View from Out West: Missing moose — Kenai’s critters would be sight for sore eyes

A bull moose seen Aug. 1 at a pond in Sterling.

Photo by Clark Fair. A bull moose seen Aug. 1 at a pond in Sterling.

By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter

On Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, I saw a moose in Soldotna.

“No big deal,” you might say. “Moose are plentiful on the central Kenai Peninsula. People see them all the time, crunching twigs along the roadsides.”

On Tuesday, Sept. 3, I might have agreed with you. No big deal.

But right now I don’t feel that way.

Right now, I miss moose.

I may have moved on Sept. 3 from the Kenai Peninsula to Bristol Bay, but I haven’t left Alaska, and I haven’t seen a moose since I arrived in Dillingham.

Actually, allow me to clarify that statement — I haven’t seen a live moose since I arrived.

I’ve seen one very dead moose.

Photo by Clark Fair. Thomas, a Dillingham resident, stands in the boat that he and his father, Pete, used to navigate more than 30 miles up the Nushagak River to hunt moose. They traveled up on the night of Sept. 10, shot this over 60-inch bull on Sept. 11, and made it out and home for dinner.

Photo by Clark Fair. Thomas Gardiner, a Dillingham resident, stands in the boat that he and a friend, Pete Andrew, used to navigate more than 30 miles up the Nushagak River to hunt moose. They traveled up on the night of Sept. 10, shot this  63-inch bull on Sept. 11, and made it out and home for dinner.

Actually, I should clarify that statement, too — I’ve seen large pieces of a very dead bull that had been shot by two local men about 30 miles up the Nushagak River from here. They had quartered the bull and loaded the meaty parts, along with the 63-inch antlers, into their aluminum skiff and headed downriver. When I saw them, they had just run their boat ashore on the gravel of Kanakanak Beach and were preparing to move their groceries into the back of a friend’s pickup truck.

The moose parts were magnificent. Despite the blood and hair, they even looked tasty. But they were a few hours past being animated and ambulatory.

During the fall moose hunt around here, most people head upriver to seek their quarry. They motor upstream because the moose are numerous up there in autumn, but not here, I’ve been told.

After the Kanakanak incident, I looked around and saw drainages filled with willows. I saw birch saplings and other juicy morsels that I know moose are fond of. But I saw no moose. And believe me, I looked. I climbed up Snake Mountain and Warehouse Mountain to survey my surroundings, but I saw no moose. I saw eagles and ravens and magpies. I saw grouse and I saw ptarmigan. But no moose.

Being the inquisitive type, I had to ask some experts what was going on. Tim Sands of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game told me that there were moose in the area but they were rarely seen until midwinter when they ventured down from the hills to feed along the creeks.

Bill Berkhahn, a Soldotna resident who is an area ranger here in Wood-Tikchik State Park, laughed when I said I hadn’t seen a moose since coming to Bristol Bay. He told me that certain drainages around here, particularly near Snake Mountain, turn into veritable Moose Highways during the winter.

On a November run on Snake Lake Road, I spotted clearly defined and very fresh moose tracks in the wet snow covering the roadbed. Excited by this discovery, I scanned my surroundings as I continued to plod along. No moose.

In mid-December, I returned to Snake Lake Road and spotted new moose tracks leading down a trail across the tundra. I followed them for a while until they disappeared where the snow had melted or had been blown away by the wind. As I returned to the car, a wildlife trooper named Fred Burk pulled up to talk to me. He’d spotted me out on the tundra and suspected I might be a hunter. When he realized I was a Dillingham dilettante, he enlightened me.

Moose, he said, stay away from Dillingham until after December, when the winter hunt ends and the human pressures ease. He told me of places farther up the drainages where I might see (if I could actually get there) large groups of moose. He informed me that a few minutes earlier he had parked a short distance down the road, and, while scanning the valley with binoculars, had spotted two or three moose. He told me to be patient and keep watching.

Since I’ve been in Dillingham, I have yet to see any caribou, either, but I’ve been told that their appearance is a possibility, particularly in late winter. Of course, I’ve been told, they were incredibly numerous and around all the time in the “good ol’ days,” but they don’t congregate near town much anymore.

Despite these disappointments, I have spotted a few intriguing fauna. While out running on Wood River Road in October, I saw a lone brown bear loping across the tundra in my general direction, but far enough away that I wasn’t terribly concerned. I also used a flashlight from a bedroom window to watch another brown bear noisily shred the bags of garbage left overnight on a neighbor’s porch.

Photo by Clark Fair. Moose might not be abundant in Bristol Bay, but the area does offer wildlife not common on the Kenai Peninsula, such as this red fox seen Nov. 8 on the beach in Dillingham.

Photo by Clark Fair. Moose might not be abundant in Bristol Bay, but the area does offer wildlife not common on the Kenai Peninsula, such as this red fox seen Nov. 8 on the beach in Dillingham.

Even more interesting to me, however, have been my sightings of red foxes, which I had never seen on the Kenai Peninsula. There’s a pair of foxes that hang out on the beach and in the tall grass near the Peter Pan seafood-processing plant. I like to spy them sniffing around the cannery housing, trotting along the beach gravels, leaving their dainty paw prints in the sand and mud beneath the dock or in the snow on the cannery grounds.

But still, I am missing moose.

Even though I grew up on a Soldotna-area homestead through which moose traipsed on a regular basis, I have never really tired of seeing them. I have myriad photos of moose — bulls, cows and calves, cute or otherwise. I like to watch them methodically gnaw at their brittle winter vittles and cleanly strip mouthfuls of leaves for their summer salads. I like the way they can romp through a forest, their big bodies gracefully executing an obstacle course that causes me to stagger and swear at times. I like watching them wade into lakes and ponds to submerge their heads in search of tasty tidbits.

I’m less appreciative of their occasional charges and grumpiness, but I understand. I get grouchy, too, when my personal space is violated often enough.

I also wish that moose along the highway were easier to see when I’m driving in the dead of winter, but I’d probably hang out there, too, if I were a moose looking for some tasty bushes to crop and firmer footing on which to tromp.

I’ll be on the peninsula for a few days around Christmastime, and although my primary focus will be on family and friends, I’m hoping to spot a few moose while I’m around, to tide me over until the mythical moose of Bristol Bay make an appearance.

Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.

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Filed under View from Out West, wildlife

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