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September 3, 2010

Learning from moose

Last month, my fiancé James and I went on vacation in Isle Royale National Park. The park is an island in Lake Superior, and many visitors to the park hope to see one of its 500 moose.

We saw three moose — a cow and twin calves wading in Washington Harbor.

However, our closest encounter with a moose involved sound — not sight. One night we camped at South Lake Desor, an interior lake near the center of the island. I awoke at midnight to the sound of branches breaking. I woke James and said: "I think there's something outside our tent." I often wake James when I hear noises, which usually turn out to be birds or squirrels. "You're imagining things again," he said and went back to sleep. The snapping of branches continued, and was followed by scraping noises and huffing. When I woke James a second time, we both heard the moose sneeze.

By now, James' curiosity was piqued. He unzipped the tent's vestibule and looked out, but because there was a new moon he couldn't see the animal. He was about to turn on his headlamp, but I stopped him. The moose seemed very close to our tent — so close I could smell it, a musky scent reminiscent of wet dog. I didn't want the moose to become spooked by the light. I worried that if the moose was frightened an errant hoof might trample our ultralight tent. So we lay still and silently for the next fifteen minutes, listening to the moose chew foliage as it meandered through our campsite.

When we woke the next morning, we examined the leaves and branches the moose had browsed. It had lingered only five feet from our tent. 

I didn't expect to learn anything about my own health — or others' — from a moose.

A highlight of the trip was the opportunity to hear a talk by Candy and Rolf Peterson. During the summer the Petersons live in a cabin across the bay from the popular Daisy Farm campground. Twice a week they paddle over to give talks to the hikers and boaters staying at Daisy Farm.

Candy is an educator with the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose study, and Rolf has been its director for the past 40 years. It is the longest-running study of any predator-prey system in the world.

Candy talked about the island's moose and wolves, their inter-relatedness and the challenges facing each population. While we were on the island, one of the findings from the wolf-moose study made national health news via an article in The New York Times ("Moose offer trail of clues on arthritis," August 17).

According to the study, many of the moose on Isle Royale have arthritis stemming from nutritional deficits early in life. Scientists think human osteoarthritis might also be linked to nutritional deficits early in life.

I'm grateful to the many moose (and to Rolf and Candy for their research over the years) for teaching us something about how our early nutrition might affect diseases that manifest later in our lives.

Recommended reading: Candy Peterson's memoir A View from the Wolf's Eye introduces readers to the island, the study and a faith that is marked by seasons and lived out by exploring the natural world, serving others and sharing knowledge.

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