At the end of our Road Scholar tour, we were asked which moment we would think of first when we thought about Alaska.  Here’s mine.

We were hiking in Denali National Park with the naturalist Alex Lee who was showing our group some beaver dams and talking about how the beavers re-route the rivers, changing the flow and quality of the water to aid in their survival.  I suddenly got very tired and because we had come down a long, steep hill, I started back, hoping to give myself a little head start when it came to climbing back up.  I was so exhausted that instead of looking around, I watched the trail, not wanting to trip over a large rock or a root.  So it turned out that it was Sky who noticed the moose, a very large cow grazing on bushes not far from where we were walking.  Startled, Sky barked.  I turned to see what had gotten her attention and at the same moment, the moose turned to look at us.

Of course, before our very first hike, and several times afterwards, our group leaders had told us how to behave around the wild animals we might see as we hiked in Denali, especially the ones that had potential for doing us harm, the bear and the moose.  What I did, sitting down on a large rock and asking Sky to lie down right next to me, was more or less the opposite of what we had been told to do, the gist of which, with the cow looking at me, I forgot entirely.

The moose stood still and we stayed still as well.  I, of course, was no longer tired.  I’d never been observed so intently, or at all, by a wild animal and instead of feeling terrified she might attack,  I felt thrilled.  After a long moment, she went back to noshing on the bushes and Sky and I stayed watching her for about ten minutes, until the group caught up with us, all excited to be so close to a moose.

Alex ferried us the long way around, wisely thinking that so many humans so close by would disturb or even anger her.  We tromped through a small river, then climbed that long, long hill, seeing other moose down below in the lake, two cows and a calf.   But the moose I will remember is the one who read my intentions and those of my dog, Sky, seeing that we had made ourselves smaller, that we were still and that we held no threat to her at all.

Afterwards, back at the Denali Education Center, some of our group doubted that a wild animal could read the intentions of a human and a dog.  Alex and I disagreed with them.  If all the actions of living creatures can be traced back to the desire to survive, then of course the moose could read our intentions.  In order to survive, she needed to understand the intentions of any potential predator, to know when a single wolf was eying her calf, to know when to stand her ground, to charge, to keep eating the lush greens that had such a short season in such a cold place.

I surely understand that the moose I so happily watched a few weeks ago might have, under other circumstances, considered me and my mouthy little dog a threat.  Or that some other moose, some other day, might question our intent, find us lacking in good will, and charge.  Most important, though, is to understand that we are not the only thinking, feeling creatures on the planet, a failing of our species that is slowly changing now, but still has a very long way to go.

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