It’s cold, plunging toward 30 below, when we bounce the car down the Gunflint Trail at dusk, the tires like frozen rocks. Prime time for moose. Perhaps one will burst through the 4-foot drifts and into the lights, like an actor onto a stage, and we will have our Minnesota moment.
There has been a moose-size hole in my heart for a long time. The only moose I’ve seen in Minnesota was a dead one, its spindly legs splayed across a trailer in Ely. This was six years ago, and I was certain I’d see another, still alive.
Not so long ago, moose were everywhere, the ubiquitous ungulates of the North Woods. This was before the lumberjacks felled all the old-growth forests, but it’s a cultural memory that has yet to dissipate. Iron Mike Hillman, the great storyteller from Ely, told me about “pine beef” — moose and caribou hunted for supper in the lumber camps — and one such hunter who orphaned two moose calves. A saloonkeeper hitched the young moose to a sleigh for rides, and their photo is still the most iconic image of Ely.
Gangly and nearsighted, moose were the comic foils of the forest. Hillman’s dad once encouraged him to leap onto the back of a moose while out canoeing. “That was the legend,” he says, “that you could ride a moose as long as it was in the water.” Even Sigurd Olson, that earnest champion of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, wrote of canoeing up to a moose and slapping its rear with a paddle.
The old forest gone, whitetails moved in, and moose melted into deep cover. Still, you could drive Hwy. 1 from the North Shore to Ely and be fairly assured of seeing one, helpfully posing right around the moose-crossing signs.
Those signs are gone now, along with most of the moose. Adult mortality is running just over 20 percent, twice what it should be, according to Michelle Carstensen, the biologist leading a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources study of moose deaths. “If the problem is just habitat, adequate browse, we can manage the forests differently,” she says. “If it’s wolves, we can adjust wolf harvest goals. If it’s transmission of deer diseases, we can manage the deer range. But if it’s climate change, we might just be observing a species on the way out.”
Yet there’s one place where moose are holding steady: the Gunflint Trail, near Grand Marais. About 40 percent of guests at the Gunflint Lodge are seeing moose, says owner Bruce Kerfoot, who believes they’re drawn to the fresh growth that’s sprung up since the 2007 Ham Lake fire. “It’s still moose-a-rama up here,” says Bob McCloughan, owner of Bearskin Lodge. “Reminds me and a lot of the old-timers of the good old days.”
So when friends offer their cabin on Gunflint Lake, near Heston’s Lodge, my wife and I pack the balaclavas and head up. The cabin itself is a natural wonder, a sleek rectangle of floor-to-ceiling pine, tucked among the trees like just another hollow log. Through the wall of glass facing the lake, our friends have seen wolves and lynx. In the nearby woods, a moose recently gave birth.
We ski the trails noted for moose. We drive the length of the Gunflint Trail, where moose often lick the road salt. We hike the official moose viewing trail.
It feels like extinction tourism, a little morbid, especially since we’ve been through this twice before in Minnesota, in the 1950s and the 1980s, and each time the moose bounced back. Yet the boreal forest is shifting north, and what seemed like anomalous dips may actually be a pattern, the sputtering of a species at the ragged edge of its range.
In the end, the only moose we see is the one I spell out in a Scrabble game.
We’ll keep trying. Perhaps we’ll try again this spring, when moose are lured back to lakes by fresh weeds and stay put to give birth.
But the moose may prove to be less adaptable to change than we are. Eventually we’ll cross the Moose Horn River without wondering about the name, just as we pass through Elk River without realizing that elk roamed the state just a century ago and cross the Caribou River without recalling that woodland caribou were once common in northern Minnesota — reindeer in our own back yard.
“It would have been grand living back then, but we’ve only got the time we’re living in,” Hillman tells me.
So we sit in front of the cabin window and wait. Lynx are up, a species we didn’t even know existed in Minnesota until fairly recently. We wait for something like this to surprise us, which is all we wanted from moose to begin with.
Tim Gihring is a former editor of Minnesota Monthly, where he frequently wrote about travel and outdoor adventure. He is currently the editor for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.