DONNELLY — A couple nights ago, the dog yard went nuts at 2:30 a.m. I listened for a moment and came to the decision that the barking signified a relatively important "dog event." So I took my brightest headlamp and pointed it toward the trees near the dog yard. Two sets of red eyes reflected back. Moose. I called back to the couch for Charlie, our big German shepherd pup. He raised his head and then put his paw over his eyes. I was on my own.
When dealing with moose that might be a challenge to move, one should always assume you're on your own. Be prepared. It is easy to be ready at home. Just get in the truck. This time, I did exactly that, then drove to the yard. With the truck between the moose and the dogs, I laid on the horn and the cow, with her young calf, reluctantly edged into the trees. These moose moved. Some do not.
There is no surefire way to turn an aggressive moose. Horns, flares and guns all have minimal effects. Many dog sledders are inclined to carry a pistol. Having run dogs for many years through deep snow and where the mean moose of Paxson sometimes roam, I submit that the only good use for a pistol in a dog sled is for extra weight to help balance the sled. Try getting a frozen pistol out of the sled in an emergency situation using minus-20 hands. Or try getting that .44 into action from beneath a parka and set of snowsuit bibs.
No foolproof claims
I have been charged by moose a half-dozen times. Once I was stomped and twice my dogs suffered minor injuries. The only reliable prevention I have found is to make myself bigger. In moose country, I carry a flag with me. It is just a piece of cloth 3 feet by 4 feet on a stick. Color doesn't matter. It's size that is important. If one lacks a flag in a moose attack situation, your coat is a reasonable alternative.
I am not going to portray this as a foolproof way to turn a charge, but I have driven moose from the trail with the waving-coat technique more than once. Years ago, while running big dog teams on the Denali Highway, a handler and I were confronted by a cow that was not going to concede the trail to what she probably thought was a huge wolf pack.
[From the archives: Anchorage moose charges mountain bikers]
Moose know that they need to stay on secure footing when confronting a potential wolf attack, and they will stay on solid footing at almost any cost. In this instance I had no flag. I removed my parka and walked toward the cow waving the parka over my head, while our handler stayed with the team. The moose laid back her ears and licked her lips in preparation for a charge. I backed off just a bit, waited for a minute or two and then tried again. After a half-dozen attempts, she finally eased onto one of her side trails and let us by.
Moose injure more folks in Alaska than bears ever have. As with bears, some attacks are preventable, and some are no more than the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bears can be nimble opponents, tough to avoid in an attack. Moose are not so quick and lack teeth.
Trees are your friends
Should you be charged by a moose where there are trees, get behind one. I once had a little bull moose surprise me while trapping. I spent five minutes circling around a small spruce until he decided he had spent enough energy and wandered off to feed.
Moose live around us the entire year. Aggressive periods are spring and fall, with spring being especially dangerous. Moose are hungry in March. The snow is deep. People are out enjoying the extended daylight and warmer temperatures. Calves are born in late May. Cows will charge potential threats from quite a distance, especially young cows with first-time calves.
The best prevention is to get out of the area when you confront a moose that does not seem inclined to leave. Run. They might chase you a few hundred feet at best. In most cases, though, the charge is intended to move you.
Moose are a big part of our winter here in Alaska. They are fun and interesting animals. No matter how often I see moose, I am always thrilled to spot another. But don't get too close, watch for the laid-back ear warning, and keep your barking dog under wraps.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.