Heathcliff the Moose

100_1114Soaked to the bone, deep in the woods of Maine, I hustled along a steep trail. The cold, wind swept rains and rough terrain had kept me moving at a fast pace.  My forty pound pack seemed more like eighty pounds as I negotiated a long hill.  At the crest of the hill I spotted a river at the foot of the hill ahead of me, swollen with runoff from the torrential downpours.  Normally this would be a crossing that could be accomplished by hopping from stone to stone, but on this morning the stream displayed chest deep water and raging currents.  Puzzled, I removed my pack and took in the situation.  Looking up and down stream I could not see a safe crossing.  My only option was to wait until the stream subsided, likely a day’s delay in my hiking schedule.

 

As I began to set up my temporary camp I heard a loud crashing in the brush.  The torrent stream, wind, and steady rain made locating the sound difficult.  After scanning the hillside several times I saw an area of small hemlock saplings about 50 yards to the north moving every which way.  A large bull moose stepped out of the hemlocks.  His five foot wide rack, huge shoulders, and massive body were stunning and I failed to take cover to avoid being seen.  The bull’s nose went up into the air and then he turned to look directly at me.  For reasons still unknown to me he perceived me as a threat and immediately charged up the hill in my direction.   This was not rutting season, and I had no reason to fear this animal other than the speed and determination of his ascent up the hill with me as the obvious target. 

 

 Time stands still when fear consumes your body, mind, and spirit.  I made no conscious decisions but found myself placing a large red maple between the bull and me.  The irritated moose rushed the tree with its large rack down.  It’s massive head thrashed from side to side.  Circling the tree again and again I kept it between the moose and me for what seemed to be an eternity.  Yelling and screaming at the bull yielded no results and I could feel a weary panic overcoming rational thought.  Just as I was about to make a break down the hill the moose stopped, pulled his head upright, and looked over to my pack.  Tired of scaring the absolute willy out of me, he ambled over to my forty pound pack, lowered his head and caught his antler in the frame.  Thrusting his head and neck upward in a display of unbelievable strength, he flipped the pack in the air about ten feet over his head strewing the contents of the pack all over the forest floor.  He then looked directly at me and ambled back down the hill, glancing over his shoulder once or twice in my direction, as if to indicate that he was complete control over this territory.

 

And such was my first “up close and personal” account with a moose.  I must admit that this once in a lifetime experience is one that I will never forget.  Humbled by this physically superior creature, I found respect for the moose in a way that I would not choose to repeat.

 

*****

 

For a period time in my hometown of Heath, we were blessed with a very observable young bull moose that seemed to have fallen love with a small herd of heifers.  He  became Heath’s second largest tourist attraction (after the Heath Fair) judging by the number of cars parked in front of the field while courting the disinterested bovines.  The young bull, perhaps 18 months old, had likely been displaced by larger mature bull moose to the north where moose are more common.  This young bull moose, I called him Heathcliff,  had not yet developed right stuff to compete with larger, more aggressive bulls.  His small rack, immature frame, and obvious lack of smarts posed no threat to those with real breeding opportunities.

 

Mature moose are curious in that they appear as both majestic and awkward at the same time.  Wearing a four to five foot wide by two foot high crown on top of a head that may already be seven feet off the ground, it is easy to perceive a bull moose as majestic. Conversely, the huge size (up to 1800 pounds), bulbous nose, donkey ears, pendulous flack of skin hanging down from its neck, and very long legs give the moose a comical, awkward look.  Interestingly, the moose is a marvel of evolution.  These awkward features give this creature an evolutionary advantage over wildlife competitors.  These features are solely responsible for the moose’s survival in a world of competition that has already eliminated countless wildlife species. 

 

The huge body mass of the moose enables the moose to generate huge amounts of heat to survive cold weather.  The amount of fuel it takes to operate the moose is incredible.  A mature bull can eat up to 60 pounds of browse in a single day.  The long legs allow the moose to maneuver in deep snows, reach high branch tips while foraging, and feed off of aquatic vegetation in deep still water during the summer months.  The pendulous nose proves to be an advantage while surface feeding on the water, allowing the moose to breath and forage at the same time.  The large nostrils are likely related to the excellent sense of smell that helps to moose locate food, young, and enemy.  The mule-like ears can be directed easily to the source of a sound.  These large sound receptors prove to be an advantage when it comes to surviving the natural world.  The pendulous growth seen on a bull’s neck is somehow attractive to the cow moose, and seems to aid in breeding success.

 

After the bison, the moose is the largest herbivore in North America.  The range of the moose is clearly expanding as farms are abandoned, fields grow back to forest, and large amounts of moose food (forage) become available.  There are two critical features of good moose habitat.  The first is plentiful brushy growth where moose can forage buds, branch tips, and leaves.  The second is large areas of swamp and marshes with deep standing water, and beds of aquatic vegetation.  Our immediate area in northwest Massachusetts has plenty of the first, and is very limited in the second critical feature.  We have plenty of wetlands, but we are not blessed with large numbers of wetlands that have deep standing water and large aquatic vegetation beds.  This limitation likely prevent our area from ever having a large moose population.  Directly to our north, between Harriman Reservoir and Somerset Reservoir in Vermont , and all along Route 9 in the Green Mountain State there is prime moose habitat.  The number of breeding pairs in this vicinity has increased dramatically in recent years.  Heath and the surrounding towns will continue to host Moose that have wandered out of this area, but will probably not experience the dense populations that our neighbors to the north have encountered.

 

The cow moose is a dedicated mother. Despite her great size she is remarkably gentle with her calves.  Typically her patience lasts for about 18 months, when no doubt she grows weary of her adolescent young, and sends them packing to a life of their own.

 

****

 

Heathcliff, Heath’s cartoon-like rock star, was probably rejected by a mother cow who knew it was time to breed once again.  His quest for a mate, however inappropriate, brought him a fame of which he will never be aware.  Surprisingly, it is not that unusual for young bull moose to endear a heard of heifers.  Not too many years back a young bull in Vermont became nationally famous for exactly the same reasons.  

 

Most thought that Heathcliff would realize the error of his ways and wander off to parts unknown in search of new territory and an appropriate mate.  But that was not to be so.  After a couple of months of romancing the heifers, someone in state government saw him as a potential hazard, put a anesthetic dart in his backside, and shipped him off to more appropriate moose habitat.  We can only wish that, with time, he found his own stride and developed a five foot crown, 1000 pound body, and an air of confidence to help him become the master of his own domain.

 

Most important, we certainly hope that he learned the difference between a bovine cow and a moose cow.

 

Originally written in November of 2001.

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