Stranded Moose Calf Highlights Kuskokwim's Changing Ice Conditions

Feb 12, 2018

A moose calf has trouble gaining its footing on the Kuskokwim's slick glare ice upriver of Akiak on February 4, 2018.
Credit Carey Gusty Atchak

It’s clickbait, for sure. A recent Facebook video shows two men helping a baby moose cross a frozen river; it was filmed last weekend on the Middle Kuskokwim. The sight is touching, but the incident presents another example of how the warm winter is changing the river.

“We’re just gliding the calf across the ice with a piece of rope," said Joe Atchak, describing the video. “It’s just around its rump, and we’re just dragging it across.”

Then the calf stands up and tries to move towards Atchak. “Right there!" said Atchak, watching the video. "It kind of got me on edge.”

But the moose can hardly stand, much less take more than a step on the slick ice. Soon the moose falls, and the men slide the now-sitting animal across the ice to the bank. This is an animal that weighs roughly 400 pounds.

“It was very smooth. Smooth enough for that calf to just move right across that ice easily,” Atchak said.

Atchak and his family found the moose upriver of Akiak. The animal was just lying there, occasionally trying to stand but unable to get its footing. Atchak’s wife told him to help it, so he first tried to scare the moose away by clapping, but it didn’t move.

“At first I thought it was sick or hurt, but I didn’t see any blood around,” he said. What he did see were piles of scat.

Phillip Perry is a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and guesses that the moose could have been there for a couple of days, too exhausted to move.

“People fall down; animals fall down," Perry said. "Most of the time they get back up, but if they fall down and can’t get back up they could very easily wear themselves out in a few hours of trying to get back up.”

Perry points out that this could happen all the time without people seeing it, but no one who KYUK talked with could remember an incident quite like this, where a moose that wasn’t injured and wasn’t stuck couldn’t help itself. But biologists do know that slick ice is an acute danger to moose; the wrong kind of fall can kill them.

Eventually, the stranded calf in the video made it to the other side of the river, and after wobbling a bit, it disappeared into the willows.

Joe Atchak’s dad, Peter Atchak, was surprised when he saw the clip. The elder Atchak served as President of Bethel Search and Rescue for nearly 30 years. He’s seen a lot on the river, but he’s never seen a moose in that condition, and he’s never seen the ice as slick as it is this year.

“A lot of it is just glare ice, and that’s a really dangerous type of ice,” he said. "It's 100 miles from Bethel to Kalskag, and more than half of the trail is like that."

This winter, the river has seen half its usual snowfall and twice its usual number of days above freezing. The low snowfall and melting and refreezing ice has created long stretches of slick, glare ice.

The moose incident highlights this anomaly. It’s another change on a long list of them that the Kuskokwim has seen during its warmest winter on record. That list includes a very late freeze up, uncountable open holes, a new Kuskokwim 300 race route, river ice that measures half its usual thickness, and now, humans helping moose make it across the river.

Wildlife biologist Phillip Perry with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game cautions people against helping distressed wildlife. Instead, he advises people to call State Troopers or the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Wild animals can behave erratically, and moose calves often have protective moose mothers around.