A lament for our moose

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It looks like it is time to start grieving our moose. Even just five years ago we weren’t imagining that it, one of the signature animals of northern Minnesota wildness, might die out altogether here, but that is what is happening. The animal seems to be headed for oblivion.

We are down to around 2,800 now, whereas in 2006, a peak year, there were 8,800 moose in northeastern Minnesota. 

I am not a scientist or a politician, but like all of you, I can tell a story. Maybe it is time we tell each other our moose stories. I can’t say that this will revive the ailing moose, or bring it back in healthy numbers, but the telling might have conjuring power. Our collective good intentions might send out a good vibe. And we would be putting time and energy into this sadness, rather than looking the other way.

I will get us started here, but maybe we should meet in homes and coffeehouses and bars and malls and churches to do this thing, or maybe, when you find yourself gathered with your dear ones, you might gently suggest that all present tell their moose stories. We do this at funerals to honor the dead and come to terms with their passing. We do it to shake our fist at death.

Here are my stories.

Once decades ago I was in a car with other 20-somethings on our way to Gunflint Lodge, at the end of the Gunflint Trail (a rural highway outside Grand Marais, Minnesota). We would be spending four days together cross-country skiing. We would see large moose tracks in the woods as we skied, but I don’t recall ever coming across a moose on our rounds.

After skiing we would eat a big dinner of spaghetti or chili, and play board games until late in the night. Then we’d go out and look for the northern lights. Then take a sauna. I remember once a guy in the sauna rubbed his belly, toasted us with his bottle of beer, and said, “Life is gooood.” And it was.

But there would be plenty of misery on these trips, too. We were a group of friends trying to settle into our adult lives, and every year there were people along who had just broken up with their sweeties, and the exes were often with us, too — newly partnered, sometimes to others in our group.

That particular year, on our way along the Gunflint Trail (which is often icy in winter), we rounded a corner and up ahead saw something we couldn’t immediately identify. It was a moose, and he was down on his front knees licking the salt off the road. He panicked and struggled to get back up as we braked and swerved and slid. Then he lumbered off into the woods and we went on our way, all unharmed.

I’ve seen moose up north in the summer, too. When canoeing in the Boundary Waters I’ve seen them hip deep in the lake munching on plants. I’ve seen them swim away. But the most dramatic moose sighting of my life happened one summer in the 1970s when my sister and I went to Isle Royale, a national park on an island in Lake Superior, to backpack for several days.

We hiked in, set up camp, and went to sleep. At first light we were awakened by a noise. Still lying down, I unzipped a bit of the tent door and poked my head out. I found myself looking straight up at the dark, broad antlers of a bull moose silhouetted against the early morning sky.

It was a moment of terror, but also of exhilaration. He was so huge (moose can weigh a thousand pounds), and we were so vulnerable, stretched out on the ground in a flimsy nylon shelter. He could easily have stomped us to death, had he desired to do so, but he was just passing through.

This became the key story to tell about that trip. My sister and I still say to one other: Remember the time on Isle Royale when we looked up at the moose through our tent door?

Maybe you don’t have any moose stories. If not, I have a suggestion. Go to the DNR web site  and read about the intensive research project underway aimed at figuring out what is killing our moose. There are several possible causes—a brain worm the moose get from deer, other parasites, disease, global warming—but researchers aren’t sure if it is one of those, or a combination of them. Watch the YouTube video of the scientists radio-collaring moose. Then tell that story when you get the chance.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.