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I have spent an inordinate amount of time in wilderness woods, much of it in northern Minnesota, some in Canada and some in the Alaskan wilds. I have hunted and trapped and fished and have been exposed to almost all kinds of wilderness animals; I’ve had bear come at me, been stalked by a mountain lion, been bitten by snakes and punctured by porcupines and torn by foxes and once pecked by an attacking raven, but I have never seen anything rivaling the madness that seems to infect a large portion of the moose family.
I first witnessed this insanity when I was twelve, in northern Minnesota. I had just started hunting with a rifle. Back then there were none of today’s modern hunting weapons and I was, to put it mildly, financially disadvantaged. I worked hard at setting pins in a bowling alley, selling newspapers in bars at night and laboring on farms in the summer (hoeing sugar beets for eleven dollars an acre and picking potatoes for five cents a bushel) to make enough money to buy clothing and supplies for school. There was little left for fancy weapons, and after saving for a long time I finally managed to come up with enough money for a Remington single-shot .22 rifle. It was bolt action, with a twist safety on the rear of the bolt, and had to be loaded for each shot by opening the bolt, which extracted the empty shell if you had just fired. Then you put a new cartridge into the chamber by hand, closed the bolt and fired. It was a long process and the end result was that it forced the shooter to pay attention to his first shot and make certain it was accurately placed. It also made the hunter careful not to waste his shot. Withing a short time I was very accurate with this little rifle and was steadily bringing home rabbits and ruffed grouse, which I cleaned and cooked.
Just as they do today, game wardens had a great deal of say in how game laws were enforced, and if a family was poor or there were other special conditions, the wardens would sometimes overlook minor infractions. The legal hunting seasons were in fall and winter, but sometimes I hunted in spring as well, and it gave me food at times when my parents were on long drunks and didn’t keep the refrigerator filled. I would like to thank those game wardens who looked the other way now and then when they saw a scruffy kid come out of the woods with a not-quite-legal grouse or rabbit hanging on his belt.
Before I acquired that rifle, I had hunted a great deal with a bow, but on the day of my first moose incident I had been out with the rifle only a few times. It was early spring in the north woods of Minnesota, not far from the Canadian border and I had seen many rabbits but hadn’t shot any. I wanted grouse because I liked the taste of them fried in batter, especially in spring, when they have been living on frozen high-bush cranberries all winter and have a crisp taste they lose in summer.
There was still snow in patches, and I was studying a large plot of old snow filled with budding willows because grouse like to hide in willows, when I heard something that sounded like a train about to run me down.
There was a kind of bleeeeekkkk, hoarse and very loud, coming from directly behind me and accompanied by a crashing in the brush, and I turned, raising my rifle (about as useful as a BB gun in these circumstances but we use what we have), to see two glaring red eyes coming at me at what seemed like sixty or seventy miles an hour.
I had hunted in these woods for several years and I had never seen a moose or even a moose track. I had heard of them, of course, and seen pictures of them. But there were very few left in Minnesota because they had been hunted out, so I had always dreamed of hunting moose up in Canada.
At the first instant I didn’t realize that it was a large bull moose. He’s lost the previous year’s antlers and hadn’t grown new ones yet. I just saw brown. I saw big. I saw death coming at me, snorting and thundering. I think I may have thought of phantoms, wood spirits, wild monsters–I most certainly did not think of moose.
I wish I could say that with cool precision I raised my trusty little .22 rifle and deftly protected myself. The truth is (and I would never again do this when confronting a moose) that I closed my eyes and waited to get hit. It had come so fast, the snorting, the crashing, the huge whatever it was, that I couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything except close my eyes.
A second passed, then another, and I opened one eye to see him pass me not three feet away. He had to be nearly seven feet tall at the hump. This move would have done credit to a pass in a bullfight. I knew then what he was and I fell back away from him. But the truth was that (a) he was a moose and (b) he was therefore insane, so at this time he hadn’t the slightest interest in me. His target was something else.
Immediately behind me was a pine tree not more than six feet tall. It looked no different than other small pine trees, cute and well formed, like a little Christmas tree, but in that bull’s mind maybe the tree had done something to insult him, or gotten in his way, or called him out, because he absolutely destroyed that tree.
Meanwhile, I scrabbled away into the willows on my back and then re-aimed my rifle, just in case–as if it would have helped to stop him. But he couldn’t have cared less about me. He stomped and ripped and tore at that tree until it was broken off at the ground, and still he didn’t stop until he had used his front hooves to break it into pieces (a method a cow moose would later try to use on me) and then shattered those into little more than splinters. Then he snorted, urinated on his work and walked off into the trees, leaving me to gasp (I had been holding my breath the whole time) and feel a strange pity for the tree.
I have since read that there is a kind of parasite that moose can pick up from eating in the water (they love water-lily roots) that attacks the brain and can cause madness. I wouldn’t know about that, but not a year later I had another experience. I was sitting in a 1938 Ford truck with a farmer I was working for that summer. He had just stopped to roll a Bull Durham cigarette.
We had just passed through some woods that bordered a field where he wanted me to pick up rocks. Of all farm work, I hated this the most; every spring the frost pushed rocks up through the soil and they had to be gathered by hand and thrown on a skid behind a tractor, then dumped in a large pile in a fence corner. I dreaded the work but he was paying me the huge wage of five dollars a day plus room and board so I was glad of the job.
The road to the field was little more than an old logging trail through a thick stand of small poplars. The farmer had just finished rolling the cigarette and was snapping a match with his thumb to light it when a bull moose came out of the woods directly in front of us. He looked away, then at us, then raised all the hair on his hump (a signal I would later come to dread) and charged head-on into the truck.
I’m not certain what the farmer would have said next because he didn’t have time to finish the sentence. The truck slammed backward and the moose backed off, lowered his head and hit the truck again, and again, and again until we had been pushed back a good thirty feet. The grille was smashed into the radiator, which ruptured it and made the water boil out in a cloud of steam. The farmer used words I would not hear again until I enlisted in the army. Then the moose snorted and walked off and we had to walk four miles back to the farm and get a tractor to pull the truck home. It took weeks for us to repair it.
There seems to be a river of rage just below the surface in moose that has no basis in logic, or at least any logic that I can see.
Other times, when an attacking moose could easily have killed me, the creature just turned away and stopped charging. It’s as if it had a sudden burst of good humor.
I was in a canoe once in summer, working my way along the side of a lake, angling for sunfish with a light rod and line, when I came around a bend in the lake and saw a moose with her head under water. I smiled because she looked so comical. Moose frequently nuzzle around lily-pad roots and they look silly, almost as if they intend to be funny and come up with leaves and roots hanging over their heads or mud streaming down their faces.
I had taken a stroke with the paddle just as I saw her, and while I was smiling the canoe drifted close to her–not four feet away. She raised her head, dripping with water and mud, and before I could even take the smile off my face she raised one enormous front hoof, put it on the gunwale of the canoe and pushed down as hard as she could.
The canoe did an instant and perfect barrel roll. One second I was sitting there and the next I–and all my gear–was in the water beneath the canoe, rod still in my hand, eyes wide open. With blurry vision I saw moose legs right in front of me and I turned and scrabbled/swam/dragged myself a few feet away and blew to the surface. I thought she would continue the attack and drive me into the mud on the bottom. But no. She decided to play with the canoe. The canoe had shipped a bit of water but it had rolled upright. With great deliberation, the moose reached out with a giant cloven hoof, put it on the side of the canoe and spun it again. Three times.
She watched it spin until it finally didn’t come right side up again but lay overturned like a green log, and with that, apparently bored, she turned away. I was still standing there in four feet of water and mud. She walked off to eat lily-pad roots while I tried to find my tackle box and cooler and paddle. It had all been a joke.
I would not learn how truly serious a moose attack could be until I was in Alaska training for my first Iditarod.
Alaska was more than just a new and beautiful place to me. I grew up hunting and fishing in the north woods of Minnesota, and also spent time in the Colorado Rockies, the Wyoming Bighorns and the wilderness of south central Canada (where Hatchet takes place). But none of it had prepared me for the vastness, for the stunning size and beauty of the bush in Alaska.
And none of it had prepared me for the difference in moose— either in size or temperament. A fellow and I took my dogs up from Minnesota in an old truck, driving on the Alaska Highway for eight full days, and got to a place north of a trading post named Trapper Creek. I moved farther back into the woods and set up a winter camp. This was on a cold dark night in December three months before the race.
I went to sleep in an old vehicle used for a shelter. That first night I had dreams that could have been written by Jack London and edited by Robert Service, filled with prospectors and trappers and dogs named Fang and wild storms and cold so deep it froze the eyes out of men. (All these things, except for a dog named Fang, later came to pass for me.) I was deep in this dream world when a scream tore me awake. It was a mix of terror and pain–I will never forget it–and I ran outside, barefoot, in my long underwear and my headlamp. (It was pitch dark around the clock except for about an hour and a half of grayness in the afternoon.) I was standing in four feet of snow with my light sweeping back and forth before I was quite awake.
I knew only one thing. It was a terrible scream and it had come from one of my dogs. They were tethered back in some spruce trees, out of the wind, and at first I could see nothing but shaking limbs and flying snow. Then came more screams–mixed with growls, snarls and the snapping of teeth–and I moved through the snow unaware of the cold, though I was barefoot and my feet would suffer for days after. Now I could see into the trees. And there was a cow–four, five hundred pounds of cow, and she was intent on killing my dogs.
I went insane. I didn’t have a weapon, but I grabbed the small ax I used for chopping up frozen meat and stormed in after the moose, screaming and cursing louder than the dogs, swinging like a madman, the ax slashing back and forth, and I think the noise startled her or confused her. Whatever the reason, she turned as if to attack me, stomped on one more dog, then vanished into the night.
At first I thought she had killed two dogs and perhaps wounded two others. I gave what first aid I could, then ran to get dressed and harness up a team to carry the victims to the highway, where I could call a veterinarian from a pay phone.
I was wrong. No dogs died, though one had a broken leg and another a cracked rib and both were out of the race for the season.
After that incident I borrowed a rifle.
Though I was attacked or had dangerous encounters many more times, none of my dogs ever got killed by moose, though I knew of other racers who lost dogs that way, either in training or during the race. But other dogs got injured in what I came to think of as passing attacks. They would develop in this way: We would be moving down a trail in the half-light and off to the side there would be a moose. This was a common occurrence. As a matter of fact, in a single training run lasting eight or ten hours it was usual to see eight or ten moose, always off to the side, always standing. Most of them would simply stand and stare as we went by. But on each run one or two would start trotting alongside the team.
This still didn’t mean they were going to attack. But it brought my attention to an absolute peak, and since the moose were faster than the dogs, with legs that seemed to go on forever, they were very much in control.
I learned to watch their backs. When the hair rose on their shoulders–not unlike the coat of an angry dog–it meant they were probably going to charge, and then I had to watch the head to see where the point of attack would be. If they aimed at the center of the team, the dogs would move out, there would be a scramble and we would get past, usually without much damage. If the moose aimed at the leaders I would yell at the dogs, turn them about and head back down the trail and away. This took some time and could end in possible injury to the dogs.
Quite often the moose would not even look at the dogs but would swing its head to stare at the sled and its eyes would go red and I would scream at the dogs to hurry, and grab the ax tied to the sled and either dodge or fight my way out.
Every dog run was interesting, many were frightening and on some I got injured. The worst attack, one I remembered when writing about Brian’s difficulties with moose, came in the dark and caught me completely by surprise.
It was–and I’ve always wanted to use this phrase in a book–a dark and stormy night. Dark in the rest of the world means night but dark in the middle of a snowstorm in the bush of Alaska is very much, I think, what it would be like to be inside a cow.
I could see almost nothing. Of course I was wearing a headlamp and had batteries to spare but I had found that the dogs (like cats) could see quite well in the dark and the light made strange shadows that caused them to trip and stumble. So we were running in the dark and had gone about forty miles and were moving through a particularly thick stretch of spruce trees and I kept hearing a rattle in the sled. I was carrying a metal Thermos full of hot tea and it was bouncing against something, making a noise that was beginning to irritate me, so, standing on the back of the sled, I reached forward and down to adjust the Thermos.
At that precise moment a cow moose that had been standing in the darkened spruce trees swept me off the sled. I had no idea she was there, absolutely no warning that anything was coming, and the dogs hadn’t seen or smelled her, or if they had, they didn’t give any indication.
Suddenly I was upside down in the snow, flat on my back, and something enormous was stomping on me. Without any doubt, she was trying to kill me. I had been attacked many times, in brushing, passing attacks, but this one wanted me dead.
I quickly realized it was a moose, and as another dog driver had advised, I rolled into a ball and covered my head with my arms, presenting my back.
She completely worked me over. I didn’t count the kicks and stomps but there were dozens. She stopped after a bit and I peeked at her, outlined against the snow, and she was staring at me, listening for my breath, and when at last I could hold it no longer and had to breathe again she heard it and renewed the attack.
I don’t know how long she kept after me. It seemed hours, days. I lay as still as possible, trying to hide my breathing, but she kept coming back until I thought I was dead–and then she backed off. Thinking she was gone, I tried a small move, but she jumped me again. Finally I think she was convinced I was finished and she moved off into the forest.
I was spitting blood. Later I found that I had a cracked rib and two broken back teeth.
I had a gun–not on me, but on the sled. It was one of the few times I had brought a weapon on a run. A friend had loaned me a handgun, a .44 Magnum. The dogs had gone a hundred yards or so up the trail and stopped, tangled around a tree. I crawled, stumbled, fell to the sled and found the gun and turned and thought I would hunt her down, even if it took all my life. I wanted to kill her–six, seven times.
I know she was an animal. And that we are supposedly superior to animals (though I doubt we are much superior.) I understand all that. I know we are supposed to temper judgment with wisdom and logic. But in all honesty if somebody came to me now as I was sitting at my computer and said they had found that moose and I would only have to walk seven or eight hundred miles to get her, I would grab a rifle and go for it.
She made it personal, as the moose that went after Brian made it personal.