There are moments you will always remember in life. For some, it is their first kiss. For others, it may be their wedding day, the birth of a child, college graduation, the first time they voted for President, or even buying avocado toast instead of a house. For me, the moments that stick with me are those rare and unique days on Public Lands, where I witness something I never imagined I would see. One such moment came in October of 2019 on a quick trip to Grand Teton National Park.
It began like any other perfect fall day in the Tetons. Fresh snow draped over the rugged peaks piercing the deep blue sky, while the golden aspens in the valley below danced in the gentle breeze. The goal of the day was to experience fall in the region, and what happened exceeded any expectations I could have possibly had.
As I drove down the hill to Schwabacher Landing, I spotted a bull moose in the valley below, casually running north in the sage near the trees A few photographers with huge lenses had quickly pulled off ahead of me and were setting up for an iconic shot of the massive moose and the mountains behind him. I debated stopping and taking a picture, but the camera lens I had wouldn’t do the scene justice. Instead, I paused and enjoyed the moment before reaching the parking area at the end of the dirt road. Sometimes, there are things that a picture can’t capture and it is best to just sit back and enjoy them for what they are.
Schwabacher Landing is one of the many iconic spots in Grand Teton National Park to visit. Yet, for the majority of the millions who visit the stunning mountain park, the spot is skipped. Located off of Highway 89, the short, unassuming dirt access road is passed quickly for areas with more infrastructure. Schwabacher, a flood plain of the Snake River, is probably best known for wildlife watching, but it is also an incredible place to see sunrises and sunsets on the mountains rising above the trees and beaver ponds. In the fall, the colors of the deciduous trees are a golden yellow and the fresh snow on the mountains makes them look like they are rising from right behind the trees. Accessed by a short half mile trail, Schwabacher Landing is a flat and easy trail that is family-friendly and perfect for nearly everyone. Offering benches to sit and enjoy the viewpoints, Schwabacher’s needs to be added to everyone’s list when they visit the region.
Crisp air filled my lungs as I walked along the Snake River. I was hoping to see a beaver, and I was not expecting to see another moose. As I wandered down the trail, I snapped pictures, watched ducks and enjoyed the perfect day. There were no beavers in sight, but the scenery was so gorgeous that I honestly stopped caring about seeing any real wildlife. The walk had reminded me why I loved the Tetons and gave me a perfect autumn day. As I reached the end of established trail, I found myself craving more. I was heading to Jenny Lake next, but I needed just a few more moments basking in the majesty of the mountains, surrounded by sage. As even the boot path along the pond started to fade, I turned around. The moment was bittersweet, as I knew that I would then be walking back to the car and leaving this beautiful region. Little did I know that the extra few minutes of walking would give me a glimpse at a rare event.
Walking back, the pace was slow. I was milking every moment I could. I stopped to take pictures and ended up watching a shield-backed katydid, locally called a mormon cricket. The huge silver bug was crossing the trail and taking up all of my attention, as I tried to take the perfect picture of it to show off. It was then, as I was trying to get a great shot, that a female moose (called a cow) wandered out from the woods on the other side of the pond from me.
For ten minutes, a handful of people sat in silence and watched the moose slowly wade through the water. Eating and searching for food, it was as if the moose was posing for us, occasionally standing perfectly still. In these moments, it allowed the people with cameras to focus in on the cow in the knee deep water and taking the ultimate picture of her and the mighty mountains in the background. The moment was incredible and I thought to myself that It couldn’t possibly get any better.
Something seemed off though, and it wasn’t how she was reacting to the photographers, who she seemed to ignore. What struck me as odd is that every so often, the moose would stop moving completely and look around, listening for something that we could not hear. Having minimal moose encounters, I shook this off as nothing more than a moose being a moose. I was wrong. As she slowly sauntered south, standing in the middle of an iconic spot, an excited photographer came running toward the group, telling us a bull moose was coming our way.
Right on cue, the huge bull I had seen earlier came out of the woods across the beaver pond from us. His giant rack shown bright from the sun directly overhead, letting us all know that he was an impressive guy. The cow froze for a second, made a noise and then walked toward the bull. As they got near each other, the bull looked to nuzzle her, then started to smell her hindquarters. It was then I remembered that it was the middle of the rut, otherwise known as mating season.
“Are they going to mate?” I pondered aloud, using a different word.
Nobody answered, but I began to suspect I was right. The two moose kept getting closer to each other, performing an awkward meander into the small forest to our left. I began snapping pictures quickly, worried that this would be the last glimpse of the two before they consummated their fall fling. As they disappeared into the woods, I was stoked. That was a cool encounter and a day I wouldn’t soon forget. Yet, I wasn’t sure I was done in the area. Yes, I wanted to get to Jenny Lake, but I had a suspicion that this moose encounter wasn’t over.
I walked south along the beaver ponds, back toward the parking area, hoping for another glimpse of the two majestic moose. It was then that I saw the two moose emerge out of the woods, with the cow leading the bull. He was right on her tail and as they circled each other once more, he continued to smell her. As if being prompted, she walked a few more steps and stopped, waiting for him to catch up. He didn’t miss a beat and got right behind her and mounted her, putting his 1,100 pound body on her 600 pound frame. A few thrusts, a maximum of ten seconds, and he hopped down. During the brief few seconds of mating, while old men snickered and elbowed their significant other’s out of the way for prime picture taking vantage points, parents led their children away, letting their puritan values interrupt good old-fashioned animal watching.
“Was that it?” I asked myself, thinking of the lyric from The Flight of the Conchords song “Business Time.”
For the next five minutes, that was it. Both moose ate some food and stood around, posing for post-coitus pictures from the now dozens of people watching them. Then, the bull started to approach the cow again, and the slow dance once again started. Nearly completing a full circle around her, they moved around and she once again walked a few steps away. Another mounting, another ten seconds and then a separation. During this time, I snapped a few pictures and stood back in awe. Was I really watching this? Was I really taking these pictures? Would I really be writing about this moment later and sharing the pictures.
Yes. Yes and yes I would.
Mating animals are a part of the wildlife experience we gloss over. We rejoice and celebrate the birth of new animals, but largely ignore or talk around the creation of these new animals. We shield the activities from conversation and pretend that sex doesn’t exist when talking about animals with pretty much any age of person. For the moose, this was just another day of survival. There was nothing dirty or illicit about their behavior. They did what needed to be done to continue passing down the strongest genes and ensuring the survival of the species. For those of us watching and taking pictures, we witnessed an incredible event that few people get to see in the wild. We watched what could have been the creation of a mammal that will roam the picturesque landscape around the Tetons. We saw two animals doing what two animals do during mating season. We saw yet another side of wilderness and one that I won’t forget.