in the season we had a bath with some fairly shallow water. Let’s hope that’s the end of this season’s watery excursions.
My second biggest personal fear is a moose encounter. On the night of Wednesday February 28, I had a moose encounter. This encounter ended without any injury, but had plenty of peril and almost-peril.
It was around 10:00 pm, with a temperature of about -25F. I was heading for the Jenny M. hill in the Two Rivers area, about a 19-mile loop that, with some variations, is one of our main winter excursions. Frankie and Storm were in the lead, followed by Nicki & Dekker, Monkey & Red, Higgs & Asa, Roo & Peetie, then Simba & Rattles. Chester was a loose leader (or follower, wherever inspiration took him).
We were moving at a reasonable pace, around 12 mph. The moon wasn’t up in the sky yet. We were heading along the winter trail (part of the Yukon Quest trail), and I had just crossed Pheasant Farm Road. There’s a little access trail that leads to a large field. Heading straight across the field gets on Baseline Road and towards the Pleasant Valley area. Our usual route is to cross the field, then bear right just before Baseline Road. Past a fellow’s house with several airplanes, then down a steep hill, to a slough that leads towards the back side of Jenny M. hill.
Just before the field, I saw four deep orange reflectors ahead of me — maybe 50 feet ahead. I was thinking it was another team, then some snow machines, then some of those orange reflectors that mark several trails in the area. I jumped on the drag pad while thinking all of these thoughts. My thought process arrived at “moose” around the same time the lead dogs arrived. It only took an instant, while I was stopping, for the dogs to reach the moose. Mooses. Alces alces gigas, to be precise.
It was a mother cow moose and her baby, probably a yearling, standing right in the middle of the trail. The mom was typical moose size: big. The baby was nearly as big. They were both straight ahead of me, and staring at me and the team. I had stopped so that Frankie & Storm were mere inches from the mom’s front legs.
Without thinking or planning to, I yelled at the top of my lungs, “F*CKING WORST CASE SCENARIO!!! DOGS!!! IT’S A F*CKING MOOSE!!!” I might have yelled a few other things after that.
By the time I had yelled the first word or two, my vision was obscured from the big breath cloud from the dog team. This is a phenomenon I’d noticed many times…stopping on the trail results in a cloud of collective dog breath. The team had bunched up a bit, and maybe some moose breath contributed to the cloud. Suddenly I couldn’t really see the moose, or my lead dogs! It was like a thick fog rolled in.
I had a few seconds to think of setting my ice hook and running up to try to do something. Some piece of my mind was wondering whether I had an axe in my sled bag (we never carry a gun — or even own one). As the fog cleared, the cow moose had moved closer. The baby had moved off to the side, out of the immediate picture.
The cow sort of snorted (not quite a bellow) a few times, and jumped / walked / stomped forward, up between Nicki/Dekker and Monkey/Pumpkin. The dogs were not barking, but were definitely paying attention. It had all happened so quickly that they were just starting to form a curious circle around the moose.
Was the moose stomping the dogs? That’s the biggest danger with a dog team. Moose are known to be cranky, especially later in the winter when food is scarce. Wolves are their only natural predator in the winter (bears are predators on moose, but hibernate during the winter. People and automobiles might also be included as predators). To a moose, a dog probably looks a whole lot like a wolf. And a team of dogs must seem similar to a pack of wolves.
The moose missed. None of the dogs got stomped, and the cow moose sort of shuffled off to the side rather than staying in the middle of the team. I could hear its hooves and its breath, maybe 20 feet in front of me. As soon as it was out of the way, I yelled some more. “Frankie, Storm: Ready, let’s go!!” The dogs went. It hadn’t even been 30 seconds. I actually ducked as I went by the cow moose, five feet to my right. If it were upset, it could have done something to me as I passed (according to the encyclopedia, female moose aggressive behaviors include kicking).
We were past! I looked back to see whether there was pursuit, and to check on Chester. I went forward about 200 feet, to the start of the open field, and stopped the team. At that point, I didn’t know whether dogs were stomped or otherwise injured or in trouble.
The whole team started looking and moving to the right, with Frankie & Storm actually starting to take a 90 degree right turn. ANOTHER F*CKING MOOSE!!! I couldn’t believe it.
This must have been the twin of the prior baby, or maybe it was offspring from the prior year. The team decided they wanted to investigate. This time, the moose was about 20 feet to the right, and like its other family members seemed more surprised than anything else. It didn’t make any move towards or away from us, and with a little more yelling I got the team to start moving in the right direction (away from these oversize deer creatures!).
Another few hundred feet and I stopped, fully in the open field. I looked around several times while I tended to the team, keeping an eye out for more moose family members (cousins, uncles…). Nobody was hurt at all, or even touched as far as I could see. Two necklines were unclipped (how did that happen?) and a couple of dogs needed their tuglines untangled, but no harm was done. Chester came running up from behind. All was well.
I have a few theories about the moose family. First is that they are a family. Young moose are born around May, and stay with their mothers for a year. Prior years’ offspring might also hang around. Twinning is fairly common if nutrition is good.
The moose I think was the mom was definitely larger than the others. Alaskan moose are the largest type in the world, with females easily over 800 pounds and 2 meters at the shoulder. When I went by it on the sled, it was looking down at me (aided by my ducking). The young moose I encountered first was still big, but not as big as mom (I’d say about 2/3 the height). I didn’t get close enough to the second offspring to tell whether it was the same size (a twin) or full-sized (a prior year’s offspring). Moose bulls and cows tend not to travel together, so I don’t think it was dad.
My reasoning for why the moose didn’t attack is as follows. First, it was quite surprised, and the whole encounter was over in just a few seconds. It didn’t have much time to start an attack, and the dogs weren’t showing any aggressive behaviors (like snarling, barking, and posturing).
Second, there was a young moose there, and the dogs were not paying much attention to it. Moose, like many other creatures, are known to attack when their young are threatened.
Third, this was basically a neighborhood moose (the natural range for a moose is only a few square miles. I’ve probably seen the same moose on other occasions, and passed it without seeing it at times, too). One of its most common everyday experiences, no doubt, is browsing for food near dog yards. In the dog yards of Two Rivers, Alaska, you’ll find any number of dogs (from a few to over a hundred), all chained and/or fenced. These dogs might get loud, but they have no opportunity to attack a moose.
If it were a cranky solitary bull moose, a little later in the season, the outcome might have been different. Deeper snow can lead moose to follow the trails, which they typically don’t do very much otherwise (trails might be convenient for a moose, but aren’t useful if there’s no food left on the trees and brush along the trails).
What could I have done if the moose started to attack the dogs? The plan forming in my mind when I first saw the moose directly in front of my lead dogs was to run to the front of the team, and try to use the gangline to pull the team forward, away from the moose. I was also ready to try to challenge the moose, to try to scare it away. These were, no doubt, stupid and futile ideas.
The final piece of my theory about the positive outcome is that the moose noticed the dogs, but also had a loud human, with a bright light, heading towards it. Maybe my first instinct, to yell loudly, served to give the moose second thoughts about any sort of aggression.
We finished the run without further encounters, and I made another check of the dogs when we got home. Everyone was fine, and we all slept soundly, with only a few scary visions of huge moose feet, the sound of the moose snorting and shuffling, and the thump of those feet hitting the packed snow of the trail.