This evening after dinner, Nancy and I went for a hike up to Maud S Canyon viewpoint. We started about an hour before sunset, so I knew we'd be coming down in the dark, but we've done that before. I brought a headlamp, trekking poles, and a big bottle of water for the two of us.
As we started up, the sun was setting through smoky skies over the Anaconda-Pintler range to the west, and I tweeted a couple of photos.
After passing the railroad tracks, I saw two other groups coming down above us. There were only two cars at the trailhead when we arrived, so I figured this meant we'd have the whole area to ourselves once we got up on top. Since those groups were coming down the west half of the loop trail, I decided to take the eastern half to avoid other people, and we never saw another person all the way up and down.
We hung out on top of the ridge for a while, until after the sun had gone down. I put on my headlamp, and we were ready to head down the western half of the loop trail.
From the highest spot at the north end of the ridge, we walked down to the south end of the ridge and then started down the trail. It was completely dark now – darkness fell fast after the sun went down.
As we rounded the first bend in the trail, I saw two bright reflective spots just to the left of the trail, about a foot apart and about 6-7 feet above the ground. Weird, because I didn't remember a sign being right there. And then, when we were about 30 feet away, the two spots moved, and I suddenly realized they were the eyes of a massive bull moose! It took a couple of steps away from the trail, getting just enough above us that I could see its antlers silhouetted against the sky above the Continental Divide ridge and Our Lady Of The Rockies behind it.
Nancy, who is normally extremely curious and fearless, let out a soft whimper that I've never heard from her before. I think it's safe to say we were both instantly terrified. We were alone in the darkness miles from anyone else, and a huge moose was staring at us with nothing but a few yards of open terrain between us and him.
I started talking, slowly and calmly in a low voice, while we moved down the trail. The moose just watched us, turning his head slowly to continue staring at us as we passed. I turned my head slowly as we passed, too, keeping my headlamp on him, and his eyes glowed like little flashlights in the reflection. I last saw his eyes from about 50 feet beyond him as we moved down the trail.
"Maintained eye contact is usually the first sign of aggression."
- moose Wikipedia page
The rest of the way down, we moved quickly but carefully, listening for any sign of the moose coming down the trail. Those two miles down to the truck seemed like forever, and Nancy's leash was slack almost the entire time, because she was staying close to my feet and looking around. Not her usual manic hiking style! I assume she had as much adrenaline pumping through her body as I did.
After getting back to the truck, I called Megan and my friend Aaron to tell them what had just happened, then stopped at a liquor store because I was going to need a drink when I got home. After coming out of the liquor store, I checked Twitter and found a tweet advising me to be careful up there that was posted 19 minutes after I tweeted from the north end of the ridge – right around the time when we were face to face with the moose!
Lesson learned: that was the last time I'll ever hike down from Maud S Canyon viewpoint after dark. Nancy and I had a great bonding experience, and I'll never forget the awesome sight of those antlers silhouetted against the stars, but once is enough!
God I love living in Montana.