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Of Moose and Men in Rocky Mountain National Park

Updated: Jul 8, 2022

Moose, men, and women cross paths in some parts of the world as various screen stories relate. In Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, those wanting to spot a moose can rely on luck but fare better with a few tips. After getting skunked (rather than moosed) on our initial visit to the popular park, Fred and I learned how to manage “Moose-a-day” adventures. Our best-laid plans of moose and men include Fred’s desire to entice an antlered audience when he hauls his guitar out on trails to perform ballads like “Moosa Lisa,” to the tune of “Mona Lisa.” Animals listen. Really, they listen. No charge—for the concert or from the audience. Fred’s hooved fans perk their ears, turn their heads towards him, and in one highlight, lay down to relax and enjoy. Of Moose and Men The Return - YouTube

Singing to moose requires finding them. A national park setting provides a sideline spotting tip—watch people. With caveats. Newbies get excited seeing anything that moves, from squirrel to coyote (who wander our streets and yard at home in Reno, so no biggie to us). First timers also get thrilled at the sight of elk—as we did on our first views. (The Reno region hosts deer, bear, horses, cougars, coyotes, and other natural wonders, but not elk and moose). That sad human condition of “been there-done that” sets in with elk, so we usually pass the magnificent creatures with an “again?” attitude. Granted, we sometimes shift our enthusiasm when confronted by a big rack…sexist but true.

Compared to elk, moose repeatedly enthrall us, from big-racked bulls to cud-chewing cows. We come across other aficionados—mostly with camera lenses twice the length of Fred’s size 14 shoes. These enthusiasts feel the same way we do and readily admit to status as “Moosaholics.” We find each other at a moose sighting and discover we’re already friends on the “Moose Lovers of Colorado” Facebook page (rules: you don’t have to live in Colorado but can only post pictures shot in the state).

Which gets us back to people watching. Anytime you see a car pulled over, check for behaviors. Couple standing in back of their vehicle with hatch lifted? Probably re-organizing supplies. Group staring blankly through binoculars? Probably elk too far away for a good photo. Guy with back to road? Probably peeing.

If you see someone totally focused while using a really long camera lens stabled by a tripod, take a chance and pull over nearby. Few people go through that much effort to photograph “just another elk.” Of course, if you come across this person near the rock cut at 12,000 or so feet on the park’s Trail Ridge Road, you might end up spotting a pika instead of a moose. Not nearly as imposing as moose, the round eared-little creatures prove a fun challenge to photograph. They either jump into a crevice faster than Rocket J. Squirrel can fly or they camouflage themselves with a Harry Potter invisibility cloak to transform into the rocks they sit upon. They look like rodents but join rabbits and hares as the only members of the lagomorph family—truly cute creatures.

But back to moose. While finding serious photographers provides a clue, the scale tips when people react with extra excitement. Waving cell phones and cameras, the lucky moose viewer thrust their arms forward as they point out their prey. They run rather than walk to catch the action. Crowds build faster than Fred’s vault into an ice cream store. We moosahlics know our addictive animal inspires a jolt that keeps us coming back for more and repeatedly lures newcomers into the fold with an enticing first rush. We feel exhilaration inspired by the sight of a creature who defies logic by combining a nonsensical conglomeration of traits that created the description, “a horse designed by a committee.”

Using a more scientific approach to finding moose, spotters learn animal habits including favorite haunts in the park. Generally, moose spotting succeeds better during cooler temperatures of dusk and dawn, which makes sense if you weigh more than a thousand pounds and wear a thick fur coat. However, many of our nicely lit shots come during mid-day near water where grassy scents rise whet moosely appetites. This reflects the moose insistence at ignoring any itinerary I put together. “You got up at 5 a.m. to see me? Ha! I’m in the woods and will come out whenever I damn well please.”

Meanwhile, locales shift with environmental conditions. Local experts used to advise a stay on the park’s west side for serious and more plentiful moose sightings. But major fires destroyed habitat, and survival-oriented moose found food and comfort on the park’s east end, the one jammed with a locust of tourists during high season.

Throughout the years, our once-rare moose encounters on the east side’s Fern Lake Trail turned into a regular occurrence. Also on the east, the Beaver Ponds pullout with a wooden walkway over water proves rewarding. Another area called Sheep Lakes still draws its namesakes but also serves as a reliable moose hangout featuring cooling waters and abundant willows. Over on the less-visited side, the East Fork Trail provides moose fodder with access in Grand Lake rather than the heart of the park.

Aside from looking at habitual feeding grounds, moosaholics know about seasonal patterns. Moose tend to move deeper into forest around fall and hang there until May when cows find plentiful food, which helps as they give birth to mooslets (my word). And while everyone gets excited seeing a big bull with a giant rack, we go even more gaga when a tiny baby emerges with its mom during the latter days of spring.

Just as a full-grown moose refuses easy description, mooslets blend an assortment of other animals and don’t even resemble their full-grown counterparts. A mooslet looks like someone started with the light browns and basic shape of domestic farm calves, then instead of taking a grown moose’s rounded snout, blunted the nose. Next, they added a mix of puppy dog and kangaroo. Throw in a playful urge to run circles and disobey mom, and the mooslet pulls together as a variation of unicorn—fanciful and adorable.

Knowing all this pulled us back to the park for Fred to again seek another “of moose and men” experience demonstrating the universality of music by playing guitar and singing on the trail. Spotting a bull safely ensconced in a thicket at the Fern Lake Trailhead, Fred pulled out his travel guitar and started strumming. Video on my camera catches the bull pausing from his snack, taking a look, and resuming with a munch or two. He looks through the narrow aspen tree trunks, eventually folding his legs and settling down like someone with box seats at a concert hall. Fred’s best laid plans create a magical moment for moose and man.

Moose Movies & More

The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, 2000, with an animated moose and squirrel crossing the Continental Divide on a government mission (moosion?) to fight a dastardly plot. Long after their successful television show’s cancellation, Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose face live action villains (Robert De Niro and Rene Russo as Boris and Natasha). Producers put all the right elements in place as puns and corny action fly with squirrel speed, but a heightened sense of self-awareness dampens the project; ultimately, the film fails to capture the magic of the 1959-64 television series. Still, the movie lets moose fans revel in a rounded, computer animated Bullwinkle, a non-threatening antlered guy more likely to strum guitar and sing than charge anyone he comes across. Meanwhile Rocky followers—those of the region rather than squirrel--realize that the plot’s Great Divide refers to the Continental Divide, a trail that runs through the national park. Truly discerning location obsessives—or former Tahoe area film commissioners like me—know the movie lets California’s Sierra Nevada range and the old Donner Pass pass as the Divide.

Of Moose and Men (OM&M), take your pick. The play on words--from poet Robert Burns and used by John Steinbeck for Of Mice and Men--shows up as a documentary about the television series, plus as an episode of M*A*S*H, a Swedish t.v. project, a couple of books, and this article with its accompanying video. Top rights to the title go to Of Moose and Men: The Rocky and Bullwinkle Story since the television series perpetrated puns on a regular basis (a depundance?) ((sorry)) (((not really))). Like the series he features, Marino Amoruso’s 1990 project clicked with Boomers. A staple when various Public Broadcasting System stations ran their fundraising drives, the documentary drew sentimental, older viewers. Audiences reveled in their days as innocent kids when they fell in love with a moose and squirrel duo who boasted a snide sense of humor, a tendency towards silliness, and a prolonged penchant for punning. Warm and friendly, the documentary provides insight about series creators Jay Ward and Bill Scott, who relied on inspired wit rather than detailed animation. By airing on NBC during the 1950s-early 60s “Golden Age of Television” with only three networks for viewers to choose from, the series benefited from unique circumstances by building huge family audiences during prime-time hours. Times and tastes change, but Bullwinkle still popularizes moose. His features appear on merchandize sold by Amazon, which produced an updated animated series in 2018. Not surprisingly, M*A*S*H and its use of the punning title (season 4, episode 11) features no antlered animals in the series’ Korean setting. Instead, the plot deals with foibles of men who use the culturally insensitive slang for a soldier’s Korean mistress: “moose.” (The term comes from the Japanese word for unmarried girl—musume). In contrast, the 2004 Swedish OM&M program originally aired as Man Made Moose. Like the Burns poem “To a Mouse” that inspires the Americanized title, the project bemoans how “man’s dominion has broken Nature’s social union.” Today, Burns’ lament seems universal for all creatures.

MOOSE: The Movie, 2015, with park rangers facing a mysterious (moosterious) set of trampling incidents in Gangrene, Alaska. The horror genre includes a rash of films whose monsters seem less threatening than sharks: bunnies, frogs, sheep, tomatoes, and yes, moose. Funded with $64,185 through Kickstarter, the story features an indigenous “Mooseman” monster who does not fully appreciate guitar-playing hippies. (In contrast, Colorado’s Shiras subspecies of moose seems more tolerant). Though comic in concept, the movie is on to something: angering or provoking a moose can result in death (the National Forest Foundation notes “moose injure more people than any other wild animal in North America”). Which explains why I use long lenses and a tree barricade when photographing moose, and Fred finds a protective obstacle before singing to them.

Stephen King’s The Shining, 1997, with Steven Weber seeing ghosts in a Rocky Mountain hotel. After visiting the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park one dark and stormy night, author Stephen King never mentioned any moose encounters, which might seem ordinary and non-frightening to a longtime resident of Maine. Instead, King found inspiration in the unsavory spirits he sensed while staying off season at the elegant Stanley Hotel. Film rights to the resulting best-selling book sold immediately, and Stanley Kubrick used the novel as a springboard for his ghost story released in 1980. Though Kubrick’s Shining maintains a dedicated set of admirers that includes such luminaries as director Martin Scorsese, King disliked the interpretation (a key point in 2018’s Ready Player One). Regaining rights to the book and adapting it for a three-part television mini-series, King sticks to his original inspirations, including using the sprawling white Stanley Hotel with its red roof, a building that overlooks Estes Park with imposing flair. Named for the inventor of the Stanley Steamer, the hotel plays up its Shining connection with ghost tours and a horror film festival. As a side note, my stand on KvKK (Kubrick vs. King Kontroversy), finds flaws in both screen projects plus give each credit for strong elements. Kubrick shows filmmaking genius that includes unnerving scenes as blood gushes from an elevator—no one watching that moment ever forgets it. Similarly, rolling shots of a kid on a tricycle as he rides through spooky hotel corridors cement themselves in horror annals. After ramming an axe through a door, Jack Nicholson leers with crazed glee improvises a line that entered movie history: Here’s Johnny!” But Nicholson’s Jack starts the story as a crazy man; no way should anyone purposefully spend a winter with this dude, especially a mother worried about her son. Yet when it comes to protection, Mom spends more time screaming than saving. King’s version, directed by Mick Garris, creates a more gradual descent into madness for Jack but includes draggy scenes as the protagonist drafts a novel about an alcoholic writer. However, compared to the Kubrick film, the series provides deeper emotional development for its characters, including a stronger, believable mother role for Rebecca De Mornay as she charges like a mother moose to protect her offspring. Those who read the book first probably feel closer to King’s version, while Kubrick’s take lures cinephiles.

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