By Gretchen Wehmhoff
The evening drive into Anchorage to meet my brother’s flight from New York was a quiet break from a busy day. Pressing the accelerator to climb the hill past Eagle River, I freed my mind from obligations, looking forward to his visit. Anything else could wait.
Ahead of me, near the top of the hill, a flash of brake lights cut the darkness. A delivery truck and a car stopped, the truck turned on its flashers. I slowed to look for a moose that surely was crossing the road.
The moose was there, but she hadn’t made it across the three-lane highway. As I approached the crest, the large, brown cow was directly in my lane, laying on her side, air steaming in short, frantic breaths from her nostrils in the chilled air. Three legs flailed slowly in the air. I stopped ten feet from her head and turned on the flashers. There was no choice. If I moved, another car might run over the dying animal. My brother would understand the delay. A man in a green flannel talked into a cell phone 50-feet away next to a large retail truck.
“Are you calling the cops?” I called to him
He nodded his head and held a thumbs-up. I couldn’t tell if he had hit the moose. But I also didn’t see another vehicle. I took in the animal’s plight. Her head was facing me, steam still rising, the legs moving more slowly. Doesn’t anyone have a rifle? I felt a heaviness seeing the animal lying so undignified and helpless. Her coat was unblemished, her eyes dark brown and alert. She was caught by surprise and now her last moments would be filled with the blinding bright lights of my headlights and the steady blinking of my flashers.
More cars were headed up the three-lane road. I moved out a few feet and started directing traffic around us – me, my car and the moose. A few tires ran over something that might have been a car mirror. Tufts of brown fur scattered along the center lane. Cars slowed to the flashing lights. Most came to a crawl and moved to the edge, looking at the moose struggling, still breathing, eyes searching, legs stretching. Occasionally a car would slow, then speed up around me, dangerously close to the head. We were in their way, interrupting their trip.
Certainly someone had a gun. Where were the police? I look at the cow. Her eyes stared ahead, not really looking. She knew she was dying. She looked to be young, maybe a few years old. Hard to tell. The breaths were becoming less frantic, smaller puffs of steam came in wisps from her nose. I felt her helplessness and her pain. I wanted to reach out and pet her nose, stroke her belly and share calm words as she prepared to leave us. This animal would not be saved. She was dying and I was the last animal by her side.
“Hey,” said an excited voice. “Thanks a lot. I’m still shaking. I couldn’t see why the truck was stopped. I … oh man … I can’t believe this is happening.”
“I know,” I said amid directing traffic and holding my tongue. “You feel bad for hitting her. It’s sad.” So this is the guy who hit the moose. Where was his car? Where has he been? Silently I thought what an idiot he was for not stopping. We all know what a car hitting their brakes on this road means: an animal is crossing the road. This man didn’t anticipate. He said he wondered why the truck hit its brake lights, but didn’t slow down. It could have been a child or a cyclist! It was hard to show sympathy past the demise of this dying moose.
October is a bad time to be on the road. It‘s the time between darkness and snow that is so dangerous. When the snow arrives, ambient light makes the roads safer for moose, illuminating them before they cross the road. But there was no snow now, only headlights piercing the dark roads and hopefully common sense – most of the time. This man was lucky. He walked away from his vehicle; wherever it was. Most collisions total the car.
I turned back to the traffic, appreciating that people were slowing to the flashers. Some folks asked if we needed help, others stuck their cell phones out to take a picture. We all were seeing the same event differently – sorrow, shock, frustration, a nuisance and a photo for Facebook. A truck with yellow lights came up the hill, its lights flashing as it pulled behind my car. That should help slow cars. I took this moment to look back at the man who had hit the moose. He was finally calming down. The rest of us were taking care of things. I looked down at the moose. She was quiet. We no longer needed a gun.
My short moment of mourning was pushed aside to handle the next slew of cars driving by.
The truck with the yellow flashers turned out to be a private tow truck. The driver maneuvered around my car while we stopped traffic long enough for him to get a hook around the rear hoof. He slowly pulled the heavy, lifeless ungulate across two lanes to the side. A wide trail of dark blood followed, ending in streaks left by a deadly paintbrush. There wasn’t a large puddle of blood. The animal had probably bled internally or broken its back. I don’t know, but there was no dignity in watching it being dragged along the road by a hook.
With the moose off the road there was no need for me to hang around. The guy who hit her thanked me and went over to hang with the two truck drivers and wait for the police.
The police would arrive, a phone call would be made and someone on the moose recovery list would have only a few hours to dress and remove the remains. It would be a lot of meat for whomever got the call; the only good ending in a sad junction of car and moose. The moose would be food for a family or a shelter. That’s the way it happens.
Driving on into Anchorage I forgot my misplaced day. I thought of the moose, the trucker who stopped, my little blue car stopping cars to protect a dying moose, the tow truck driver who moved the animal, the man who learned about brake lights on a dark highway and the drivers who all slowed down. I thought about the chaos of the day that had delayed my departure by two minutes. Maybe it was all a plan.
On the way back from the airport I pointed out the spot to my brother. A pickup truck with a utility trailer parked where the tow truck had left the moose. A lone police car with flashing red and blue lights sat behind it on the shoulder, its headlights illuminating a single man working on the moose.
I still hold the image of the large, helpless brown eyes, the smooth fur and small breaths of air coming from her nose. Someone once said that animals don’t see death the way we do. They don’t feel sadness or fear. They just die. I don’t know if that’s true or not, I only know that it didn’t make me feel any better.
Two days later I passed the spot where the moose had died. On the slope above the road, in a small clearing, stood another moose; a calf – maybe six-months-old. How long would it wait for its mother to return? How long could it survive without her? Will someone brake for this young moose? My heart became heavy. I’ve said it before, nature is just too tough for me.