Posted by: kerryl29 | May 24, 2022

Alaska Revisited Day 12: When the Tail Wagged the Dog

I left off the narrative of Day 12 with seemingly little to say. It was, perhaps, 90 minutes until sunset on what had gradually become an entirely cloudy evening (i.e. there would be no sunset). Ellen and I had serendipitously discovered a moose feeding along the side of the George Parks Highway on our way back to our lodgings. That sounds like the introduction to a small photographic gallery and a paragraph wrapping up the previous post. It turned out to be much more than that, unfortunately, but let’s start with the gallery and description of the photo encounter.

Moose, Denali National Park, Alaska

Our moose friend, as I mentioned last time, was 15-20 feet off the west shoulder of the road, happily munching away. We were just off the shoulder on the east side of the highway. The moose showed nary a sign of bother at our presence.

Moose, Denali National Park, Alaska

We grabbed our telephoto setups, deliberately did not pull out our tripods (partly to speed up the process, since we didn’t know how long the moose would hang around and partly to avoid doing anything that would enlarge the size of our physical footprint), and stayed astride our vehicle. We did not cross the road or make any move closer to the moose. I would estimate that we were 60-70 feet away, shooting handheld.

Moose, Denali National Park, Alaska

Ellen and I were using similar setups–I had the Nikon F-mount 80-400, with an FTZ adapter, on my Z7ii body. Ellen had a Canon EF-mount Sigma 100-400 lens with an adapter on an R5 body. We both had the benefit of IBIS and it was still bright enough (and the subject was cooperative enough) to allow us to avoid jacking the ISO up to astronomical levels to obtain sharp handheld images.

Moose, Denali National Park, Alaska

Most of the photographs you see here were not made at 400 mm; I frequently zoomed out to reveal part of the environment.

Moose, Denali National Park, Alaska

For several minutes we were by ourselves with our moose friend. You’re seeing a small sample here of the several dozen images each of us obtained. We never moved from our spot and the moose didn’t stray far either.

Moose, Denali National Park, Alaska

Inevitably, however, passersby on the road noticed the moose…or us…or both…and slowed down and stopped. Traffic on the highway was light, but it was extant, so within 10 minutes or so a half-dozen other vehicles were stopped alongside us. At first, everyone stopped on the same side of the road we were on, that is, across the road from the moose. Most people had nothing more than phone cameras to use, though one person who stopped pulled out a truly big rig–an exotic prime of some sort, complete with tripod for support. Still, despite the increased number of people, no one crossed the road. But it wasn’t much longer before the circumstances changed.

Roughly 15 minutes after we first arrived there must have been a dozen vehicles stopped along the side of the road and nearly half of them were now on the same side of the road as the moose. Because the moose itself wasn’t very far off the shoulder of the road, many of these vehicles were barely out of the southbound traffic lane. In fact, it’s distinctly possible that some of them weren’t entirely out of the traffic lane at all, though I couldn’t swear to it. Regardless, I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the situation with each passing minute. The moose still seemed calm, I thought, but I wondered how long that would last. I had stopped photographing at this point, partly because I’d already clicked the shutter numerous times, partly because some of the vehicles on the other side of the road were now serving as a visual obstruction.

And then I noticed that the moose was starting to move. Not bolting out of the way, but kind of meandering south a bit, paralleling the road. No one had actually approached the moose, but some of the people on the other side of the road were very close–probably less than 30 feet away. More vehicles were coming by and some were stopping, some were just slowing down in the traffic lanes, with the occasional phone popping out of a window.

Was the moose responding to all of this? Almost certainly. I’d had enough. I wasn’t certain that the moose was becoming agitated by what was unfolding but I strongly suspected she was and I didn’t want to contribute to the deteriorating situation any more than I already had. I said, out loud, “I think it’s time to go,” and turned to glance at Ellen as I prepared to open the rear door of the car and return my gear to my backpack, which was lying open in the back of the SUV. Ellen had apparently already come to the same conclusion and was beginning to put her equipment away by the time I turned in her direction.

I opened the rear door to the car and leaned in, kneeling on the interior, to finesse my camera/lens combination into the open space in the backpack. I was in the final process of returning an encased polarizing filter that I’d left in my jacket pocket back into a slot in the backpack when I heard a massive, sickening sound, followed by multiple muffled screams. Since my head was inside the vehicle and looking down at the backpack, I hadn’t seen anything, but my immediate, pained instinct was that the moose had bolted across the highway and been hit. “What the hell was that?!?!” I said. “Did someone hit the moose?” I pulled my head out and saw a vehicle, askew, more or less in the middle of the highway, its engine still running, smoke emerging from beneath a twisted hood, about 30 feet from where I stood. Ellen was already running in the direction of the vehicle.

By the time I realized what had happened, several people, including Ellen, were already at the vehicle, assisting the people inside. I immediately thought to call 911. I felt my pocket for my phone. Nothing. Then I remembered that I had l left it in in the front of the vehicle, charging using the SUV’s USB connection, when we had first spotted the moose. I opened the driver’s door and grabbed the phone. Unfortunately I had turned the device off earlier, as I was getting no service in most of the park. I powered it on and waited, but then shouted “Can someone call 911? Does anyone have service?” A woman yelled back to me that she was on the phone with a 911 operator at that moment. I relaxed, slightly, for a moment, but then the woman with the phone yelled again. “Does anyone know what mile marker we’re at?” No one did. I looked up and down the road.

We were on a long, relatively flat, straight away. Visibility to the north was clear for at least a mile. To the south–the road ran slightly uphill in this direction–it was clear for perhaps a quarter of a mile, the point of the hill’s crest. I couldn’t see a mile marker to the south and glanced back to the north. I saw what I thought might be a green mile sign in that direction, but it was too far away to be sure and, regardless, reading the sign at this distance–it was at least a quarter of a mile away–and in this light was impossible. So I started running in the direction. One of the other bystanders started doing so at the same time.

I’ve always been a very fast runner, and even at my now advanced age and outfitted with hiking boots (not the best footwear for a sprint), I rapidly left the other person in the dust. I ran at full speed on the wide, paved shoulder as fast as I could (it didn’t hurt that the pitch was slightly downhill) until I could read the sign (which was indeed a mileage marker). I turned around. The woman who had been running with me had stopped several hundred yards behind me, seeing that I was going to reach the sign first. I cupped my hands at my mouth and yelled, as loud as I could: “235! 2-3-5!”

She yelled back at me “2-3-5?”

“Yes,” I screamed. “2-3-5!” She waved then turned, ran a few dozen feet back in the direction of the accident site and yelled something. I couldn’t hear it, but presumably she relayed the number to someone closer who in turn relayed it back to the person on the phone. I ran back to the site of the accident–more of a jog then a sprint this time–and it was only at this point that I learned what had actually happened. Things had developed so quickly earlier that I hadn’t had the chance to find out the specifics. But now I joined Ellen and several other witnesses and, collectively, they told me what had happened.

Ellen hadn’t seen what happened either, since she’d had her head in the vehicle, as well. But she was pointed in the direction of the accident while I’d had my back turned to the road. The other two people who were now with us had seen the whole thing as it unfolded.

There had been a two-vehicle accident. The moose had not been involved and was fine; Ellen had seen the moose run into the woods on the west side of the road at the sound of the collision. One vehicle–the one now lying twisted in the middle of the highway–had plowed into the back of the other, which had been stopped on the west side of the road. The occupants of the stopped vehicle–a woman and her two adult daughters –were in some distress. Ellen had been the first person to reach that vehicle and related the situation to the rest of us. One of the daughters was uninjured but the mother, who had been in the driver’s seat, and the other daughter were pretty badly shaken up. They had, of course, had no sense of the impending collision, so the contact had been a complete shock. After a few questions, Ellen had told everyone in the car to stay put, that 911 had already been called and the basic status of things as well as the location had been relayed on and that help was coming. Ellen stayed with these folks until another bystander, a PA, had come by and was able to take direct charge of the situation. A passing EMT had joined her not long after. Everyone was conscious and checked out okay in terms of vitals, but the two injured occupants were reporting varying degrees of pain. Concussions were suspected for both two of them; neck and back pain were also reported. The situation for those in the other vehicle sounded less worrisome but at least one of the occupants of that car (there were two people in the vehicle) was reporting pain. Ellen had found the passenger of the contacting vehicle out of the car, sitting on the side of the road and asked him if he was okay; he said he was alright, but in some discomfort. The driver was uninjured and also out of the vehicle.

The 911 operator had called the state police and reported the accident and the location, as note above. The problem was that the nearest state police headquarters–this is central Alaska, folks–were in Cantwell, roughly 40 miles to the south, and Healy, about 15 miles to the north. While Healy is much closer, the route is more difficult and significantly slower per mile, due to the more mountainous terrain. Still, it was more likely that a police vehicle would show up from Healy, but it would take, probably, 30 minutes to arrive. An ambulance would be dispatched from Healy, eventually, but it would surely take longer.

In the meantime, we had an active accident site, injuries, a vehicle in the middle of a 65-MPH road and gathering darkness. Yes, at this point, it was starting to get dark. Twilight in Alaska lasts for a long time, but this situation had the potential to get worse. Vehicles had been passing through, slowing down, and avoiding the wreckage without causing any more damage, but doing this without assistance was becoming increasingly difficult. As we stood in a group watching a northbound vehicle stop in the middle of the road, unsure of what to do, one of the group members hustled off to try and direct traffic from that end. Realizing that this could only work if someone was doing the same thing from the other side of the accident site, I took off my brown jacket–increasingly difficult to see–and put on a bright orange outer shell that I had in the car, hoping it would be easier for people to spot me, then ran down to the north end of the site where vehicles were already queuing up.

For the next half-hour or so, the two of us improvised a signaling system, first using it to clear the backlog that had developed on both sides of the accident site, and then keeping the traffic moving. This became harder to accomplish as the ambient light dwindled, and I found myself wondering when the police would arrive, but we managed to pull it off without incident. Finally, I heard a siren to the north and, not long afterwards, saw flashing lights far up the highway. In another couple of minutes a police vehicle arrived and a single Alaska state trooper emerged. He sized up the situation immediately, realizing that he needed assistance just to manage things. He asked the two of us who were directing traffic if we’d mind continuing to do so while he saw to the injured and gathered information, at least until other officers arrived. This was a request, not an order. The officer was extremely polite and gracious and, of course, we agreed to help as long as we were needed, and he thanked us for that, as he quickly set up some flares that he hoped would make it easier for us to carry out our tasks.

I will be honest. While I wanted to help, I really couldn’t wait to turn this responsibility over to the professionals. Fortunately, it wasn’t all that much longer–10-15 minutes, I’d estimate–before more officers showed up. Before long, there were several Alaska state troopers and a park service law enforcement ranger on site. (It turns out that the accident, while on a joint state/interstate highway, was within the official Denali National Park boundaries, and was, thus, a joint jurisdiction event.)

My infrequent personal experiences with law enforcement over the years, in various jurisdictions, has run the gamut from extremely professional to embarrassingly incompetent. But I dealt with three of the four law enforcement officers who were at the scene that evening–two of the state troopers and the park ranger–and I want to emphasize what a truly positive set of encounters they were. The state troopers were great. They not only took control over the scene as quickly and capably as possible, they were also unfailingly courteous, as was the park ranger. We were thanked by all of them for staying at the scene for such a long period of time (we were there for a solid two hours all told) and for helping keep the lid on things both before and after there were professionals on the scene.

In talking with the others bystanders/witnesses present after there were enough law enforcement officers on the scene that we weren’t needed to assist any longer, we more or less pieced together what we believed happened. I could do little more than listen and ask the odd question, given that I had only heard the accident, not seen it. The vehicle that plowed into the other was being driven by a young woman. It seems that she was looking at the moose, not the road, didn’t see the stopped vehicle, and simply slammed into it at an uncertain rate of speed. She certainly was not going the speed limit (65 MPH, as noted above), or anything particularly close to it, but was she doing 20? 30? No one was quite certain. Perhaps that could be determined by experts based on the amount of damage done. It also seems that the stopped vehicle was not completely out of the traffic lane. How much of the vehicle wasn’t clear of the white line, on the shoulder? Not certain. Again, an examination of the accident site before everything was cleared off the road might answer those questions.

One of the troopers came over to us in short order–there were four of us standing there, including myself and Ellen–and asked us if we’d seen what had happened. I quickly took myself out of the conversation, saying that I’d only heard it. Those who had witnessed the accident narrated their accounts and, afterward, names, addresses and phone numbers–no one was from Alaska, or anywhere nearby–were provided in case law enforcement needed to speak with them again.

When the trooper was done, the park ranger came over to talk to us. After she thanked us–as the trooper had–for staying put and helping out, she explained why the park service was involved (as I noted, the accident had technically taken place within Denali National Park and Preserve) and told us that it seemed likely that at least some of the accident victims would need to be air lifted to Fairbanks for treatment. An ambulance–by now on the scene–would take them to Healy, but based on preliminary examination, there seemed to be some injuries serious enough to warrant a larger, better equipped hospital. Fairbanks was two hours or so away from Healy by road, but a helicopter would get patients there much more quickly.

And then we were told we could go. It was completely dark at this point, and had been for some time–probably 45 minutes, give or take. The wreckage was still on the road and we were facing the wrong way and situated on the north end of the accident site. There was no safe way to perform a U-turn. The ranger told us that the best option was to continue north on the road for about a mile where we’d see a turn off to the left. There we could turn around safely and navigate our way back to and through the accident site and be on our way back to Carlo Creek, a bit less than 20 minutes south. So that’s what we did.

Ellen and I didn’t talk much on the trip back to the cabin. I think we were in a state of recovery, of sorts. The incident had been such a shock and we’d been wrapped up in action related to it for so long that we really hadn’t had much of a chance to process what had taken place.

It was after 10 PM when we got to the cabin and we hadn’t eaten anything in countless hours. I think we both realized how hungry we were only when we got back to Carlo Creek so while a late dinner was prepared and consumed, we finally talked a bit about what we’d seen, heard and otherwise experienced over the previous few hours, all of which has been summarized to the best of my recollection above, after conferring with Ellen, who was very helpful in correcting some details and passing a long a bit of information that I don’t think I’d ever known previously, over the past couple of days.

One of the last things the park ranger had mentioned to us before she told us we could go was how wildlife jams inherently create potentially dangerous conditions on roads, all over Alaska and, unfortunately, we’d seen an example of what can happen. It was a sobering reminder of just how quickly something can go very, very wrong. I’ve tried to keep that lesson in mind in preventative, rather than reactive, sense ever since, undoubtedly with no better than mediocre success.

One of the things that Ellen and I discussed only in the last couple of days regards our thoughts about our own role in this event. Not as unofficial responders, as I’ve related in the narrative above, but to the extent that we played a key part in the daisy chain of events that led up to accident itself. We had been the first people to spot the moose and stop. How many of the people who stopped subsequently did so because they saw that we were stopped? Would there have been a wildlife jam if we hadn’t stopped? If we hadn’t stopped, would the accident have happened at all?

Inevitably, questions of responsibility–not legal questions, but ethical ones–arise.

Acknowledging that ontological certitude is unobtainable, I think we’re both a bit troubled by our own role. My feeling is that, given how close the moose was to the side of the road, it’s likely that the next passing vehicle would have seen her and stopped…and if not the next one, the one after that. A wildlife jam was probably inevitable. Having said that, I’m not sure that I buy the notion that, therefore, we had no role in what transpired. On the other hand, we were pretty careful. We did not park on the side of the road with the moose. We took special care to stay far out of the traffic lane when we did stop. We didn’t pull out our tripods. We stayed glued to our own vehicle. All of this was deliberate, not a matter of happenstance. In the end we can only control our own actions and the only other thing we probably could have done was not stopped at all. Which kind of takes us full circle.

I’m not sure it’s possible to be entirely blameless in a scenario like this one. At the same time, I don’t think it’s rationalizing to suggest that if we hadn’t stopped at all–just driven on by, back to Carlo Creek–there’s an excellent chance that the accident would have still taken place, essentially exactly as I detailed above. Very likely there would have been one fewer vehicle at the site–our own–and that wouldn’t have significantly changed a thing. And if that’s so, how much responsibility for the occurrence should we bear?

Metaphysics? Perhaps. But wrestling with (arguably, ultimately) unanswerable questions like these is part of the self-examined life. And just recognizing that there’s no broadly obvious “right” answer itself can pay dividends, hopefully realized in the form of being less judgmental of others facing comparable no-right-answer situations.


Responses

  1. 👌👌👌📷✒ perfect shot and reading

  2. Oh my gosh Kerry!!! I just spent the entire afternoon catching up on your blog. Your photos on this recent Alaskan trip took my breath away (being the foliage nerd that you know I am LOL) but the colors are extraordinary, and your beautiful compositions kept me mesmerized. I was holding onto each and every word you wrote as well, especially in this last post. Such incredible work my friend!!! One question, does your friend Ellen have a website? I would love to see her photos if she does. Thank you so much for sharing all of the details and photos of your trips. You are such an inspiration!
    Carol

    • Sorry, I do not. I am very much a “serious amateur.”

    • Hi Carol. Good to hear from you and thanks for the kind words. I’ve really enjoyed your recent blog posts with all of the waterfowl images not to mention the eagle’s nest photos.

      Ellen doesn’t have a website, unfortunately, though she has more than enough excellent material for an extensive one.

  3. Kerry,
    I’ve often wrestled with the same issue about stopping for wildlife, especially in “hot spots” like certain parts of Grand Teton where bears or moose or elk may appear. However, I don’t think you own any responsibility for what happened. All we can do is act responsibly. If others act stupidly, I don’t feel responsible. If I see someone else acting irresponsibly I’ll say something, but ultimately they own the consequences. If I felt any responsibility for what might happen during a “critter jam”, I’d have to stay home. There would be no point in going to Grand Teton or Yellowstone or Glacier to photograph wildlife, since it’s impossible to stop for a wildlife photo without creating a “critter jam.” I’m constantly amazed at how often people just stop in the middle of the road in parks to take a picture or gawk. They have no concept of how to act responsibly. So… IMO you are not on the hook for this — not in the slightest.
    Steve

    • Thanks, Steve. Wildlife jams certainly are an occupational hazard in a lot of places, and I appreciate your thoughts on how much (or how little) responsibility one has to accept, based on one’s own decisions and subsequent actions.

  4. Nice photos of the Moose.

    • Thanks very much!

  5. wow


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