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1998-2007

Animal Encounters (10/03)

Moose on the Mountain

I was so lost in my own thoughts that I almost walked right into what appeared to be the rear end of a large horse. When my feet caught up with my eyeballs and I finally stopped walking, I was about eight feet from a female moose. She was pulling up and chomping shrubs and grasses and didn’t even look around – until I cautiously reached back and started to unzip my fanny pack to get out my camera. Then that huge animal turned around so fast I didn’t even see her move. Her head was up, there was white around her eyes, and she was showing me a lot of teeth.

Headlines of my untimely death flashed before my eyes. I started backing up very slowly, trying to get a tree between me and the moose. The path ahead curved closer to her before heading out of the little copse I was in. I was doing my favorite Butler Lodge - Rock Garden - Frost Trail loop, and I really hated the thought of heading back the way I’d come.

I stood for many minutes trying to decide what to do. Finally, the moose made a noise between a sigh and a snort and went back to eating. I took a few steps toward her, then some more. She didn’t even look up. I kept walking along the trail, searching out the shortest route to good-sized trees as I went. The trail came within five or six feet of the moose and then, thank goodness, headed away from her. I wasn’t happy about having my back to her, but I didn’t want to walk backwards and trip. I took several steps, then looked back, walked a bit further, then looked back again. Logically, I realized the moose hadn’t seemed at all threatening for many minutes, but emotionally, I kept expecting to hear huge thudding hoofs behind me.

And then came that lovely part of the trail where hikers have to get down on hands and knees and crawl between rocks. There was no way the moose could follow. Safety!

Mutual Curiosity

I was hiking at the Adirondack Mountain Retrieve, to Beaver Meadows Falls. After photographing the falls, I went over to the Beaver Pond to have lunch.

As I was sitting there, I noticed an animal in the water. At first I thought it was a beaver, but then I realized it was not behaving like that hard-working animal. Instead, it was playing. It also became curious about the "monster" at water's edge, and when it came closer I realized it was a river otter! I was overjoyed. I have never seen one in the wild, especially this close.

It kept swimming closer and closer, and finally it climbed out on a rock no more than 30-40 feet from me, looking and "barking" at me. It entertained me for a good half an hour before it decided to go away. My only regret is that I shot my last frame of film just as it shook itself - so I have no sharp image of this friendly animal.

Porcupines

Until the 1970s, porcupines were so numerous in Vermont, you could hardly spend a day in the woods without seeing one. People used to gather around campfires and tell porcupine stories. Tales of porcupines eating holes in a friend’s sleeping bag while he slept; tales of porcupines eating the brakes of a car that had to get a group of Girl Scouts down a long steep hill; tales of hiking boots, ax handles, and even pots and pans chewed by porcupines.

Porcupines were considered the scourge of the Long Trail. The state of Vermont even had a bounty on them, and they did so much damage to cabins and outhouses that the Green Mountain Club encouraged killing them. The Long Trail Guidebook of 1960 gives instructions for “dispatching” them: “Porcupines can be killed by a blow on the nose. When dispatched at a camp, they should not be thrown in the refuse dump [another relic of the past, fortunately] but buried or removed to a distant point…they may be carried safely by a front paw for there are no quills there.” Even people who wouldn’t hurt anything else often killed porcupines.

Porcupines are large rodents – up to 30 inches long and 40 pounds. Their backs and tails are covered with barbed quills, which can work their way into whatever they hit. Porcupines cannot throw their quills – but the quills are quite loose and can come out as the animal moves its tail. This can cause serious injury and even death for some animals. Dogs are especially vulnerable.

Porcupines eat wood, bark, and other plant food. But it is their fondness for salt that gets them in trouble with people. Anything we touch may have salt from our hands. In the old days along the trail, if you left something out overnight, it would almost certainly be chewed up by morning.

So, where have all the porcupines gone? We rarely see one nowadays. Porcupines have few natural enemies, but one animal that can kill them is the fisher. In 1959 fishers were introduced into Vermont. It seemed to work. Between the fishers and people, porcupine numbers have greatly diminished. (Even at the height of their numbers in Vermont, there were very few in the neighboring Adirondacks – but there were fishers in the Adirondacks at that time.)

Lesson from a Grouse

When I was coming down the Butler Lodge Trail with a friend, a female grouse flew out of the woods without warning and attacked my boots, all the while making an amazing racket of little hoots, clucks and odd hoarse scolding noises. For a full minute, she hit at my feet with her wings and pecked at my bootlaces. When I moved down the trail, she chased me – until she’d successfully removed the threat I posed to her hidden young. I was laughing, but also impressed by the grouse’s single-minded devotion to making sure her chicks got safely through the time of their dependence on her.

Thanks to everyone who submitted stories about meeting animals along the trail. If you have a Long Trail tale to tell, please send it to Ridge Lines. -Ed.