Lighten Up

Fall is a fabulous time to seek out these visitor favorites from Alaska's Big Five.

Oh, deer.

OK, we admit moose (Latin name: – Alces alces) are kinda funny looking. Big body, slender legs, big nose, and a dewlap…what the heck is THAT? Still, these massive creatures are pretty amazing animals and, as one of Alaska’s “Big 5,” – an animal we love to show visitors.

Moose are the biggest member of the deer family and Alaska’s subspecies – Alces alces gigas – are the biggest in North America. Males can reach 6 feet tall and 1,600 pounds. For such a large animal, they blend into their surroundings surprisingly well. See one…blink…and it has already silently disappeared into the forest.

So where do you go to see a moose, antlers and all?

Actually, almost anywhere in Southcentral and Interior Alaska. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates there are between 175,000 and 200,000 moose in Alaska, favoring forest and wetland habitats. In spring and summer, you may see moose wading in shallow ponds, feeding on aquatic plants, although willow and birch leaves and twigs are year-round favorites.

In fall, keep an eye – and ear - out for big males during the rut. You may hear the clash of antlers before you see the males battling for the attention of a receptive cow. In spring, look for mamma moose with a calf (or calves) wobbling behind her on little spindly legs. It’s hard to believe a 28-pound calf can grow to 10 times that size in just five months!

Three places you might try to see moose are Kincaid Park in Anchorage, the Matanuska Valley State Moose Range near Palmer, and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge near Cooper Landing.

It may seem odd to go to the airport to see moose, but with more than 10,000 acres of municipal parkland and 250 miles of trails, Anchorage has a lot of moose territory! The trails at Pt. Woronzof and Kincaid Park – west of the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport – are a favorite spot for locals to find urban moose. If you don’t happen to spot a moose walking slowly along the birch-lined trails, you’ll still have stunning views of Mt. Susitna – the Sleeping Lady – and Cook Inlet.

Head north to the Matanuska-Susitna Valley for another moose-y adventure. The State of Alaska established the Matanuska Valley State Moose Range near Palmer in 1984 to enhance moose habitat and populations. Today, year-round trails provide opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding, as well as cross-country skiing. Between Anchorage and Palmer, you’ll also drive past the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge, which is highly important moose habitat. Normally solitary animals, you may see multiple moose in the windswept Hay Flats in winter, avoiding predators and areas of heavy snow.

South of Anchorage, near Cooper Landing, is the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. This nearly 2 million-acre refuge was established as the Kenai National Moose Range in 1941 in an effort to protect the area’s large moose from over-hunting and habitat loss. Today, the moose are the most common large animal in the Refuge.

And now, to answer the burning question, “what IS a dewlap?”

It’s the flap of skin underneath a moose’s chin. One theory is that it helps dissipate heat, keeping a moose cooler on warm summer days. You may not always see it, however, as moose sometimes lose it to frostbite during extremely cold winters.

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