Seven years ago, my husband, my daughter, and I unknowingly bought Ellie’s home — a wild quarter section of land consisting of muskeg and transitional boreal forest with open field that backed onto four more quarters of bush. Sure, the mortgage papers said that after 20 years of regular payments the land and the trees would be ours, but what we didn’t know was that this property had already been claimed.
It appeared empty when we arrived with our furniture and our dogs, but within a week we knew we were not alone. During that first winter, we blazed trails through the muskeg for cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. At the far reaches of our property, we found a network of animal tracks that told us our “uninhabited” land was a veritable Grand Central Station for countless grouse, deer, bobcats, black bears, coyotes, cougars, and many other wild creatures. We realized we had, in fact, taken up residence on land that was teeming with life, a property that was already home to many creatures we knew very little about.
It was during one of those forays that I first met the moose I eventually named Ellie. I was on foot that day with my three dogs and my house cat. The sun was shining warm on the snow, and overhead the ravens tracked our progress. We had just rounded a corner when we came face-to-face with Ellie and her calf. She stood no more than 15 feet in front of me. I froze. She was at least six feet tall at her shoulders, her long face passive as she stared at us. She was magnificent. We eyed each other for a heartbeat, and then the dogs barked hysterically, and the cat clawed her way up my leg and perched on my shoulder, hissing. As the dogs rushed at Ellie, I did what any rational being would do: I turned and ran into the bushes, leaving the dogs and Ellie to their own devices. I knew better than to come near a mama moose and her baby. I also knew, from that day on, that I was an intruder on this land.
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As the snow receded that spring, I made a horrible discovery. I was checking on spring’s progress one afternoon when I came across the skeletal remains of a moose calf. It was quite small and was revealed only by the melting snow and the call of the ravens. I assumed the calf met its demise in early fall as most of the skeleton was still intact. It was the warming weather that had alerted the scavengers and informed me of Ellie’s loss. I experienced profound sadness for the little animal and for Ellie. I wondered if she mourned as any parent would at the loss of a child. I knew it was the order of nature, but I couldn’t help wondering what had happened and how Ellie had taken it.
When I mentioned my encounter with Ellie to the previous owner of our place, I learned that the elderly woman had taken a shine to Ellie and for years had provided her with fresh hay bales and pails of grain. She appreciated Ellie’s gentle nature and marvelled anew each year at the privilege of meeting Ellie’s calf. She respected this gentle giant and gave her the space she needed to rear her young and live a stress-free existence.
I, on the other hand, did not.
I moved into Ellie’s territory and began trying to tame and tailor it to what I envisioned as a perfect acreage getaway. I landscaped the yard and moved earth, unwittingly killing trees and destroying countless habitats and homes along the way. Sure, I boasted to my friends and family that I was protecting the wildlife habitat by not deforesting the land surrounding my yard; meanwhile, I set about creating a pristine landscape free of offending creatures such as insects and ungulates. I planted flowers and vegetables that tantalized the deer, then set up sprinklers to keep them away. I grew berries that tempted the birds, and covered the plants with netting.
That first spring, I began planting trees — thousands of trees — for what I imagined would be a grand shelterbelt. I was ambitious. I lugged water until my arms were sore, and I nurtured each seedling as I would a child. I also planted my first apple tree and was soon rewarded with apple blossoms. I envisioned an orchard. By July, I had eleven small apples on my tree. Each was a perfect globe, growing bigger and sweeter in the summer sun. By September, the apples were a rosy colour, about the size of mandarin oranges. I cupped them in my palms, and my mouth would water at the thought of their crisp flesh. I couldn’t wait.
Early that fall, Ellie returned with a new baby — long spindly legs, oversized nose, and soft liquid eyes. He was beautiful. Ellie was proud and protective, but I was able to get within a few metres of her calf for a closer look. By then she knew I wasn’t a threat, but when she felt I’d come close enough, she nudged her calf deeper into the bush, and they disappeared.
One evening, Ellie strolled into the yard and ate every last apple. Even the two that had fallen to the ground in the later-summer windstorm. She came back in the dead of winter and ate the young tree down to a stick. There would be no more apple blossoms in the spring, and I would get no apples.
This meant war.
Since then, I have planted dozens of fruit trees — apples, plums, cherries — and since then, Ellie has come to collect her rent every fall. She approaches cautiously. For three or four nights, she scopes the place out, changing her point of entry, marking the differences in light and cover. When she’s factored everything in, she waits for the cover of darkness and makes her move, skirting the entire yard and coming in from the north, usually aiming for the apple trees first, then the cherries, and the plums for dessert.
The motion-activated light goes on, the dogs raise the alarm, and I come rushing out shouting threats and waving my arms frantically. I’ve even hurled a few pine cones in her direction. But the damage is already done. She’s harvested my fruit.
I’ve tried dryer sheets, tinfoil, perfume, my own bedding, human urine, everything. Nothing deters her.
When Ellie wanders through the yard at midday, the dogs, Alex, Tia, and Bones, are like a flock of pesky mosquitoes. They bark, growl, dive in, attempt a nip, employ evasive maneuvers, and then dart back to the house for a cookie and a head scratch. Ellie looks at them with indignation and disgust and ignores them for as long as moosely possible, then strikes, stomping her hooves and even charging. She is not easily scared away.
One crisp January afternoon, I was standing outside watching the foray between moose and dogs, even tossing encouragements, when Ellie had had enough. She pawed the ground, lowered her massive head, and charged. I, being the brave soul that I am, ducked into the house, slamming the door. The dogs were on their own.
Through the kitchen window, the drama played. Tia, the brave little mutt she is, threw herself into Bones, bounced off Alex, and tore for the woods as fast as she could. Alex, our arthritic golden lab, tucked his tail firmly between his back legs and hightailed it straight for the back door. Bones, our young border collie, tripped over his front legs, did a three- point roll, found his feet, and ran toward Ellie. I could see realization dawning as all four legs began to backpedal. Clumps of leaves and dirt flew as he realized his mistake and a thin whine tore from his throat. I almost opened the door.
The ground shook under Ellie’s hooves as she galloped toward the house, right on Bones’s tail. She brought her front hooves up just as he found a burst of speed. He tore around the back of the house and disappeared. Ellie skidded to a halt just a few feet from the door, snorted, then sauntered back to the trees to continue feeding on the young branches of my saskatoon trees.
Since then, the dogs bark from a respectful distance when Ellie comes around. They take chase just for show and only after she decides to head back to the bush.
Just last winter, I was driving to town and I noticed Ellie alongside the road, peering over the fence into the ditch. Her calf lay dead there, probably having been struck by a vehicle on the road and thrown into the ditch by the impact. The body remained there for several days and Ellie stood by the fence throughout, never leaving her baby’s side. She kept up her vigil even after Fish and Wildlife officers removed the body. It wasn’t until nearly a week later that I noticed she had retreated into the forest to mourn in solitude.
It’s been seven years since I first met Ellie, and I still haven’t tasted the sweetness of my homegrown apples. I’ve planted many fruit trees over the years (seventeen, at last count) and put in countless hours of labour tending them, and I have yet to taste a plum or a cherry. Ellie comes like clockwork. She is still met with barking dogs, shouted threats, and fierce arm-waving. We’ve even resorted to rifle shots aimed at the moon. All to no avail.
Yet when the hunters come knocking, asking for permission to hunt on our land, I turn them away for the thrill of seeing Ellie and her new calf every summer and fall. I can’t blame Ellie, after all. I moved into her territory, landscaped her living space, introduced three dogs, and refused to leave. I entice her into my yard every year with the promise of tender shoots and juicy fruit, and then I am offended when she eats them. She tolerates my barking dogs, my frantic arm-waving, my shouts and threats. In return, I tolerate her eating her fill of the fruits of my labour.
My neighbours tease me about my apple-flavoured moose. They laugh as they offer me moose steak with apple reduction. Moose stew, moose jerky, moose burgers.
Let them laugh. I have yet to taste moose meat, and I figure I garden here at my own risk. After all, Ellie was here first.
This story is excerpted from In the Company of Animals: Stories of extraordinary encounters, edited by Pam Chamberlain.