One Moose, Two Moose, Three Moose, More
(Swiftcurrent Pass, Glacier National Park, Montana)
Ever been nose to nose with a moose? Not so nuzzly as it sounds. Surprising though, definitely surprising—particularly when climbing a thin rocky trail above the treeline in Glacier National Park. My family and I had chosen to trek Swiftcurrent Pass which promised moose and more. It did not disappoint. There, moose wade in slow running rivers, swim in cool lakes, graze in swampy forests….and apparently browse high on narrow mountain slopes where unsuspecting hikers may chance upon them unawares.
Now, we, as “informed” hikers, had done our homework. We had read “How to Survive a Moose Attack” and sufficiently terrified ourselves in the process. For one, moose are big. We’re talking the biggest deer in the world, up to 1,800 pounds, big. For two, moose are fast. They can charge at 35 miles per hour and swim at 6. Humans…not so much. We average out at 191 pounds in the United States and even Usain Bolt can only run 27 miles per hour at a sprint.
So, here we were, “informed” hikers—walking into moose territory looking for an animal that is:
#1) four times as big as the four of us combined
#2) faster than the four of us combined
#3) highly territorial and prone to charging.
Yes, moose can get mad. In fact, moose cause more deaths and injuries to National Park visitors than bears. Remind me again why we went looking for them in the first place?
In all truth, we went out of hubris, that basic human condition that drives people to the highest of heights—in our case 7,185 feet high. For commonplace, ordinary tourists like us, Swiftcurrent Pass offered everything we could dream of in a hike: vast, breathtaking vistas, potential animal sightings, and the golden possibility of transforming ourselves into backcountry bad-ass ultra-explorers battling the elements and surviving wildlife encounters one-on-one. You know, the quiet contemplation of nature and all that. We packed the bear spray, just in case.
Our first moose of the day came upon us within a mile of the trailhead—money! Our egos soared as a baby moose and its mama stepped out on the trail in front of us—winner, winner, chicken dinner! We stop, we wait, we back up, we scan for a tree to dive behind (plenty around) and then we don’t move. They look at us. We don’t move. They dine on the trailside undergrowth of the forest, but still we don’t move. They keep an eye on us.
The baby watches most, its tiny head striving to catch up with the growing bulk of its main body. The mama steps between us and the baby. We step between the mama and our babies. Nakedly aware of our human frailty and vulnerability, we slowly inch further backward. The moose are no longer bothered about meager, inconsequential us and the mama allows her baby to browse where she wants. Slowly, quietly, we take pictures. The baby’s long, spindly legs attach awkwardly to its already thickening torso. It walks like a rocking horse, both front legs and then back legs hopping in tandem. The mama lovingly nudges her baby. They move on, off the path, back into the forest. We stay put. For a long while. Then, we move forward, onward with our hike. We can hear them to our left, but we can’t see them anywhere. We hear their footsteps (hoofsteps?), but still we can’t see them. We can’t see them. Where did they go?
Afterward, we didn’t want to be those stuck-up, know-it-all hikers that one inevitably meets on the trail…the hikers who tell you all about the baby moose and her mama that you just missed, minutes ago, seconds ago, if you hadn’t stopped to tie your shoelace or put on bug spray or eat that damn granola bar, but…we were. We did. We told everyone we saw. Everyone. It’s like hitting the lottery. You want to share the joy of your winnings with the world. But, after you win a boatload of dough, no one wants your joy. They just want your money. So, we kept on trekking, filling our own bank accounts.
Our next moose sighting came from miles away, high up on the mountain—just spare change in our backpack wallets already brimming with baby moose Benjamins. Settling down for a snack, we spotted a spot, a moving spot, which turned out to be a sizeable female moose in the lake below enjoying a refreshing summer swim on her day off. Three moose in one day! Cha-ching! In Vegas, it’d be time to cash out and check out, but we had caught the bug by then, we were hungry for more. Like gamblers, we raised the stakes and continued our ascent.
My own personal Close Encounter of the Moose Kind awaited me ahead on the dirt trail as I took the lead toward our hike’s crowning lookout. The path grew increasingly narrow and rocky and the vegetation sparse. The idea that an innocuous clump of low lying bushes on the slope above might hide a moose did not occur to me. Not a smidgen. Not in the least. Not, at least, until her nose with dark giant nostrils peeked out, just above my own, just an arm’s length away. My eyes met hers and my mind went blank. Blank, but not too blank–thankfully. Not so blank that I couldn’t turn tail and animatedly hustle my kids back down the trail to retrace our steps. At the time, my mouth couldn’t form the word “moose”. My mind couldn’t find the word “moose”. I couldn’t even remember the word “moose” existed until the gigantic animal stepped out on the path exactly where I had been standing a moment ago and I heard my husband say, “Moose.”
For her part, the moose could have cared less about us. I had essentially freaked out from her startling presence, but she held her dignity and nose high. We were none of her concern. We barely earned a blink of her eye as she crossed the path and began browsing on the shrubs down the mountain slope to our left. In the sun, the color variations in her sleak, smooth fur stood out—a deep dark brown covered her torso, but her head shone lighter, almost reddish in tone. Focused on her food supply and not on any piddling people, the moose ignored our photo opps (which we eagerly took advantage of) before she quietly stepped into the low shrubbery and disappeared like a ninja (a very large and unconventional ninja). In stark contrast, our troop of four moved nothing like ninjas. Being the noisy humans we were, we displayed no level of stealth or natural facility for disappearing into trees, so we forged onward, stomping audibly up the trail.
Trudging toward the mountaintop and leaving the dispassionate moose behind, we felt our jackpot high begin to droop. No doubt we had increased our kitty. By any measure, four moose in one day of hiking was a much greater prize than we had hoped for, but all of us felt a bit shaken by the most recent moose sighting. If an 800 pound creature could come upon us unawares, what other unexpected obstacles lay ahead? Lady Luck sticks around only so long. My husband and I had anticipated the hike’s calf burning switchbacks, the persistent mosquitos and the oh-so-welcome “Mommy, are we there yet?” refrain, but eventualities exist no matter how closely you follow the Boy Scout handbook.
Take for instance an out of the blue summer thunderstorm. That happens. That happened. One minute, sunny, blue “Big Sky” Montana overhead; the next a complete blackening of clouds followed by pelting rain, rumbling thunder, and unnerving bright flashes of lightning. Under normal conditions, as residents of drought-ridden Southern California, my family may have enjoyed, even welcomed, the rain shower as a curious novelty. It may have presented an exciting change of pace from Orange County’s mild same-same weather…if only we hadn’t found ourselves caught at more than 6,500 feet elevation, completely exposed and standing taller than the closest trees.
At that point, we high rollers could have folded. We four could have cowered down on our hands and knees and cried, but here’s where our inner bad-ass ultra-explorer selves kicked in (or maybe it was fear). We went all in, ripped out our rain jackets, threw them on and got down off that mountain like ninjas—cautious but quick stepping ninjas. Retracing the switchbacks, we returned to the flatter, main trail in less than half the time it took us to climb up. Ninja hikers.
On the four mile walk back to the parking lot, the rain let up but we passed zero moose. Our well had run dry. We had bottomed out. Fortunately for us, we passed plenty of hikers keen for details on how we broke the bank with moose that day. We gloated, we swaggered, we held our moose-loaded cameras high and our heads higher. We even crowed to them about our near-death experience at the hands of a raging thunderstorm and bragged on how we would now live to gamble (or hike) another day. They plied us with questions on when, where, how our moose meetings occurred, but who can say when or where a moose will reappear? Now you see moose…
Want to try for your own moose adventure? To learn more about Glacier’s Swiftcurrent Pass and meeting a moose, visit the websites below. Don’t forget to stop for breakfast at Swiftcurrent Motor Lodge where a truly hearty hiker’s breakfast awaits:
On Swiftcurrent Pass:
Swiftcurrent Restaurant :