Moose(s) by Gary Knipling

First Tracks

While on a family winter/ski/social trip to Utah in late January 2013, I had a trail/nature/outdoor experience that may be worth telling and sharing. This was the fourth year that extended members of two families had rented a house for a week in the quaint and rather small (by Utah standards) ski resort setting of Sundance. While I don't downhill ski anymore, I've enjoyed the chance for hiking, snowshoeing, and running some of the surrounding trails each year. Sundance is well known for the namesake of the Sundance Film Festival that takes place in January, mostly in nearby Park City and Salt Lake City. From a trail-running historical perspective, Sundance was the finish site for four of the early Wasatch Front 100 mile runs in the 1980's in the Wasatch Range east of Salt Lake City. This point-to-point century run has now happened over 30 years, and is the fourth and final leg of the Grand Slam of Ultra Running. Wasatch is held in early September each year.

Is that what I think it is?

The second morning of our stay, I left before daylight headed to the trailhead for the Alpine Loop Road, which is a beautiful two-lane highway going around the northern shoulder of Mt Timpanogos toward Provo Canyon for about 25 miles. It is closed to vehicle traffic in winter, but is a popular trekking route for other winter activities. I have done out-and-back treks on this road many times during our visits to Sundance. It was a very calm but cold morning with about 6” of new powdery, fluffy snow that Utah is so proud of. It is about two miles from the rental house to the Loop start, mostly uphill. When I started onto the Loop at the end of exposed pavement, I could see that I was in for a treat of experiencing “fresh tracks” for as long as I wanted to go. It was about 18 degrees with no additional wind chill, and snow was stacked up on tree limbs because of the calm.

A "bull kiss" - still macho

The setting was so pristine and postcard-like that I took a few pictures of this winter wonderland as I entered the Loop. I had hiked uphill for almost a mile when I came to a familiar sharp left turn on the trail/road. I could see around the turn a little, and there was a moose on the edge of the right shoulder of the Loop. I quickly removed a glove to get out my phone to take a picture so as to prove that I was actually seeing a moose (and for later happy-hour verification). I approached closer to the moose and could see right away that it was a bull because of the “bell”, or dewlap, hanging from it's chin. I could also see the naked burrs on the head where the shed antlers had been attached. It was looking at me, but also periodically to its right. I continued to take a few pictures while walking slowly towards it. I soon realized there was a second bull moose walking toward the first and was larger in body size. I almost couldn't believe what I was watching as it took place before me. The moose greeted each other as with a “man kiss” gesture, and then proceeded to dis each other respectfully by head butting and butt sniffing. They seemed so relaxed and OK with my presence and at times shook their bodies like a wet dog and/or scratched their neck/ears with their back hoof. This continued for about 25 minutes while I stood there within 50 yards of the action. I took pictures now and then, but was limited because of my cold right hand when my glove was off. I felt as if I was watching a Disney channel on moose behavior, although I was getting cold all over because of the physical inactivity. After a while longer, I was wishing the moose would continue off trail so I could get on up the road and warm up.

Line up just right, then push

After a particularly hard head-butt sequence with the larger bull shoving around the smaller one, the smaller bull started walking in my direction. I immediately walked backward continuing to watch the show. Up to this time, I never felt any fear or anxiety or threatened in any way. (Neither did I have the urge to walk closer and say “nice moosie, moosie, moosie” while reaching up to scratch the base of their ears.) The larger bull walked behind as the smaller bull continued in my direction. At one point they stood over where I had been standing in the snow and sniffed the spot. The first hint of any threat was when the larger bull lifted its head with nose pointed skyward, and curled its upper lip outward in a flehem behavior. I have experienced whitetail bucks doing this after smelling the urine of a doe in estrus. I didn't know what to make of this bull moose activity since I knew I hadn't deposited any residue in the snow (yet!)

Sniffing where I had been before

As the moose continued to walk towards me, I walked backwards still marveling at what I was witness to. Throughout everything, I never heard any sound from the moose. I wasn't getting any warmer and I had pretty much decided that I would turn around and run back into the village, but I didn't want to leave too soon for fear of missing out (FOMO) on something. By this time, we had walked around the sharp turn in the trail to a more open and straight portion of the Loop. I had just taken another picture of my new-found trail buddies and was trying to put the phone back into my right vest pocket, and warm up my hand, when the lead bull started running in my direction. I immediately turned tail and started running back down through my tracks going up, while holding the phone in my bare right hand and holding the glove in my left gloved hand. I thought I was running pretty fast (for me) and had gravity on my side, but so did the moose. I ran hard for about 100 yards not even looking back, and thinking I was well ahead of my running mate. When I glanced over my left shoulder, I could see the glimpse of that large black animal much closer than when I turned to run. Instinctively, stupidly, smartly, whatever; I wheeled around and threw up my arms and yelled as loud as I could: “Bad moosie !” (NO, I didn't say that) Fortunately, the moose flared to its left and stopped, almost on a dime. I continued to walk very slowly backwards down the trail, carefully avoiding looking him in the eyes, but being so mindful of what he was doing. He stayed in that same spot until I was further down the trail and eventually out of sight. I took one more picture as he watched me and I watched him.

Just before the chase

Although I had settled down from the excitement, it was still a relief to get back to the trailhead parking lot about a half-mile away from the last moose sighting. On the way back to the house, I stopped by the Nordic Center to share my experience since some of the groomed snowshoe and cross country ski trails go fairly close to where I had seen the moose. I was also interested in finding out how rare or common my experience was. I left my name and cell phone number at the Center in case anyone wanted to ask about it. That afternoon I received a call from Glade, a local retired fellow, who likes to look for shed moose antlers. His inquiry was concerning where I had seen the moose and if I had any idea of how long they had shed their antlers. I could only tell him their location that morning, but we made arrangements to meet and talk, which we did. I learned from Glade that a better action by me when chased by a moose would have been to duck for cover in thick bushes or small trees rather than try to outrun one in open terrain. The saying: “Loose (lose) a Moose; Scare a Bear.”

Back at the house telling my story. Whew !!

Interpretation: For moose, find thick cover and try to lose it. For bear, look big and yell loudly to try to scare it away.

For days I kept thinking about my experience (actually still am). I posted a brief story on my Facebook page with just a few pictures. The comments ranged from Jeff's – Need more action shots; Johanna's – Awe, they just wanted to play; Jackie's – Lions, tigers and moose, oh my!; and many showing relief and concern (Thank You). I still don't know which end of the scale from excitement (joy) to danger (worse) I was in. For now, I hope it is a good trail running story that was worth your time to read. And just another reminder of what so many of us are blessed to experience : Whenever you go on a trail run, you find more than you seek!

Thanks for the rush, Mr. Moose



First nomination for the stupid award!

He will be suffering from Rocky and Bullwinkle nightmares for some time...

Great story, Gary!  Thanks for sharing!

Gary, It sounds like you witnessed both the flehem behavior (curling of the upper lip) as well as the lesser known fleehim behavior.  It's a behavior purely for the moose's amusement where, when given the opportunity, a moose will chase an unsuspecting trail runner just to watch him flee (fleehim behavior).

Seriously though, absolutely incredible story!  Can't wait for the "Happy Hour" version.