Saturday morning I took the puppy out for our usual morning walk on the Suce Creek trail, the one currently being landscaped by the Forest Service. We’d just come up over the rise from the parking lot, maybe 1/4 mile in, when I saw the puppy sit down and do his “what’s that?” head cock.
As I was going for the leash, thinking it was a horse, the animal moved and I realized “oh shit, that’s not a horse.” It was a moose. A bull moose with a full rack on him. Moose hate dogs, and as I was calling Hank back to me, I realized about two seconds before it actually happened that we were going to get charged.
Hank ran back and past me as I scrambled up off the trail and got behind a pine tree that I wished was bigger. The moose charged past me, maybe four feet away. I was at least three feet up off the trail and his withers were at eye level. He was a very large wild animal, chasing my puppy at enormous speed.
The puppy turned, and rolled on his back and the moose went over the top of him. I watched terrified that Hank was about to get crushed to death, but somehow the moose, while he did roll the puppy over a couple of times, didn’t deliberately stomp him. The moose kept going, and Hank ran back down the trail toward me, past me, only turning to come back when I came down out of the tree. Somehow I caught him on the rebound, got him on the leash, and we climbed back into the tree. I didn’t know if the moose would come back.
We waited in that tree for what seemed like half an hour, but which was probably about five minutes. The tricky bit was that the moose was now between us and the parking lot, but I couldn’t see it, and I didn’t know where it was. The trail is pretty open right at the top, but you have to go back down through a thick and narrow willow thicket. I yelled, as if the moose was a recalcitrant cow. “Git!” I hollered, as the two of us crept forward, yelled, stopped to listen. I don’t know where that moose went. There’s another trail that cuts off to the left and goes uphill, but he could have gone either direction off the trail. We never did see him again.
Wildness. Wildness is a huge animal that could kill you or your puppy. Wildness is that moment when you realize you’re not going to be able to catch the puppy and he’s on his own, that you have to jump behind this tree because an animal the size of a dump truck is barrelling down on you. Wildness is watching those huge moose hooves roll your new, beloved dog head over heels.
Wildness is the thrum of adrenaline that doesn’t clear out of your system for nearly a day. The thrum that wakes you at three when you’re dreaming it was a bear that came up that trail, a bear that would have meant real trouble, a bear that you were totally unprepared to deal with even though you had bear spray with you but you’d never have gotten all the safety catches off quickly enough. Wildness is that bad dream where the bear mauls you while the puppy high-tails it down to the parking lot and hides under the car and you bleed to death on your favorite trail.
I got lazy. I got complacent on my morning dog walks. I wasn’t paying attention. I thought I was safe because it was 10:30 on a sunny Saturday morning and the parking lot was full of cars and I just assumed the trail had been busy and the animals weren’t using it. I thought I was safe because although I’d seen moose tracks all week, they were down in the bottom, down where I thought the moose hang out. We got charged not because nature “is red in tooth and claw” but because I got complacent, because I forgot that even though I walk that two and a half miles every morning, it’s still wild country. The moose was just going about his business, being a moose in rut in October in Montana, a moose who had given us plenty of warning that he was there.
I forgot. For all the thinking and writing I do about wildness and wilderness, I forgot that I live in it. That paying attention is the point. It was terrifying, and I’m not going back up there until winter, until the rut is over, until the bears are hibernating, until the hunters are gone, until winter when it might be possible to ski in and back out. Or maybe I’ll just stick to the road this winter, it’s a beautiful walk uphill and back. If the snow is good, that’s a great ski.
As Doug Peacock said to me when I got barked at by that bear all those years ago, I “had a real experience” out there on Saturday morning. We were all lucky. We all scared each other, but no one got hurt. Terrifying, as are most real wake up calls.