By RJ Thompson
To see a moose in person, particularly in the Green Mountains of Vermont, is a truly magnificent experience. To nearly collide with one during the middle of a trail run is magnificently terrifying, but it was the perfect way to end a day that included summiting three peaks in two different states.
Having only explored the Adirondacks once before, I was eager to get back into the High Peaks region and traverse some of New York’s tallest summits. A quick geology lesson for you: The Adirondack Mountains are unique in that their topography resembles a circular dome rather than a traditional linear range like the Appalachians or Rockies. They also are relatively new to the planet, having only risen about 5 million years ago (though the rocks comprising them are close to 1 billion years old!).
Back to the adventure. At around 9:30 PM on Friday night I found myself a secluded spot on the side of an old logging road just outside of Adirondack Park and quickly fell asleep in the back of my Subaru. It rained that evening, and the sound of heavy drops hitting the metal roof of the vehicle woke me a few times, but quickly lulled me to sleep again. By 7:30 AM I had eaten breakfast and was ready to hit the trail running. My route would take me through Avalanche Pass, around Avalanche Lake, up Algonquin and Wright Peaks, then back to Adirondack Loj.
The views from the summits of Algonquin and Wright Peaks are breathtaking. Unlike the Green Mountains to the east, there are no quaint New England towns waiting in the valley below. There are no fields ready for harvest. There are no paved roads. There is simply no sign of humanity atop these bald summits (save for the cairns marking the trail along the ridgeline).
After negotiating down the rocky summit of Wright Peak, I began running again, with hopes of getting back to my car before noon. I thought to myself, “If I can make it back to Vermont with enough time, I could run up Mt. Mansfield and catch the sunset. Why not?” My pace quickened with each hiker I passed, and I was in my car and back on the road to Stowe, VT ahead of schedule.
I re-fueled with a big cheeseburger (local beef and cheese, of course) in Keene Valley, then continued on my journey to begin round two. I began running up the Long Trail at approximately 7:10 PM, which, on a fresh set of legs, would have put me on top of Vermont’s highest peak by 7:55. Tonight, it would probably take a few more minutes.
The air was getting cooler, and, as I passed the halfway point, I noticed some leaves were already changing. Autumn was in the air, and winter would soon follow. I paused at a small stream crossing to catch my breath and look at my watch. 7:38 PM, August 4. In just a few short months, this brook would be covered in snow, and I would be skiing these woods, free of their green foliage, back to the same road from which I started my run. Nature: the ever-changing playground. I reminded myself that the sun would be setting at 8:12 PM, which meant I should keep moving.
I reached the top of Mt. Mansfield just after 8:00 PM and tossed on a long-sleeve layer as I watched the sun set behind the mountains I had explored just a few hours earlier. The summit was empty, which is a nice change of pace from the standard crowds on Mansfield. There is a road leading nearly all the way to the summit of this fragile alpine zone, and lazy individuals (pardon my candor) often pay the toll to drive their SUVs up and hike the remaining short distance. Despite this unfortunate reality, I’ve been lucky enough to score a handful of empty Mansfield summits, and I cherish them more and more each time. To be alone on top of a mountain is to disappear from the chaos of society, if only for a brief moment.
I watched the last sliver of light disappear behind the Adirondacks as I began my run down the mountain. If I ran fast enough, I thought, I wouldn’t even need my headlamp before reaching my car. I passed Taft Lodge and became one with the trail. It seemed as though my feet knew where to land before my brain could relay the signals. Pines gave way to hardwoods, and the forest floor grew more and more lush with each bound forward. I was accelerating out of a switchback when a large, brown body caught the corner of my eye.
MOOSE! Less than 15 feet in front of me, directly on the trail, stood a large female moose, equally surprised to see me. I froze. She was utterly massive and intimidating, yet calm and bewildered at the same time. I managed to gather my thoughts and slowly backed away from her, maintaining a soft, easy tone in my voice as I retreated. “Easy girl, I’m just out for a run here…”. She continued to watch me. After I found myself a safe tree to hide behind, she went back to eating her evening meal of leaves and plants. I waited.
I surveyed my surroundings and ruled out sneaking around her, as the brush was too thick off trail, and, if she charged me, I would have little opportunity to move quickly. Moose can weigh as much as 1,100 pounds, so getting charged by one would be less than ideal. Fortunately, this one did not seem aggressive, but rather apathetic to my presence. While she was enjoying her snack, my stomach reminded me that it had been quite awhile since that cheeseburger, and I needed to get off the mountain to enjoy a dinner of my own. I began clapping and shouting at her. “Hey, moose! Can I sneak by? I’m hungry too!” Nothing.
A few more minutes went by when she decided it was time to find a fresh set of leaves to devour. Luckily, she chose to go uphill and off the trail, leaving me about ten feet to traverse below her. Slowly, and with the most delicate steps I could manage, I tiptoed past her. She watched my every step, and probably wondered why I was acting so peculiar around such an innocent, friendly creature. I stared back at her, quietly thanking her for letting me play in her woods (and for not crushing me). Once I was confident it was safe to do so, I entered a full sprint down the trail and never looked back.
I’ve run up that portion of the Long Trail dozens of times, and never before have I seen anything more than a chipmunk. I could have been a coincidence, but I believe the moose was there for a reason that night. She was reminding me that no matter how many mountains we may summit, the wilderness will always be hers.
I couldn’t agree more.