I HAD just puffed up a steep section of the trail in Cache Creek Canyon when I turned a corner and found myself 25 feet from a young bull moose. His head was turned as he browsed on delicate branches, so he hadn't seen me. I stopped skiing, crossed my hands in front of my chest and leaned on my ski poles, impolitely watching him nibble his lunch. Two or three minutes passed this way before he turned his head my direction and froze. His great brown eyes stared at me and I rechecked the size of the tree beside the trail and reassured myself it would be adequate protection. I've never had serious problems with a moose, but I always give them respect. I think it has something to do with having to look up to look them in the e ye.
The silence of the Wyoming winter wilderness seemed thick around us so I introduced myself, apologized for interrupting his meal, and explained that if I could just watch for a few minutes I would cut my ski trip short and head back down the canyon. He didn't move and his brown eyes measured every inch of me. We faced off, like two boys at a slumber party, staring into each other's eyes, waiting to see who would be the first to blink.
That wasn't the first time I met a moose close up. One fine summer morning, I had set out before dawn to walk up Mt. Hunt. I had just passed the trail junction leading into Death Canyon when I nearly walked over the top of six moose right in the middle of the trail. The largest, a cow with two calves, was only 12 feet away before I saw her in the thick underbrush on the winding trail. I stepped back, climbed up a granite boulder and sat, looking almost directly down on them. For half an hour I waited wh ile they browsed their way down the trail before I could continue my hike.
I reached the summit of Mt. Hunt, ate an early lunch and walked back down, only to find the same moose hiding from the afternoon heat, bedded down in dark shadows just upstream from where the trail crossed a narrow freshet. They barely raised their heads as I rock-hopped across. I chuckled. I had covered 14 miles. They had moved a couple hundred yards since dawn.
The following winter, I was cross-country skiing in a meadow just outside town. Earlier, I had crossed the meadow and was retracing my own trail, which ran parallel to a buck-rail fence behind a newly built home. I had my eyes focused on the ski tracks just a few feet in front of me. Like a dude ranch pony, I knew I was heading for the barn and I had picked up the pace a little. I was striding in a pleasant rhythm when I glanced up to see a yearling moose leave a stand of trees and trot in my ski tracks directly toward me. I stopped. I wasn't expecting a moose this close to town, so I was unprepared. Seconds later, I found myself on the far side of the buck-rail fence as the moose trotted by. I have no recollection of getting over the fence with my skis on, but that's what I had done. I had to take them off to get back across the fence to my trail home.
After the adrenaline wore off, I laughed about that scene and reconstructed it for countless friends. It was the element of complete surprise that sent me clambering. Yet I shouldn't have been too surprised. Moose, as well as deer and elk, often wander into town, and once one ran through the gate into our backyard, jogged a couple of laps, and left through the same gate. Another young moose wobbled on spindly legs up the two steps onto our front-porch deck, took a look in the picture window, and wandere d off to other adventures.
I won the stare down with the moose in Cache Creek Canyon. He gave up and returned to his browsing, giving me an occasional look to keep me honest. I saw his trail down out of the hills. He had stayed a long time in the high country, stayed until the violent storms, the deep snows, and the tremor of avalanches forced him down into the valley. As he browsed, he moved forward, his chest pushing snow, leaving a trough behind him. The great muscles of his shoulders flexed and stretched as his slender legs r otated at the shoulder, up, out of the snow and down, setting fresh tracks and breaking the delicate plane of the snow surface. Each step was deliberate, with the pace of one who knows he must press on and on indefinitely.
At a stand of willows near the creek, he paused to strip and chew the bitter bark, but soon he moved on, driven by an inner command toward some further destination, high stepping through the rugged terrain.
I turned to leave and wondered - when I face the burdening snows of my own life, how long will I press on and how high will I step?