Welcome to summer in Anchorage's trademarked "Big Wild Life", where the big wildlife can maim you -- or worse. Stepping outdoors in Alaska's largest city is unlike stepping outdoors most anywhere else. There are no snakes or skunks to worry about, but the large, dangerous critters make up for that.
If grizzly bears aren’t waiting to chomp you, moose are waiting to stomp you. How dangerous can a gangly, old moose be? Well, they've kicked at least two Anchorage residents to death, and the city is full of survivors beaten bloody or bruised by the big, sometimes docile, ungulates.
Kincaid Park, a popular attraction for local mountain bikers on the edge of the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport saw the worst of the moose-gone-crazy incidents over the Memorial Day weekend. At least two cyclists, perhaps as many as four, were stomped along the well-traveled single-track trails there. One unidentified woman had to be carried out of the woods and taken to a local hospital by ambulance, according to the Anchorage Fire Department.
Bruises and festering rashes
Battered and beaten rider Bruce Ross managed to escape a Saturday thrashing by fleeing through a thicket of aptly-named devil's club. By Wednesday, he wasn't sure which was more painful -- his badly bruised shoulder, ankle and feet or the devil's club spines festering under his skin everywhere.
"I have some pretty good bruises all over but fortunately no broken bones,'' he said. "Knock on wood, she didn't get any bones.''
"She", in this case, would be one mad momma moose. Whether the same moose injured everyone at Kincaid is unclear, but it is possible. All of the attacks appear to have taken place in the same general area along a regularly traveled trail.
"I heard of two people who I vaguely know (getting stomped), and they said there was one more woman hauled out on a gurney,'' Ross said. The trail where he was attacked was later posted with a sign warning of an extremely aggressive moose with calf. Ross said he clearly ran into her at the worst time.
"I was out there mountain biking with my daughter,'' he said, "and I came up a hill and around a corner. Without any warning, in a little space, I was with a cow and calf. The calf was small enough that it was not mobile. It was an unfortunate moment. I don't blame the moose.''
Given that the vulnerable calf was unable to join its mother in fleeing a potential predator, mom did what she thought necessary to protect her offspring. She attacked. It happened fast, and Ross still isn't sure exactly how it went down. He apparently jumped off his bike as the moose came for him.
"I don't recall that part of it," he said, "but my daughter saw me trying to run around a tree. So I must have gotten off.''
He didn't get away.
"She kicked the shit out of me,'' he said. "After a couple of attempts, though, I was able to get up and run away. I had to run through the devil's club."
His 19-year-old daughter was traumatized by it all, he added. Moose attack in a frenzied blur of flying feet that in some ways looks more dangerous than it is.
"All she could do was protect herself and watch,'' Ross said. "What can you do? All she was doing was making a bunch of noise" to which the adrenalin-charged moose paid no attention. The animal was in full battle mode. Even when Ross got away from the cow and the calf, the former remained aggressive.
"Both my daughter and I were sort of hiding out for a few minutes,'' he said, waiting and hoping the moose would calm down. Eventually it did and managed to move off the trail a ways with its calf, which was a good thing. Ross had been riding a pricey, carbon-fiber bike.
"It was a brand new bike,'' he said. "I didn't want to just leave it there. Fortunately another guy came long, and he helped me recover my bike.''
Ross has no idea who the good Samaritan was. At that point, he was focused on getting back to his car in the Kincaid parking lot and figuring out how badly he'd been injured.
Up to 1,000 Anchorage moose
"I've been an outdoorsman here in Alaska since the '60s,'' he said, "and this is the first I've had this kind of thing happen. I'm rethinking my comfortable space around moose.''
Anchorage is home to a large and healthy population of 700 to 1,000 moose, and they attack people with some regularity. . The attacks usually don't make the news, however, unless someone dies or children are injured. The latter happened only days after Ross was stomped. An 11-year-old and 6-year-old were wounded, the latter seriously, when attacked by a moose in Eagle River, a city suburb.
"That sounded like a yearling. They're just sort of in that stupid age,'' Ross said. Moose calves spend their first winter of life with their mothers, but are shooed off just before new calves are born in mid to late May. Alone for the first time, the yearlings often have difficulty figuring out how to act around other animals, including people. Yearlings, Ross noted, can be unpredictable in the spring.
Cows with calves, on the other hand, are usually pretty predictable. They tend to be fierce defenders of their young.
"This was clearly a cow protecting her brand new calf,'' Ross said, which was both a good thing and a bad thing. It meant he got the beating of his life after stumbling into them, but it also meant that once he got away "you knew she wasn't going to go far,'' he said.
This isn't always the case. In what might be the most notorious moose attack in city history, a moose in 1991 launched a long-range assault on an ill-fated Easter-egg hunt sponsored by the Anchorage Daily News. An Associated Press report later portrayed it as the Easter-egg hunt from hell.
"An estimated 1,500 children had turned out for the annual Easter-egg hunt. Some youngsters wandered off, and others got stuck in the snow and mud and began to panic,'' the AP reported. "At least eight had been reported missing by their parents." Anchorage Police were called to help.
Officer Fred Jones arrived to find himself charged by a moose obviously upset about all the commotion. It tossed the policeman into the bushes and threatened him. The officer drew his gun and shot the moose 11 times. "I was scared,'' Jones said at the time. "I didn't know if I was going to win this one.''
There was reason for concern. Moose have actually killed and injured more people than grizzly bears in Alaska's largest city, though the latter are dangerous as well. A grizzly killed two well-known runners along a popular hiking trail in 1995, and though there have been no fatalities since, there have been some serious injuries.
Petra Davis, a then 15-year-old mountain biker, nearly died after being mauled by a grizzly in another local park four years ago. The attack knocked her out of action for a while, but she got back on the bike. Alaskans are proud of being able to in stride the still-wild world that surrounds them.
Kincaid trails opened early
Ross shook off his pain and got back on his bike within hours of the moose attack.
"I’ve been training for an event,'' he said. "I'm going to race a mountain bike stage race, the BC Bike Race'' in Canada. "I've sort of been training everywhere. Kincaid dried out faster than anywhere so I've been spending a lot of time there.'' He thinks the environmental conditions may have played a role in the moose attack.
"I think people are out there during the moose-calving season this year, when we never really have been,'' he said. "Usually the official start of the season is the first of June.''
By then, moose calves are usually able to get around pretty well and prone to trot off with the mothers when they hear people approaching. Ross's four decades of playing in the local woods without a previous incident would seem to underline the fact moose usually try to avoid people.
"I never really had a moose attack me before,'' he said.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com