We were instructed to hide behind a tree. The Wenonah glided into Washington Harbor on the west end of Isle Royale, as the National Park Service ranger on board explained what to do if we encountered a moose while hiking. The emphasis on avoidance strategies was due to the time of year – mid-September, when the moose on Isle Royale turn amorous and aggressive. As first-time visitors to Isle Royale, this unexpected warning only added to our already feverish excitement.
Not expecting actually to have to dodge any 1,500-pound, hormone-crazed herbivores ourselves, the four of us set out on the trail towards Feldtmann Lake with confidence.
The bright sun was our constant companion, sending down laser shafts of light through the leafy forest canopies and warming us with its undivided attention while in the open meadows. The hiking conditions were perfect; the air was cool and crisp, not a single mosquito could be found and we had the trail to ourselves. Early autumn on Isle Royale is magnificent.
Nine knee-bending miles later, we were pitching our tents and boiling Ramen noodles near the shore of Feldtmann Lake. The sun had sunk below the treetops, but the still air remained comfortable even as darkness grew.
Nature touched all our senses, as the earthy fragrance of the lake’s marshy fringe and the full-throated performance of its frog chorus lavished us with its primordial poetry.
These types of outdoor excursions are my favorite: an exquisite blend of physical exertion and sensory stimulation that drains the body yet simultaneously fills the heart. That evening, I didn’t really fall asleep so much as I just surrendered to the void.
Near dawn, an unusual sound jolted me awake. Heavy footsteps, so heavy that I could feel them, fell closer and closer to where we lay. It took a moment for my sleep-numbed brain to realize that there was a moose in our midst. The giant hooves clomped their way around the perimeter of the campsite, and then strolled in between our two tents. The chilled morning air whooshed loudly through its cavernous nostrils as it came within just a few feet of my head. This moose wasn’t just passing through, it was deliberately investigating.
I felt an initial rush of fear before reassuring myself that a moose likely wouldn’t waste his time and energy to stomp on silent, inanimate objects, such as our two little yellow domes. Hoping to keep it that way, I stayed deathly still and quiet. Shortly after, the footfalls faded as the moose moved off into the woods. Not until then did Kevin, who I thought was still asleep, ask me in a whisper if I had heard the commotion. Then hushed voices arose from the other tent as Rich and Peder discussed the visitor amongst themselves before finally speaking loud enough to ask if we’d heard it, too.
Not surprisingly, conversation during breakfast centered on the curious moose. We took turns speculating on the size of the behemoth and the reasons for its interest in our little nylon village. In spite of the excitement, we were still somewhat disappointed. We had hoped to see a moose, not just hear one. Nevertheless, we’d never experienced anything like it, and our trip had officially been transformed into an adventure.
The backpacks felt lighter that morning as our lifted spirits helped carry the load. We had a 10-mile hike along the Feldtmann Ridge ahead of us before we reached our next stop, Siskiwit Bay. We hiked along in shorts and T-shirts, once again reveling in the warmth of late summer.
The trail led away from the lake and into a shaded, swampy forest. Fifty yards to our left, the brush was so thick that it created patches of total darkness. I wondered what might be hiding in such a forbidding place. Perhaps the eyes of one of the island’s furtive wolves were coldly observing us as we hiked through its pack’s territory. Suddenly, the sharp crack of snapping branches coupled with the vigorous rustling of leaves burst into thoughts, freezing us in our tracks. We turned our heads just in time to see an enormous bull moose emerge from the blackness of the swamp. The brown monster trotted swiftly with directness and intent, powering through the dense vegetation with ease. He was not merely strolling, ambling or browsing for food – he was thundering straight for us.
We quickly unbuckled our packs and dropped them to the ground for easier manuevering. Kevin and I hid behind a large pine tree to the right of the trail, while Peder did the same on the other side.
And Rich … it was then we noticed Rich still on the trail, backpack fastened tightly to his body. Without the slightest hint of alarm on his face, he stood there, watching the bull advance. In hushed, urgent tones, we implored Rich to drop his pack and take shelter behind a tree. Seeing the terror on our faces and hearing our tense voices, Rich finally realized the gravity of his situation. He threw off his backpack and jumped behind the tree with Peder.
The moose slowed his approach until he was about 10 yards from Rich and Peder. He lowered his massive head, swinging it from side to side. The span of his colossal antlers broke nearby branches with explosive force. His ears were pinned back, and he snorted in a unmistakably aggressive manner.