I woke up in pitch dark. I didn’t know where I was. Then I heard stomping, snorting, scraping, the sound of hooves. Suddenly I was stone cold sober and acutely aware of everything, the temperature of the air on my skin, the sleeping bag hugging my legs, the dark so black it was like fabric draped over me, and the thin nylon of the tent that was no protection at all against anything (how could I have thought it was?). I was paralyzed, my mind racing but my body and voice unable to move, “OHMYGODAMOOSEAMOOSEISSTOMPINGONMYTENTAMOOSEISSNORTINGANDPAWINGANDSTOMPINGTHISISITIMGOINGTOBE STOMPEDANDSTOMPEDLIKETHOSEVIDEOSYELLDOSOMETHINGANYTHINGOHMYGOD!” My mind was racing, but my body still would not move, I was petrified for minutes that seemed like hours.
Then I imagined the kids, little kids I was responsible for, scattered throughout the forest, vulnerable and unknowing, covered by nothing but sticks and tarps. A big ball of yell started to form deep in my chest, rumbling and gathering letters and noise until a giant garbled word finally burst from my mouth, “MEUOOOOOOSE!” Like breaking a spell, my body came to life and I took action, groped around in the dark for my headlamp, put it on, stuck my head out of the tent door, and scanned the area. Immediately my light shone on a huge furry beast, a giant mama moose standing about 20 feet away on a small hill, facing me with her three tiny babies (bigger than great danes) lined up next to her, 8 glowing eyes in all. She just stood there, facing me, looking weird and dumb like moose do. “Oh boy, she’s going to charge,” I thought. I had had enough experience with moose growing up in Alaska to know that they don’t see that well, don’t seem to think that well, and would rather run willy nilly trampling everything in their path and ask questions later. So I started yelling, whatever came into my mind, which as it turned out, wasn’t very sophisticated or intelligent. “NO!” I yelled about ten times, just “NO!” then, “Go away! Get out of here! Go away!” and that was about the extent of my vocabulary in that moment, just the same few phrases, over and over.
Oddly, in facing the moose, I found myself thinking not about my survival, but criticizing myself! “Really? That’s what you’re yelling? How embarrassing.” It’s totally bizarre to me, looking back, that you can be in a life or death situation and be embarrassed by how you’re responding. Embarrassment aside, I kept yelling and yelling at the top of my lungs, until finally the moose turned and slowly, ever so painfully slowly, started walking away, still staring me down.
I felt the need to get out of there fast before the moose came back. I called out to the other adult, a mom of two 7 year-olds who had come up that evening to spend the night with us. “There’s a moose!” I scream-whispered. “I don’t know what to do!” And there it was, the brutal truth, out in the air, irretrievable. I was supposed to be the expert. I was supposed to be the tough chick from Alaska who had seen it all, the adventurer, the person other parents’ kids were safe with, the person who knew what to do. And the truth was, I had no flipping idea what to do in the blackest dark with a giant behemoth of an animal who knew exactly what she had to do to keep her babies safe. Fight and kick and lash out and stare down. She had what it took to survive in the wilderness, and I most definitely did not.
I ran the distance between our tents with my sleeping bag like my tail between my legs, my eyes darting back and forth into the woods. Every nerve was on fire, jangling with the knowledge that I could be attacked from any direction. Inside the other mom’s tent, I felt better, but still on high alert, eyes wide open looking and listening in the darkness. Every pine needle dropping made my head jerk, trying to get a better angle to listen for the moose I imagined running at us. For fifteen minutes that seemed like an eternity, I stayed like this, tense and jerky and giant-eyed. Then from out of the pitch darkness came a real sound, a human sound that woke up my every motherly instinct. “Miss Christina?” the tiny plaintive voice whispered. “Miss Christina? I’m scared.”
I jumped up and rushed to her aid like the hero that two minutes before I was not. “I’m coming! Again I grabbed up my sleeping bag, this time thinking nothing of the dangers that lay waiting in the darkness. I bundled up my young student and her buddy and hustled them into the safety and security of my tent, the same tent I had felt so vulnerable in just moments before. Once I reassured them nothing would hurt them and got them back to sleep, I sat over them, vigilant as a mother hen, looking out with eyes not scared but strong, daring the she-moose to return.
We all awoke in the morning, some more rested than others, most of whom slept through the whole nightmare. The kids who were part of the drama were full of glee and importance, eager to tell the other kids about their “Big Adventure.” Sleepless as I was, even to me the danger seemed far away in the light of day and I got to laughing and telling the story to the wide-eyed students gathered at the entrance to my tent. I quickly came to think of it as a lark, a great story, an “adventure,” telling myself nothing bad was really going to happen.
Then I walked around the back of my tent and it all came back to me. The entire back side of my tent was smeared with mud, streaked with sharp double hoof marks. The ground below was a series of deep grooves, cuts in the dirt made by the business end of a thousand pound animal whose snorts I could still hear in my mind. We had set up my tent as a bail-out option for any kids who were too cold or too scared to sleep in the shelters they had built the day before. We set up another tent nearby to hold all the gear in case of rain. That tent was also smeared with muddy hoof prints and the backpacks inside were squished flat and kicked apart under the hoof marks. I could only wonder at how differently the night’s “adventure” would have gone if there had been any students in my tent with me.
We had a nice breakfast around the fire, the kids chatty, proud of themselves for sleeping in their survival shelters and still excited about the close call. We spotted the moose and her babies again on the other side of the lake and felt safe knowing she was going about her day a good distance from us. After breakfast, a few of us went back to the tents to get something and without sound or warning, Mama moose was back, looming right above the spot she had been stomping the night before!
How an ungainly 1,000 pound animal sneaks up on you in the light of day I will never know. Again, one of us the product of millions of years of evolution in the wilderness, and the other (me) just a scrawny human, a naked ape for whom evolution has traded fur, teeth, and claws for a big brain. A brain once pivotal to the advancement of our species, but that we now have come to rely on too much, used to invent and technologize and acquire much more than what we need for survival, and at an increasingly faster rate. All at the expense of our natural instincts and our bodies, which have gone soft and slow to react to real threats. We buy gear guaranteed to protect us and make us tougher, clothes with names like “titanium” and “outlast,” while we walk stylishly by homeless people, the ones actually surviving the elements.
My brain, my main tool of defense, finally kicks into gear, knowing that any animal with new babies willing to get this close to people in broad daylight is not messing around. I look around for something to defend myself with, but where the day before I saw my gear as a proud reflection of my knowledge and preparedness, I suddenly see only a pile of products that can’t help me in the face of this very real threat. While I’m still trying to brain my way out of this, she disappears as fast and silent as she had appeared and I rush the kids to break down camp.
In record time we are packed and ready to hike down. It’s amazing what 7 and 8 year-olds can do when their leader is visibly scared and barking orders. My head is jerking around again, looking left and right and behind me, counting kids, counting kids. I have everyone in a tight line starting down the trail when a woman appears, large and in charge, looking like a wilderness vigilante with impressive biceps, a firefighter t-shirt, and a gun on her hip. I am so relieved to see her and immediately ask if she had seen the moose. We tell her our story and this woman, a REAL tough chick, stares at us with big eyes. “Damnnn!” She says with a southern drawl, right in front of the 7 year-olds. “Shee-it! Do you realize how lucky you are? I can’t believe she didn’t kick your head in!” One of the kids is fascinated by her gun and asks if it’s to shoot bears and moose. “This?” She says looking down at her gun. “Oh no, this is for any jackass men who try to mess with me.”
This amazing woman, as it turns out, is a wildlife expert and conservationist. She has been following the mama moose, studying her, trying to help protect her. Three babies, she says, is one in a million for moose, and nursing three babies, while trying to protect them from predators, is nearly impossible. Mama moose had brought her babies to this little lake for the protection it afforded, being rimmed by a rock cliff and having water to retreat into if danger approached. But what the lake didn’t have was enough food for a Mama nursing triplets, so she was starving and stressed out. “If she got that close and kicked in your tent,” the woman says, “She was already desperate and attacking. That was no warning, she meant to put you out of business.” I start shaking, realizing how close we had come to a real tragedy.
In the months since the event, I have racked my brain to think what I could have done differently to avoid the situation, or what I could bring with me that would help protect us if anything like this happened again. A gun? No way, too much that could go wrong carrying a gun with a group of little kids. Flares? I envision us escaping a forest fire. Air horn? Maybe. Not go? Many people running a business where they are in charge of other people’s kids might choose to stop going into the wilderness to minimize risk and avoid liability. They’d probably end up in an “improved” campsite with a bunch of RV’s and music blaring and dogs barking. The problem is, I grew up having close-up experiences with wildlife in real wilderness and it’s part of what has shaped who I am, what I believe in, how I feel about nature and conservation and protecting wild species. So, while I do struggle with how to minimize risk for the kids in my care in the wilderness, I won’t stop taking kids out where there’s no cell signal, to feel alive and vulnerable and full of wonder, and yes, maybe a little scared once in awhile. I think it’s important for them to understand we are not always in control and there’s a whole world out there that doesn’t include the Internet and video games and cars. And for that, I am grateful for Mama moose and all the wild species ready to fight tooth and nail for their babies and not giving a damn about the rest of us.
Stay Wild! Yours, Christina
P.S. Little did I know it, but as I was writing my story, two of my students were writing their own personal stories about the moose experience for writing assignments at school. I am, as always, surprised and amazed by my students and my kids.