Anchorage is a self-proclaimed "City of Lights," but Alaska's urban center could easily be called the "City of Moose." In winter, a thousand moose gather here to graze on ornamental trees and escape the deeper snows of neighboring foothills. Most leave town once the surrounding landscape has greened up, but 200 to 300 moose remain year-round.
Many prefer the parks, greenbelts, and wooded lots of west Anchorage, including my neighborhood. One cow, accompanied by a calf or two, I can count on seeing a couple times weekly on walks to the nearby Coastal Trail. Occasionally a bull will pass through, munching as he goes.
I've always felt confident that I could track down an urban moose or two on short notice, if asked to show off the local wildlife by visiting family or friends. That confidence was put to the test when my mother's two sisters visited us last summer.
Mom came north to live with me in 2002 and hadn't seen Emily and Evie for several years. The three sisters had a grand time together, but neither of my aunts saw much of the local wildlife.
On their last night in Anchorage, Evie joined her son Jim (who'd accompanied his mother) on a "moose hunting" drive to nearby Chugach State Park. Not much of an adventurer, Emily seemed content to spend her last night at our house.
My girlfriend, Helene, had different ideas.
"Hey, why don't we drive Emily and your mom around and find our own moose?" she suggested.
And so we did. The four of us piled into my aging Toyota and, at Helene's suggestion, headed toward Kincaid Park, a haven for Anchorage moose. Driving slowly, we peered into Kincaid's woodlands. Fifteen minutes passed, then 30, then 45.
"There's always moose here," Helene said with a moan. "Where are they tonight?"
"So it goes," I shrugged, equally disappointed. "There are other places we can try."
Just about ready to give up on Kincaid, Helene shouted, "Look, over there! Two moose on the left."
Sure enough, a cow and yearling calf grazed among birches 50 yards away. Doing a U-turn, I pulled over on the shoulder. While Mom watched from the car, Emily joined Helene and me beside the road. Moments later, a second calf appeared.
"I told you," Helene exulted. "I knew we'd find moose here."
In her own saturnine way, Emily, too, seemed excited. "Wow, there they are. That's great."
Within minutes, several other cars pulled over and a dozen murmuring people lined the road. Clearly we weren't the only moose hunters out this night.
I proposed we continue our moose search elsewhere, hoping for a clearer, closer look at the critters. Near Anchorage's international airport, we left the pavement for a dusty, gravel road and slowed to a crawl. Within a few minutes, I noticed a young bull in a meadow.
The moose was partly hidden by trees, so I pulled over and we waited for a better look. To our gleeful surprise, the bull's browsing led him toward us.
In the back seat, both Mom and Emily cooed their appreciation.
Now within 25 feet, the yearling bull raised his head and picked leaves from atop a willow. "I didn't realize how big they are," Emily said with a gasp. "He's gigantic."
The bull continued up the road, so I drove ahead, then turned the car for a better view. As I did, Helene spotted another, larger moose. This was probably the young bull's mom.
The engine off, we watched silently for several minutes while both moose gorged on greens. Finally another car approached; we chose to leave and let others have their turn enjoying the moose's company if they wished.
Turning toward the back seat Helene smiled and said, "It really doesn't get much better than this."
And then it did. We called it a night. But five minutes from home, I noticed two shadowy forms beside heavily traveled Northern Lights Boulevard.
"More moose," I shouted. "This time there's a little one."
A chestnut-colored calf the size of a miniature pony stood beside its mother in an open, grassy area. We pulled over and paused within 10 feet of the pair.
"Oh, it's so cute," Mom whispered.
"It's beautiful," Emily agreed. "And so small."
Cow moose are notoriously protective of their young. But this one showed no signs of being the least bit agitated. She lifted her head and looked our way, then went right back to grazing. Not wishing to distress the two, we lingered less than a minute.
Back home we awaited Evie and Jim's return, Mom and Emily eager to trade Anchorage wildlife stories with their sister, Helene and I more impressed than ever by the city's abundance of people-tolerant moose.