Alaska Diary - Michio Hoshino

The Alaskan Bull Moose: a Year in Review

10-01-1996 // Michio Hoshino

When Michio Hoshino earned a degree in economics from Japan's Keio University in 1975,he was decidedly different from the other graduates. For one thing, he was enthralled with Alaska,which he had visited as a teenager. "Most of my classmates ended up working for big companies in Japan," he said. "I decided to go back to Alaska as a photographer." In the years since, Hoshino captured with his camera the wonders of our last frontier--including its moose. During that time, he also built up a treasure trove of moose anecdotes. And in the lyrical essay on these pages, Hoshino, who died in August, proved that he could wield words as well as take striking photographs.

August draws to a close. The air, which grows crisper each day, gradually dyes the surface of the Earth. The blueberries and cranberries ripen, and together with the dwarf birch and the willows, their leaves turn a flaming red and yellow. About the time the sandhill cranes head south in their great V formations, changes begin to take place within the forest as well. I hear a low, groaning voice with a steady rhythm. Giant antlers weave their way through the spruce trees.

A moose appears with a branch of willow dangling from his antlers, the yellow leaves half veiling his face. The eyes that peer through the leaves are not the gentle eyes of summer. In half a day, he rubs the velvet from his antlers. It dangles down in so many strips. The moose has entered the rutting season. The bull now browses on his winter food of branches and bark. Willow shrubs no longer sustain his appetite but serve as surrogate opponents against which the bull may test his full-grown antlers.

One day the bull moose is attracted by a scent carried on the wind. When he makes his way through the forest, crosses the river and reenters the forest, he finds a cow moose. The scent is that of the urine of the cow moose, which contains special hormones. He urinates at the same spot himself and stamps the ground with his front hooves as if to stir up the dirt. Soon the bull catches another scent in the air and is again lured off.

One late September, I was witness to a fierce battle. There had been a number of snowfalls, and winter was drawing near. I heard the sound of antlers clashing in the forest. When I approached the spot, the battle was at its height. Two huge bull moose were panting heavily, their antlers locked. The white mist which had formed in front of their faces must have been the result of this labored breathing. Antlers rasped against each other, and snow whirled up at each slight movement.

Suddenly the balance of power crumbled, and one bull charged with a great show of force. The defeated bull stumbled and fled; then he suddenly turned and came charging back at his opponent. They locked antlers, and the dry "kaaan " sound of the battle echoed from mountain to mountain. The defeated bull again fled, this time pursued by the victor until the two were out of sight.

In October, the end of the breeding season signals the start of the long, dark winter. The bull moose return to a solitary existence. Having lost 20 percent of their weight during the rutting season, they must face the winter in a considerably weakened condition.

The forest is again enveloped in silence, as if nothing has happened. Snow falls and covers the trees. The young willows and dwarf birches bend under the weight of the snow, offering soft tips of branches to the moose. Sometimes a moose will rise up on its hind legs and knock down an even larger branch from the dwarf birch. The soft twigs and bark at the tip are now also available to the snowshoe hare that shares this forest. In December, the moose drop their huge antlers, which will provide a valuable source of calcium for small animals. Under the curtain of the aurora, a fetal moose passes through the same winter.

April. One can feel through one's whole body the days growing rapidly longer. Although the mountains are still covered with snow, there is no longer that tension in the air so characteristic of winter. The night sky is now too light to perceive the aurora, and the season of white nights draws near. The sound of snow falling from spruce branches also speaks of the end of winter. The surface of the snow, which melts in the warmth of the sun, freezes again in the night cold. A hard crust forms, and the legs of the moose are cut by the sharp crust as they break through the surface of the snow. Spots of blood may be left behind in their footprints.

When night temperatures at last begin to rise, the snow begins to soften rapidly. Buds swell on the willows and dwarf birch, and moose busily nibble at this early spring feast. The fresh vegetation they have not eaten during the long winter upsets the balance of stomach microorganisms, and one can see moose undergo fits of coughing as they ruminate. The newly budding antlers of the bull moose are now longer than his ears and are covered by soft velvet. The antlers, which will continue to grow until August, are still very tender, and bull moose take care not to hit branches with them as they walk.

In the midst of May winds, new moose life is born. A cow with calves is very tense. Moving her large ears about like antennae, the cow does not let the faintest forest sound escape her. This new life may become the target of wolves or of the hungry grizzly just awakened from winter sleep.

One day in June, I witnessed an unforgettable scene. As I was walking through the fresh mountain greenery, a grizzly pursuing a cow and calf entered my field of vision. The moose were fleeing frantically through a ravine. As if she thought she could run no longer, the cow suddenly stopped, turned and charged her pursuer. It seemed like the valiant, final act of any weak creature which finds itself defeated.

Shrinking back from the charging moose, the bear fled. But the cow did not give up. The two of them crossed the river and ran up the mountain. Toward the top, the cow seemed satisfied at last. In the meantime, the calf had kept running, perhaps out of fear, and eventually took shelter in a thicket. To my surprise, when the cow returned, she couldn't locate her calf. To my further amazement, she began running about in circles as if she had taken leave of her senses.

Then the mother moose did something quite unbelievable. Once again, she crossed the river and began charging up the mountain in the direction of the grizzly. At a distance only visible through binoculars, the moose caught up with the bear. If I were to interpret this action, I would say that she wanted to reconfirm that the grizzly had not taken her missing calf. The relationship between predator and prey seemed to be reversed. The cow again descended the mountain and disappeared in the opposite direction from that of the thicket in which her calf was hiding. I do not know whether this cow and calf were ever reunited.

During the summer season, willow is the primary food source for moose. Shaking its long face back and forth, the huge animal makes its way through the thickets, munching leaves and branches as it goes. Then it ruminates. As these two actions are repeated, summer progresses. After mid-July, water plants emerge from the lake bottoms. It is during this time that you can hear water pouring off the moose's face as it lifts its head up into the quiet morning air.

In August, the bull moose has a new set of fully grown antlers. And, once again, the season of that tremendous instinctive drive approaches. With twilight comes a chill wind. On my way through the forest, I encounter fresh moose tracks. Newly fallen aspen leaves cover the ground, and the moose tracks vanish beneath them.

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