Andrew Terrill

The outdoor diary of a writer, photographer, and wilderness wanderer

A Moose Encounter

Bull moose in willows Guanella Pass Colorado 24 July 2023


I’VE BEEN FORTUNATE to have experienced a number of wildlife encounters this year. Arguably the most memorable occurred in late July right at the end of a short weekend’s backpacking.

I’d camped in a rugged away-from-it spot and was heading back to one of Colorado’s busiest mountain trails: the Mount Bierstadt Trail. The only way to regain the trail from camp was cross country through an extensive area of willows and marshes. This area is practically a maze and the route through it is barely feasible. The are numerous dead ends and endless opportunities for becoming entangled within willow hell or sucked down into knee deep mud. But fortunately I know ‘a solution’ to the maze, and I’ve been following its twists and turns for years, although no-one would ever know it. When following it I do all I can to leave no marks. I step deliberately and examine the ground as I go, searching for any footprints that might have been left during previous visits. Happily, I’ve never found any. It wouldn’t do to create a new path here that might lead others astray or that might damage the land. Whenever one steps off trail one has an absolute duty of care. Anyone who goes off trail and ‘battles’ the landscape, who fights and thrashes through willows, needs to have a long hard think about what they are doing.

But I digress.

Before reaching the main trail I came to the north side of the large pond that sits in the heart of the Guanella Pass area – Deadman’s Lake some call it, although it’s unnamed on most maps. From the pond’s southern side I could hear a babble of voices, and above the dense willows beyond the water I could see a line of tiny heads bobbing along. It was Sunday, the crowds were out, and this was good to see. The more people that get into nature the better it is for all of us. Or so I believe. Nature heals so many ills. And healed people make the world an all-round better place. But, ahem, I digress again.

From the pond’s edge I began skirting the water counter-clockwise. I drew closer to the main trail but then, perhaps a hundred yards before reaching it, stopped. Why? I wondered. The answer came quickly: it seemed I wasn’t quite ready yet to give up the solitude I’d been enjoying all weekend. I needed a final few minutes alone! And… I’d warmed up in the willow maze and was sweating in the July warmth. A final swim of the trip might be good. If the pond was swim-able.

I eased off my pack at a grassy area surrounded by clumps of willow just back from the pond and stepped forward to inspect the water. Unfortunately, the pond was as I’d suspected: shallow as far out as I could see and black with mud beneath the surface. Step into the pond here and instead of swimming I’d be knee deep in mud – or deeper – and I’d probably struggle to get out.

But it was no big deal. Accepting the pond for what it was I relaxed. I stared about, appreciating the way sunlight sparkled on the pond’s surface, and treasuring the area’s immense space. I stood quietly, lulled into inactivity by the moment – by all the moments that my short journey had already given. But, eventually, I returned to more deliberate action. I’d spotted something moving across the water. I pulled out my camera, screwed on the zoom lens, and peered through. A mallard and a line of chicks were paddling alongside the far shore. A few photos of them would hardly be the greatest wildlife pictures ever, but they still called. I grabbed a few shots.

By this time, a fair number of mosquitoes had found me – the kind of wildlife I’d prefer not to meet. I’d been motionless beside the pond for fifteen minutes now, and it was probably time to move on. Time to head for the trail and then for home.

I reached toward my backpack to stow away my camera, and at that moment heard a rustle from nearby willows, followed by the light snap of a willow branch breaking. The sounds came from the direction of the main trail and I looked up, fully expecting to see hikers pushing toward me, not stepping carefully as they should. I cursed myself for drawing them my way. But it wasn’t hikers. Instead, I saw a lumbering shape: dark, massive and covered in coarse bristling hair. It moved nearer. Prominent above it were two broad antlers. Their shape was unmistakable: like massive hands faced palms forward, edged by a multitude of fingers. Oh goodness! It was a moose, a bull, and intimidatingly large. It was perhaps forty-five feet away and heading directly toward me.


moose in willows Guanella Pass Colorado 24 July 2023


I didn’t spend much time thinking about what to do. Instead, I reacted instinctively and instantly. I simply did what had to be done.

The first thing I did, of course, as a photographer, was to fire off several quick shots. Three seconds, maybe, was it all it took. But then the next and most urgent thing to do was let the moose know I was there and also get the hell out of his way.

“Hey moose,” I called out loudly but calmly, raising my arms overhead then very gently sweeping them from side to side. “Heyyy moose. I’m here. Just little old me. Don’t worry Mister Moose. Hey moose. I’m backing off now. Hey moose heyyyy moose.”

I eased on my pack, aiming to do nothing sudden that might prompt a charge, and then moved backward, still calling out calmly. The moose stopped and watched me retreat. And I watched him watching me. At this point, time seemed to have slowed quite dramatically, and there was now heaps of it available for thought, for considering all the advice about not getting too close to a moose, and all the moose attack stories I’d ever come across, and for remembering the many moose encounters I’d already had, most of which had involved a moose fleeing right away, except for one memorable dawn encounter the previous September where a bull moose had stepped into the clearing that had housed my tent, had stared intently in my direction, and had begun shaking its antlers aggressively. Happily… fortunately… it had retreated when I’d scrambled out of my sleeping bag and had began banging my pots and waving my arms and shouting loudly. But it had been a tense moment, even though the moose had been over a hundred feet away.

This moose was far, far closer.


Bull moose willows Guanella Pass Colorado 24 July 2023


Fortunately though, there was no antler waving or head shaking this time, and no hint of aggression. Instead, the moose’s body language – all hesitation and uncertainty, as well as mid-summer weariness – communicated quite clearly that it wanted nothing to do with me. And in turn, I did all I could through my body language to communicate that I wanted nothing to do with him. It was like a conversation, although without words, but the messages we exchanged were as loud and clear as though words were being used. It likely mirrored ‘conversations’ that many creatures have when encounters occur: “Are you a threat? Are we good?”


 Bull moose in willows Guanella Pass Colorado 24 July 2023


I backed away as far as I could, stopping only when I reached a dead end willow thicket and couldn’t easily go further. I was ready to throw myself into the thicket if needed, and to thrash and battle to get away, but I sensed that such a thing wouldn’t be required. It seemed totally clear that all the moose wanted was to get to the water. It needed a drink possibly (as I did now come to think of it, with a mouth that suddenly felt dry), and even more it needed to escape the mosquitoes and flies, something I could also relate to.


 bull moose and fly close up Guanella Pass Colorado 24 July 2023
Spot the fly right in front of the moose’s nose!

Once I was out of the way the moose moved more quickly. It stepped from the willows and trotted straight for the pond in haste, passing by maybe twenty-five feet from where I stood, but showing no desire to get any closer.


bull moose lake Guanella Pass Colorado 24 July 2023


Its body language was flight, not fight. After reaching the pond’s edge it stepped straight into the water and mud, and demonstrated at once that the mud was knee deep. But as soon as it was in the pond with open water beside it the moose visibly relaxed. It looked back at me as though I was no longer a threat, took a long drink, and then pulled up and casually munched on some leafy underwater plant. What a sight it was! A massive moose, just forty or so feet away!


bull moose drinking lake Guanella Pass Colorado 24 July 2023


I stared at it, feeling awe and gratitude in equal measure, treasuring being so close, savouring the moose’s being, its presence, reaching out to feel its thoughts – thoughts that to me seemed peaceful and full of a calm certainty of self, but thoughts that also revealed constant attentiveness to the surroundings, a skittish nervousness, as well as a stoic acceptance of its place in life itself. This assessment of the moose’s thoughts and behaviour was as much instinctive as it was deliberate. I was instinctively assessing myself, too, constantly running through all my options, as well as instinctively continuing the unspoken conversation the moose and myself were engaged in. “Are you still good?” we continuously asked one another. “Yeah I’m still good.” “And are you good?” Yeah, I’m good too. It’s all good.”

It’s foolish, undoubtedly, to amphropomorphisize an animal and an encounter this way, but that was how it felt: a two-way dialogue that was very real. It was a genuine connection with another living being, and it was a connection that took me back thousands of years. From the moment the moose had first appeared animal instincts of my own had been pulled to the surface. These instincts had set me analysing every aspect of the situation. They’d set me ‘thinking’ beyond thoughts. Alertness had swamped me, and a tunnel-vision focus had consumed me, directing my senses onto critically important and potentially life-or-death details. The arrival of the moose had woken me up. It had taken me back to an older state of being, to truly being in the moment, to truly being alive.

What a gift!

The moose drank some more, apparently in no rush to be anywhere else. At this point, it may then have been prudent to have left the scene. The trouble was, the only viable escape route lay toward the moose, which clearly wasn’t the right direction to go. Instinct said: “stay put, keep quiet”, and so I stayed put and kept quiet. And the photographer within suggested I not waste the opportunity. I tried not to.


bull moose lake Guanella Pass Colorado 24 July 2023


After five minutes, perhaps, (I wasn’t really paying attention), the moose moved on. He waded away from me, moving deeper into the pond. At first it struggled in mud, splashing to get free of a sucking morass, but eventually reached deeper water and began swimming for the far shore. This was a memorable sight in itself: a massive antlered head bobbing away through gleaming water.


bull moose swimming lake Guanella Pass Colorado 24 July 2023
The moose wading away.
splashing moose guanella pass 7-24-23
Struggling in the mud.
 bull moose swimming lake Guanella Pass Colorado 24 July 2023
Swimming away.
bull moose swimming lake Guanella Pass Colorado 24 July 2023
Nearing the far shore.
bull moose swimming mud lake Guanella Pass Colorado 24 July 2023
More mud to struggle through.

 bull moose swimming lake Guanella Pass Colorado 24 July 2023


With mosquitoes now biting hard on my bare arms and legs, and whining about my face, it was finally time for me to leave, too. But, just as I was about to pack away my camera for a second time, a second bull moose appeared, and once again the camera stayed out and was soon back in use.


bull moose lake Guanella Pass Colorado 24 July 2023
The second moose.


The second moose was slightly smaller but still impressively large. It hadn’t followed the same route that the first had taken but had reached the pond a hundred feet further north. Once again, the body language assessment and a non-verbal two-way conversation began. This moose knew I was there and told me it wanted nothing to do with me. It meant to keep away. Once again, I sent the same message back.

Moose two approached the water’s edge but backed off when it began sinking into deep mud. It tried another spot twenty feet around the shoreline and this time made it to the water and drank.


bull moose drinking lake Guanella Pass Colorado 24 July 2023


It looked across the pond toward the first moose, and evidently decided to follow it, but on land rather than by swimming. Unhurriedly, it made its way around the pond’s edge and after a while joined the first moose on the far shore.


two bull moose lake Guanella Pass Colorado 24 July 2023


Ignoring the mosquitoes, I stood and watched, snapping photos, but also doing all I could to enjoy the moment and pay attention to it. I was fully aware that sharing a wilderness pond with two moose was not an every day event. It was for me, quite possibly, a once-in-a-lifetime gift.


two bull moose lake Guanella Pass Colorado 24 July 2023


 moose ducks lake Guanella Pass Colorado 24 July 2023


The encounter finally ended when the first moose swam back across the pond toward my side, although some distance to the south. Not wanting to push my luck, I pulled on my pack and continued to the main trail. I walked away, smiling with gratitude, enriched.


moose swimming across lake Guanella Pass Colorado 24 July 2023

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