The evening sun shone brightly in Anchorage’s Kincaid Park as I crested a hill, on my way to photograph the sunset over Cook Inlet. Walking directly into the sunshine, I heard something rustle in the brush close to the trail but couldn’t make out what it was. I stopped and raised a hand to block the blinding light, realizing with a start I had walked right up on a bull moose browsing on willow, barely an arm’s reach away.
The sheer size of the beast, along with our close proximity, sent a shock wave radiating through my limbs, leaving me momentarily stunned. I gasped and backpedaled. The moose, chewing a mouthful of leaves and seemingly confused by my startled response, paused mid-bite to stare at me with a look that said, “Move along, there’s nothing to see here.” I quickly gathered my composure, detoured around him and moved on down the trail.
That was the summer of 1998. I had moved to Alaska two years prior and was becoming immersed in my newfound passion for nature and wildlife photography. Since then, I have observed and photographed moose in numerous locations around the state, from Southeast to Bristol Bay, even into the northernmost reaches of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In fact, their range covers most of mainland Alaska and, save for the Kodiak archipelago, the Aleutian chain, the Pribilofs and a few other islands throughout Prince William Sound and Southeast, almost the entire state. There may be no other animal more symbolic of life in the Last Frontier than the moose.
Moose have long served a significant role in the livelihood of Alaskans, dating back centuries (as a source of food, clothing and tools for Native peoples), and they continue to provide sustenance to thousands of families each year. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, at least 7,000 moose are harvested annually, amounting to roughly 3.5-million pounds of game meat. Additionally, the prospect of viewing an Alaska-Yukon moose (Alces alces gigas), the largest of all subspecies, lures wildlife enthusiasts, photographers and trophy hunters from around the world.
As the largest member of the deer family, adult moose can weigh upwards of 1,600 pounds and stand six feet tall at the shoulder. For such a large mammal to survive the deep cold of Alaska winters, it requires a voracious appetite; they spend much of their time feeding, consuming as much as 100 pounds of vegetation per day. Female moose, known as cows, are smaller than bulls and give birth during May and June, usually bearing one or two calves, which, undoubtedly face enormous challenges in their first year of life, predation by bears and wolves topping the list of threats. Mortality rates among newborn moose calves can be as high as 90 percent in some areas, depending on local predator populations, food supply and severity of winter.
Bull moose sport antlers that sometimes span widths of 60 to 70 inches and weigh as much as 80 pounds at prime maturity—around 10 to 12 years of age—after which time the antlers begin to recede in size each year as the bull ages. Bulls shed their antlers in early to mid-winter, after the mating season, and regrow a new set each spring, usually beginning in April. During the height of summer, antlers increase in size by as much as one inch per day. Alaskans consider an antler “drop” an exciting find, and these spikey growths often end up as decoration for gardens and porches.
Alaska’s moose population is estimated to be between 175,000 and 200,000 animals, with densities varying widely in different parts of the state. With a stable population, our state offers many excellent opportunities for viewing moose, with the city of Anchorage being no exception. Perhaps the best locations to find moose around Anchorage include Potter Marsh, Kincaid Park and the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. In late fall through early winter, they can also be found congregating in large groups near the Powerline Pass Trail in the Chugach Mountains, east of the city.
Denali National Park is another prime location for viewing and photographing moose. In September, large bulls, sparring with each other for mating rights, are often seen along the first 10 miles of the Park Road. Keep in mind that hiking off the road is not allowed in this area.
When observing moose, always maintain a safe distance and respect the animals’ space as they may charge if they perceive a potential threat, particularly during mating season or when a cow is defending her calves. If you accidentally encounter one like I did that sunny day long ago, move away as quickly as possible and take cover if charged.
In both urban and rural areas, moose are common along roadways, so remember to “give them a brake,” as the saying goes, and help preserve Alaska’s majestic moose.