City wilds - mudflats

Kincaid Beach Mudflats. (Wikimedia Commons)





Years ago, before I brought a canine companion into my life, I spent several summers getting to know the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, a state-managed area that borders much of our city’s western edges. Even now it remains a largely unspoiled place of mudflats and sedge flats, of ponds and tidal guts, and is seasonally inhabited by all sorts of birds and mammals and myriad smaller creatures that swim, fly, and crawl.

Hiking along the refuge’s edges and sometimes venturing out onto the flats, I made many discoveries during those years that greatly expanded my knowledge of the local landscape. Among the most curious things I witnessed were the summertime wanderings of two young moose.

I first noticed the pair as they browsed the edges of a pond. Nothing strange about that; I frequently saw moose within the refuge’s sedge flats or along its wooded border. The next time I looked in their direction, the moose were headed outward through the sedges, toward Cook Inlet’s expansive mud flats.

One moose stopped, but the other continued several yards onto the mud. Then he turned his head and waited, as if beckoning—or daring—the other to follow. From their size and behavior, I guessed that they were yearlings, not long weaned from mom. Left to their own devices, they were out for a romp.

Like two teenage boys (or maybe brother and sister) in search of adventure, and maybe a little trouble, the moose proceeded out onto the flats and kept going. And going. And going. Finally they were so far out that I could barely see them without binoculars.

They must have been well over a mile from shore. What might they be doing out there? There couldn’t be anything that would pull a moose so far from shore. Or could there?

Was it possible that I was witnessing some form of ungulate curiosity? Playfulness? Again I was reminded how little we humans know about other creatures. As the saying goes, “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”

Rather than trying to interpret their actions, I decided to simply enjoy the moose’s wild walk. It couldn’t be an easy ramble, given the mud’s soft, squishy nature. Eventually they ventured so far out that they’d become tiny specks even with binoculars.

The day’s warming had produced a heat-wave mirage and it appeared the moose were walking on water. A miracle, indeed.

They walked, they trotted. They slowed and walked some more, then stopped and stood a while. I began to wonder if one, or both, had become stuck. What would happen if they got caught by an incoming tide? Could they outrun the water? A local naturalist (with a PhD in biology) and refuge advocate named Smiley Shields had told me he’d occasionally found dead moose on the flats, but there’s no way to know if they’d gotten caught in Cook Inlet’s tides and drowned, or died some other way.

Eventually the moose returned, after doing a large loop. They’d been out on the mudflats for nearly two hours. Walking with a steady gait, the pair left the mud and recrossed the sedge flats, then casually entered the woods and disappeared, as if they’d done nothing strange.

Perhaps inspired by the moose, and wishing to get a closer look at some shorebirds out on the mudflats, I made my own, much shorter foray, between a quarter and half-mile.

There’s good reason that people are generally cautioned to stay off the mudflats; as most locals know, the combination of soft (and in places, quicksand-like) mud and inlet tides can be deadly. Still, Shields had taught me they can be navigated safely, if you are cautious, pay attention, and follow a few common-sense rules.

The first few hundred yards were firm and “dry” (at least by mud standards). Then the mud became wet, saturated, gooey, sticky. I didn’t sink in more than an inch or two, but the mud still sucked at my boots, giving a sense of how easy it would be to get stuck. All this made me even more impressed by the moose’s wanderings.

I squished my way across mud the consistency of pudding, bird tracks all around me. With the tide so far out, the birds were spread widely. In the distance I saw gulls, Canada geese, mallards, and shorebirds. Some were sandpipers, but others were much larger. I didn’t know shorebirds very well, but I finally get close enough—within 100 yards or so—to see that their long bills were clearly downturned. Given their size and what I’d learned about local birds, they were almost certainly whimbrels.

Looking out across the inlet, I recalled the moose’s curious journey. I had no desire to follow their ambitious path; that would surely be reckless for a lone person. I’d pushed my own boundaries far enough that day and seen some amazing sights. Satisfied, I turned inland and squished my way back to shore, a smile creasing my face, wonderment filling my human body.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Alaska’s Bears” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com.

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