Wilderness Mother

THE Sunwapta was flooding. John and I both welcomed the excitement it promised us, for it was happenings of this kind — a storm, a forest fire, a river in flood — that alone broke the monotony of our existence there at our isolated homestead. We were the sole occupants of a valley in the Canadian Rockies, fifty miles from Jasper, Alberta, the nearest town. Sometimes we wished that there were neighbors; and always we wished that we had children.

We watched the Sunwapta closely all day. John had driven a stake, marked off in feet and inches, at the water’s edge. All day we kept running out from our cabin to look at it. In the afternoon, when we found that the water was rising six inches to the hour, we knew we were in for a real flood. At supper we could talk of nothing else. Then, without waiting to wash the dishes, pausing only long enough to roll and light our cigarettes, we hurried down to the riverbank.

The stake was gone; so was a small bridge that had withstood many a flood. Upstream a four-acre island, formed by a back channel, was wholly covered.

John and I stood fascinated. The water, yellow and thick, now roared past us. Hundreds of uprooted trees rushed by, like great broken battleships, toward the falls and canyon below; from that canyon, we knew, they would emerge torn and frayed to matchwood.

John pointed across the river. A cow moose and her calf had come out of the bush and were standing on the steep bank directly across from us. Roth looked back, as if they feared pursuit; possibly coyotes, or a cougar, had been after the young one. The calf was staggering, worn-out. It was all legs; John says it could not have been more than three days old.

Though she must have seen us, the cow moose paid no attention to John and me. For a minute she seemed to be studying the stream and its current. Then suddenly she leapt from the bank into the yellow flood and struck out for our side, with never a backward glance toward her calf. It was but a second or two before the baby moose plunged in too and disappeared from our sight, completely submerged; when it came up, it had been swept several yards downstream. It set out gamely to follow its mother, but for every foot of headway it made it was carried four times as far toward the falls. Only its mother could help it now — but when I looked upstream the cow moose, ignoring her calf, was continuing straight across the river.

‘ You brute — you wicked, cruel mother! ’ I cried. (John told me afterward.)

Although a moose is a powerful beast, and a great swimmer, the cow had to battle hard against the current to come almost squarely across the river. She reached the bank a little below where we stood and — still without looking to see what had become of her baby, or stopping to shake the water from her coat — crashed headlong into the forest.

John and I started to run along the curving riverbank. We had no hope that we could save the calf, but we simply had to keep that little dark head in sight. It was bobbing up and down like a forlorn cork. Trees were missing it by a hairsbreadth. Sometimes it was sucked under by the current, to emerge farther downstream. Always, however, it continued to make some headway toward our bank; it had passed midstream when John and I had to take a path through the woods where brush made the bank impassable.

We reached the river again at what ordinarily was a quiet pool of backwater, where the river bends sharply away. Now there was a great current sweeping around within the curving bank. As we reached its edge, we spotted the baby moose — it was being carried into that maelstrom, to be whirled around and swept out again into the main stream.

Then we stopped dead, for out of the bush across the bend from us crashed the cow moose. Now she saw her baby, and stopped as if to gauge the speed and course of the current. A moment later she hurled herself down the bank and out into the river. Finally, with perfect timing, she turned about to face the shore and braced herself against the current, just as the calf, still swimming, was swept against her flank.

Quickly the mother changed her position ever so slightly, so that the pressure of the current, if it should sweep the calf away, would carry it closer to the bank. There she stood, waiting till her little one ceased to struggle and discovered that it was now in shallower water and could find a footing. Both then moved toward the bank, slowly and carefully, the mother still buttressing the calf against the thrust of the current. Soon the calf was only knee-deep in water. It wanted to stop there and rest, but the mother — now that she had overcome one hazard — no longer was contemptuous of our presence. She nosed her baby up the bank, and mother and calf disappeared in the woods.

Slowly John turned. Then — ‘What are you crying about?’ But his voice wasn’t very steady, and I knew I did n’t have to answer.