“Well,” I smiled to myself as blood dripped from my face down the front of my shirt, the blood-smeared camera hanging from the neck strap seeming to be undamaged, “this will be a great story.”
While sitting on a steep mountain slope, the evening air grew crisp and cold enough to form a crust on the snow that barely covered the ground, and my view commanded the mountain valley. Shortly, a bull moose stepped out of a cluster of junipers, brilliant with their pastel blue berries braced against the change of season.
The bull, a moderate-sized animal, seemed not to exhibit signs of damage from the fights he almost surely lost against several larger bulls that occupied the valley. He ambled along, snatching mouthfuls of willow and birch for supper.
After watching for a few minutes, it seemed the bull wouldn’t move far and would likely bed down somewhere nearby. Another clump of junipers about 75 yards from the bull beckoned as cover from which to make photographs of the big ungulate.
I lost sight of the moose when I dropped down the slope to cross a small, fast-moving stream and worked back up the opposite slope. When I came up into the subalpine clearings, I could see the bull several hundred yards away, still feeding and not moving much. I wandered aimlessly closer, making sure the lumbering giant knew I was there and gauging his mood.
All seemed good when my approach brought me to the clump of junipers. I ducked into them and came out the other side. From about 50 yards away, the bull lifted his head, glanced my way, and then went back to feeding.
I started snapping photos — maybe snapping isn’t the right word for digital — and with the camera shutter set to silent mode, the moose paid no attention. After a bit, the enormous animal with antlers framing the backdrop of snow-covered mountains began browsing toward where I stood, one step away from a gap between two large trees where I could seek refuge if things went south.
When the bull got within 20 yards, I began talking, as I often do with animals, and raised my voice a bit. Still, he continued his approach. At 10 yards, I stepped into the trees and stood still.
While standing there, contemplating how long it would be before the animal, now filling my nostrils with post-rut stink, moved on, he came closer.
I think about this event whenever a news story about a hapless tourist being seriously injured or killed while approaching big game animals in national parks, most recently and notably, Yellowstone.
I passed through Yellowstone once back in the ’80s. Not there as a park visitor, I wanted to get through as quickly as possible and be on my way. But, a large bull bison standing out in a meadow caused me to stop.
At that time, I had a good single-lens reflex camera but no telephoto lens. I wanted close-up photos of that big bull in the worst way. Fortunately for me, while lacking a big lens, I brought what it seems the folks you often read about don’t have — my hard-won experience with big animals. I understood what game speed meant.
While appearing for all the world, as most big ungulates do, as harmless and slow-moving as Farmer John’s milk cow, my experience with big animals told me that to attempt to get close to that bison without some form of cover to escape if things went bad, would be near-suicidal.
It is easy to categorize the folks who suffer injuries or death as stupid for getting themselves into these situations. I’ve said it enough times myself. But that isn’t really fair. That they are in a place like Yellowstone, or Denali, suggests some appreciation for sort of wild places and the animals that live there.
I imagine the limited life experience with animals these folks might bring from an urban environment and the pretenses that wild animals are friendly, cuddly and that they would love nothing more than to have you scratch their ears.
It may be a bit like peeing on an electric fence. Maybe you’ve heard the stories or seen the news, but you just can’t quite believe that a jolt to the genitals is that bad or that someone trampled to death didn’t do something to cause it, something that, of course, you won’t do. So, you give it a go. I can tell you, that the electric fence experience is a game-changer, and any wild animal, given the right circumstances, will attack you. Grab hold of a squirrel sometime if you doubt it.
Without some experience, it is nearly impossible to imagine how fast wild animals are. I refer to it as game speed. It’s when a combination of adrenaline and physical makeup explodes in lightning-fast bursts of movement.
The moose moved even closer and turned broadside, maybe 10 feet in front of me. I wasn’t too concerned due to having the trees for cover, but still, the adrenaline arrived in force when the bull looked right at me, the white of his eye bright.
When an animal looks at you with this “wall-eyed” look, you can bet you’ve done something to enrage this animal, and you best be prepared to deal with it.
I made a photo of the bull’s eye and then settled down in the brush, figuring he would calm down. After about 10 minutes, the bull seemed to forget about me, and he moved around the clump of trees I stood in, back to feeding along the edge.
He had circled my stand of trees and appeared again very close, across from me. His eyes had settled, and all seemed well. Still, in my photographer’s trance, I wanted a wide-angle shot of him with the mountains in the background.
Retrieving the camera with a wide-angle lens from my pack, I forgot about silencing the shutter. I eased my way between the two trees to get a clear shot while still having a quick escape route.
The instant the shutter clicked, the bull charged the sound. I half fell, half stepped back into the trees when he clipped the camera with his antler and slammed it into my nose and cheek.
I hollered when hit, and the moose went past me, turned, and swatted at some small willow shrubs. I was safe in the trees, but my camera bag, with the camera and telephoto lens was out of the trees. I didn’t dare get it.
It was a long cold wait for the moose to move off far enough for me to leave. He had migrated to the back side of my clump of trees, and I made a dash for it. I ran a ways before turning to look back, and there he was, standing on the slope, giving me a look that said, “don’t you come back.” I didn’t.