An Unexpected Encounter

A bull moose emerges from the cattails along Forde Lake in Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A bull moose emerges from the cattails along Forde Lake in Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The witchety-witchety-witchety came from the cattails bordering the lake. An eight-foot band of emergent vegetation formed a green ribbon that highlighted the open water. A Common Yellowthroat was singing not a dozen feet from my car’s open window. It was 4:45 AM, and I had just left my campsite to bump along this dirt track. The sun wouldn’t rise for another quarter-hour, and it would be much longer before the warm rays hit Forde Lake in the Sinlahekin Valley.

The singing yellowthroat was hidden in the thick stems, but its song was loud and clear. The background sounds of blackbirds, ducks, flycatchers, and kingbirds enhanced the solo, and I slowly opened my door so that I could fetch my sound recording equipment from the backseat. I took two tentative steps toward the backdoor when loud splashes erupted from the lake.

The Bull Moose begins to trott up the hill and away from Forde Lake where it had been feeding on wetland plants. Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Bull Moose begins to trot up the hill and away from Forde Lake, where it had been feeding on wetland plants. Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

There, not a hundred yards away, a bull moose thrashed in a small cove. He galloped along the edge of the cattails, water coming partway up his side, and splashes going above his head. His palmate antlers looked half grown on this mid-June morning. My first thoughts were to chastise myself for not scanning the lake before I opened the door. Then I wondered if I froze, might he calm down and go back to feeding. I reached back into the front to grab my telephoto lens as the beast plowed into the thick cattails, totally disappearing.

These ungulates moved into Washington in only the last century. I knew they were in the Selkirk Mountains but hadn’t realized they were on the east side of the Cascades in Okanogan County.  A few years back, a census by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated that over 5,000 moose now live in this state. Their highest density is in the northeast. Although sometimes taken by wolves, the biggest threat to Washington’s moose seems to be the increase in ticks. The warming climate has allowed tick numbers to explode, and a significant infestation on an individual moose can suck enough blood to affect its condition.

The moose jogs through the tall grass of Sinlahekin Natural Area as it heads in the hills and away from Forde Lake. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The moose jogs through the tall grass of Sinlahekin Natural Area as it heads in the hills and away from Forde Lake. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

This male exploded out of the cattails and onto the grass-covered plain that rose from the lake. He stopped briefly to look back at me, and then trotted along at a brisk pace, surprisingly graceful for such a gangly looking member of the deer family. Their legs are extremely long, allowing them to wade in deep water for aquatic plants and reach high into bushes and trees when they browse. Once, when I was in Alaska, I watched a moose and her large calf graze. They had to walk on their knees to be able to reach the grass. Aquatic plants and browse are their primary foods.

He moved at a diagonal up the hill. This guy probably stood five feet at the shoulders, maybe more, and weighed at least a thousand pounds. I kept snapping photographs, even though it was still dark, and I could only see a silhouette in the images. Maybe, I’d be able to pull some more detail out of the files. His dewlap hung under his neck, and that sizeable muscular nose gave him the unique look of this species. His antlers were covered in velvet, and I wondered how big they’d grow this summer.

He ran to the edge of some sagebrush, now a quarter-mile away, and paused. His magnificent profile made me hold my breath, hoping he might turn back. But no, he disappeared then over the rise. I stood for the longest time watching where he’d gone before getting back into my car. The Yellowthroat had stopped singing.

The moose approaches a patch of sagebrush up the hill from Forde Lake in the Sinlahekin Natural Area of Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The moose approaches a patch of sagebrush up the hill from Forde Lake in the Sinlahekin Natural Area of Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

12 thoughts on “An Unexpected Encounter

  1. What an encounter! The picture of him in the sage brush totally goes against my image of moose habitat. I wonder how much time they spend foraging in that type of vegetation. I hope you see him again!

    • I suspect, he was just moving through the sagebrush. It be interesting to know if they do occasionally browse there. The valley is pretty narrow and moose habitat is at the ponds and along the riparian areas but they must use all of the habitats at times.

  2. Great post! Only time I saw a moose in the wild, I was snowshoeing with my two German shepherds at Priest Lake in northern Idaho. It was near the end of the rut, and as we came around a switchback up the mountain we ran smack into a male trying to mount a female, who was uncooperative and quite annoyed. At the sight of us, the male was quite annoyed as well.

    Needless to say, we beat a quick retreat (even the shepherds seemed to know we just needed to leave quickly and quietly; they didn’t even bark). The animals were so huge (and quite fragrant), the snowy scene so serene and beautiful then suddenly urgent – the male was very clear that he was mad at the intrusion, and he was only a few yards away. Thankfully he was more interested in pursuing the reluctant female and allowed us to leave without further incident.

    I’ll never forget the experience. Your post and photos brought it back so vividly, thank you!

    • I bet that was an amazing experience. I’ve heard a lot about needing to be really careful around them. When I walked in a park near Anchorage, they recommended we turn around if a moose was near the trail. I did.

  3. Thanks for the fine details on moose in Washington. Last year I visited the Sinlahekin three times after many years absent, and was particularly surprised too see a moose, my first in the state. We saw the same moose again a week later, with both sightings at Forde Lake. Might be the same one as your moose, and I would say he’s grown a bit.

    If you send me your e-mail, I’ll send you last years moose pic.

    • Thanks, Gary. Isn’t the Sinlahekin so amazing? The birds were singing a lot when I was there. Forde Lake is beautiful. I camped in the small place behind it. Love to go back sometime.

  4. So cool, been waiting forever to see a moose! All I ever see is signs “watch for moose” which I take literally, even pull off the road and watch!

  5. I do fantasize about seeing them here and there which I know is super impractical but it would be perfect. I’m so happy for you that you got to see that. You have a great life!

    • Thanks, April. It was so unexpected. I had joked once about seeing them but didn’t think they really were in that part of Washington. I wish I’d spotted it before I scared it. I hope you are surviving the lockdown.

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