Monday, October 5, 2009


Many old time Alaskans still harbor hurt feelings about the 1990s television series Northern Exposure. The show was set in the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska, loosely modeled after the real and equally quirky town of Talkeetna. The cast and crew of the entire series didn't set foot in Alaska and most exterior shots were filmed in and around Roslyn, Washington. While some Alaskans loved the show for the delightful romp that it was, others were disquieted by its many inaccuracies regarding the state's culture, lifestyle, and landscape. When I first moved to Alaska, I mentioned to our movers that I was excited to be living here because I loved the show Northern Exposure. I was immediately subjected to a 20-minute lecture on how NONE of the trees in the show's exterior shots could possibly be found in interior Alaska. Despite its many faux pas, Northern Exposure got it right with its well-loved opening credits in which an enormous moose meanders through town.

In Alaska, moose are just a part of life. Dollars to doughnuts, multiple moose have been sighted by 99.9% of Alaska's population. There are thousands of these strange, large, ungainly animals throughout the state. Unlike many of Alaska's more elusive animals like the wolf and lynx, moose are not particularly concerned with the presence of two-legged mammals and many make their homes in urban parks and greenbelts. In the town of Gustavus on the southeast panhandle, moose outnumber humans 2 to 1. In the 49th state, we know that moose are an unavoidable part of what defines us as Alaskans. Rather than opt for a more elegant creature like the Arctic fox or Dall sheep, Alaskans selected the moose as the state land mammal in 1998.

Scenic View from Our Downstairs Window

No matter how many moose I see, moose encounters always leave me with a strange sense of place. Their massive size and awkward movements are almost prehistoric. When juxtaposed against a crowded urban backdrop, they are a living anachronism. When traffic almost grinds to a halt as moose are spotted grazing alongside busy streets and highways, I wonder if drivers are slowing for safety reasons or if they are caught entranced, gazing at this beautiful urban aberration so close up.

Moose-Induced Traffic on Northern Lights Blvd. 

Generally, humans and moose live peacefully together in urban Alaska. While there are occasional highway and train accidents fatal to all mammals involved, moose are usually peaceful and have little interest in anything outside of twigs, leaves, bark, grass, and other moose. Despite their usually placid temperament, moose encounters can be dangerous and life threatening. Their massive size of 800 to 1600 pounds puts even the beefiest Alaskans at a disadvantage. Male moose (called bull moose) can grow a terrifyingly enormous set of antlers (also known as its rack). Both their front and hind legs can deliver powerful kicks, crushing a human windpipe with alarming ease. Their behavior can be unpredictable, especially when mothers are with calves or when bull moose are in rut (i.e., ready to mate).

To live safely with moose, there is an inherent set of rules that every Alaskan follows.

Rule #1 - NEVER feed a moose. This one seems pretty obvious. Would you want to go anywhere near the mouth of a 1000 pound hungry ungulate? Tourists and locals alike sometimes ignore the obvious, thinking that a moose is nothing more than a big-nosed cow. Back in 2000, a local news channel aired a viewer-submitted video of a tourist feeding a moose a carrot from her mouth. While we all had a chuckle at some people's stupidity,  the news anchor reminded us that this could have easily turned into an episode of When Animals Attack.

Rule #2 - NEVER corner a moose. This, too, should be immediately apparent. Why on earth would you want to spook a frightened animal almost 10 times your size who's wielding 4 powerful, skull-crushing hooves? Earlier this year, two middle school students in Wasilla did not find this rule as obvious. While running outside during P.E. class, the students starting yelling at, running toward, and throwing stones at a young moose. The moose was cornered and began thrashing itself against a fence until one of its antlers broke off and the moose died. Although the moose's death was tragic, it was extremely fortunate that no schoolchildren were injured.

Rule #3 - If a moose starts to charge you, get behind something big and immovable. While a moose, who can achieve speeds of up to 35 miles per hour, could easily outrun a human, their long and ungainly legs prevent them from running around objects quickly. A tree or an SUV can offer good protection because you could run around it quicker than any moose, who would likely soon tire of the pursuit and leave. Actually, our herbivorous moose friends have little interest in humans and are not likely to pursue or stalk you if you can just get out of their way.

Rule #4 -  If a male moose (the one with the big antlers) starts grunting at you, GET THE HECK OUT OF THERE! During mating season, which happens to be in early to mid October here in south central Alaska, male moose are in rut. They are on the prowl for a few ladies and make a low, grunting sound to signal their presence and availability. The bulls are in a hormonally-induced tizzy and are likely to charge and possibly attack anything and anyone that disrupts its potential to mate.

Rule #5 - NEVER, EVER, EVER get between a mother moose and her calf. Mama moose are extremely protective of their young for their first year of their lives. Back in 1995, a man was tragically stomped to death trying to enter a building on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus when he got between a female moose and her calf. If you're out for a walk and see a moose with a calf or two up ahead, either wait from a safe distance until they leave or just turn around and walk the other way.

I love living up here in the world of moose, but their size and power still frighten me. No trip Alaska is complete without a moose sighting, but your safest option may be a trip to the Alaska Zoo or, better yet, immerse yourself in the world of moose gift paraphernalia!


  1. I went out to start my truck one dark, icy and cold winter am and kneeling in my driveway licking salt off the ice were two moose. Scared the snot out out of me! Booked it back into the house and sent my hubby out to start the truck and take a picture. The picture only shows two sets of glowing eyes.

  2. We just installed two motion-sensor lights in our driveway. I wasn't sure if we needed them, but after reading your comment, I'm glad we did!