with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Meeting a Moose: Head On – Jasper, Alberta, Canada

Alongside the Ice Fields Parkway between Banff and Jasper National Parks lies unique natural depository of pink boulders. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? Out in the middle of nowhere: Pink boulders. Seems a passing glacier carrying these huge boulders from one place to another, and decided to drop its load. They sit out in the middle of a valley, just east of the river that runs north from the Athabasca Glacier and the Columbia Ice Fields.

We were stunned to see these pink rocks right alongside of the road and stopped to investigate. We looked over the rocks, then smiled at each other. “Pika rocks!” Sure enough, in the next minute there was a high pitched “neep!” We’d found pikas.

Pikas are one of our favorite photographic subjects. Here, some of the loveliest pink rocks all spotted with green, brown, orange and grey lichens make a wonderful backdrop for the little fellows. You may have heard a pika but few ever see them. They are known to mountain climbers and hikers as “Rock Rabbits” as they live in the talus and rocks along the steep mountainsides. They can’t regulate their body temperature, so they live at high altitudes and stay active year around. They dash in and out among the boulders, outwitting larger prey like weasels, martens and foxes among the maze of rocks. All summer long they gather up grasses and shrubs to dry and store in little “haystacks” to sustain them through the snowy winters.

Pika, Jasper, Alberta, Canada, photo by Brent VanFossenBeing small and quick, they’re hard to spot and harder to photograph. You have to look for quite a while as they blend in with the grey and brown rocks quite well. By watching them over the years, we’ve learned that they follow the same 5 or 6 paths over and over again, pausing at a high viewpoint to scout out the area for predators, then diving back down into the rocks. If you watch long enough, you can predict their path and have your camera ready to catch great shots of them dragging shrub branches and grasses through the rocks.

Pikas are very elusive to people without the patience to endure waiting for their short-lived appearance. When people can’t see what we’re looking at, it bores them. Since they rarely see them and pikas aren’t as exciting as a cougar or wolf, people shake their heads and move on. We love to make jokes about “man-eating pikas” and how climbers wear special boots to avoid getting their toes chomped off by the aggressive pikas. Gotta come up with something while sitting still for hours on end, right?

Pika, Jasper, Alberta, Canada, photo by Brent VanFossenWhile photographing these aggressive pikas along the highway, Brent was on one side of the rock field and I was on the other side along an old abandoned road working my own set of wild and vicious pikas. A couple of willow trees and the rocks kept the two of us out of sight of each other.

The cold had settled in. Snow level was only a hundred feet above us. Leaving a heat wave behind in Jasper, I was dressed in every summer piece of clothing I had. My rain coat hood was up over my knit capped head and a scarf was wrapped multiple times around my face. To protect my hands I wore two pairs of gloves and three pairs of socks on my feet. I was still cold. Dusk was sneaking up on us and we were tired from sitting since early morning photographing the pikas. I sat on my kneeling pad, camera and tripod next to me, book by my side, journal (had to catch up you know. Pikas are exciting work!), bottle of Perrier (life is tough), and Snickers bars. My husband and I discussed our life purpose and reasons for sore bottoms and unsuccessful pika shots that day over our head phone walkie talkies.

graphic of a family trying to see something in the distanceA car drove by on the highway only a few yards away. It slowed down as it passed. This is not unusual. It happens all the time. A car slowing or stopped usually means “oh-oh, animal sighted” so everyone stops to see what others are stopping to see. When we stopped a week ago to photograph some beautiful fall colored trees on the hillside above, cars stopped to see what we were seeing. After the millionth car and millionth answer to the tourists, “See the lovely colored trees” and watching them drive off disappointed, my dear, patient husband answered back, “Yeah, it was a bear! You should have seen it! It was THIS BIG! Big and drooling and had HUGE teeth and claws!” “Really?” “Nah, we’re just photographing these trees. See how pretty they are?” “TREES? You’re taking pictures of TREES? Come on, Martha, keep driving. What’s so great about trees?! Crazy people!”

Over the past few days of working the monster pikas, we started scoring the slowing-stopping-and-maybe-getting-out-of-their-cars-to-look tourists. We awarded so many points for slowing and more points for actually stopping, etc. We laughed about how, even if they got out of their car and stood there, they would never see what we were seeing. Pikas, you know, are not very eager to just run up and beg to have their pics taken. We’d giggle to ourselves and watch tourist drive on.

A car slowed down and passed Brent. “Got another tourist,” he advised me. “Yeah, bet they’ll never see what we’re seeing,” I replied out of habit, now bored with the continual flow of stoppers and slowers. Then the car made a U-turn. “Bet they see you!” I told Brent over the radio. Brent was sitting closer to the road, much more visible, especially with his 500mm 2 foot long lens. Everyone thinks he is photographing bear or something. They don’t understand the little bunny-like creatures we hunt for.

They passed Brent, then me, and made another U-turn and slowed down by me. “Bet they see you!” called Brent over the radio. “Wonder what they think we see?” I murmured back, wanting to snuggle further inside my warm clothes.

“They probably think it’s a freakin’ moose,” he said. We laughed. There were no moose at this altitude this time of year. They’ve all gone lower into the valleys and ponds to stock up for winter. Real funny, I told Brent. But the actions of the tourist made me curious enough to turn and look over at the highway.

There, in the trees by the road, stood a huge, freakin’ bull moose. Not just a bull moose, but a BULL moose! A huge rack of – antlers sounds so tame – horns! He crashed through the trees and jumped up onto the old dirt road I sat on. He swivelled his big (did I say big, MONGO) head and stared at ME, dripping saliva from his mouth which I later described to Brent as “lovely drops of juice, sparkling golden from the backlit sunset.”

“Brent,”I calmly said over the radio. “It’s a freakin’ moose.”

“Right!” was his knowing and confident reply.

“I’m not kidding,” I sang back, hysteria starting to rise as the saliva continued to drip down.”
“Sure. Tell me another one.”

“You don’t understand. This is a REAL moose!”

While not 'our' moose, this is similar to the one we encountered. Photo by Brent VanFossenThen the mantra chant started in. I call this the motivational self discussion. “Oh, my god, what am I going to do, it’s a real moose, oh, my god, oh, my god, oh, my god, what am I gonna to do, what am I gonna to do, oh my god, oh, my god, oh, my god….” and so on. When my head finally cleared from the shock, I had the wherewithal to ask Brent if moose charge.

“Yeah, so?”

“Agggggg!!!!” Oh, MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD. “So what do you do if a moose charges you, honey?” “Hide behind a tree. Why?”

A tree. Clinging to that desperate thought I whipped my head around. Tree! Must find tree. In my panic I start to talk Tarzan style. “Must find tree!” The little twigs nearby could hardly qualify as trees, mere wisps of what might be trees someday. So think, think! Wait, I tell myself. Moose are nearsighted! Right? No, that’s rhinoceroses. Or Elk? Or… who cares, hide behind the tripod and pretend you’re a bush. Good idea, the brain races and the moose started to move towards me.

The rocks! Get to the rocks! I figured I could scramble through the big boulders to safety. “Look out Pikas! Here comes Lorelle being chased by a moose! Oh, My God, I’m Gonna Die! Oh, My God, I’m Gonna Die.” On and on went the mantra.

At this point, Brent started to get a little concerned, but not much. It was happening so fast, he was too busy laughing at the possibility to comprehend that it might be reality.

animated graphic of a mooseAs the moose, drooling, trotted towards me, his little – whatever you call it thingy dangling from his neck swinging back and forth – I realized that my slow scoot-and-butt-drag-with-the-tripod towards the rocks wasn’t going to work. I finally voted for the duck-and-pray-that-he-thinks-I’m-a-bush idea. Curling myself up behind the tripod, I heard the monster break into a run, his hoofs crunching into the gravel, right at me.

It was then I remembered some old Bill Cosby routines from albums my father and I collected over the years. He did this bit on getting killed and believing it worthwhile to face death up front and personal. Turn and look it right in the face. You might find a way of taking someone with you when you go or getting a chance to change your options at last minute. Better to watch what’s going to kill you than die wondering. In that bit, he explained how humans like to LOOK at what’s going to hurt them. About how the feet tell the brain to run like hell, but the head is still turned around trying to see what is coming after the body.

Right as I turned, the monster moose broke into a run and passed within 6 feet of me. As I realized he’d just trotted around me, the moose cleared the trees and Brent got his first view of reality.

graphic of a moose“Oh, sh#t, it’s a real freakin’ moose!” he screamed into my ear. As the monster trotted off into the woods, I laid back on the gravel panting, now warmer than I had been in days, and pushed back my hood and pulled off my hat, tugging off my scarf from my face so I could suck in safe, clean air. I shook my hair out of my hat and lay there on the old road just glad to be alive. A voice from the road interrupted my relief.

“Excuse me, sir – opps! Ma’am, ugh, lady, ugh, oh, well.”

It was the tourists.

I’d forgotten them. The driver stood by the car alongside the highway, his family glued to the windows on the passenger side of the car. I couldn’t be bothered with them right then, but, you know, you must be polite, so I called back “What?!?!” as gently as I could.

“Um, me and the wife and kids, we, um, well, before we knew you were a girl, I mean lady, uh, oh, shucks. I might as well tell you.”

Now I was glad to be alive and totally confused. “Tell me what!!”

“We were watching you and, um, tried to estimate the size of, um, a particular part of your anatomy. And we all decided you must have pretty big ones!” He laughed at his joke.

My husband, now running like crazy along the highway to get down to the road I was sprawled on, panted over the walkie talkie, “Honey, is he saying you have big balls?”

“Yes!”

The tourist eventually drove off, we packed up, and saw no more moose for the rest of the trip. From then on, whenever a tourist slows or someone asks what is someone looking at, we always answer with “probably a freakin’ moose”. When my husband responds with “probably a freakin’ grizzly bear” I beat on him. With permission, of course.

4 Comments

  • Posted May 24, 2005 at 13:25 | Permalink

    Nice! Thanks for drawing my attention to this. I really love the way you tell a story. A life well lived!

    /me sighs, wishing it was him out there!

  • Rose
    Posted June 4, 2005 at 23:07 | Permalink

    Only 1 thing wrong.Change the spelling of Athabaska to Athabasca.Very nice site.

  • Posted June 5, 2005 at 19:59 | Permalink

    Thanks for the spelling catch.

  • Random Person
    Posted August 24, 2005 at 13:19 | Permalink

    Nice pictures =) I love pikas myself. Thought I’d never see one in Alberta but in fact I did! It was in front of a big rock with a small hole or something underneath it (hard to describe..) Got 2 shots and we tried getting a closer shot but couldn’t because it ran into the hiding area.(It was frozen still when we took shots of it)

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