After the stories of rain and lightning and unfinished hikes I’ve regaled you with over the last three weeks, I wish I could say this post will be about a non-dramatic venture into the mountains. Alas, it’s not to be.
At the end of July 2020, we had weekend campground reservations in State Forest State Park in northern Colorado. It’s a park I’d been wanting to visit for a while, and our campground – Crags – was supposed to be the best one in the park, so I was pretty excited. We did really enjoy hiking and exploring the park… which I’ll talk about next week since this post accidentally got kind of long. For this week, we’re just going to talk about our unexpectedly stressful and scary Crags Campground saga.
Location wise, I would agree that Crags was ideal; both trailheads we were planning to visit were less than a mile away. Scenery wise, it wasn’t too bad either. It was also small, quiet, and our fellow campers were very friendly.
The problem was the moose. I’ve been camping my entire life, and I’ve never had a moose wander into my campsite. I can no longer say that.
There was a sign at the entrance that said “caution, moose in the area” and a card on our picnic table warning us to not leave food out when away from the site – much like you might expect in bear country. We assumed this meant that the occasional moose might meander through. What we did not assume was that moose actually just hang out in the campground all day long. And they were not scared of humans. They were completely habituated. Which was a problem.
We spent Friday night blissfully naïve, spotting a mama and baby moose on our walk around the campground, but they were minding their own business and leaving everyone alone. Reality began to set in the following morning at 6:15am when we heard a noise outside our tent. It was a moose. About 10 feet (3 m) away. Never in my life have I been so grateful for the clear plastic “windows” in our rainfly that allowed us to identify the source of the noise without unzipping the tent and coming face to face with a large, unpredictable animal.
For anyone who doesn’t know much about moose, here’s a brief summary:
- They can weigh 1000 lbs (450 kg) and are surprisingly fast, despite their gangly appearance
- They are easily startled
- They have terrible eyesight, so when they get startled they tend to just pick a direction and run; hence their unpredictability
Fortunately for us, this moose moved along fairly quickly, allowing us to get out of the tent. About 30 minutes later, we were making breakfast when I looked up and found myself staring at another moose. She was no more than 30-40 feet (10-12 m) away in the trees. So… uncomfortably close. And getting closer. Again, they’re habituated. They have no fear. We really had no choice but to abandon our picnic table and hide in the car. Unfortunately, in our panicked haste, we didn’t think (or have time) to grab the food.
If you’re now assuming you can figure out where this story is going, let me assure you: you’re probably only partially correct.
She actually ignored most of the food. She knocked over a bowl of cereal but I don’t think she ate any of it. She took a bite of an empty banana peel. And then she picked up the mesh storage bag for my cooking pots… and ate it. The entire bag. In one bite. I’m not even sure she chewed it. She just snarfed it up.
(Shoutout to MSR, who sent me a free replacement bag despite the fact that “eaten by a moose” definitely isn’t covered under the warranty.)
In the aftermath, it’s sort of a funny story to tell. But also it’s not. That bag could have caused her digestive system any number of problems. Plus, we have now reinforced to her that she can just walk into a campsite and find something to eat. I don’t know what we could have done differently – I guess we could have attempted to scare her off sooner, though that could have startled her and sent her running right at us – but we still unintentionally ended up contributing to the problem. It was just a bad situation all around.
Setting off the car alarm multiple times (at 6:30am… apologies, fellow campers) and throwing rocks at nearby trees eventually scared her away from our site and allowed us to clean up the mess and eat our breakfast. But we were rattled.
When we returned to our site that evening for dinner, we were on constant alert. Another group of campers told us the moose had gotten into their garbage and they’d had to chase her out of their site multiple times that day by banging pots together. So we began to make dinner very cautiously. We brought out only the dishes we needed. I pulled individual food items out of the cooler and put them in a tote bag which I kept on my shoulder. We wanted to be ready to seek cover at a moment’s notice, without leaving anything behind this time.
Which is basically what we had to do.
Halfway through cooking our burgers, a moose wandered out of the trees right across the road from our site. It didn’t approach, but it didn’t leave either. Eventually it wandered into the adjacent site (as evidenced by the clanging pots and shouting we heard) and then back into the trees where we couldn’t see it but where it could very easily approach unnoticed. So we quickly assembled our burgers and went to eat dinner in the car. While we were eating, it wandered into two more adjacent sites.
By this time, we’d had enough. This was not the relaxing weekend we’d been hoping for. Rather than reading or playing games or even just sitting and chatting, we’d have to spend all evening watching for moose. Every single noise made us startle and look around. So we gave up, packed up the car, and drove 3 hours home in the dark. Half the drive was on a narrow curvy road and we had to stop abruptly for a few deer. It was stressful. But it was less stressful than staying in Mooseville.
I did contact the park the next day, as signs asked visitors to report any aggressive moose encounters. They followed up with me a few days later; they were clearly concerned about the moose’s behavior. I don’t know what steps they ultimately took to remedy the situation… I hope they just relocated them rather than taking more extreme measures. The entire park actually closed about two weeks later due to forest fires so hopefully that resulted in the moose becoming unhabituated.
This seems like a good time to reiterate the importance of never ever ever feeding wild animals, accidentally or intentionally. I have to assume in this situation that no one was purposely feeding the moose. Most likely, people left food or garbage out in their site when they weren’t there and the moose wandered in and found it, and then they learned that campsites = food. But regardless of how it started, it probably wasn’t a very happy ending for these moose. It’s never a happy ending for habituated animals.
I can only hope that by reporting our encounter, we salvaged the situation before these moose became more overtly aggressive and/or injured someone, which would have almost certainly been the end for them. And I hope that by sharing this story, others can learn from our experience and I can help educate people on why its so crucial to keep human food away from animals.