The first time I saw a moose was the same time I first encountered a leech.
On a family whitewater canoe trip down the Allagash River in Maine, we turned a corner and spotted the mama moose. She stood there, calmly eyeing us and continuing to munch on whatever it was on the riverbed floor as we drifted closer.
My older brother in the stern of the canoe and me in the bow, we paddled to shore so we could stop and watch. We were in our early teens. Putting my foot down, I sank into mud - and when I pulled it back up again after shoving off, there was the leech, sucked onto my foot between my Teva straps.
I shrieked, my brother jumped, the canoe swayed threateningly, and the moose was startled.
Luckily we were far enough away not to incur her wrath, as they can be dangerous creatures when they feel threatened. She took off up the bank and disappeared into the brush.
Since that day, I've seen many moose. Mostly from the time I moved from the East Coast to Wyoming and began wandering the woods of the West.
These majestic creatures aren't easily startled. They're easy to bump into in the forests because they don't run when humans approach, unlike deer and elk. They are tolerant toward human approach - until their personal space is threatened, such as if one gets too close or if a dog follows its nature and chases it when out on the trail.
Shannon Shwab, a Colorado Division of Wildlife district wildlife manager, said conflicts between moose and humans usually occur because of dogs. She says to be particularly wary on the Gore Range Trail, because it's ripe with moose habitat.
"They like willow drainages with ponds and the Gore Range is full of old beaver ponds and drainages," she said, adding that the trail bisects many of those areas. They tend to be in and among the aspen or wetland areas where they can forage for willow broughs, which make up 80 percent of their diet.
Shwab said the epicenter for moose spotting in Summit County is north of Silverthorne at Willow Creek and Rock Creek.
Moose and humans also cross paths in Breckenridge, Shwab said. Sometimes, they appear on the ski slopes of the resort. Other times, they pass through back yards as they traverse the eastern slope of the Tenmile Range.
Kirk Oldham, DOW wildlife biologist in the Middle Park area, said moose can be spotted in the Keystone area as well is in the Mesa Cortina and Wildernest neighborhoods.
The moose population in the Summit and Grand county area numbers about 300 to 400, Oldham said.
That's just an estimate, though. Counting moose (generally done in winter from the air) is difficult because they aren't a herd animal the way deer and elk are. They are more solitary creatures, with bulls wandering alone and cows coexisting with their calves or yearlings. During the fall breeding season, or rut, they're more likely to be seen together, Oldham said.
While deer and elk congregate on sunny, south-facing slopes in winter, moose are more adapted to traversing ground covered in deep snow. They also prefer staying in the deeper, darker trees. Again unlike their deer and elk cousins, moose are adapted to digest conifer needles, which makes up slightly more of their winter diet, Oldham said.
The DOW started its moose reintroduction in the late 1970s in the North Park area. That herd was supplemented in 1987, Oldham said, adding that many of those moose have since migrated south to Middle Park.
In the early 1990s, southwest Colorado received a moose transplant and it wasn't until about 15 years later that moose were reintroduced to Grand Mesa. Last winter, a transplant was done in the Flat Tops region, Oldham said.
He said the decision to reintroduce the moose was based on historical records of moose sightings in Colorado. Today's managed population is based on impact to vegetation, hunter satisfaction and sightings, as well as DOW estimates during their winter counts, Oldham said.
It wasn't until recently that moose populations were enough to issue hunting permits in the area, Oldham said. The first moose hunting permit was issued in 2005. Through 2008, only one permit was available. In 2008 and 2009, the DOW expanded it to two.