One of the main reasons I want to start bikepacking on mountain biking trails is because it is a great way to get out into the wilderness and make more progress than if I were moving on two feet alone. Part of the allure of getting out into the backcountry is the slight probability that you'll see wildlife, and actual wild animals at that, not that of the zoo variety.
The flip side of that is something I may casually think about but realized now that did not adequately prepare for. What do you do when you actually encounter wildlife on the trail?
This not so exciting story starts when I woke up at 4AM on a Saturday. I woke up early to make the drive from Denver to Winter Park and get a rehearsal run in on the trail that Andy May and I would ride in three weeks. I made it to Winter Park at 6:30AM after loading the car, filling up with gas, and buying coffee. It was 7AM by the time I warmed up and was ready to ride. My plan was to ride hard for an hour and a half uphill then turn around and hopefully back track in about 40 minutes downhill.
It is good practice to let people know where you're going and how long you expect to be, and I did that with my wife by sending a text with the trail name and expected return. Once I started riding though, I felt more concerned about wildlife than I usually do when hiking. I didn't think there was much I could do about noise. I can't clap while I ride and I can't really holler because I’m already sucking wind from riding uphill. I just hoped the sounds of my old beat up bike were enough to warn any wildlife that I was in the area. Mostly though, I felt that I was fine since I was only a few miles off Main St in Winter Park.
Riding uphill was a tough slog. There was a long stretch of switchbacks which I had to walk through but then finally made some headway uphill on some winding singletrack. I hit a left turn onto a different trail to continue the Indian Peaks Traverse route and was pleasantly surprised to find a bit of a downhill grade. It wasn't anything significant but at least I was moving faster with far less effort.
I gained some speed and was making good progress when a black pickup truck shot out of the trees and across the trail no more than 20 yards in front of me. In fact, it was probably more like 10 yards but I'm trying to be conservative in this tale. In a matter of a couple seconds, I was shocked at how dumb I was that I was about to cross a road, then progressed to some confusion why I didn't hear any truck noises, then realized I just saw some type of gigantic animal, then fear that it was a bear, then finally - I spotted the moose off to the left of the trail.
His eyes were dead on me and he was still. My legs were shaking - I'd like to think it was from the 2 miles of uphill riding I just finished but I knew better. Then I picked up movement to the right of the trail. There were two more moose to the right, eating. Now my legs were definitely shaking. They were all looking at me.
My first set of thoughts were: is there a calf somewhere? Did I ride past it and not notice? Am I in danger here? I noticed pretty quickly that the three moose were all bulls and felt fairly certain that bulls weren't going to be in immediate proximity of a calf but still wasn't sure. I at least felt odds were in my favor; I didn't accidentally ride in between them and was still on the periphery of the three of them, albeit barely. My second set of thoughts were: what is the protocol for moose encounters? Do I make myself big and noisy to scare them off? Do I just back away? I feel like every animal has its own "ideal" playbook for encounters and I have long felt that you'll never remember it when it actually is happening. True to form - I couldn't remember a thing in the moment other than knowing a moose can charge you.
I figured a conservative approach was best so instead of making myself big and shouting, I chose to keep quiet and move slowly. I scanned area trees for cover in case I got charged. I decided on hitting the ground under some fallen trees for protection against the racks and the hooves if moose were of stomping variety. I unclipped my other foot from the pedal and slowly dismounted the bike. I stood for a minute or two, observing. I didn't seem to be spooking the moose anymore so I slowly backed up, watching their movements as I went. No change. Finally, I got far enough back where I felt comfortable about the time I'd have to mount my bike with my back turned and get away before a charge could materialize and I took off.
This encounter happened when I had only about 30 minutes left in my planned ride. Had I more time, I likely would have gone back a safe distance and tried to wait them out and walk forward later. With a short period of time though, waiting didn't make sense so I flipped directions and rode downhill and told my wife all about it on the phone like a kid who just went to the zoo for the first time.
So what do you do in a moose encounter? What are their tendencies?
- Do not approach.
- More deaths and injuries from moose than from bears.
- They’re faster than they look.
- If they charge, RUN.
So I guess I had it half right when I figured I should be quiet, slowly back away, and definitely give them the respect they deserve as a potentially dangerous animal. This advice doesn't much help though when you ride up on them and find yourself standing 30 feet away from three bulls. The Denver Post went a bit further to detail out what you should be looking for when you already make contact with moose. They write that if you do find yourself staring a moose down, you should "keep your distance. If they pin their ears back and move toward you they are probably going to charge. Many times leaving the area will alleviate the perceived threat. If they do charge try to put a large object like a tree or a rock between you and the moose."
Generally speaking, the resources I searched said that moose are far more dangerous to hikers and bikers than bears but generally are not spooked the way other wildlife are. I largely believe that is because many people view moose as "dumb, slow animals," the same way that many people in Yellowstone casually view the bison despite real threats of goring. Big animals like moose and bison may seem like they'd be slow, but they can surprise you. Perhaps the amount of charges due to moose is more the result of human apathy than anything else.
Running into wildlife is part of the allure of getting off the roads and into the backcountry. Doing it safely is a whole art and science in itself. You'll never remember all the fancy rules and procedures for different animals but if you ingrain a few good rules in your head then I suspect you'll be ok like I was.
What wildlife encounters have you had in your trips? Leave it in the comments for us to learn from!