In the Mood

(Richard Moran / Alaskastock.com)

Calling all moose

[by Nick Jans]

In the arctic stillness, on the far side of the river, an unmistakable racket echoed in the bright afternoon: the thrashing of a bull moose stripping velvet off his antlers and honing his moves, prepping for the rut. “Hey, Sherrie,” I pointed, and she looked up from her sandwich making. “Watch this!” I set the fishing rod down, cupped hands around my mouth the way an old Noatak man had once showed me, and let fly a groaning, guttural moan: Eeeurrr…..eeeeurrrrr… my best imitation of a lovesick cow. And just for good measure, I threw in a couple of coughing grunts—the call of a worked-up bull.

Though my moose accent wouldn’t win any contests, it was good enough. The thrashing merged into an incoming crash-crash, the willows parted, and out stepped a paddle-antlered bull—far too riled to care that a guy his size couldn’t hope to compete for a cow, or that two stick figures standing by a jet skiff looked nothing like a hot date. “Oh, cool,” murmured Sherrie, suitably impressed by her first up-close moose, and by her outdoorsy, new boyfriend (as I was back then) who’d summoned it. Tell the truth, I was pretty impressed myself—not only that a moose had actually appeared on cue, but by how narrow the knee-deep river channel suddenly seemed, and by this young bachelor’s apparent determination to cross it. While a punk in the moose world, this 500-pounder could (especially in his current, testosteroneaddled state) whup our butts like so many willows. “Get in the boat,” I called toward Sherrie, who hadn’t quite caught on that we were on the verge of something more exciting than a viewing opportunity. But after we waved our arms and hollered, the little bull reconsidered, and with what seemed a forlorn shrug, slid back into the brush.

Despite their fearsome reputation, moose are surprisingly peaceful critters; as long as we give them the elbowroom and respect that a horse-sized, crazypowerful, wild creature deserves. Special consideration should be given to mothers with calves, and moose in deep snow. Dogs, which moose see as wolves, should always be kept well away. Those situations aside, they’re downright gentle, even sociable around humans, as they are among their own kind. But the annual rut, winding up in early September, peaking through October, and trailing off as autumn slides past, flips a behavioral switch in Alces alces. Responding to hormonal surges, bulls and cows vie for mating rights—a biological passion play as dynamic, multi-phased, and drawn out as any in the animal kingdom.

The simple version goes like this: Moose roam as the autumn progresses, and congregate in open, woodland-laced areas known as rutting arenas. They’re attracted by pheromone-scented urine wallows, and the general commotion around these annual gatherings: thrashing and clashing and chasing; poses and ritual behaviors; grunts and moans and gut rumbles. Over a period of days, the bulls size up each other and duke it out, both in stylized displays and head-to-head fights as the females watch, flirt, and jockey for position, every bit as involved as the males in the process of choosing who mates with whom.

On a quiet, frost-edged evening, the echoes of clashing antlers may carry a mile or more. Usually, the largest bodies and widest racks rule—though smaller, so-called satellite bulls patrol the perimeter, hoping and sometimes seizing the chance to mate. The battles themselves range from antler-waving, preemptive displays to hours-long, deadly epics between evenly matched opponents; the biggest bulls range to well over half a ton and wield 75-pound racks up to six feet wide. These dominant males struggle to attract and hold a harem of cows, and to mount as many females as possible. A rutting arena may hold several moose, or several dozen; and between periods of peak activity (usually around twilight) the animals rest and feed and socialize, more relaxed than one might expect. But when the evening action turns on, it’s like flicking that complex, crazy switch. As the days pass and the drama waxes and wanes, moose come and go. Overmatched bulls wander off in search of another singles bar; injured animals fade; latecomers swirl into the mix.

Despite their hormone-driven angst toward each other, most bulls, even at the height of the rut, tend to be surprisingly human-tolerant. A dozen or so times over the years, I’ve either approached or called in big bulls to rock-tossing distance—and always with similar results. For example, take one early October evening a few years back. Seth Kantner and I heard the crash of horns a half mile away. Cinching down our camera packs, we trotted toward the ruckus. With no antlers handy, we mimicked fight sounds by bashing and raking a dead, gray spruce sapling against others. Lo and behold, two big bulls came trotting across the clearing, rocking heads to flash their antler size. We tucked ourselves against a couple of easy-climb spruce, braced, and began snapping away in marginal light. The bulls continued to advance, wondering where their party had gone. And what the hell were those rank, odd-looking little things over there? When the larger bull edged within 30 feet, no hint of aggression but bursting with curiosity, we each scrambled up our chosen trees, more to gain a better viewing angle and out of abundant caution than any concern. After a half hour of studying them, and they returning the favor, the two bulls wandered off, perplexed, into the gathering darkness.

Of course, jumping a hot-blooded bull around a bend on your outhouse trail or mistakenly stepping between him and a cow may set off a head-lowered rush; but a hasty retreat—meaning an all-out, evasive sprint, putting as many obstacles between as possible—will generally defuse the situation. Any moose is more intent on chasing off threats than stomping them down; but getting the dookie scared out of you is a clear and present danger.

Ironically, my one real cliffhanger with a rutting moose occurred not far up some Brooks Range valley, but in suburban Anchorage, where I’d stopped in to visit friends and resupply. I was pedaling a borrowed mountain bike at dusk along a sidewalk near the airport when a flash of motion caught my eye—a young forktined bull charging out of a roadside thicket, straight at me. I stood on the pedals and pumped like mad as he narrowed the gap—at one point, no more than a couple of body lengths behind. Then I hit a downhill grade and pulled away. I figure he could have caught and stomped me if he’d really wanted, like a double handful of his brethren before him. But a moose in the mood doesn’t really want to mess with the likes of us. We’re not nearly cute enough.