Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Moose, the Motorcycle and the Tourist

So, last night as I was coming home from line dancing at the local bar - I was in a damn fine mood, blasting country music and day dreaming about tearin’ up the floor some Friday night… Line dancing has much of the same foot work as Irish and Scottish step dancing (that’s where it originates), and since it’s been far too many years that my messed up ankle has kept me from fancy Irish footwork – I was more than high
on life at 10 pm at night –driving home from the bar in the light of the Alaskan summer night.

But I was not so blissed out that I didn’t notice the car pulled over on the WRONG side of the road. As I cruised slowly by the car I also noticed that a cow and calf were chomping away at the roadside shrubbery. Here in Alaska, by the way, a “cow” is a female moose.

NOW, first a lesson in Alaskan wildlife viewing: On the list of most dangerous animals in Alaska – a cow with a calf may be at the top – maybe behind a grizzly or polar bear with cub, but maybe not. Moose have an uncanny manner by which they uh, destroy, their enemies. A moose, weighing up to 1300 pounds and standing up to seven feet at the shoulders, will simply, when pissed off, get up on it's hind legs (kind of like a horse rearing up) and then pummel said enemy with it's front hooves. I'm not kidding, it'll just pound your pathetic body deep into the permafrost.

The good news is they often like to tell you they’re pissed well BEFORE they pummel you. This is how a moose tells you to get the hell away: first they look at you (that’s a good time to check your distance – if an animal that big stares at you, you best be doing some thinking about whether you’re pissing it off). If it finds that it doesn’t like what it’s looking at, it may turn broadside to you, -to remind you, in case you’ve forgotten, exactly how damn big an animal it is. Although sometimes it opts out of this obvious reminder. Next, it starts twitching it ears and eventually will lay its ears back. This is comparable to one of those damn-big-drunk-guys at the bar narrowing his eyes and pulling up his shirt sleeves when he hasn’t taken a liking to you or your boyfriend. If the moose gets around to licking her lips (just like the drunk at the bar) you should know that you’re going to find out if the permafrost is really melting.
So, back to the roadside situation, I pulled ahead and did a U turn and pulled into a parking lot across the way. I had just remembered I had my new point and shoot camera with me, but mostly I wanted to watch the tourist.
You see last summer when I was in Juneau, walking around looking at the receding glacier, I noticed these funny signs that said: “DO NOT CHASE THE BEARS.” I thought they were a joke until I rounded a corner to find a crowd of 20 people, armed with video cameras, yelling excitedly and chasing a bear around in circles until they had it sufficiently cornered against a rock. I ran for the Park Ranger, more out of concern for the traumatized bear than the video camera herd. The Park Ranger gave me a look that told me this was probably the 5th time today he’d dealt with this. He called for back-up and rushed out to try to ‘chase’ the crowds away from the petrified bear. Ever since that time I have been more than a bit un-nerved seeing tourists and wildlife near each other.

To tell you the truth though – I don’t know why I really doubled back. Was I really going to try to stop the tourists if they got out and tried to get close to the moose, or would I just figure it was natural selection? The tourists didn’t get out of their car. Instead they pulled a U turn and got right up against the edge of the road, leaned out of the window, and proceeded to yell and bang on the car to try to get the moose to look at them.

That’s when I saw ‘The Stare’. The ears went back, the head lowered a bit, and the tongue began to appear… I was trying to think how this was going to pan out. Was the moose really going to pummel the car? That would be an awesome picture. Would the moose chase the car when, or if, it drove away? Another awarding winning shot.
But just when I thought the moose was going to charge, the strangest thing happened. This incredibly loud, ‘old school’ motorcycle came tearing around the corner and blaring by at lightning speed. The moose, the tourist and I were taken completely off guard. The moose jumped, and with baby in tow, took off for the trees. The tourist banged his head on the top of the door and I nearly dropped my camera. I’m sure the motorcyclist saw the moose, for I saw his head swivel as he went by. Maybe he was some kind of super hero, being called to duty when wildlife was stressed by ignorant, selfish tourists. Maybe he watched the whole thing unfold and then intervened at the perfect moment. Maybe he does this all the time, leaving many people -and moose- asking “Who was that leather clad man anyhow?” Or maybe it was just the best of luck.

In any case, the tourists drove off with bitter looks on their faces, while the mother moose stayed at the edge of the tree line, ears upright with a young one glued to her side. I sat on the hood of my car (plenty far away) and watched, pondering what a strange collision of worlds we are in now.


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