Whose Woods These Are - Part Two
By Jessica Shepherd
The dogs barreled out of the house, barking as if they meant it. Mama moose, fearing for her calf, charged out of the garden, strait through the fence and the bird feeders, in a bee-line for her calf. The wire fencing crumpled, birdseed flew, and the feeders lay upended on the ground.
Not that she need have worried. The dogs had no intention of tangling with a gangly calf and were hell-bent on getting back inside after coming within arm’s length of an indignant moose. So, here we were, afraid to go outside for fear of a seven-foot-tall ruminant with hooves that could, on impact, change our lives.
Standing at the window, Hal half-joked about filling the freezer, “We’d have enough meat to last us two or three years!” But hunting season was months away, and the calf likely wouldn’t survive the winter without the protection of her mother. Still, Hal loaded the shotgun and put it by the front door in the event that we had to rescue one of the dogs.
He called our neighbor Chris, who works as a fishery biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He had hoped to gain some insider wisdom about dissuading moose from entering the garden, but no. “Well Hal,” Chris informed him in his mid-western drawl, “That’s just part of living up here in the great land.”
Next, he called a game management biologist we knew. Jason was a bit more helpful, “If you’re serious about keeping moose out of the garden, you’re going to need a higher fence, eight feet at least, and you could run a strand of electric wire along the top.” Hum. That undertaking would have to wait until next summer. Hal admitted that we were afraid to go outside, to which Jason replied, a shrug in his voice, “Well, I can’t do anything until the fence is reconstructed.”
Aside from the immediate fear of flying hooves, it comes down to what we value. We have cherry trees that don’t produce at this elevation, and the currants will grow back within the year. All in all, I’m willing to accept the loss and concede to the hunger that drives this pair to take up residence alongside our garden. I even envision removing the fences and letting the grasses and alders grow tall to shelter this pair.
I wondered how we might regain her trust. Up until now, we had lived without incident in what was, by rights, her habitat. Each spring she walked past the house with one or two newborns spider-walking behind her as if to show them off. Rather than assume that we, as property owners, have the right to rule this landscape, was there a way to demonstrate our peaceful intentions toward this good mother?
As Alaskans, we value proximity to wildlife for viewing and hunting. For most of us, wildlife encounters add to the charm of living in the north. Come September, every hunter is out to “get his moose”, and state game managers continually strive to increase moose numbers to assure successful hunting even as we impinge on their habitat. Then there’s the ongoing debate about culling wolves despite solid scientific evidence that lack of adequate forage is the main deterrent to moose populations
At the same time, we increasingly fragment their range as we tame the landscape, cutting down the screen of alders, and mowing the grass that might otherwise safely harbor a moose calf. We pay the taxes and think that we have the right to drive wildlife into the fringes, but the fringes grow smaller every year as we elbow them out of the way.
Later that afternoon, after a tentative look around for Mama and baby moose, I took the dogs for a walk. Tavish danced at my side, anticipating the Frisbee I carried while Arlie scouted ahead for signs of rabbits.
By force of habit, I scanned the road for tracks. The fresh snow held the stories of passing animals. Rabbits yes, and squirrels, but more importantly, no moose tracks.
With a snap of my wrist, the Frisbee was airborne for a long breath before skating across the icy track, like a rock skimming the surface of a pond. Tavish pivoted, skittered for traction, and sprang forward, looking over his shoulder for the moment of capture. Score!
As the low sun filtered through a bank of clouds, I zipped my coat up to my chin and made for the upper road. Watching the dogs milling ahead, I figured they, with their keen noses, would pick up on a moose before I did. Still, I glanced over each shoulder for the hulking, hostile mother and, even worse, the sweet-faced calf.
We walked the length of the lane as it meandered through dark spruce and crossed a frozen creek until we reached the end of the road. We made it with no sign of moose and I breathed a bit easier. Skirting an empty second home, I stood at the canyon overlook facing a panorama of mountains and moody waters. The bay was a dove gray under the peach-bellied clouds.
As canyons go, this one is deep and difficult to descend – a perfect refuge for wildlife. Below us, the land dropped steeply for several hundred feet to the creek below. Access would require a scramble through a tangle of alders and aptly-named devil’s club. Crumbling soils and frequent slides cause naked gullies between the wooded slopes. When I listened…breathing in and out in peaceful reverence, I could hear snowmelt shushing over the falls and down rapids into the receptive waters of Kachemak Bay.
I hesitate to write about this place, fearing any endorsement will only lead to more homes squeezing into the treasured places I walk with the dogs. This bluff, and the one below, home to Michael’s bench, are both private property. A death, a sale, a change of plans, and these backyards in which we trespass to stand on the lip of this wild crevasse, will become full-time time residences. With every slice of a chainsaw and rumble of a gravel truck, we cancerous humans eat away at the corridors of spruce, alder, and birch which harbor songbirds and ravens, the occasional black bear, chortling coyotes, and the rare wolf. And yes, the moose who own these woodlands in a way I never will.
She lays in a swale of snow, the calf working over a stubby willow nearby. Despite her size, she melds with the toppled trees, knee-high stumps, and mounds of snow-covered grass, blending into the woodlands like some ephemeral ghost. Below her, the woman and her dogs walk along the snow-covered road. With a soft grunt, she warns the calf to stay close by.
Upwind of them, she smells the musty scent of the canines and the peculiar, flowery smell of the woman. She is alert, following their predictable movement as they return the way they’ve come. Every so often the woman stoops to pick up an object which she then throws. The faster of the red dogs gives chase while the other dog dances alongside her, begging for something she pulls from her pocket.
The winds of yesterday have abated, and despite the growing darkness, the air is warmer. As the snow softens, travel will ease, and in the days ahead she can lead the way to a lower elevation where food is more accessible. The calf, having eaten her fill, comes to curl beside her, resting her head on her mother’s flank.
Come fall, as all female moose must do to prepare for breeding season, she will drive the calf away, butting her, even biting her to let her know she’s no longer welcome to travel and sleep with her mother. The calf will be confused, frightened, returning again and again until, finally, she stumbles away in defeat, destined to survive winter on her own. But for now, they curl together, leaving a pair of depressions in the snow, and sleep.
Thanks Melisse! I guess you know this moose! Looking forward to your return to the north woods.
I loved both installments of "Whose Woods These Are." Beautiful, sad, emotional but not overly sentimental. Important missives to mark this fragile in-between time for your corner of the planet.