NORTH PARK - The tracks give us hope.
"Oh, yeah," says Jessica Weathers, bending to examine the unmistakable prints in the snow. "That's moose."
So we follow the ranger into the woods. The sun is making its late-morning rise over the mountains, and Gazette photographer Christian Murdock and I post-hole our way through the pines, eyes peeled for the beast that has more numbers here than anywhere else in Colorado.
From the humble town of Walden, fields of sage and willow-lined streams stretch to the Medicine Bow Mountains, which dominate the state's high northwest. The North Park basin is full of wonders, beginning in State Forest State Park, framed by jagged peaks and including the Nokhu Crags, the skyscraping rocks of Native American lore that earn as much admiration as the sand dunes bordering the forest.
The park's visitor center refers to the area as "The Land of Hidden Treasures." And most wondrous is the wildlife.
No, Coloradans don't have to go to Canada or Alaska for a good chance to find moose. The North Park herd is believed to roam at 500 to 600 strong since wildlife officers transplanted a couple of dozen from Utah and Wyoming in the late 1970s.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife calls the experiment "a success story," as smaller populations have emerged in the Flat Tops Wilderness and farther south around Grand Mesa. Tens of thousands of hunters apply every year for a coveted tag; those who put their names in the lottery last year had a 1.4 percent chance of winning.
Still, elk hunters mistakenly kill moose "pretty much every year in North Park and other parts," says Josh Dilley, Walden's district wildlife manager.
"The majority of what we find are accidental kills," he says, "but there has been moose shot intentionally, and there's been (criminal) cases made at different times."
We arrive at what appears to be a crime scene - a skeleton of an animal that Weathers says was skinned and found in the fall. The skull is gone; the spine and ribs have been picked clean, seemingly by whatever left the surrounding tracks.
"Circle of life," Weathers mutters as we continue through the state forest, somewhat warily as we know the territorial tendencies of moose. One need only search YouTube to witness bulls raging after people who got too close.
A twig snap is enough for us to whip our heads around. "A moose could sneak up on you, and you'd never hear it," Weathers says, explaining a frequent occurrence for rangers making rounds to camps at the state park.
"We're sharing space with them, for sure."
Living with moose
Sharing the most space with moose are the residents of Walden. "The Moose Viewing Capital of Colorado" reads the welcome sign into the town of cabins, churches and aspen stripped by the moose that feast on the bark.
"How about a chocolate mousse in a jar?" asks the waitress at the Moose Creek Cafe, which sells moose ballcaps and moose T-shirts listing moose advice, including: "Hold your head up high" (some moose hold theirs higher than 6 feet).
One local's favorite photo of three moose on a trot through the cemetery has been made into a favorite postcard. "Just Dying to see North Park, Colorado," it says.
As with photos - moose staring down dogs, moose munching on gardens, moose lying on lawns - people proudly keep stories. They talk of moose holding dominion over everyday life; yes, the antlered statue in town might be of a ruler to be respected.
People can't leave their homes, for a moose is by the door. People are late to work, for a moose is by the truck. Recess is called off at school, for a moose is on the playground. And the kids understand, for they are raised knowing to avoid four-legged strangers.
When the rabbit-like ears go back and the dragon-like snout goes up, that's when you run, the locals say.
Outside his trailer, John Kellemeyer motions to a spot by the fence that is no barrier to the moose with stilt-like legs. "Once there was a calf over there in the corner. I take a picture, look down to see it, then I look up and it's coming at me full-bore. Came right up to the porch! I turned around, got inside and shut the door, and it hit him right in the nose!"
Says a woman behind the gas station counter: "I've heard of moose out in the middle of the street, taking on a truck and completely totaling the truck, but they walk out unscathed."
Says the man mopping the floor nearby, Rob Windecker: "Once I was out, caught a real nice 17-, 18-inch brown, I thought, all right, I've found me a hole. Then I look over and see a calf just standing there. I move over a bit. Then a big cow comes outta the willows.
"So I go back up to my pickup, and my wife is sitting there going, 'I thought you'd be fishing for four, five hours.' I said, 'I would be fishing for four or five hours, but an old b---- ran me out!'"
People talk excitedly, as if they are not as inconvenienced by the moose as much as they are thrilled, graced.
The search continues
Unsuccessful on our search afoot, we get in Weathers' truck.
"Sometimes they come up there," the ranger says as we look closely between the timber covering a distant slope.
She slows later by a creek, where the bull she saw a couple of days ago lingers no more. Losing hope of seeing one, I ask Weathers what her first experience was like.
"Incredible," she says, "and humbling."
Soon enough, the truck lurches to a stop. "There you go!" she says.
We fall silent as we watch a bull, cow and calf lumber up a hill. We are quiet for however much time passes before they disappear into the trees.
"They knew we were watching," Weathers says.
They always know, she says. Which contributes to our paranoia later as we scour the countryside for more, squinting through the thick willows to find nothing. Dusk dims the valley, and we're frustrated but strangely satisfied to know they're out there. Somewhere.
Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332