You can take the wild out of the wilderness but not the wildness out of the wild

A bull moose browses birch leaves in northern Colorado. Photo by Todd Burras

ELY, MINN. – Visitors to this area frequently ask where the best spot is to see a moose. It’s among other popular questions, including: How’s the fishing? Where’s a good place to eat? Is it going to rain? Where can we go to see the northern lights? and Is there any insect repellent that actually works?

When it comes to the question of spotting a moose, I stop short of telling them the sobering truth that there are no longer any reliable places nearby to spot North America’s largest ungulate, that the moose population has been crippled in recent years by a myriad of factors, including brain worm (a parasite spread by whitetails that’s fatal only to moose), predation, poor habitat and warming temperatures that produce, among other maladies, massive tick loads that can severely impair a moose’s ability to regulate its body temperature.

I offer generalities about what makes good moose habitat – wetlands, coniferous and mixed forests, burned or logged areas with lots of small bushes and deciduous trees, and shallow ponds or bays filled with aquatic vegetation; where some of that habitat exists (if I know) in relation to where they’re staying; and what time of day – dusk to dawn – moose are most likely to be seen. I wish the visitors well and hope they see one of these magnificent creatures, thankful that in my lifetime I have banked several vivid memories of seeing moose.

Last week, while driving back from Grand Marais, a quaint fishing village on the North Shore of Lake Superior, I added to that memory bank. It was late at night and we were gradually working our way inland from the shore’s lower elevation and had reached a several-mile-long, relatively flat and wet plateau, which historically has been the most well-known locale for visitors to the region to potentially view a moose without having to leave the comfort of their vehicle. Suddenly, the truck’s high-beam lights picked up a dark shape moving across the road.

With a history of seeing a few moose on this stretch of highway dating back some 25 years, I already was driving cautiously, but quickly slowed to a stop. There, now standing in a ditch half-full of water, was a large, healthy-looking cow moose. All six sets of eyes from our vehicle, including those of our Golden-doodle puppy, locked on the dark animal, which appeared indifferent to the sound of our running vehicle and the light it cast upon her large body.

The significance of the rare encounter wasn’t lost even on our 17-year-old son, Andrew, who rarely looks up from his cell phone while traveling with the family.

“That is soooo cool,” Andrew said, leaning forward in his seat for a better look and speaking to his Egyptian friend, who was seeing a moose for the time. “It’s so incredibly rare. It’s been years since I’ve seen one.”

For some of the locals I’ve talked to, it’s been many years even for them since the last time they saw a moose, their numbers have dropped so precipitously in the past two decades.

Some visitors to this area express disappointment to have come so far to a place renowned for its wildlife and to not have seen a moose or two of the other iconic mammals of the region – wolves and bears. Many are grateful and satisfied with the opportunity to see living specimens of the latter two species at the International Wolf and North American Bear centers; others won’t be satisfied until they’ve encountered one of these magnificent creatures on their own turf – the wild. I understand and empathize with their feelings and chances are, if you’ve chosen to read this section of the paper, you can, too.

Moose, wolf and bear are mega fauna here that offer some adventurers just enough of a sense of wildness about the place that it calls them to come into this beautifully harsh wilderness of trees, water and granite – many, year after year. It’s a chance for some of them to perhaps get in touch with their primordial past of hunting, gathering and living in close proximity to the land and all its creatures, herbivores (e.g. moose), carnivores (wolves) and omnivores (black bears) alike.

If you’ve seen one or more of these iconic species in their natural habitat, consider yourself fortunate. If you haven’t, keep looking. When you finally do, the experience is bound to leave you with a memory that lasts forever.