Alaska News

An Anchorage family tradition: The moose vigil

At first we thought the moose resting on the knoll in front of our house might be Raven, the calf that was born on the same spot exactly two years before. Raven spent his first week of life wrenching us between moments of delight and moments of dread. Tiny creatures in an unforgiving wild can forge that grip, and to this day we look for him.

A winter has passed since our last sighting, when he stood tall along the roadside near the base of the big hill, head up and facing west toward Sleeping Lady. He was sleek, brown and handsome in the late autumn light, his small rack dark and velvety. He would be much bigger now, we reasoned, as we considered this large new visitor.

But when the new moose stood and turned, we realized it was not Raven, the young bull, but an older blond cow heavy with impending birth. She heaved and panted, then wandered through the woods, out of sight toward the neighbor's property. Despite the early hour on a Saturday, we called to let them know she was on her way.

"We think it's Bertha," we told them, and they understood the significance immediately. Raven's mother. The one we had all admired two years before as she cared tenderly for her single calf. The one we had wondered about ever since. In our quiet neighborhood, tucked below the mountains near tree line, we find ourselves guarding the secluded, protected spaces where mother moose return time and again to bear their young. Every time, it feels like a vigil.

Fretting for days

Sometimes for a few days, sometimes for nearly a week, we retreat from the usual pattern of daily life and shift our attention to the mother and calves. Outdoor chores and spring projects are put on hold, lest we disturb the animals. Errands are kept to a minimum so we can keep the noisy garage door down. We avoid the front of the house even on sunny days when the deck chairs call to us and the grill stands lonely. We glue ourselves to the windows to observe tender scenes as little ones wobble on spindly legs, try to run and buckle under, stand up and try again. We hesitate to leave for long, feeling responsible in some way for their care and safety. We whisper, we observe, we photograph, we fret.

Bertha didn't stay at the neighbor's place on Saturday morning. A few hours after our early phone call, I walked upstairs from the basement and noticed movement on the knoll. In a small grove of spruce trees, hemmed in by a fallen birch, she lay with two new calves, still wet from birth, the birth sack in a shiny clump beside her.

"You're a father again -- of twins!" I teased my husband over the phone. He is convinced that moose are always born on May 16, and his prediction held true this year.

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Only hours old, the calves tumble in clumsy circles around their mother as she consumes the birth sack. She stands a dozen times only to kneel quickly and fall heavily back to the ground. In her exhaustion, I worry that she will crush the calves. Her ribs show, so I worry that she is hungry. The closest creek and pond are dry for the first time in memory, so I worry that she needs water. A scar crosses a patch of fur on her side, so I worry about bears now returning.

"I just saw Blackie on the big hill," my husband informs me while riding his bike to work. His voice sounds cheerful, excited. "I'm sure he's looking for lunch," he jokes, but I don't laugh.

'I could feel my spine tense'

During the afternoon of the second day, I was folding laundry in the basement when a loud rumble started near the newborns and built to a pounding roar. The body of a full-grown moose filled the window, blocking light, then came to a thunderous halt. Bertha charging a threat. Immediately I thought it was a bear, or even a wolf. Soon, another charge, but this time the mother moose rounded the house at high speed, hooves flying, and emerged back on top of the knoll just as a beautiful young moose, caught in the glow of evening, scrambled down the hill away from its mother. I could feel my spine tense, my chest tighten.

Bertha returned to the new ones, and soon they were all lying down again, resting. I slumped into the window frame and took a slow breath, trying hard not to question, or to judge, or to worry more still about the fate of the newly abandoned yearling. With my face to the glass, I tried to focus instead on the tiny red bodies huddled at their mother's side, sleeping peacefully, still immune to the cares of the world.

Barbara Hood is an Anchorage freelance writer.

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