2016-07-30 The Great North Woods

20160719169-2Every year I do my best to find the time to get to Northern Maine.  For me, it has almost become a pilgrimage, and I look forward to this annual trip as a way to get off the grid and ironically, recharge.  I find that I am most at peace when I can get away from it all and be close to nature.  Where I go there are no cell phones, texts or emails, or anything resembling a meeting or appointment… unless you consider a sunrise rendezvous with a moose to be a meeting.  This year I planned six nights in Northern Maine (with my father in-law Lee Cordner and good friend Jim Borden), with four of these nights totally off the grid, however a family emergency drew me home after only half of the trip.  Although my visit was short and sweet, I did have two days to enjoy the wilderness, and for that I am thankful.

Sworn to secrecy, I am unable to disclose this location, but can say that it consists of a small lake with incredible marsh lands nestled within a boreal forest that teems with wildlife.  The water’s edge, and the grasses and aquatic plants that grow there are a draw for many members of this forest community.  We arrived at camp in early afternoon, and after unpacking our gear and spending a few minutes catching up, as old friends do, we decided it was time to shove off.  Donning our bug nets (the Maine state bird is the mosquito after-all) and strapping on our camera gear we headed out in search of the denizens of the area.  It didn’t take long, and around the very first corner we drifted upon a young whitetail buck browsing along the shoreline.  Taking special care to not spook the young lad, and with slow deliberate strokes, we paddled in for a closer look.  He was curious more than anything, and did not seem perturbed by our presence, allowing us to observe him for many minutes.  After every few bites, with salad poking out from his mouth, the young buck would peer curiously at us.  After a while he wandered into some thick alders and passed out of view, although he was never far for the next couple of days, and we saw him several more times.

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For the next couple of hours we paddled along silently, drifting around corners and under leaning alders to see what might be around the next bend.  We saw many small birds, waxwings, sparrows and belted kingfishers to name a few, and a couple of moose, a cow and her calf briefly, although they were camera shy and retreated into the undergrowth and out of sight.  One of the most alluring elements of this region is that it is a truly wild habitat.  The animals can be skittish, and spook easily, often not needing much of a reason. After spending many minutes easing into the proximity of a moose or deer a simple unlucky splash of a paddle in the water, or interestingly the gentle dry rub of grass along your kayak’s hull can send your quarry into a mad dash for cover.  This environment makes it much more challenging to get close to your subject, but all the more satisfying when you work hard to be perceived as a non-threat and are rewarded with an experience.

Other times, you can be totally surprised when out of nowhere you turn a corner and unexpectedly drift right past a feeding moose without any ability to reverse course, and that moose hardly bats an eye.  More often than not this kind of action would result in the sound of splashing footfalls that retreat into the distance, but sometimes paddling past and continuing on can be perceived as non-threatening as well.  This was the case as we headed back towards camp with the sun sinking towards the horizon.  We rounded a corner, and without warning a young bull moose lifted his head, mouth full and eyes wide as we paddled past.  We continued on a short distance giving the young bull some space before turning around to capture the scene with our cameras.  From this new angle, the light from the setting sun was spectacular, bathing the scene in a lovely warm glow.

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After several minutes of feeding, he decided to swim across the narrows to the other side, presumably in search for some more appealing greens.  Sure enough, after the quick dip, he climbed out of the water and resumed his meal, where perhaps the grass was indeed greener.

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We watched for the next several minutes as he made his way along the shoreline and continued to graze, while the sun sank below a thick bank of clouds near the horizon.  Instantly the marsh was transformed from a golden glowing ecosystem into one of soft lines and pastel colors.  With this new palette of colors, nature painted a different scene that while lacking the drama of the setting sun, was captivating and beautiful in it’s own way.  The young bull moose continued to grace us with his presence.

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As I watched this young bull, I noticed that the sky was starting to brighten again behind me.  I peeked over my shoulder and to my delight, I noticed that there was a gap between the clouds that blocked out the sun, and the hills at the distant horizon.  I knew it would happen quickly, that moment when the sun would briefly make an appearance before setting, so I readied myself.  I was expecting a few fleeting moments with this young bull once again ablaze with the setting sun, but much to my chagrin a row of alders and spruce blocked the sun from reaching him.  As the sun continued to dip down, I was resigned that it was just not meant to be.  Suddenly, a gentle rain squall washed over me.  It only rained for a moment, and the rain cloud moved on.  Then it happened.  One of the most spectacular rainbows I have ever seen materialized before my eyes.  It was massive, and saturated with color, arching above the wetlands and forest before me.  Then a second rainbow formed above the first, completing the already magnificent scene.

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I was awestruck, and then it got better as the sun illuminated the shoreline below the rainbows. I fumbled for a landscape camera.  As suddenly as it appeared, before my eyes, the rainbow dissolved away.  Then the sun set, and I was left to ponder the remarkable experience as I slowly made my way back to camp.

After dinner I stepped out of the cabin well into dusk and found a familiar and welcome visitor.  Every year it seems we enjoy the company of a local cotton tail or two, and this trip had no exception.  I found him munching on some fresh cut grass, his appearance at the end of the day seeming to say “good night, sweet dreams.”

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The dreams during these trips would be sweet, if one had time to dream.  This time of year with such long days and early mornings there is little time for rest between sunset and sunrise, and when you lay your head down to sleep it is one borne from the exhaustion of paddling for some six to eight hours in the sun.  Our alarms sounded at 3:45am and we rose from our slumber to face the day.  After a quick snack and gathering of gear we headed down to the kayaks and were off by 4:30.  The far end of the lake is a favorite place for moose to catch breakfast at the water’s edge, and with a thirty minute paddle to reach the location we wanted to arrive before the sun rose.  As we paddled to our destination with the sun approaching the eastern horizon, we watched the full moon make it’s descent to the west.  As we waited for moose to arrive, we witnessed the moon dip down below a thick forest of sun kissed spruce.

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Oddly enough, the moose didn’t show that morning, which was no real disappointment as simply being in that wilderness is experience enough.  Wildlife photography is a lot like fishing, we make many attempts and wait for hours on end, hoping for a few moments of excitement.  While we drifted, bald eagles and osprey fished around us, and several species of ducks scolded us for disturbing the peace.  The most vocal of these were the grebes.  They would hoot and splash, and dive under the water as we approached.  They created a great stir while at the same time remained quite elusive.  I was able to only get one shot of a juvenile that I saw dive under behind a tuft of grass.  I waited with my camera for it to surface and got lucky.  It popped up for a second, allowed me to grab a few frames, and then it was gone.

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As the sun rose higher into the sky a strong breeze began to blow.  I could see small whitecaps forming out in the middle of the lake, so I decided that this would be a good time to head back to camp and make some coffee.  It is very difficult to shoot with a long lens from a bobbing kayak, and with wind, the already skittish wildlife becomes even more so.  I made it back to camp ahead of Lee and Jim by a few minutes, and had a chance to watch them from the cabin as they too cut through the waves making their way back to dock.

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The wind blew furiously all day long, and with the sun high in the sky we lounged around camp, eating and telling stories, and talking about cameras  (A subject that greatly annoys the loved ones in our life when we discuss it in their presence.  Something about f-stops and ISO’s and Bokeh’s that just doesn’t fly…)  So yes, we chatted about Canon and Nikon and lenses, theory and editing, and took our cameras in hand for the occasional insect or bird that came within reach.  The Northern Parula is a lovely blue bird that inhabits the northern boreal forests, and we had one put on quite a show.  The kinglets and boreal chickadees and woodpeckers, were not as cooperative.

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As the day grew longer, the wind began to wane so Lee and I geared up for another paddle and headed out in search of a big bull moose.  As we rounded the first corner, it was no surprise to come upon our young bull from the previous evening.  He was feasting in the same spot, and once again was unperturbed by our presence.  It does amaze me how tolerant some of these animals can be at times.  I do hope that as the season progresses and hunting season comes to be that these human tolerant moose realize that not all humans mean them no harm.  It would be nice to see this little guy in years to come as he matures into a dominant bull.

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We continued on, paddling into the wilderness, still hoping to catch a glimpse of a big bull.  This year more than years past there were a large number of kingfishers at the marsh.  There were literally dozens of them, and it seemed that they were clustered in small family units, perhaps with the young having recently fledged.  We learned that they were always perched in pairs or threes, so when one would lift off in front of us, chattering their taunting laugh of a call, we would simply search near the perch and sure enough, there would be a second king fisher posing for the camera.  We were quite successful with this approach and had many opportunities to photograph them from a relatively close distance.  We even found what appeared to be a nest, recently used.  It was in the depression of a large boulder surrounded by water.  Tufts of down and sticks surrounded the hole and an adult stood guard on a nearby rock.

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After being entertained by the kindfishers for a little while, we continued on chatting about the behavior of the birds.  We were relaxed and had temporarily forgotten to be silent when we paddled around a turn and came upon a large bull, one of many I am sure, that had been eluding us for the last two days.  We immediately arrested our forward progress and drifted to the side bank where we remained perfectly quiet and still.  We watched the bull feed for several minutes, when all of a sudden he realized that he was not alone.  This realization did not come as a comfort to him, and within a few seconds he climbed up onto the bank, fixed us with a long stare, and ambled off into the brush.  The lighting was not perfect, but we had finally spotted our first big bull.  Had we not come home early, we would have worked this area thoroughly over the next few days in hopes of a second encounter, one that would not result in a quick exit by you know who.

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For the next hour we alternated between waiting and paddling in hopes of finding where he had gone.  Interestingly, while we searched in vain, unbeknown to us the bull had given us the slip, and turned up out on the lake, where Jim had the good fortune to spot him from camp.  He was able to saddle up and get some nice shots of him.

Lighting is such an important element to photography, and can make or break an image.  A scene at midday under a full sun will appear washed out, while that same scene lit by a low sun at dawn or dusk will produce beautiful and dramatic colors.  Even a low angle sun from the side can produce hard shadows, spoiling the potential of what could be produced should the photographer have the same sun at his or her back.  Sometimes, being on the “wrong” side with the sun can actually be beneficial.  I have always wanted to photograph a deer with back-lighting, such that the source of light was behind the subject at such an angle so as to produce a rim of light around the edge of the subject.  This is much more challenging than it sounds, and the pieces of this photographic puzzle must align perfectly to pull off the effect.  As we neared camp, we found the friendly young buck from the night before.  I was initially discouraged, as the creature was back-lit and shooting into the sun was going to create a real challenge.  Then, I quickly realized my good fortune.  I finally had the setup I had dreamed about for years.  I’m not sure that I fully pulled off the effect or rim lighting, but I sure had fun watching this young buck as he curiously watched me.  Before we left him for the night, he proudly stood tall, practicing the pose of a majestic buck with a huge set of antlers.

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The next morning we were up even earlier.  With a 3:15am alarm, we would have a better chance of getting into position at the far end of the lake before sunrise.  This time, there were several moose out feeding among the marsh grass.  We saw two cows, although they were tucked in tight and we only saw their heads occasionally as they chanced a glance towards us to make sure we weren’t sneaking in too close.  Further down the shoreline and just out of sight we heard the tell-tale heavy splashing as a 1,000 pound animal waded in the shallows, ducking it’s head into the water in search of breakfast.  It wasn’t the big bull I had imagined I would find, but he was a curious creature.  One of his antlers grew straight down, I am guessing due to a head trauma when it first started growing this spring.  Hopefully the fact that he is a small young bull means that the rack will remain small this year, and not cause him any challenges.  Hopefully, this is not due to a head injury that will cause all future antlers to grow in this fashion.

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After watching him eat for a while, I paddled out into the middle of the lake to check on the situation back home.  I was fortunate that Jim had a satellite phone with him, and upon making the call realized that I had to get going.  I packed in my gear, and steamed off back to camp.  Along the way, I looked at the shore and realized that another young bull had recently emerged from the thick undergrowth and was watching me as I paddled by.  He did not seem startled by me, so I just continued on, pretending I hadn’t spotted him.  He watched me pass, and being unmolested, went back to his moosely duties.  Further along down the shore I came upon a cow out in the water.  I decided that the best course of action would be to give her a wide berth and pass on by, as if I was uninterested.  While this worked very well for the previous moose only two minutes before, it certainly did not work for this one.  As soon as she saw me she wheeled around and ran back to shore, with water spraying dramatically all around her.  I felt terrible that I had spooked her so badly, but was comforted by the fact that once she approached shore she slowed, then paused for a moment to process what had just happened.  I think she realized that I was not a threat, and meandered down the shoreline.

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The visit was short but sweet, and I look forward to my next chance to make it up there.  Also, everything worked out with the family emergency as well, so a happy ending all around.  While the place I have grown to love so much is remote in location, it is not remote in my thoughts.  I can still close my eyes, and hear the loons calling to me from the mist, smell the rich earthly scent of the marsh, and imagine the dark nights, largely unspoiled by humanity.

Equipment used: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon G1X2, and Canon 100-400mm II

 


 

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