Whose Woods These Are - Part 1
By Jessica Shepherd
In the lee of the snow-shrouded garden, she folds herself down for a nap. Long legs pretzel beneath her, her massive head comes to rest, and she lets out a sigh. Only her ears remain alert, even in sleep.
When she dreams, does she dream of wolves? Or a pair of determined coyotes trotting out of the canyon in search of her calf, nestled nearby? Their noses would test the air, predatory eyes alight with anticipation. When she twitches in her sleep, is she rushing to intercede?
Hours later, inside an adjacent cabin, a light switches on and spills an amber hue across the yard. Silhouetted against the light, a man pulls on a jacket and steps into ski boots. “Down! Stay down.” He scolds a red dog bouncing into view through the window. Behind them, a second red dog stands patiently.
The moose lifts her chin. Her breath huffs in the cold as she blinks awake.
“All right, let’s go!” The man calls to the dogs, opening the door.
Visible in the pre-dawn gloom by virtue of their glow-in-the-dark collars, the dogs sprint ahead. The man trots after and joins them on the road, then bends to step into his skis.
Fully awake now, she erupts. Jumping up and lunging for the opening she’d made in the fence the night before, she charges across the road between the man and the dogs, grunting her displeasure.
Yelling, the man back-peddles with his arms until he falls against the adjacent car. Trapped by his skis, he can’t run or dive into the car. Swinging his head back and forth, he uses his headlamp to search out her brown form against the snowy landscape. But she has either run after the dogs or dissolved into the trees on the far side of the yard.
He had intended to ski down the road in the direction from which she’d exploded. Two or three seconds later and they would have collided. Once he determines she isn’t coming after him, he unclips the skis and calls desperately for the dogs. “Come, boys! Come!”
Upstairs in the cabin, the woman wakes and sits up when the front door slams shut. “What’s going on?”
“That f-ing moose is back, and she charged us again! I was going for a ski with the dogs, and she came out of nowhere!”
“Are the dogs inside?” The woman makes her way downstairs, knotting the sash of a bathrobe around her waist.
“Yeah, they’re here. They ran down to the lower road and then came up the back way. Fortunately, they had on their glowy collars so I could see them. They barked the whole time.”
“Where did she go?
“I don’t know. It was too dark to see. She charged just as I was getting my skis on. She could have killed me if she hadn’t been going after the dogs!” For once, he isn’t being overly dramatic.
“Well damn! What do we do now?”
Somewhere nearby, the moose stands over her sleeping calf, sides heaving. Typical of her kind, she is near-sighted and colorblind. She pivots her ears and extends her nose to determine if the danger has passed. She has no way of knowing if the dogs were a real threat, or only a lingering tendril of her nightmares.
With 2,500 – 3,500 moose inhabiting Alaska’s southern Kenai Peninsula, moose-human conflicts are inevitable. Given the recent surge in home construction and the uptick in traffic, these conflicts are increasing. The city of Homer, with its laid-back attitude, ocean views, and southern exposure, is one of the fastest-growing communities in the state, netting a 17% population increase between 2010 and 2020. That growth equates to new roads, cleared woodlands, and expanding suburbs in what was, until quite recently, prime moose forage habitat.
Moose are creatures of habit. They tend to deliver their knock-kneed calves, often twins, in the same locale each year, and move about within a limited range. In the winter, they often amble down toward town to avoid deep snow, then return to their home range come spring. Cow moose live, on average, eight years, although they can live considerably longer. This cow is probably the offspring of a radio-collared moose (via the Alaska Department of Fish and Game) who roamed this neighborhood when I first bought the house. If that’s the case, she’s probably eight or nine years old. Until now, we’ve never had a run-in with her.
This winter, the weather has alternated between heavy snowfall and rain that freezes to form an icy glaze. That’s fine for dogs and skiers who can travel atop the crust, but it’s not ideal for moose who break through the rim of ice, making each step difficult. To compensate, moose tend to walk along slick roads and highways. On average, 250 moose die annually on the Kenai Peninsula in moose-auto collisions, with most fatalities occurring in the winter months. Humans die in these collisions too, when the animals, often in excess of 1,000 pounds, buckle upon contact, slide across the hood, shatter the windshield, and end up inside the car.
Heavy snow years are especially difficult for moose calves, who need to eat constantly during the brief daylight hours in order to gain weight. Cows and calves spend their days searching for willow, birch, cottonwood and mountain ash. When deep snows obscure more desirable foods, moose resort to nibbling bitter spruce tips. Calf mortality from starvation is not uncommon.
I know these woods belong to the moose, whose ancestors date to a mystical time long before this land was plotted and subdivided to make way for cabins and gardens. And so, I face a dilemma. Do I side with the moose, who are hungry and simply looking for an easy meal? Or do I, when my gentle admonishments from the front porch fail to convince them, resort to harsher means?
The day before, I’d sat working at my desk while behind me Arlie and Tavish slept on the couch. Arlie lay on his back with his lips drooping, like the canine imitation of a crocodile. Gazing beyond the computer screen toward the garden, I took in the glow of fresh snowfall gracing the alders and spruce. My eyes tracked chickadees and juncos at a pair of birdfeeders suspended along the fence. And that’s when I noticed the moose for the first time.
She stood mid-garden, calmly pulling at the stims of our current bushes with her lower teeth before methodically chewing the red twigs. Oh boy. “Hal!” I called up the stairs, “There’s a moose in the garden.”
“Looks like she took down part of the fence,” he called down. Sure enough, on the far side of the garden she had found a weak spot in the fence and easily shouldered the wire aside for access. I heard him walk across the floor. “There’s a calf around this side of the house.” He called from the bedroom.
I watched her work her way down the row of overgrown currants. I had planned to trim them back anyway, so maybe she was doing me a favor, just so long as she left the fruit trees alone. She was thin, worn down by winter. Had she chosen the fenced garden because it provided some protection? A place to shelter away from the assault of cars and predators? She swiveled her sun-bleached face, presumably keeping an eye out for her calf.
The dogs, spotting her from their perch on the couch, barked and ran to the door, but I shooshed them back, hoping she’d be gone soon.
Over the next hour, we observed her from the security of our respective windows as she worked her way up the row of currant bushes until the six bushes were reduced to stubs that would not bear fruit for jam or wine the following year. Done with the currants, she ambled down toward the lower end of the garden.
“Now she’s starting on the apple trees!” I called out.
Hal came downstairs and headed into the kitchen with a purposeful stride. He came back a moment later, went out onto the back deck, and began to beat two metal pot lids together. “Hey! Get out of there!” He chided her.
Let it be known that pot lids do nothing to dissuade moose. She flicked her ears, but never even looked his way.
Meanwhile, the doe-eyed calf trudged through the deep snow alongside the house. Born in early May the year before, she was now nearly half grown and had the makings of a beauty – if any moose can be truly beautiful. Like her mother, she had a narrow head and long lashes that gave her a coy expression. Approaching the snow-covered flower garden, she stopped to inspect an exposed nine-bark shrub that caught her eye. This ornamental was a favorite of mine, with chartreuse leaves in summer that added warmth to an otherwise shady portion of the yard. When I opened the bathroom window to reason with her, she contemplated me briefly before continuing her carnage.
It was then I noticed the carefully tended cherry trees. We had planted them together the year we married. They were a devastation of broken and severed branches. So too the sweet aspen tree, nurtured inside a corner of the garden. Two-foot-long teeth marks marred its tender bark.
Hal heard the squeak of my chair and the clatter of dogs' feet as they ran, barking, toward the door. He called down, “Don’t let them out.” But it was too late. My concern for our trees outweighed my sense of reason.
The dogs barreled out of the house, barking as if they meant it. Mama moose charged out of the garden, strait through the fence and the bird feeders, in a bee-line for her calf. The wire fencing crumpled, bird seed flew, and the feeders lay upended on the ground.
To be continued…
Truly enjoyed your article. Having lived through a Jackson, WY winter, we do appreciate the animals in the yard... Looking forward to the second installment.
Such an engaging story, Jessica. Riveting and informative. Can't wait for the next episode! I felt your pain when the moose devastated your lovingly planted trees. Thanks for sharing this with us.