As we shuffled our snowshoes through the thick snow around a lake trail near Talkeetna, Alaska, our guide Matt suddenly motioned us to hold still. Matt Worden, owner and founder of Go Hike Alaska, peered out through the snow-covered trees and whispered one word: “Moose.”
I perked up and looked to where he was pointing down a private driveway that weaved through these woods. There, standing next to a large SUV, was a grown moose with her calf. She was big enough to make the SUV look like a compact car.
“She’s got her young,” Matt said. “We aren’t going to get any closer. She’s already a little stressed out. See how her ears are perked up towards us?”
Although I was thrilled to see a moose in the wild, I was all about not getting too close. Moose, if you’ve never seen one, are huge creatures, reaching up to 1,500 pounds and standing at 6.5 feet at the shoulder. They can also run nimbly and quietly through the forest at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.
I have a healthy respect for anything bigger than I am, so we didn’t approach the mother moose and her baby, and instead stood quietly for a moment before backing off of her.
“The chance to see moose out in the backcountry of Alaska is relatively high,” said Matt, whose Go Hike Alaska company leads hikes, flightseeing tours, backpacking and foraging trips, snowshoe adventures, and flora and fauna walks all year-round in Alaska’s Chugach Range and beyond.
“They can be dangerous if you surprise one.”
If you spend any time in Alaska, Canada, or the northern U.S., you’re likely to at the very least see a moose or its tracks. For those exploring Denali National Park, the Chugach State Park, and all the areas in between, the likelihood that you will come across a moose is pretty high, so it’s vital to know how to be safe around these massive creatures.
Half of the magic of being outdoors is seeing the native wildlife in its own natural habitat, so we spoke to our experts in Alaska about the important things you need to know for viewing these giants safely.
1. City Moose
When my photographer Lyle and I landed in Anchorage this past February, we didn’t have to wait more than 15 minutes before seeing our first moose. As our host, Teri Hendricks — Visit Anchorage communications operations manager — drove us to our hotel from the airport. While driving, she pointed out a moose grazing on a bush… in the middle of a residential area… in the middle of town.
“Moose are extremely common in Anchorage. We find them bedding down in backyards, grazing along major roads, occasionally strolling neighborhood streets, or roaming city parks. There are nearly 1,500 moose within the Municipality of Anchorage (an area spanning 1,961 square miles), so moose sightings are an extraordinarily ordinary part of daily life here,” she said.
“We love our resident moose. They’re so emblematic of life in Anchorage — wild, wonderful nature coexisting with our modern urban environment — and it never gets old. No matter how many moose we see around the city, we’ll probably still pull over to take pictures when we see that impressive bull browsing through the bushes alongside the airport fence, or new spring calves taking their first trembling steps beside one of our popular biking trails.”
For “lower-48ers” like myself and Lyle, it was an impactful sight to see and we marveled at the sight of a giant moose walking amongst the sidewalks and houses. Hendricks said the key to coexisting peacefully with the wild moose in town is to avoid confrontations and give them plenty of space.
Rule one is to enjoy the sighting, but never approach or feed a moose. Humans should keep a respectful distance, never get between a female moose and her calves, and remember that moose are wild animals.
“If you want a closer view, zoom with your camera lens — not your feet — or check out one of the safe, supervised encounters at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center,” Hendricks said.
2. Seeing Moose Safely In Anchorage
Many moose-spotting sights are located all over the city, including Point Woronzof Park, Kincaid Park along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, Potter Marsh (part of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge), or in Chugach State Park around the Glen Alps trailhead.
If you’re on a tight timeline and want a guaranteed sighting, head over to the Alaska Zoo or the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Visit Anchorage.net to find a map and more information about planning a wildlife-watching safari around the city.
“Keep your eyes open and you’re bound to get lucky; remember to keep your distance and you can enjoy a safe, fun photo-op,” said Hendricks.
“Late spring and early autumn offer two really unique opportunities to see moose in Anchorage. Look for knock-kneed, adorable newborn calves in the spring, then grab some binoculars and head up to Glen Alps in the fall for a chance to see bull moose during the rut (mating season). The bulls compete for the attention of cows, and when they butt heads, interlocking their massive antlers, the crash reverberates along the mountainsides.”
3. Moose In The Wild
Matt Worden says he sees plenty of wildlife on his guided hikes and excursions through Go Hike Alaska, but the scariest situation he ever found himself in was with a moose. As he was running a trail with his baby daughter in a stroller, a moose suddenly appeared on the trail in front of him.
“I was running with her and her stroller over on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail and it was starting to get dark. I damn near almost ran into this moose,” he said. “I backed up as quickly as possible, and I was clapping and I was yelling at it, but I couldn’t do anything to deter this thing. It kept following me at a 10-foot distance for a good 2 minutes before it went off into the woods. Yeah, that was a hairy incident.”
Surprising a moose or being aggressed by them can lead to severe injury or death. The majority of violent encounters betwen moose and humans occurs when a person gets between a mother and her calf or during the rut when the male moose are combative and trying to win mates. Unpredictable and moody, moose give little warning before attacking a perceived threat.
According to Alaska.org, there are several things you should do if a moose approaches you or seems to be aggressive:
- Moose tend to bluff-charge, stopping short of you. Check out this video of a moose charging a dog outside a house.
- Get behind a tree, rock, fence, car, or anything to separate you from the moose.
- Moose often fight with their front hooves. If the moose hits you, play dead, curled up with your hands on your head or neck. Your backpack also makes a good shield.
“If you have bear repellent, you can use that as well,” said Worden. “The best thing to do is get behind a tree or car. Moose, especially if they have their antlers, aren’t that nimble in tight turns. I’ve seen a video of a person and a moose dancing around a tree for a good 10 minutes.”
4. Moose Facts You Should Know
Although they can be dangerous if they feel threatened, moose are also curious and fascinating creatures. They are an ungulate (Lyle’s favorite word), meaning they have hooves. Because of their size, adult moose have few predators, though calves and young moose are often prey for wolves, bears, and coyotes.
Moose can be found throughout Alaska, Canada, and the northern U.S. Their home range can be anywhere from 5–50 miles. A moose’s average lifespan is 8 years for a cow and 7 years for a bull, but some moose have been known to live up to 20 years.
Bull moose “grow” antlers every year from April to August, and these massive racks can weigh up to 25 pounds before they shed them after the rut. In fact, most people consider it a treasure if they find a shed moose antler out in the woods.
Moose can move each ear and each eye independently of each other, and their stomachs can hold up to 100 pounds of food.
Female moose give birth to one or two calves a year, and within 5 days of being born, these little ungulates (for Lyle!) can already outrun a human. The young moose stay with their mothers until the following mating season when mama moose runs them off.
Moose can even swim quite well and often lounge in rivers to get relief from mosquitos.
So when you visit Alaska, Anchorage, or join Matt on a hike through the wild country, keep your eyes peeled for these gigantic land animals. As long as you don’t approach or surprise them, you’ll come away with amazing photos and unforgettable memories.
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