Submitted February 24, 2011

Unexpected moose attack while snowshoeing

The day of my dangerously close encounter with a moose began on a cold, but clear winter morning. I had taken up snowshoeing that winter in light of the exceptional snowfall that we'd had. It was my habit to start the day off with a trek into the wooded acres across the road from my house with my three dogs as my constant companions. I had already broken a number of trails, and I would normally stick to those, but we had just had some additional snowfall that week, so I thought I would head to a more densely forested area I hadn't visited in a while since I was going to be breaking trail anyway.

The forested area sits atop a hill. Below and to the left of the area I'd planned to snowshoe, there are some unused logging roads that meander for miles. I'd explored them quite a bit while hiking in the warmer months. The deep snowfall and the numerous fallen logs make them difficult to navigate in the wintertime. My dogs caught scent of something and all three of them took off in that direction. The dogs generally stay by my side or return shortly if they've gone off to investigate something. I can tell if they've treed something like a chipmunk or squirrel or if they're chasing a rabbit by their bark. One dog, Libby, is a basset mix, and she in particular has very specific vocalizations depending on what she's after. This time, I could hear them all barking like mad in the distance, which is generally not a good sign. My first thought was that they had encountered a porcupine. All three had had at least one run in with a porcupine in the past, and I was thinking, as I made my way towards them, how much was a veterinarian visit for quill removal was going to cost me this time?

Their barking led me down a steep ledge, across the logging roads, down another hill and across a stream. As I struggled through the deep snow, I was seeing scat and tracks in a split hoof pattern that were much too large and deep to be deer, so I assumed they were moose. I wasn't particularly concerned because I'd seen deer tracks many times that winter but had never seen an actual deer, so I believed I'd never lay eyes on a moose either.

As I finally crossed the stream and went up the embankment on the other side, the dogs and what they were barking at came into view. It was a moose. It appeared to be male and at least 6 feet high at the shoulder. I am a tall women, standing 6 feet tall myself, and he was looking down at me. Mature bull moose drop their antlers after mating season, to conserve energy for the winter, and this one was not sporting a set of antlers, so I assumed he was an adult. He also had a large "bell," which is the flap of skin and fur under his neck.

The moose didn't seem especially concerned about the three dogs barking at his heels. All three were keeping their distance, just making a lot of noise. The moose was standing under a grove of trees, where there was relatively little snow and was munching on some vegetation. I had heard that moose can be aggressive, but I was fooled into complacency by this moose's calm demeanor. I thought the best thing to do was to grab the dogs' leashes and lead them away before the moose became riled up.

I made a wide circle as I approached, trying to keep my distance. When I was about halfway to the dogs and completely out in the open, the moose charged. I had my right side to the moose and was avoiding direct eye contact, so I only saw him from my periphery just before he rammed me. The force of the impact threw me to the ground. I stayed down, stunned, for a few seconds in a fetal position. I wanted to make certain that he wasn't going to come back and trample me or kick me in the head. All three dogs came over to me to empathetically lick my face, and I was able to grab the leash of the largest and loudest of the three dogs. I figured if I could lead him away, the other two would follow. I crawled with my dog's leash in hand to a stand of trees where I could be out of sight of the moose before I stood again. My dog, not happy to be taken away from the excitement, bolted back towards the moose. At that point, I thought, forget the dogs, save myself!

I had to leave the safety of the trees and make my way out in the open to head towards home. As I was doing so, I realized that one snowshoe had been knocked completely off in the attack. I scanned the ground for it, but I didn't see it and wasn't particularly fond of the idea of revisiting the moose to fetch it. If I had realized how difficult it was going to be to hike out of the woods without snowshoes, I probably would have risked it to go back. I ended up abandoning the snowshoe I was left with because one wasn't doing me any good.

I crossed the stream at a different point than the one that I had approached on, so I had no broken trail to follow. I was wearing ankle high winter hiking boots with heavy sweatpants tucked into two layers of socks. I was not dressed appropriately for making my way through snow that was as deep as my upper thigh. Over the next few hours, I made my way out of the woods, taking a route that would lead me to the stream where I snowshoed often and had already broken trails. Many times I would have to crawl across the snow to make any headway. Often I would pause, exhausted, wet, cold and freezing, wondering why I had left my house without my cell phone that morning. I knew I was getting hypothermic as time went by because I was trying to tell the dogs (all three of whom had given up on the moose to stay with me) to "Just go home!" afraid that they would freeze, and I heard myself slurring my words. My feet and lower legs had gotten wet and frozen and felt like slabs of meat fresh out of the freezer, but I didn't dare pause to look too closely. I just wanted to get myself to the safety of home and then worry about frostbite.

It was afternoon by the time I finally stepped inside my front door. I was so relieved to be indoors, that I wasn't thinking rationally. In the condition I was in, I should have called help. Instead, I ran myself a warm but not hot bath, peeled off my frozen layers and began the process of thawing my frozen feet and lower legs. The pain, when the tissues thawed was excruciating. I then dried myself off, took some ibuprofen for pain and got under three layers of quilts where I shook uncontrollably for 3 hours until my body warmed up again.

The next day I went to see the fine medical staff at Bucksport Regional Health Center, where I was treated for hypothermia and frostbite on my lower legs. I was the talk of the office that day, with my story of a moose attack. Dr. Bjorn tells me that my legs will heal, and I won't even have any scars to remember my ordeal by.

I think that in the spring, I will go back to the site and recover my discarded snowshoes and perhaps figure out for sure how many miles I traveled that day in the deep snow. There are two things that I have learned and will never forget. One is that you should never take wildlife for granted. Moose are the most aggressive during mating season and during the winter, when food is scarce and conditions poor, and I will never equate them with dairy cows again. And, two, no matter how familiar I am with my surroundings or close to home I think I might be, I will never, ever leave the house without a cell phone and safety provisions again. No matter the season.

- Karen Douglass

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