A Few Days Ago…
My son and I had just finished our daily mile run, he in his stroller and I huffing and puffing behind it. We still had to walk all the way back home, but first we would stop and rest and say hello to our favorite horse. We were past the corner of Idle Drive and Tranquility Lane, where this lovely old horse lives in a pasture, Pioneer Peak as a backdrop. My son loves this horse. I love this horse. We hadn’t seen him all winter and it felt like we were greeting an old friend.
We squealed and talked to him while he munched hay next to his barn. I took a picture and a deep breath, glad to be done with the run. I watched the tips of the spruces and the still-bare branches of the birches, aspens, and cottonwoods tussle with the gray sky.
And that’s when I saw it. A movement up the road we’d just run down. Or, I thought, maybe not a movement. Probably it was just the wind shaking the tree trunks. Because if there’d been a moose when we ran past, we’d have seen it. I have those eyes, I thought. The ones that are used to picking up animal movements in the wild. I waited a couple seconds for another movement and saw none. It’s definitely just the wind in the trees. I hadn’t seen moose around in several weeks and figured most of them had returned to higher ground now that the snow had mostly melted.
Then my 20-month-old son started screeching because he likes the stroller to stay in motion, and two enormous moose stepped onto the road. And of course, they were staring right at my toddler and me.Then my 20-month-old son started screeching because he likes the stroller to stay in motion, and two enormous moose stepped onto the road. And of course, they were staring right at my toddler and me. Click To Tweet
More Than a Handful of Moose
Before I moved to Alaska last June, I had only encountered moose three times in my life. Each time from a safe distance—a car, a house, and the dubious protection of the monkey bars the one time a moose showed up on my elementary school playground in southwestern Montana. Since moving to Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Valley, though, I have seen more moose than I can count. All winter and into the early spring, they showed up in my backyard to munch on the bushes, lie down to rest, and poop. We have about six or seven piles of moose scat on the lawn right now that my son loves to play with (thanks for that, moose friends!).
But only twice have I been outside, away from any shelter and defenseless except for a canister of bear spray, with a moose. The first time was last August. My son and I saw a bull moose deep in the woods next to Idle Drive on the very same walk we were on now. He saw us but seemed more interested in his food. After snapping a blurry photo, we walked past him.
We took the loop that swings through Cozy Court and Relaxing Road (see a theme here yet?) and then becomes Tranquility again and headed home without incident. But now, today, these two huge moose were blocking our path. Like always, I had a canister of bear spray in my stroller’s cup holder. I had, however, left it in the car at some point during the freezing winter and wasn’t sure it still worked.
I took a deep breath and thought about my action plan. If Abel and I took the loop, we were likely to meet the moose face to face because they were walking—never taking their eyes off the still-screeching Abel—in that direction. If we just walked straight forward, we’d pass right by them. As in, fifteen to twenty feet away. General safety knowledge recommends staying a respectful 100 feet away from moose.
What If the Moose Attack?
While moose attacks are not as deadly as bear attacks, moose have killed a few people in Alaska in the last twenty-odd years and are known to be cranky and hungry at this time of the year. (It’s not a good idea to try to supplement their diet.) As I watched the two moose finally lumber into the bushes on the other side of the road, I was thinking about the awkward weight of the stroller. The chance that one or both of these moose might charge. Would I be able to maneuver the stroller behind a tree if they did? I was also thinking about how, back in February, a young male moose had flattened his ears, raised his hackles, and started to charge my car when I slowed down to take a picture of him.
And how last fall, Abel and I had come upon a mother moose and her calf and the mother raised her hackles, as mothers will when they believe their babies are in danger.
I did not want to provoke these moose by walking past them with a noisy toddler. But I needed to get home, and the moose were moving slowly. So I stepped downwind of Abel, took the clip out of my UDAP bear spray, and pushed down on the lever. I only pushed for a split second because there are only four seconds of spray inside the canister. A plume of orange rushed out, wide and powerful. Sweet. That works. I jogged back to the stroller, “moose spray” at my side. Then I took a deep breath and sprinted up the hill.
In Which I Become Two Moose’s Morning Entertainment
The moose watched us come. I gasped for breath. Sprinting up a hill pushing 35 pounds of stroller plus 35 pounds of toddler with one hand while clutching bear spray in the other is hard on the lungs. The moose must’ve enjoyed the sight, because they shuffled toward us. They didn’t come much closer. But enough for me to know that we were on their radar. Abel squealed in delight at seeing them so near. I ran faster, faster, faster and finally blew past the moose. I didn’t stop sprinting until we were well up Idle Drive.
And only then did I stop and let myself feel the fear and the awe of what I’d just experienced. I shivered when I realized that Abel and I had jogged right past the moose on our way down to see Horsie. As my friends and family will know, I have this thing about getting outside in Alaska with my child. I don’t want something awful to happen to my son at the hands of a magnificent wild animal. I don’t hike alone with my son. When we go into nature we head to the open tundras of Hatcher Pass or the spacious Palmer Hay Flats. In these places I can spot a bear, moose, or wolf from a mile away.
Even then, I carry at least two canisters of bear spray with me just in case. Nothing would be worse than coming under attack with my son at my side. Just like bear mothers and moose mothers and all the other mothers of the world, my body goes into fight mode when I think my baby is in danger. I am not a gun person. I don’t carry one and wouldn’t know how to use it if I did. (Studies suggest bear spray is as effective a deterrent as a firearm in the event of a bear attack.) I grew up in bear country in Montana, but since I wasn’t a mother then, I had a more cavalier attitude about meeting one in the wild. Now, it’s my greatest fear. Last June in Alaska, two different black bears killed two people in the space of two days. Just weeks later, two different brown bears attacked cyclists in Anchorage (they survived).
And last fall, my husband was hiking in the Chugach Mountains near Anchorage with a group of students when he stumbled upon a brown bear in the bushes just off the trail. Bear spray out and ready, he waited to see if the bear would run off. It didn’t. Instead, it huffed at him, a sign he took as “get away from me please.” So he and another supervisor backed away and led the students to safety and the trailhead.
Beauty and Danger
Alaska is such a stunning and wild place. It’s a place I always dreamed of living, and now I live here and I’m terrified to go tent camping in the summer. I mean, what if a bear drags Abel or me or my husband out of the tent while we are sleeping? Last summer, I stayed up really late for weeks, reading books on bear attacks and bear safety and bear everything. I think this made things worse. I was so scared that a bear would break into my house and come up the stairs that I kept bear spray on my nightstand for a few nights.
I know I can’t live in constant fear. But I am a naturally fearful and imaginative person, and this is part of what makes me a writer. Still, I’ve calmed down a little with the whole bear thing. This evening I was reading a book on wildlife viewing in the Kenai Peninsula. In the book it states that bear attacks are very rare. To see one in the wild is a treat. That Bear Fear is unnecessary. The thing is, I have seen bears in the wild—but from the safety of a car. While amazing, that experience does not compare to coming face to face with a powerful, unpredictable animal on its own turf, its own terms. With your child—your beating heart walking around outside of your body—even more vulnerable to that unpredictability than you are. And you, his protector, armed only with four seconds of pepper spray.
Will this get any easier as my son grows older and stronger? As my husband and I teach him everything we know about respecting animals, keeping distance, and remaining aware while out in the wild? (Or, um, our neighborhood?) I don’t know. Because then I start thinking of all the other dangers. People who’ve gone astray and spend their lives doing evil things to others. Loose neighborhood dogs whose temperaments are shaped by their owners’ benevolence or cruelty. Cars that whiz past going ten or more miles over the speed limit in residential areas. Drunk drivers. Illnesses and injuries. And on and on.
At some point, I have to take a deep breath, peel my eyes for signs of wildlife, and trust. I have to hold my son close and sit with him, watching and whispering, while the dangers walk past. If the dangers are ugly and they’re coming toward us, we will rally our defenses and fight them together. But if the dangers are beautiful, like moose, we can hunker down with our bear spray. We can wait for them to walk away. We can smile at each other and maybe squeal a little, if the moose don’t mind the sound of our voices.