City Wilds by Bill Sherwonit
As our community leaves behind the joyful season of singing birds, we are graced to enter another richly rewarding time: the season of ripened berries.
It seems that only a few days ago the first faint hints of pinkish berries began to appear here and there throughout the Anchorage Bowl. But now, suddenly, our city is bursting with deeply red and juicy edible berries. This past week I’ve had the pleasure to pick sweet, ripe strawberries from three scattered patches, ranging from the middle Hillside to West Anchorage, including one narrow patch that borders the dry and dusty graveled alleyway behind my yard, a most unlikely place for such fruits to prosper.
And yet they are.
Over the weekend I also found the first raspberries ripe for picking, these too along a graveled, dusty alley. The mostly untended bushes were so heavy with fruits some had bent to the ground, so I propped up the stalks and then relieved them of some weight by collecting a few handfuls of the berries.
All this local berry richness has stirred memories of the small patch of feral strawberries I kept when I resided on the Hillside, and one of the more remarkable wildlife encounters I’ve experienced in Anchorage.
Walking along the upstairs hallway one summer morning, I happened to glance downstairs, toward the front door. Just outside the door’s window, partially obscured by blinds, was a large, brown, hairy form.
What the heck is a moose doing on our front porch? I wondered to myself.
Then I rushed downstairs and looked out the window. To both my surprise and dismay, a cow moose was standing with one foot in the berry patch, head down and mouth chomping away. Just beyond her, a cinnamon-colored calf lay sprawled among the strawberry plants, seemingly at peace with the world even as my own peaceful morning was being shattered.
“Oh no,” I moaned. What was I going to do? Hoping to scare away the moose without having to confront them, I banged on the door. The cow lifted her head and looked toward the house, but that was all.
Clearly, more drastic measures were needed. I began to unlock the door, but had enough presence of mind to remember the house alarm was triggered. I didn’t want to set it off and perhaps frighten the beast, so I punched the keyboard combination. Then, very carefully, I opened the door several inches, stuck my head outside (ready, at a moment’s notice, to retreat and slam the door shut, if necessary) and talked to the moose in a calm but stern voice.
“Hey, what do you think you’re doing, eating my strawberries? Get out of there. Go on. Get out.”
Her huge, oblong head no more than five feet from my face, the cow moose looked at me with an expression that seemed both curious and bewildered; the sort of look a person might have while thinking, Who’s this guy and what’s his problem?
Happily, she seemed neither flustered nor agitated. On the one hand, this was good news. I didn’t want a riled-up moose on my doorstep. On the other hand, she didn’t appear ready to give up her newfound snack.
Emboldened by the cow’s easygoing manner, I opened the door wider and took a small step forward. Then, once more, I softly urged them to leave my small but precious strawberry patch, while both mom and calf watched intently. I too felt calm; but I was ready to bolt inside at the slightest sign of aggression.
The calf stood. And the cow, God bless her, took a tentative step backwards, as if not quite sure how to respond. It was then that I noticed the second calf, lying 20 feet away on the lawn. Neither of the twins appeared anxious. Like their mom, they seemed more curious than alarmed by the unfolding encounter.
Ever so slowly, the cow backed out of the berry patch. Followed by calf No. 1, she began to cross the front deck, head still turned toward me. Every now and then she would roll her tongue across her lips. I know it’s a tricky and potentially foolhardy thing, to interpret an animal’s behavior or intentions, but I got the strongest sense that the cow was savoring those strawberry plants, with their dark green leaves and ripening berries. She really didn’t want to leave such a tasty meal, when so much remained on the dark earthy plate of my garden.
“Gowan, gowan,” I continued to urge the moose family. “I really don’t want you eating my strawberries, so leave them alone, OK?”
Strangely enough I didn’t feel foolish, talking to the moose this way. And whether it was the tone of my voice, my body language, or something else I can’t imagine, the mom and her calves seemed responsive to my pleas. Very slowly, almost reluctantly, they continued their retreat across the yard.
The cow looked huge; her legs likely reached up to my chest and she must have weighed close to 1,000 pounds. The gangly calves reminded me of young colts; now several weeks old, their heads probably reached my shoulders.
Within a few minutes, they reached the far end of my front lawn. There the cow began gulping down alder and birch leaves. The calves, too, picked at the bushes. But from time to time, one or more would look back at me.
By now I was out on the deck, arms crossed and gaze steady in their direction. I felt sure that if I went inside, the cow would return to the berry patch. And I wouldn’t be able to so easily shoo her away a second time.
So I stayed and watched while the moose ate wild greens. At a casual browsing pace, they gradually moved downhill from the front yard to the back, still occasionally glancing in my direction. Not once did they seem agitated by my presence. From the lawn they slipped into the thick forest that borders the back yard, still eating as they moved. Nearly a half-hour had passed from my first sighting to their disappearance among birch and spruce trees.
I walked over to the patch to inspect the damage. Several plants had been cleanly clipped; a few had been pulled from the ground and others trampled. But overall, the losses were light.
Anticipating the moose family’s eventual return, I wondered how I might protect my strawberries until harvesting enough for at least one scrumptious pie. Yet any frustration over their raid and concern about possible future ones was softened by the absolute delight of this unexpected encounter. Moose and strawberry plants: I never would have guessed.
Even now I can’t help but chuckle at the memory of the cow moose licking her lips and reluctantly leaving the berry patch behind, much like a kid retreating from an unhappy neighbor’s apple orchard, the taste still sweet in her mouth.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.