A moose caught in an avalanche in Hatcher Pass may have three passing snowmachiners to thank for making it into the new year.
The men dug the moose -- a young cow, they think -- out of the snow, apparently unharmed, after it was caught in an avalanche Dec. 28. One of the men, Marty Mobley, 44, said the moose probably caused the slide that swallowed it and that without the group's help, it would not have survived.
"There was just enough of its snout sticking above the snow that it could breathe," Mobley said.
Mobley said he and friends Rob Uphus, 30, and Avery Vucinich, 27 -- all of them Valley residents -- had gone snowmachining on the Willow side of Hatcher Pass, about 55 miles northeast of Anchorage, in an area known to locals as "God's Country." They rode carefully, he said, because of the constant fear of avalanches. Mobley's best friend, Aaron Arthur, was killed along with five others while snowmachining in Turnagain Pass on March 21, 1999.
They saw a small bowl covered in moose tracks. Ski tracks were also easy to spot -- something Mobley said he doesn't often see in the area.
"We figured we scared the moose off and saw his tracks go up the side and over the crest," Mobley said.
About an hour later, coming back through the same area, the trio saw an avalanche had come down in the bowl, obliterating both the moose and ski tracks. Mobley said the men were worried a skier got caught in the slide, so they took a closer look, nervous about the possibility of more avalanches.
"We had about 2,500 feet of mountain above us still," Mobley said. "Half slid, half didn't, so we didn't want to screw around a bunch there."
Mobley said as he got closer, he could see something brown and moving sticking above the hard-packed snow of the avalanche debris field.
"It looked like a guy's arm at first because we were expecting to see a skier," Mobley said. "But it was moaning and groaning and moving and we realized it was a moose, even though only his ears and some of its snout was sticking out of the snow."
Mobley said the men grabbed their shovels and began to dig the moose out of the snow. Mobley said it didn't move as they worked and even seemed to get calmer as they cleared snow away. Mobley said two men dug while the other served as an avalanche lookout.
"It didn't even fight us," Mobley said. "It was like, 'Help me. Help me.' It was totally docile and let us touch it. It just (lay) there," Mobley said.
After about 10 minutes of digging, Mobley said, the men were able to free about three-quarters of the animal and weren't sure if it was injured. So one of the men gently poked the moose's backside with a shovel.
"It stood right up and towered over us, because we were in kind of a hole from the digging," Mobley said. "It looked like the abominable snowman because its fur was so packed with snow and it looked at us, shook the snow off it, and off it went."
Mobley said the moose was "at full steam" when it ran down the mountain and appeared to be completely uninjured, something that surprised the men.
"It slid at least 1,500 to 2,000 feet down the mountain when it got caught in the avalanche," Mobley said.
Mobley said the trio look on their moose rescue as an act that they hope will be repaid by nature as they continue to ride their snowmachines in Alaska's often unpredictable backcountry.
"I am an animal lover, and I couldn't leave it there," Mobley said. "Besides, we deal with a lot of avalanches and a lot of snow. That kind of karma is something we don't pass up."