Moose are some of the more improbable creatures you will ever see: tall, spindly-legged, Roman-nosed, seemingly ungainly and yet magnificently suited for deep snows, cold lakes, and the varied environs of Alaska. Moose are ubiquitous in Alaska, or at least they were, their species declining as more and more humans move in and the trees and shrubs on which they feed are destroyed by development and climate change, while hunting and vehicle deaths increase.
Moose are massive, their size most apparent when one suddenly finds a moose looming in front of one. For many years there was a display featuring a stuffed moose in the Anchorage International airport, a moose whose belly, I would imagine, I might have walked right under if I could have only slipped through that glass case. A note about this display: Alaskans love to stuff everything and then display it—the more public the location the better. For many years I have characterized the Alaskan decorating aesthetic as “dead animal art,” and in my childhood it seemed that everywhere we went, from the bank to the shops to the airport, was full of bodies—in part or full—of dead animals, from moose and bears to beavers and owls. This airport moose was a more-than-usually stupendous example of his species, but moose are usually impressive, particularly the bulls with their massive racks and giant shoulders. And moose are not only tall, they are heavy—no wonder then that when a moose decided to take a day-long nap in some long grass by our house the imprint of the moose’s giant frame remained in that grass for more than a year.
When I was a child there were always moose around, often when you least expected them. For example, trying to get our car down the driveway we’d often find a moose dozing in the middle of the gravel, perfectly unconcerned about the humans and their ridiculous need to get somewhere quickly. In fact, I think I only passed math in high school due to the many times my mother could not pick me up on time due to the obstructions of moose or other animal mischief (particularly regarding our chickens and goats, who were dedicated to escaping, forcing my mother into elaborate games of chase).
With their mixture of grace and ungainliness, moose gave me some of my earliest memories of delight. For instance, one of my greatest springtime treats was seeing the moose calves with their soft brown fur, ranging from light fawn to deep chestnut, lingering close to the flanks of their mothers as they grazed on the first new shoots of the willow trees.
Moose are normally very placid creatures, but their massive size means that they can easily inflict damage if they are startled or angered, so we learned from an early age to be very careful around them and respectful, especially during calving season. A few people have been injured, even killed, by moose who have kicked or trampled them, although this has often been due to some foolish action on the part of the human involved.
I’ve only been really close to moose a few times, and these have all been human-reared animals accustomed to human sights and smells. Once I had a chance to feed triplet moose calves and, years later, I gave a yearling moose—quite unaware of his strength and potential for trouble—carrots from my hand. In his excitement, he nearly bowled me over, pursuing me with his soft, eager nose in search of more veggies. The story of this yearling, named Bullwinkle Moose, follows this.
A Moose Named, Yes, Bullwinkle
Moose are gloriously endearing, walking that fine line between cute and ugly with character to spare. All moose are attractive to some degree, but baby moose are downright adorable—all long, slender legs and melting brown eyes. Sadly, many baby moose are orphaned each year due not only to predation by other animals, but because of hunters and auto and train collisions. If they are found in time, orphaned moose calves are often raised by local officials, hence our friend Al, a Fish and Game officer, who cared for triplet moose calves, and the single moose calf named, unsurprisingly, Bullwinkle, who was taken in by Mike, one of my father’s friends who lived in a nearby town.
I met Bullwinkle on a visit to Homer many years ago. When we pulled up to Mike’s house I saw what I thought was a slim brown horse in Mike’s horse corral. As we got closer I saw this was no horse but Bullwinkle, calmly watching our arrival. Bullwinkle had, I noted, a pretty sweet deal. The corral was large and the horse barn, which he also occupied since Mike had sold the horses a few years back, was not only a snug shelter from wind and snow but had piped-in music—Bullwinkle apparently particularly enjoyed country music.
Mike let Bullwinkle out of the corral so we could meet him and I took a step back somewhat nervously. While Al’s triplet calves were very young and not at all imposing, no larger than a good-sized Great Dane, teenage Bullwinkle was already the size of a small horse. Mike gave me a carrot and Bullwinkle came towards me, his eyes fixed on the treat. I held it out and he stretched his neck towards me and his soft nose grazed my hand as his mouth opened to reveal large, flat teeth. He chewed the carrot quickly, his strong teeth crunching it in seconds, and then, growing boy that he was, he came towards me for more.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have any more. Bullwinkle started nuzzling me, his brown muzzle moving over my face and chest, his tongue lapping at my skin. Bullwinkle then got even closer, practically knocking me down as he searched me for hidden treats. Mike rescued me by distracting Bullwinkle with some quickly discovered carrots and cabbage and I tried to put my disordered clothes in order and wipe my newly-wet face: Bullwinkle certainly left an impression.
I didn’t see Bullwinkle again, but I heard about him from my Dad, who chatted with Mike about his progress. Bullwinkle stayed with Mike until he was a tall young moose, just starting to sprout a prodigious rack. Mike noticed that Bullwinkle began to become more and more of a wanderer, leaving for hours, even days, at a time to spend time in the woods behind the house, but always returning home for treats. Then, one day, Bullwinkle didn’t come home again. Mike worried about him, particularly when hunting season came around, but he hoped for the best.
One day as Mike drove home he saw a large moose lying in the middle of his driveway. It was a male, for as Mike drove closer he could see its magnificent heavy rack. He drove towards the moose, which got to its feet but remained in the driveway. Mike drove still closer and the moose stood still, regarding him. Was this Bullwinkle? Mike couldn’t tell. Now that the moose was standing, Mike could see the thickness of its neck and shoulders and the gleam of the sun on its glossy brown hair. The moose remained in the middle of the driveway, staring at Mike, who got out of the truck and walked towards the moose, uncertain about what to do. The moose then began to move towards him. Mike wondered if he should try to make a break for the house or get back into the truck, but he didn’t have time to move as the moose came even closer, its eyes fixed on him.
Mike barely breathed as he watched the moose—a moving mountain of muscle and flesh, the largest moose he had ever seen. The moose moved more quickly towards him, and Mike braced himself. The moose charged up to Mike, stopped on a dime, and then kissed him right on the face. It was a wet kiss—involving not only muzzle but a little tongue. It was indeed Bullwinkle: he had come home for a little rendezvous and treat session before heading back to the forest and, no doubt, a very busy breeding season.