True Tales: Bull-Winkled

A near-miss with an angry moose. 

Like most people who get outside a lot, I’ve had plenty of close encounters with wild animals. I’ve been treed by a bear and by a semi-wild bovine bull; I had to run from a stampede of bison; I was forced to duck and cover from an angry goshawk; and I jumped away from a striking rattlesnake. But the critter that came closest to doing me real physical harm was a moose. 

Moose have a well-earned reputation for belligerence. They are strange-looking beasts, aptly described by Mark Twain as “an animal designed by committee.” As big as a large horse with long legs and sharp hooves for kicking and trampling, moose have a bad temper to go along with huge, pointy antlers on the bulls. They can easily outrun any human and are not afraid of much.

It was mid-July and I’d headed out for a solo mountain-bike ride up Bozeman Creek. Deep in thought as I pedaled up the Moser road, it took me a second to register that indeed, a cow moose had just barged out of the forest onto the road in front of me. Startled, I jumped off my bike, and for a millisecond I froze. “Is this really happening?” I thought. Adrenaline surged through my body. The moose had come out of nowhere, and I instantly went from calm to concerned.

The moose lowered its head and charged.

Instinctively, I picked up my bike and swung it at the moose. She grunted and I saw the anger in her beady eyes; mine most likely betrayed my fear. I wondered if there was a calf nearby—almost certainly, though I never saw it.

My knees locked as I braced for impact. My arms quivered under the weight of the bike, and sweat cascaded down my back. My heart raced and I closed my eyes.

But the blow never came. Somehow the moose missed me by about two feet, and I missed her. Next thing I knew, I was staring down the road at the moose’s left side as she gathered herself for another attack. “Why didn’t I bring bear spray?” I blurted out. Luckily for the moose, I didn’t have it.

Meanwhile, I was yelling my head off, reflexively cursing and screaming at the moose; like everything I had done so far, it seemed to work. She turned away and dropped off the road into the woods.

Still shaking with fear, I wanted to hop on my bike and make tracks out of there. But the road switchbacked just downhill, and the moose was right in the middle of the switchback. If I headed downhill, the moose could easily come after me again. So I lifted my bike and climbed a cut bank.

Mercifully, the moose darted across the road and into deeper woods. Running down to the road, I jumped on my bike and pedaled downhill as fast as I could possibly go, with adrenaline, fear, and relief pumping through my body and fueling my legs. I turned a time or two to look over my shoulder and make sure I was not followed.

Soon enough, I was flying down the road, grinning from ear to ear. I started yelling again, this time out of relief and joy for escaping what I thought was a certain trampling and possible death. “Take that you damned moose!”

After a while I stopped, panting, relief washing over me like a waterfall. As my breath slowed I looked around. The world seemed in better focus somehow, the leaves of the trees greener, the sky bluer, the wind more pleasant on my sweaty skin. I was experiencing post-traumatic bliss. I felt more alive than I had in a long time. Once again, I’d been extremely lucky.

It’s easy to forget that when we go into the backcountry, we are the visitors. We think of it as our right to go out on the land to explore, dig on the view, and escape the rat-race. But really, we bring the rat-race to the backcountry. There are ever more of us out there, and the land becomes less remote. We can go back to our sheltered home in the city, while the moose has to hang in there and hope no one gets too near her calf. 

Despite their rough and tough demeanor, moose are in decline in many areas due to climate change and human encroachment on their habitat, so moose are grumpy for good reason. We choose to live near large, dangerous wild animals, and yes, it is a blessing and a curse. But what a dull world it would be if we eliminate all the wild, unpredictable animals. With risk comes reward, and I was rewarded with a wild tale to tell and a new appreciation for life and good health.