The Bull Moose grunted a warning, and Gene suddenly found himself face to face with what seemed like a ton of muscle and antler. It was not looking like a happy meeting. Through his rattled composure, Gene noted two things; that most of the velvet had been shed from the bull’s very extensive set of antlers; and that he was close enough to notice that detail. There were only a few feet and a couple skinny poplar saplings separating them. Served him right. He had started it all.
It all began the previous week. Cousin Dick and I were at a campsite in the Gros Ventre Campground in Grand Teton National Park. We had arrived a few days before, and met Gene shortly thereafter. We were all interested in capturing photographs of moose. We were especially hoping to get a picture of a nice bull moose with a good spread of antlers. We noticed that many of the wildlife adventure guides were bringing their clientele through for moose sightings. With its extensive growth of alder and poplar along the Gros Ventre River, our campground was a favorable habitat for these animals.
We found Gene to be a likeable fellow and very easy to carry on a conversation, especially if the subject was moose. He carried a camera and telephoto lens tucked safely inside his bush jacket. He also carried a light camera tripod and a combination monopod/walking staff that he had developed. I don’t know how long he had been involved in photographing moose, but his knowledge and experience told me he was very accomplished with the subject.
We met him over the next few days wherever there was a moose sighting. Together, we tromped along the game trails leading all around the campground and river. We found a lot of tracks, tree scrapes, and bedding sites. All the while Gene would tell us about his encounters with moose around the western USA.
He really enjoyed calling a challenge to a bull and watched the animal’s response. He would call out a breathy “wwwha…wwwha” and then follow it up with a higher pitched bellow. If a bull was in rut, and Gene’s call sounded right, the bull might accept the challenge. Gene had watched this behavior play out between rival bulls. The challenged bull would stand completely still, not moving a muscle, for several minutes. Then it might cock its head one way, then another, and then maybe tip its head from side to side. He speculated that the animal was acoustically homing in on his challenger. The challenged bull would finally locate its rival, and then would head straight toward the challenge, sometime at a rapid trot or even at a run.
We enjoyed the warm autumn days that let us pursue our quarry. The nights, however, did turn cool quickly after sunset. By early morning, we could see our frosted breath exhaled into the dry mountain air. It was one such morning, just past dawn, that I spotted some moose right outside our camper. With a continued sense of purpose, I regretfully climbed out of my warm sleeping bag, gathered my camera gear, slipped on a pair of crocs, and proceeded to get some photos of our moose visitors.
They were two cow moose. No antlers. Nonetheless, they were impressive sized animals. I continued to watch them, even though the early morning chill was reminding me that I was clad only in my PJs. If there were cows, there could be a bull nearby.
My vigil lasted for what seemed like an eternity, all of it cold, probably about 30 minutes, before my better judgment took over and I headed back into the camper. I fired up the coffee pot and the heater and waited patiently for the warmth to find its way into my bones. Dick stirred from his sleeping bag as the aroma of brewed coffee filled the camper. I put out some breakfast cereal and we started into our first meal of the day.
The cow moose continued to feed peacefully outside. The day was just showing better light. The coffee was almost ready and we started to eat our cereal. Then there came a knock at our camper door.
“Hey, you guys”, came Gene’s now familiar voice. “Quick! There’s a big ol’ bull headed this way. C’mon, we gotta get movin’ if we’re gonna catch anything of ‘im at all.”
We scrambled like a squadron of fighter pilots. I am not sure how we coordinated getting into our jeans and boots in that confined camper, and I still wonder how I cinched my belt as I wiped the Cheerios out of my beard. Gene hurriedly explained that he had driven down the main road to a river overlook. He spotted a big bull moose crossing the river in front of him. The light was too dim to capture any photographs. He stationed himself to wait for better light and hoped the bull would still be around.
In a National Park, a crowd is sure to gather whenever there is a sighting of a big animal. One car pulled to the side of the road will soon multiply into two, then four, and grow in proportion to the animal being viewed. Gene’s parked truck started that chain reaction. Inevitably, there is always at least one know-it-all in every crowd.
One particular fellow came up and proclaimed to everyone, including the moose, that all was OK, that the moose were not yet into their mating season, that all would be safe, yadda yadda … I saw Gene’s knuckles whiten as he was telling about this. Gene tried to get him to lower his voice, but it only seemed to encourage Mr. Know-it-all to get louder. The moose was also getting uneasy and more wary.
The moose finally had enough. He retreated to the opposite side of the river and promptly dissolved into the willow brush. Gene stayed on as the other onlookers were leaving, led by Mr. Know-it-all of course. He caught enough glimpses of the bull to determine that it was heading upstream, toward our campground. He speculated that the bull still intended to cross the stream somewhere else. Gene headed back to the campground and stopped at our site to let us know what he had found.
We were soon on a game trail leading to the river behind the camp. We hurriedly trekked along the trail, trying to keep our camera equipment balanced and ready. We came to a clearing on the riverbank and reconnoitered downstream.
Gene spotted the bull. It was almost directly across the river, again mostly hidden by brush. Gene promptly issued another challenge call. The bull’s head cocked our way. Dick took a sizeable branch and started whacking and thrashing it on the smaller branches of a fallen tree. That really got the bull’s attention, and it started to come out of the brush. “Keep it up, Dick,” whispered Gene. “He thinks you’re cleaning the velvet off your antlers. “ Gene again followed through with another set of challenges. Nevertheless, the bull turned away and headed back into the brush.
“Hey Gene”, I chuckled, “Just what did you just tell him to do?”
“Heck”, replied Gene, “It was sort of a challenge. I told him to kiss my ass!”
A grin or two later we again headed downstream. At one juncture, Gene suggested that I watch from another clearing by the river. He would go a little further. We hoped to determine where the bull might end up crossing the river.
A few minutes into my vigil, I heard another distinctive “wwwha…wwwha” to my right. It sounded like Gene again sighted the bull and was continuing his challenge to bring it out. I headed toward the sound. As it turned out, that wasn’t Gene issuing that challenge.
Gene had gone down the trail, all the while keeping an eye toward my position. That’s when he suddenly found himself face to face with that irritated Bull Moose. Now we are back to the start of this story.
To say the least, Gene was surprised, even shocked. After chasing the shy, elusive, and wary creature for some time and distance, he suddenly finds himself staring into its glaring eyes. Its head is down, its dewlap beard still swaying. That moose was as surprised as was Gene.
Gene froze in place, not sure what to do next. Any move on his part could trigger a defensive reaction from the moose. His camera was still inside his jacket. Any thought of photography would have to wait. Gene’s best move would be to make no movement at all, and that is exactly what he did (or what he did not do). He hoped his heartbeat wouldn’t provoke the animal.
After an eternity (perhaps a minute), the moose must have decided things were all right, that there was no immediate danger, and it headed off through the brush. Gene’s composure quickly returned. He waited until the moose had ambled a sufficient distance, and then proceeded to follow it with a much safer separation.
I caught glimpses of the moose through the brush. It made its way to the outside edge of the cottonwoods, and was now traveling the edge of the woodland through the sagebrush. Holy Moly! The bull was traveling to the area where the cows had been browsing. It was going right to our campsite.
The bull ended up angling back into the woods before our camp. It actually walked right past our parked cars at the west end of the campground. A swarm of anxious photographers soon surrounded it. Those “moose-arazzi’ must have made it feel like a rock star as that host of camera shutters went off all around it.
That moose never did strike a picturesque pose, but we all did get photographs. Some will even make my scrapbook. Finally catching our breath, Gene, Dick, and I knuckle-butted and high-fived at the conclusion of our wild moose chase. We enjoyed recapping our adventure, especially hearing Gene tell about his close encounter.
It had been a wild, chaotic, rough, exhausting chase for that elusive quarry. It had ironically ended right back where we had started. Fate sure can be fickle.
For the last hour, we had been trying to keep up with this moose at a pace that was close to a trot. We had interrupted our breakfast, skipped morning coffee, scrambled into brambly brush, plodded through mud wallows, balanced over ankle-breaking river cobbles, jumped over moose piles, all the while hefting our ever-heavier camera equipment, only to lead us right back where we had started! It would have been a lot easier if we had stayed with the other photographers in the parking lot.
That may be true, but we sure had a lot more fun.