Searching for Moose in Alaska

Alaskan Moose

The Promise

Signs along the roads keep promising moose. It seems every two or three miles, there is another sign for moose.  Yet, I can’t seem to find one.  Alaska has the largest subspecies of moose in the world. Its Latin name, Alces alces gigas, loosely translates to the giant eater of twigs. I’m here for two weeks in late April, and photographing this moose is my goal.

I hiked up Peter’s creek through the willows in Chugiak. I searched along the Portage River as it snakes through willows and wetlands in Portage. Very moosey habitat. No moose. I passed the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center on my way to and from Portage. It’s tempting. They have moose (and bears!). But I want the wild experience, not just a moose photo. I want the intimacy of a moose choosing to stay, accepting me, free to be a moose in my presence. Not a moose that has no choice. 

Thwarted

Then, on my way “home” on the Glenn Highway on my third day, I saw a tall, thick, sun-lit,  golden moose on a frontage road shoulder. Browsing just at the edge of a woodland, he was unobscured by the thicket of twigs. I gasped and got off at the next exit. Pulling up a map on my phone, I found that I could access the frontage road if I backtracked to the previous exit at JBER.  As I passed in the opposite direction, I saw the moose still there.  I exited and was stopped in my tracks. Federal trespassing seems like a bad idea.JBER no trespassing sign

I’d later learn that JBER stands for Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (Elmendorf is airforce and Richardson is army). The base encompasses an impressive 65,000 acres between Anchorage and Eagle River. I pulled back on the highway, prepared to pull off onto the shoulder, knowing it wasn’t the safest thing to be doing, but at least it wouldn’t land me in jail. On this third pass, the moose was gone. He saved me from myself.  His huge golden brown form is forever in my memory.

I take backroads everywhere I go. I walked marshes and city parks after work. Upturned tree roots and burned wood fool me repeatedly.  At first glance, they appear to be moose. 

There is a moose sign everywhere; deep, cloven prints and piles of tootsie roll scat. Everywhere.

At Westchester Lagoon, a midtown Anchorage Park, is this apropos sign warning how such a huge animal can be so elusive. “Preaching to the choir,” I think to myself.JBER no trespassing sign

Marshy moose habitat is also waterfowl habitat. Unexpectedly, spring bird migration is in full swing. So while I’m not finding moose, I’m enthralled with what I am seeing (more on that soon).

At Last

After I’d been wandering around Anchorage for a week, I drove out to Palmer Hay Flats in Wasilla. It was about 10:30 am when I rounded a bend to see a moose sauntering across the pavement ahead. I stopped some distance away in awe. Just as she vanished from sight, another moose appeared from the woods on the right and ambled across the road on long, gangly legs like a scene from the ’90s TV series Northern Exposure.  I leaned out the window to grab a few shots and then slowly rolled forward. Alaskan MooseThe pair of moose had stopped along an ATV trail to eat. This wide break in the trees gave me a decent view from my car. Judging by their size disparity, this is probably a cow moose with last year’s calf. I sat in the car and watched them until these enormous, awkward-looking behemoths disappeared into the forest just a few yards off the trail. I was thrilled!

A Whole Herd

Over the next week, I continued looking everywhere I went without another sighting. At the end of my second week, I swung back by Potter’s Marsh (traversing the entire town of Anchorage in a Friday evening rush-hour in just 20 minutes). From atop the elevated boardwalk, I saw a dark figure across the marsh. Excitedly, I hurried to the rail to look through my binoculars. I’ve been fooled before. Indeed, a moose! 

Alaskan Moose
Moose out in the marsh with cars on the Seward Highway behind him.

There’s a pull-out off of the Seward Highway that is closer to the moose, but before I dash off to see a moose that will still be a few hundred yards away, I walked the rest of the boardwalk.  I didn’t want to hastily pass up a moose that might be right under my feet. Satisfied, I hurried out to the small parking area along the highway and watched five moose browsing at the edge of the tree line for the next half-hour or so. 

Alaskan Moose
Five Moose

Mission accomplished. I was a bit surprised at how hard it was to find these huge herbivores.  But the pursuit is half the fun!

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