PAXSON — I was on the road by 3:30 a.m., an ungodly hour to be up and about, headed to Valdez to pick up a load of fish for our dog team. I was 5 miles from home and barely awake when the big cow moose came barreling out of the passenger-side ditch. She looked to be coming through the windshield. I swerved by reflex and the crash was much gentler than I expected.
I stopped and jumped out to see the moose standing in the road looking at me. She laid her ears back and took a step in my direction. Discretion was warranted. I jumped back in the truck and drove to the next turn-out to assess the truck damage.
The mirror was beyond repair and came off in my hand when I tried to move it. I picked a handful of moose hair out of the mounting bracket and that was it. Lucky. I have been driving Alaska's roads, sometimes too fast, for more than 40 years without incident until we moved into the Donnelly area three years ago. This was my second mirror lost to a moose since the move.
Deadly stretch of roadway
The stretch of road between Delta Junction and Paxson is one of the worst in Alaska for moose on the roadway. The moose population isn't extraordinarily high, but the road parallels the Delta River and every moose that lives in the steep mountains and along the river ends up at the roadside for easy feeding on willows that line the ditch.
This season, deep snow in Isabel Pass, about 11 miles from Paxson, has put them on the blacktop and they are reluctant to jump off into ditches. Donnelly Dome, 18 miles south of Delta Junction on the Richardson Highway, is home to a fair number of moose and even without much snow they seem to like the highway. There is a short section of the highway, midway through the pass, known locally as "Slaughter Alley." Moose get on the road and won't get off, falling prey to tanker traffic that services the trans-Alaska pipeline.
The snow got deep in a hurry this season, at least in a few areas. Deep snow never bodes well for moose. Back in the winter of 1989-90, more than 4,000 starved to death in the Mat-Su alone. However, the snow is heavy only in patches this season, at least so far, and the moose are in pretty good shape. They can, and will, move into areas with less snow cover.
Fairbanks has fair snow, but the dry snow of the Interior is not as much of a hazard to moose as the wet, crusty stuff of the Mat-Su. Temperatures have also remained above normal for winter, so moose don't require the calories they'd normally need.
In fact, the biggest danger is likely motorists. Cars and trucks account for about 30 percent of all moose killed by people. From 2000-10, there were between 550 and 830 annually in Alaska, according to the state Department of Transportation.
Maine drivers see a fair number of moose too, and they hit nearly 400 last year. The moose usually take the brunt of collisions, but not always. Over two October days, two Anchorage motorists — one in a Subaru and one on a motorcycle — died after colliding with moose. Later that month on the Kenai Peninsula, six moose were struck by vehicles in 24 hours.
Clearly, more people are killed by moose than by bears when collisions are taken into account.
At least no deer deaths
However, if you think it is tough having moose to avoid on the roadway, be glad there aren't deer. Deer collisions cause more than 200 deaths annually in the Lower 48. By comparison, those grizzlies are beginning to look benign.
The remainder if my trip to Valdez was uneventful. The moose collision stayed with me all of the way home, turning the 250 mile return drive into an eight-hour marathon. I've learned my lesson and the takeaway is simple. Slow down! Those big brown animals are almost invisible at night. Headlights don't work well at dusk and early dawn. One moment of inattention can ruin your week.
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.