Letters & Essays

Me vs. Animals

Benjamin Percy

If you take the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, turn east at Swift Current Pass, and walk about another seven miles, you’ll reach Many Glacier Hotel, where I worked as a gardener. The hike takes all day and drops over three thousand feet from rocky cliffsides through fields of orange hawkweed and desert paintbrush and glacier lilies, through forests choked with pines and birch and manzanita, through a zigzagging series of switchbacks that finally bottom out in Many Glacier Valley. I was nearly to the bottom of the valley, on a steep hillside, when I came around a corner and spotted an enormous brown ass.

A bear, I thought—I’m dead. The rangers called the REI bells people wore on their backpacks “dinner bells,” and pepper spray was “seasoning”; they said, Always hike with someone you can outrun. Earlier that summer, one of my coworkers had been eaten by a grizzly. His boots were found with his feet still in them. And only a week ago, my roommate had been pursued—stalked—for ten miles by a mother and her cubs.

The animal rose up from where it had been grazing and stepped from behind a thicket of scrub birch and revealed itself to be a moose with a wide rack of antlers and a droopy nose. I felt relieved, but it was short lived. Moose might look ridiculous, but they can be the most dangerous things in the forest. When confronted they will stomp you with their hooves and scoop you into the basket of their antlers.

We were ten yards apart. The stream-fed bottom of Many Glacier Valley was a hundred yards below. The hotel was three miles away. The sun was setting. My stomach was caved in with hunger. My knees were wobbly from exhaustion. I didn’t have a flashlight. I couldn’t wait and I couldn’t hike back the way I had come. When I haven’t eaten—and since breakfast that morning I hadn’t eaten anything but trail mix—my thoughts get muddy, my temper sharpens, and I lash out at the world. I go a little crazy.

This was one of those moments. I pawed loose a fist-sized stone from the hillside and, without bothering to take aim, or to second-guess myself, I hurled it at the moose. I hit it squarely along the ribs, its fur and fat and muscle rippling outward. The moose released a throaty moan that sounded like dinosaurs sound in the movies, before it went crashing down the hill, its long legs scissoring.

Down was a good place for it to go, away from me, toward the hotel. But at the bottom of the valley, it splashed into the stream, milky white with glacial till, and stopped there to drink. Water fell from its snout. Ferns huddled along the bank and the moose began to nibble on them. I descended the hill as slowly and quietly as I could, cursing the moose and willing it to leave, to let me by.

The shadows deepened. I waited ten minutes and then found another stone. My aim wasn’t as good this time, but good enough. The splash and clatter of its impact sent the moose racing from the stream, kicking up rooster tails of mud and water. The trail ran beside the stream and the moose took to it and vanished behind a cluster of willows. I stood there for a good minute—listening to the fading sound of hooves thudding and antlers crashing through the undergrowth—before starting forward.

Around the bend I found a man. His name was Patrick and he worked as a waiter at the hotel. He was lying on the side of the trail with his hand over his heart. When he saw me, he roughed away the tears gathering at the corners of his eyes. He said, “You’ll never believe what just happened.” He stood up and brushed the dirt off himself. “This moose—this fucking moose, man—this moose.” He threw his arms up in the air and let them fall. “It just came hurtling around the corner and swung its antlers at me and I jumped out of the way, jumped right off the trail, and this moose—this goddamn moose—kept going.” He was breathing heavily. So was I. “I was almost killed,” he said.

“Really?” I said. “Wow.”

The remainder of the trail we hiked together. I kept my eyes sharp on the forest and despite the deepening gloom felt some measure of safety, knowing I could outrun Patrick if I had to.

 

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