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by Lori Strongin
Drifting down the Chilkat River in Haines, Alaska on a large orange floatation device wearing an oversized life-preserver, ducking kamikaze eagles and kestrels at play, one wouldn't expect an episode of National Geographic to walk right out of the woods and announce itself.
But it most certainly did.
As our raft of adventure seekers passed a sandbar, our guide identified what looked like a moose calf carcass. We passed the landmass in silence, every eye riveted to the still figure of brown fur, silently wishing for a confirmation of life, which finally came true as the little one's ears began to flap. We beached the float and looked on anxiously as we wondered about the baby's fate.
Suddenly, in a burst of noise and speed, Big Momma Moose came out of the woods, looking every ounce of her intimidating 1,500 pounds. She watched us just as intently as we were watching her. Her ears were pinned back against her mammoth skull. She stood at attention, ready to attack at the slightest provocation. You could practically smell her fear in the air.
As she turned towards her calf, I gasped aloud at the sight of three jagged wounds tearing her torso – fresh evidence of a recent encounter with one of Smokey the Bear's Pacific cousins.
With a gentleness belying her massive size, she nuzzled her newborn, awakening life and awareness in him. She helped her young one to stand, tenderly guiding his wobbly first steps. After three hesitant footsteps he faltered, then fell. But nature, and his mother, drove his upwards again. The mother moose kept silent as her little one trumpeted triumph at his first successful steps. She led him off the sandbar and into the shallows of the river, washing the birth fluids from the little one's light brown fur. A silent cheer arose within each of us, spurring on that infant as each tentative step made it stronger; helped ensure its survival.
As mother and son took their first swim together, I remembered something that, to this day, I wish I hadn't.
Moose usually bear twin offspring. The bloody, raw claw marks marring the mother's beautiful coat drove home that there was no sign of that second baby. Imagine, having to choose between your two offspring; deciding which lives another day and which becomes bear chow.
Did the mother moose hesitate a moment too long, risking both calves' lives? Or was it an easy choice? If both were healthy, why was one fated to never live beyond his day of birth?
I was not the only witness to come away with damp eyes after watching this scene. No one in that boat was a passive onlooker. Not anymore. Instead, we were incorporated into something larger; something far more vast and complicated. We became a part of that calf's life experience, as he so surely became part of ours.