A winter walk in the woods

I almost would have stepped on the moose. Well OK, that is a blatant exaggeration, but it really was lying just a few meters off the trail that the dogs and I were walking on and didn't show much inclination to get up. Unsure if it was not feeling well, j

I almost would have stepped on the moose. Well OK, that is a blatant exaggeration, but it really was lying just a few meters off the trail that the dogs and I were walking on and didn’t show much inclination to get up.

Unsure if it was not feeling well, just wanted to conserve its energy in this winter of near-record snowfalls, or if it was one of our “house moose” and aware that we posed no threat, I urged the dogs to run ahead, away from the moose.

They hadn’t even seen it and the way the wind was blowing, there was no way they could smell it. We passed by quickly and when I turned around for a look, the moose had risen up after all and was monitoring our progress deeper into the woods with pricked ears.

Moose tracks were everywhere now, zigzagging back and forth within fairly small areas. The snow was littered with small broken off twigs and some solid branches that the moose had pulled down in order to get at the tender tips. Willow bushes that had already been severely pruned in past years had the myriad of little shoots bitten off again.

A couple of young poplar trees had strips of bark chewed off. The moose was obviously trying its best to get all the nutrition it could out of the area without ploughing more through the deep snow than absolutely necessary.

I wondered how the calves were faring that I had seen so often in early winter, especially the twins and the odd-coloured bull calf that I had ended up calling Spooky. Not only had he been clad in ghostly grey, he had also been fond of putting on a performance like a rodeo horse when he saw me – bucking and running off madly while his mom would stand calmly and look at me with an expression that was almost one of sufferance.

I hadn’t seen Spooky or any of the other moms and calves in a couple of months and was hoping that they were all doing OK, finding enough twigs to eat and not falling prey to the wolves. Although I wished at the same time that the wolves were fine, a status that they couldn’t achieve without eating a few of the moose.

I never know whom to cheer for in these predator-prey relationships. I’m fond of the bears and wolves as well as the moose and caribou, all an integral part of a healthy and resilient ecosystem, the living expressions of a wild land.

The anger and hatred with which wolves are hunted by some people seems utterly nonsensical to me. After all, a wolf’s options of what to eat and how to obtain it are pretty limited. In contrast, we humans not only have more efficient means of killing an animal, we can and do fill our stomachs with a huge variety of foods.

In my view, the logical conclusion for people who despise wolves because wolves kill moose and caribou, thus lowering their numbers, would be to hate human moose and caribou hunters with at least the same passion, if not more. After all, we kill and decimate wildlife numbers purely out of choice, not because we are inexorably driven to it by instinct and have no other way of survival.

But on our walk, we found neither wolf tracks, nor evidence of the moose calves. There were only plenty of ankle-twisting holes punched into the trail by the moose’s hooves and a liberal sprinkling of droppings to the great delight of the dogs. They find them a delicacy, at least when they’re frozen, and always try their best to gobble up large quantities before I catch them in the act and holler “no” at them.

The moose had bedded down in quite a few places close to the trail and by or even in the tree wells, quite contrary to their usual choice spots on semi-open slopes. I guessed that lying right by packed-down or low snow areas, the moose would be able to get up easier and be on its way faster in case of potential danger.

Weaving our way through the trees, it almost felt spring-like with the sun already so much higher in the sky now than just a couple of months ago. But the cutting wind and the deep snow, made more obvious by the tree wells, told a different story. I wished the moose and the calves with their moms well, and then we slowly made our way back to the cabin.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon

River south of Whitehorse.

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