My Wilderness: Gene Harmon

By Gene Harmon

Gene Harmon describes a close-up view of a moose-bear encounter in his essay for "Your Wilderness Stories."

Standoff

My first morning giving public presentations was pretty uneventful, except for seeing my first bull moose munching on willow along the road on the way out to the Mountain Vista area. We were not yet able to use the cabin due to snow and ice remaining on the approach trail making it too dangerous for the guests. My interpretive coach, Stephan, went along to give input and training as well as giving the cultural presentation on Athabascans.

Snow covered the ground and was quite deep. The tundra and surrounding mountains wore a thick blanket of white. It was cold and I kept moving while awaiting the arrival of the tours, walking back and forth discussing the presentation and asking questions about the cabin.

The mountain, Denali, was partially visible in the distance, its lower slopes hidden by clouds.Driving back toward the employee area near the visitor center, we ran into a moose jam. A cow was walking away from us accompanied by her young calf. The gangly legs of the juvenile reminded me of the long, thin jointed legs of a spider. She meandered down the road obviously in no rush at all.

There was one car in front of us and traffic halted in the other direction, including a tour bus. The moose prodded her calf to the side and traffic passed before she decided to use the center line as a guide again. Stephan inched the Suburban along giving the animal plenty of distance. This was not the first moose I had seen since getting to Alaska, but it was the first I had seen this close, though she was about 40-50 yards away. I was very surprised at her size, easily dwarfing good sized horses back home.

When the cow stepped off the road among the willow, we stopped to watch her and the calf, the latter disappearing among the dwarf birch. A few more tourists stopped for pictures, a tour bus stopped for a few minutes before continuing west, and we kept watching the moose.

“There’s a bear on the road.”

Startled by Stephan’s words, I immediately looked ahead of us.

“Behind, on the road.” His gaze was on the rearview mirror.

Turning, I saw a grizzly meandering up the middle of the road in a haphazard fashion about 100 yards behind us. I laughingly thought of him as being intoxicated and then realized the reason for this.

He was following the scent of the moose and her calf with his nose to the pavement or waving back and forth slightly off the ground. More cars stopped to get pictures of the bear, the presence of the moose no longer noticed as she continued deeper into the tundra. Another bus stopped, allowing its occupants to get some close photographs of the bear before driving on.

It was not the dark brown or red-cinnamon color usually stereotyped as being the consistent coloration of grizzlies in the lower 48 or catching salmon down along the Kenai or near Kodiak. Few realize color is the least thing the grizzlies have in common with each other. It has more to do with the shape of the head, ears and especially shoulders. This male’s powerful muscles flexed under his blonde fur with the characteristic shoulder hump clearly discernible. His dark undercoat was barely visible and the size was different from what I expected.

Though they vary, especially with older males, the average weight of an adult grizzly in the Alaska interior is similar to the black bears of the Appalachians. In the lower 48 or in southern Alaska, they easily reach over 1000 pounds due to the fat intake of their diet and abundant food sources. In Denali, the competition is high and the chance for calorie high meals few, decreasing their body weight.

The water existing in the drainages, creeks or rivers is heavily laden with the silt of glacial runoff and therefore not conducive to aquatic life.

Approximately 40 yards behind us, he abruptly turned and walked to the edge of the willow and tundra. Seconds later, hot on the fresh scent, his bulk pushed easily through the willow and dwarf birch.

The moose and her calf ambled along about 100 yards away. At this point, all guest vehicles and tour buses had passed. The only ones left to watch what happened next were all park employees; Stephan and myself, two law enforcement ( LE ) rangers, and a maintenance truck.

The bear made rapid time closing the distance to his quarry. The moose whirled to face the threat, calf behind her. About 40 yards apart, they stared each other down. A few more cars passed, oblivious to the drama unfolding in the tundra. It seemed they stood as stone giants sizing each other Breaking the impasse, the moose charged a few yards toward the bear before stopping and bellowing at the predator. After a temporary retreat, the bear lowered his head and growled at the moose. We were upwind of them, so heard nothing. However, the foggy expiration from their mouths was apparent as they traded defiant calls and growls.

Without warning, the bear surged forward forcing the cow to retreat. After a few steps, the moose again whirled, causing the bear to retrace its steps. This went back and forth for some time, each advancing on the other before falling back against a renewed assault. A few times, the bear rose high on its rear legs to get a better view of his intended prey. Each time, front paws slammed back to the ground, snow spraying everywhere, immediately followed by another growl.

My adrenaline was pumping as we watched this National Geographic scene play out in front of us. I realized I was holding my breath in anticipation of the bear succeeding, which a part of me seriously hoped for, so I could see it happen.

To those with little or no knowledge of predator/prey interaction, this contest would seem to have a predestined outcome. However, nothing is a given in nature, and as it turns out, this grizzly would go hungry that afternoon, at least in this situation.

The moose successfully defended her calf in a manner that made it clear to the bear the effort was not going to be worth it. After a time, he just turned and slowly walked into the distance, disappearing among the dwarf birch.

About "Your Wilderness Stories"

2014 was the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. As part of that celebration, Denali asked visitors to share their stories, to help in building a collection of stories about what wilderness means to you!