Tracking the Intricate Trail Of a Moseying Moose

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Today I have a letter from a gentleman in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, who asks if a running moose trots or paces. I am delighted at the opportunity to reply, not only to demonstrate my tremendous erudition, but to relieve the gentleman of the humdrum of not knowing.

There isn't much to do in Charlottetown, and even the gait of a passing moose is important. I hasten to assure my questioning reader that a moose, when he runs, certainly does.

In my youth, I wasn't too interested in the moose, and had more fun with girls, molasses cookies, and baseball. Many's the moose I saw going and coming from school, each with his or her little bag of books, and when they would pick up their feet and scoot, I had no curiosity about their feet, but always looked closely at their heads to wonder what they wore to scare people on Halloween.

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A great-uncle who lived with us confirmed that I was normal by pointing out that by the time you come to a moose's feet, he's gone.

Too often, a running moose is in high water to his withers, or is coursing breast-high pucker brush, and what he is doing with his feet is obscured for 800 or 900 yards, and eye contact is nil. It is possible to see a lordly moose for 800 or 900 yards and recall only that his dewlap was near the front.

In matters of game management statistics, I am a follower of Steve Powell, a veteran game warden who has his name on the wildlife reservation at Swan Island in the Kennebec River, here in Maine, and was leery of the methods used to make wildlife surveys. He found that a survey team had studied geese. ''Samples'' had been collected, and by a method known as ''confounding statistics,'' the biologists had found that every goose on the Atlantic flyway that season was female.

Steve, and several others, doubted this. But statistics are stubborn things; and in selecting random samples, the pollsters had simply chanced to gather up four lady goosers, and, according to the accepted rules, had projected that into the norm for 18 million flying geese that didn't get caught. Studying the flying hoofbeats of wandering moose is likewise fraught with a chance of human error, or stupidity.

Steve, alas, is no longer in the field, and lacking him I put in a telephone call to our state wildlife people, to be told that the number I had dialed is no longer in service. Later that week I got an answer, and a misplaced member of the Vienna Boys' Choir offered to help me. I said I would like to speak with a game warden.

Melodiously, I was asked why I wanted to speak with a game warden. This gave me pause. I could have said merely that I wished to know if a running moose trots or paces, but I had already stated my name and address, and if any kind of survey were being made my ''sample'' might go down as indicative of our country's momentary mental level. I said that I couldn't remember, but would appreciate having a wildlife biologist give me a ring. The meantime of five and a half weeks has been pleasant weather, but hot.

The failure of a biologist to respond has forced me to seek unofficial assistance. A retired veterinary man responded on the telephone with an unhesitating, ''I don't know.'' Then he said, ''I'll call you back after I ask Don Freeman.'' Don is an experienced woods guide, and he said, right away, ''Moose are trotters.'' He explained that all four-footed animals trot, and pacing is a gait that is brought on by training. A device called a hobble is put on the beast and prevents his trotting, so he shifts his gait to suit the hobble and becomes a ''side-wheeler.'' Don added that he had never heard that anybody had hobbled a moose and taught him to pace.

My next inquiry was to a man who has a ''camp'' at a lake in Maine's up-state moose wilderness, and he said, ''Funny you should ask me that!'' He went on: ''Coming out from camp last weekend, we had a bull moose step into the road ahead of our car, and he stayed just ahead of us for a good half-mile, maybe more, and he paced. Fact is, I said, 'He thinks he's on the race track at the state fair!' ''

A third unimpeachable authority that I consulted kept a neutral posture. He said, ''I think a moose adjusts to the terrain and will pace if he has straight and easy going. But will trot otherwise. I've seen 'em do both, and seen 'em shift one to the other. Used to be a place on the pipe-line trail where a vein of gravel ran out and it got swampy, and I'd see a moose come pacing on the gravel and change to a trot on the mud. The way a moose lives, in the water and on the land, I think he has superb control of his legs and feet every second, and will pace each step according to his need. I've seen a moose outrun a pulpwood truck. But why do you ask?''

I said I had a letter from a man on Prince Edward Island, and he said, ''Oh.''

Folks who wish to pursue this matter further, and perhaps do a scholarly report and give us a definitive answer, need be cautioned in one respect. The lady moose, on her nest in the spring, is intensely preoccupied and resents any intrusion on her privacy. Scholars who approach have been viciously attacked and sometimes brutally abused. It is well to make arrangements beforehand, or to wait into July or August when conditions are more propitious.

In spite of a friendly appearance and an amiable disposition, a moose should be accorded all courtesies.

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