A Close Encounter With a Bull Moose

Hiking through Waterton Lakes National Park, you never know what surprises nature will have in store...

Waterton Lakes National Park is where the Prairies of southern Alberta abruptly meet the Rocky Mountains. meet the Rocky Mountains. With its abundant wildflowers and wildlife, Waterton is one of my, and my partner Brian’s, favourite destinations to hike.

On a clear, crisp morning in late June, our selected hike of the day was to Bertha Lake along a multi-use trail shared by equestrians and hikers. It ’s a moderate day-hike up to a picturesque lake nestled in between Mount Richards and Mount Alderson, with rushing waterfalls and sweeping views of the Waterton townsite.

Our hiking style is not a quest for the summit—a four-hour hike will usually take us eight hours. We prefer a meditative walk among the trees, where we commune with nature, take in the crisp mountain air and appreciate all the small—or large—surprises that nature has in store for us.

After climbing a particularly steep grade, about one hour into the hike, I was already splayed out on the ground taking a macro photo of a wildflower. Next to me sat an older couple catching their breath on a well-placed bench, when movement down the trail caught our attention. At first glance, I assumed the dark figure coming up the trail was a horse; it soon came out of the shadows and what materialized was a bull moose!

Bull Moose At Waterton Lakes National ParkHolly Howat
Holly captured these shots of the bull moose that she and her partner Brian encountered on their hike.

Giving this bull moose some breathing room

The hiking trail was extremely narrow in this section, with a steep drop in elevation to the left of the moose and a rock wall on the bench side. The moose couldn’t turn around; he would have to back down the trail to make an escape. Not knowing what the terrain would be like on the trail ahead, we collectively made the decision to scale the rock wall, above the bench.

During all the commotion, the moose stood there calmly and appeared to be waiting for us to move. Then, he made his intentions clear by lowering his head and lifting his front hooves, in a piaffe-like motion (a stationary dressage movement that horses make). In a panic, Brian and I assisted the older couple up the wall. After they were safely positioned, we tucked up underneath them, all four of us now perched six to eight feet up.

As if on cue, the moose was now in motion and coming our way. With his head lowered, his demeanour was calm, cool and collected as his long, lanky legs clomped along the shale-covered trail. He tilted his antlers intermittently, looking up at us to ensure we were not posing a threat. Now directly beneath us, his pace picked up slightly, with his steps becoming more deliberate. From our perch, we all froze in place, being careful not to touch him. He appeared to be in good health with no scars or cuts. He had a thick, chocolate-brown undercoat protected by long, glossy black guard hairs. His horse-like frame stood approximately 17 hands tall (about six feet) at the withers: a gentle giant of the forest. We figured he was probably a two or three- year-old bull. We were lucky to spot him, but I had the wrong lens on my camera to capture a close-up photo!

Wildlife Encounter - Hiking Waterton LakesHolly Howat

Not in the clear yet!

As soon as the moose passed us and went around the bend, he once again was stopped in his tracks. Another group of hikers was heading directly towards him with bear bells clanging, unaware that they were on a collision course with a bull moose. Not wanting to startle the moose, we reluctantly began shouting at the other hikers to get their attention. They stopped upon seeing the moose, which was now trapped between us and them. We did not advance, and they backed up the trail to give the moose some space. The moose found a gentle slope off the trail and gave way to the hikers. He was passively grazing on tree branches as we continued up the mountain to enjoy our day.

Nearing the end of our day, when we were almost back at the trailhead, a park officer met us on his way up. Stopping, he said, “I hear some hikers had an encounter with a bull moose.“ We recounted the tense but trusting moment that four strangers shared, the gentle demeanour of the moose and how lucky we were, in so many ways, to have experienced it. We also added, “We never made it to Bertha Lake, but the moose might have!”

Next, check out 10 national parks every Canadian needs to visit.

Originally Published in Our Canada