Pete's Stuff

Pete Meets Moose

Alces alces

Well, that's an ambiguous title - actually it was two moose; a cow and calf, in late spring. It could have been a lot more dangerous than it actually turned out. I think I ended up doing the right thing.

This happened several years ago, one afternoon in May, I think, when I was up on the North Shore. I drove up the Gunflint Trail, stopped various places along the way, and was at the Magnetic Rock Trail in mid-afternoon.

I parked at the trailhead and headed east through the coniferous forest, hooked north along the bare rocks rising up from a small pond, and then continued back east up a ridge. The trail was only a foot or two wide, rough and rocky, with a pleasant combination of open scrub, boreal forest, and rock outcrops. I kept on up the ridge, finally arriving at Magnetic Rock an hour or so from the trailhead. The name is apt; the rock is huge, maybe 15 feet high and 10 feet in diameter , standing like a sentinel just off the main trail. It largely consists of magnetite (Fe2O3), and records the magnetic field of the Earth at the time it was deposited in that place by the retreat of the Laurentian ice sheet. The difference between the rock's magnetism and the Earth's showed up in the wild swing of the compass needle I had brought for exactly that purpose.

Having satisfied my curiosity, I continued on another half mile or so before losing the trail, which rapidly diminished past the main attraction. The sun was starting to get lower, and with at least a hour hike out I thought it wise to turn around at that point. I retraced my steps, bouncing up and over several small rocky hills, and passed the spur trail to Magnetic Rock again. Only a few hundred yards later, I suddenly felt the need to stop - something was nagging at me. A few seconds later, I became aware of the reason why I stopped. There was an amorphous brown blob on the left side of the trail, about thirty yards ahead of me.

My first thought was "animal". My second thought was "large", and the third was "bear", although each one was more provisional than the last. I stood still, out in the open, as the distance wasn't so close as to really be alarming, and waited for the blob to move. Presently it did, and I could see a long muzzle lift up from the ground where it had been browsing. This quickly converged my thoughts to "moose". A few seconds later the blob moved, and my thought was confirmed.

So my next step was to consider the habits of the famously irascible alcid. Moose have poor eyesight, but excellent hearing and smell. I stayed out in the open, but did two things without much conscious thought. First, I looked for shelter - or at least a large, solid tree to use as a shield should the need arise. Second, I raised my hand in the air to feel the wind, and quickly realized it was at my back, thus carrying my scent directly in the animal's direction. If it didn't already know I was there, it would soon. I let out a deep sigh, hoping to basically let it know "Hey, I'm over here". The moose was only a few feet off the trail, so my path back to the trailhead was definitely blocked, and I couldn't continue unless I foolishly made a close approach.

So instead I just stood there, watching.

The moose browsed for a few more minutes, and then I saw its blobby shape split into two pieces, one large, one small. "Dammit", I thought. "Now I have to be careful."

After about ten minutes, the cow exhausted her immediate forage, and lifted up her head and started moving up towards the trail, which ran through a mild saddle about twenty to thirty yards ahead of me. The calf followed her. I simply stayed put, right on the trail, without any major movement. As she walked out onto the trail about twenty yards ahead, I could see her full height - and moose are impressively sized, no matter how far away they are. She briefly paused to let her calf catch up, and then turned to look directly down the trail at me. I just stood there, for an instant looking directly at the face of a magnificent animal. Then she slowly turned her head back, crossed the trail, and descended a fairly steep slope towards the swampy area north of the trail, with her calf in tow. I could hear the crackling of branches as they went downslope and pushed through the thick shrubs fringing a shallow pond. Since they were downslope and about twenty to thirty yards off trail, I felt it safe to continue on my way, after what I'd guess to be about a half hour of (entirely unresented) delay. However, I was so wrapped up in the experience that I really don't know how long it was - only that it wasn't enough to prevent me getting back to the trailhead by dark. And I don't really care to know.

To this day, I'm completely sure that the cow knew I was there and determined that I wasn't a threat. Maybe it had to do with the way I behaved, maybe it had to do with frequent human contact. I don't know, but it was certainly a memorable experience.