In search of Vermont’s most mysterious creature
I tumbled headlong down the hillside once, twice, three times before landing in a heap of snow beside Ky Koitzsch, a wildlife biologist from in Waitsfield, Vermont and also my guide as we trekked along a remote ridgeline in the Green Mountains, east of Granville, Vermont, in search of moose.
“The avalanche method,” I explained, as I struggled to extract my splayed cross-country skis from nearly three feet of powder. “It works almost as well as skiing when the hill is this steep.”
After untangling my limbs, I reattached my skis. Ky waited all of five seconds before setting out again along the moose tracks, not noticing the difficulty with which I was clambering after him. He had eyes only for the hoof prints that curved out before us, disappearing into a dense thicket of decapitated firs.
“Tracks!” called Ky from twenty yards ahead. “Here are our first moose tracks.” He pointed into the snow with his pole. “They’re not fresh—probably two days old or so, judging by the amount of snow that’s blown into them.” The tracks were widely spaced and diagonally staggered.
He then skied a few yards and, leaning over, put his head a few inches from an indentation in the snow.
“Here’s a good one!” He drew me to his side with an animated hand gesture. “You see how this side is deeper?” He didn’t give me a chance to respond. “You can tell the direction the moose is traveling based on the uneven depth of the print. When the moose walks, it puts most of its weight on the front of its hoof, just like we do. So the deeper side of the print with point in the direction the animal is moving.”
He rolled his balled fist through the snow, mimicking the movement of a moose on the hoof. “We’ll follow these for now. They should lead us to some fresher tracks.”
Our trek took us still higher into the Green Mountains and further from the national park access road that had deposited us into these snowy woods. Ky was confident that we’d find fresher tracks before the day was out—if not an actual moose.
“Come look at this, Conor,” Ky said without looking up from the trunk he was scrutinizing. “This is a great example of bark stripping. You can see marks from the moose’s teeth. Moose only have bottom incisors, so the scraping will always be angled upwards.”
I ran my hand along the grooved surface, thankful for the momentary respite from our energetic jaunt.
Other than tracks, trees display the most prominent signs of moose. During the winter months, moose in the Vermont woods rely on woody twigs for food, and evidence of moose munching on trees could be seen almost everywhere Ky and I turned. The tree Ky pointed to was a striped maple, one of the many varieties that moose will eat during the winter.
“The food moose eat in the summer is buried now,” Ky said. “Now, instead of greens like leaves and aquatic vegetation, the moose will browse on mostly woody twigs and bark. Around here, I find that during the winter, they eat mostly striped maple, balsam fir, hobblebush, and occasionally cherry and birch.”
Moose derives from the Algonquin word “moz”—meaning “twig eater.” And moose certainly live up to their name. The animals consume staggering amounts of vegetation. A typical moose will eat sixty pounds of vegetation in a day. All of which is digested in a moose’s massive, four-chambered stomach.
We stopped in a meadow about thirty yards away from a striped maple tree that a hungry moose had stripped of its bark.
“These,” he said, gesturing to the meadow of firs surrounding us, “have been chowed! Notice that none of these firs are more than five feet tall—moose stunt their growth by coming back and eating here for multiple years.”
“Do you think they’re fresh?” I asked.
He ripped a branch off the closest fir tree. “Look at this,” he said, handing me the branch.
I glanced at it, then back at him. I could tell the end had been chewed off, but didn’t know what else I was looking for.
“Notice the color of the bark,” he told me. “You can tell from the brown color of the inner wood that this moose passed through at least two days ago. If this bite had been taken any more recently, the inner wood would still be yellow or even green.”
We moved through several meadows that had been trampled by browsing moose. Ky followed one pair of tracks for a little bit before picking up a new one—and then a newer one.
“Ah, here we go. Check this out. You can tell this is a moose rub based on the height.”
I studied the patch of trunk he was discussing. Starting at about three feet off the ground (and then spanning another four or so feet) the tree’s bark had been rubbed away, leaving stringy bits of wood hanging at the top and bottom edges.
“This bark wasn’t eaten, it was rubbed off by the moose’s antlers. You could tell that the bark on that striped maple we saw before had been eaten because of the incisor grooves and the clean edges,” Ky said. “But you can tell this fir was rubbed because there are no incisor grooves.”
He removed a glove, running his bare hand along the trunk. “See?” he said. “Totally smooth. Also, the edges of the bark are stringy and frayed when antlers rub them.”
“Keep your eye out,” he said.
As fast as we were moving, Ky reminded me that we couldn’t hope to match the speed of a moose travelling through the woods. I found it hard to imagine animals as large as moose moving swiftly through the labyrinth of brambles and fallen trees that were clawing us from all angles.
“Look at this!” Ky said, “This is great! A fresh moose bed—it can’t be much more than a few hours old!”
We stood before a rounded depression in the snow—a bowl a moose’s body had created. At its center was a heap of what looked like tiny chocolate eggs. A few inches beyond, it appeared someone had spilled a dozen highlighter markers. I couldn’t take my eyes off the fluorescent urine and the pile of droppings.
“Pick one up,” Ky said. “We’ll see how long ago the moose was here.”
I picked up a small piece of scat. It was an egg-shaped pellet, not much bigger than a marble.
“Is it warm?”
“No,” I said, squeezing the pellet. “It’s not frozen though.”
Ky picked up another pellet from the heap, rolling it between his fingers. It broke open like an Easter egg.
“Sawdust.” Ky showed me the digested bits of wood. “That’s really all it is. Now if we were looking at coyote scat—or any other carnivore, for that matter—it might have been uglier. This is basically just cellulose.”
We started following these new tracks, which Ky estimated were made about an hour earlier.
“I’ll bet she heard us,” he whispered. “We can’t be far behind her now. As we ski, try to be as quiet as you can.”
We spent ten minutes in vigorous pursuit. The tracks reached an open meadow and pivoted sharply, turning uphill. Then they turned back downhill. Or were they a different set of tracks? I slowed down, unsure.
“It looks like she went higher up into the mountains,” Ky said, pausing. “I’m thinking we should probably head back. We’ve had this cow moving pretty fast for awhile now, and she’ll already be pretty warm in weather like this. We really ought to let her be. She’s probably struggling as it is.”
“Of course,” I said, trying not to sound disappointed.
This essay is an abridged version of a longer story and video produced for the winter term course Writing the Adventure.