Aki and I are out on the glacial moraine with one of my oldest friends. He is also one of the little dog’s favorite humans. She follows close at his heals as we walk on soft snow to the Mendenhall River. Our mutual friend is a gentle man. Maybe that is why Aki is so excited to hike with him.
In order to reach the river we need to pass through a field of willow and alders. The local beavers have logged off many of the larger cottonwood trees and lots of willows. We find their large den embedded into the bank when we leave the woods. I can’ t find any of the rodents’ tracks but we do find recent evidence of a moose. Aki has never seen a moose but her two human companions have seen many of them when living in the bush of Western Alaska.
I’ve never spotted a moose in the Juneau area. Last fall two of them were photographed while browsing along the river. Everyone assumed that they had moved back north to their home range along the Antler River. But at least one has stayed. We think it is a young moose, maybe last year’s calf. I wonder if it’s decision to winter on the moraine signals the start of a new migration made possible by the colonization of the moraine by willows, a moose’s favorite food.
For the second day in a row, I am puzzled by the presence of moose tracks in Juneau mud. Aki and I are walking along the eastern shore of Mendenhall Lake. At the north end of the lake, the glacier snakes down between two mountains to touch the water. Just ahead Nugget Falls roars away. Beneath my feet are moose tracks. Later I will follow them to the edge of beach in front of the falls. I will learn that a bull moose hung out near the falls yesterday while we followed its tracks across the moraine. It swam across the lake and hasn’t been seen since. The powerful waterfall is a world-class tourist attraction. Maybe our wayward moose is just another foreign tourist, albeit a Canadian one.
So quiet, I tell Aki. We are walking around an empty campground that offers occasional views of the glacier. Aki looks up at me with her, “Are you crazy?” stare. She is sampling the rich smells left by a summer’s worth of camping families. While I see empty space, she smells the ghosts of those who used the place before.
I wonder if the little dog can single out the smell of the moose that we are tracking. The big animals are rare on this side of the Juneau Icefield. One must have wandered down from the Antler River, drawn by the juicy willows that grown on the glacial moraine. This is an odd time of year for a moose to do a solo walk about. He or she should be sticking around other moose trying to mate. Are you a young male, driven off by the mature bulls or an oldster?
We follow the tracks to the river where the moose must have entered the water and crossed over to the moraine. I search the opposite shore but see only a thick wall of moose food.
Pearly-gray has replaced blue as the prominent color in Anchorage skies today. I ride away from the Inlet toward the Campbell Creek trail system, vowing to keep away from the salmon spawning stream because it draws brown bears this time of year. At first I ride against the flow of morning commuter traffic on Elmore and then swing into the woods. A single-track trail allows me to meander among white-trunked paper birch that might be hiding moose. If they do, none of the big, horse-like guys show themselves.
I take another trail that offers more open views and spot, a half-a-mile ahead, something that looks like a wobbly billboard. As I approach it resolves itself into a young male moose with tiny antlers covered in velvet. When I stop, he stares for a second and walks elegantly toward the woods. I will have to pass him if I continue down the trail. I’ll see how it goes. Remounting, I ride closer, which causes him to freeze again. I remember my dad’s warning amount never approaching a deer or elk while they are in velvet and stop again. The moose resumes his walk toward the woods. When he reaches the forest edge, leaving a good chunk of land between him and the trail, I restart my ride.
Wow, my first moose of the year. I didn’t see any during last summer’ writer’s school residency.
The trail brings me back to Elmore where I watch a late-model Corvette speed by before crossing over to the bike lane. I briefly ponder whether a moose or sports car would cause me the most damage and am thankful to the government that funded this ride-alone bike path.
A mile down Elmore, a cow moose and two calves feed next to the road. Workers listening to talk radio or silently planning a pattern of attack at work wiz by the family scene. Honey, stop gorging yourself and look after your babies, I think. While the mom turns her butt to the road, her two calves dance along the verge. The aggressive one bucks like a bareback bronc and drives its sibling away from food and mom. In running away, shy one almost enters the rushing traffic stream. I’m close enough to see the startled look in the shy moose’s eyes when it freezes just before it would have been crushed by a northbound SUV. Unable to watch any more, I ride back to campus.