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Tactical Survivalist

Updated on January 24, 2017

Alaskan Sojourn

We were only a few miles into Denali National Park when the bus driver pulled off the road. "There's a big, old bull moose way out there towards the bottom of that hill on the right," she said and pointed.

There was a buzz of excitement in the bus. Everyone strained to look where she was pointing, eager to chalk up the sighting and capture a picture to take home as proof of their experience. It was not to be.

The bull was a long way out and though he looked magnificent through my 10x50 Swarovski binoculars with his still growing rack of velvet antlers, he was way beyond the photographic range of anything but a large telephoto lens.

Wherever you travel in Alaska, there's a chance you will see a moose. As the largest of the deer family they are obvious. They are also an important tourist attraction that can be found anywhere from the fringes of suburbia to the wilds of the Arctic Slopes.

To the indigenous Athapaskans they were a source of food, clothing and implements fashioned from their bones or antlers. The early trappers, miners and settlers relied on them for meat and even today, subsistence and trophy hunters still harvest 6000 to 8000 moose per year. According to Alaska Department of Fish and Game figures that's some 3.5 million lb of venison that by law must be brought out of the bush and utilized.

Wherever there is human habitation, cast antlers (the Alaskans call them 'sheds') are propped up against verandah posts and walls. Skulls complete with antlers adorn the fronts of cabins and houses or hang above the fireplaces in restaurants and bars.

Some are presented au naturel while others are decorated with indigenous patterns and motifs. Gift shops and traditional craft outlets offer intricately carved antlers at prices that range from reasonable to ridiculous.

There are moose antler-handled custom knives and ulus and you don't have to look very hard to find old and new shoulder mounts of trophy bulls.

Our first sighting this time around was a cow and two calves on the edge of the road at Bird Point on the Seward Highway. At the Exit Glacier Nature Center a lovely set of antlers was chained to the wall outside the information centre and an unusual cast antler with an extra, three-pointed brow palm growing out of the same coronet as the main palm.

On the Toklat River at mile 53 on the Park Road in Denali where the rangers' tent and gift shop is overwhelmed by ordered banks of queues for toilets there was a collection of moose and caribou antlers.

Visitors were encouraged to handle and feel them. Two of the moose antlers were impressive in terms of their weight and number of points and no-one could lift both of them up to their heads for a photo like they could with the caribou.

At the Eielson Visitor Center at the end of the road, Mount Denali was hidden by grey mist and low cloud, a disappointment for many. Outside in a sombre display were the skulls of two moose, the antlers locked together in death as they had been in life when a dominance challenge had gone awry and both animals had succumbed to an impasse from which there was no escape.

It drew a lot of attention, a stark reminder that despite our heartfelt need to know that the wilderness lives on, the wild in wilderness is always there and sometimes its manifestations are both brutal and sad.

On the way out there was a young bull moose feeding in the willows below Poly-chrome Pass. He gave everyone the photos they seemed to need and we arrived back at the Denali Visitor Center with a list of wildlife sightings that included a variety of birds, marmots, caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bears and moose.

Of them all, the moose was the most photogenic and I will bet you pounds to peanuts that he will be the talking point of the tour for most of those who saw him. That's the moose factor for you and Alaska would not be the same without it.

That's one big moose!

Now that's a moose antler! Photo taken at Toklat River in Denali National Park.
Now that's a moose antler! Photo taken at Toklat River in Denali National Park.

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