Being a wildlife and nature photographer, for me, one of the greatest draws of the North Maine Woods are the moose. These lumbering giants possess an awkward beauty and grace unlike any other land animal I have encountered. Their long legs and wide toed hooves are well adapted for the marshy landscape in which they live. It amazes me, to see the speed at which they are able to pass through a seemingly impenetrable marshland, thick with grass and deep mud. In places where I would sink to my knees, and mire in the soft ground, these thousand plus pound animals motor through with ease.
One thing for sure about the moose of the North Woods, is that these animals are as wild as the landscape which they inhabit. In areas where the moose are well acclimated to people or protected from hunting and other natural predators, it is easy to have an up-close and personal experience with a moose. I have personally been part of large crowds of people, 30 or more, where moose graze to within 20 feet of the group. People can talk, kids can run, cameras can click, and the moose just don’t seem to mind, as the moose have learned that the people here do not pose any threat. While there is certainly a level of excitement at being so close to such a magnificent beast, the shoulder to shoulder crowd all vying for a better spot from which to see, does unfortunately detract from the experience a bit.
~Click on any image, for a larger view~
In the Maine North Woods, the moose are far from tame. They are wild, hunted and skittish, and can spook suddenly and with little reason. While their first instinct is to flee, occasionally they will approach a perceived threat head-on. One of the members of my little group was charged by a seemingly docile cow a few years back, and thankfully at the very last moment, only inches away she halted the charge and backed off. Another step would have resulted in a collision of moose and kayak, and a potentially tragic outcome. I was not present for that experience, however I was able to learn from it. While a moose may appear to be a gentle giant, extreme caution must be exercised, and paying attention to the apparent stress of an animal and reading it’s body language imperative to having a wonderful and safe experience for both oneself and the animal.
Due to the flighty nature of the wildlife in these parts, one must exercise discipline in the approach. It is so exciting to come across one of these animals, that it is tempting to paddle right up and get that picture to prove it, but this approach would yield nothing more than the image of a moose rump as it disappears into the underbrush. Sometimes it may take thirty minutes, or an hour or more to sneak up on a feeding moose. When kayaking in, you must use any and all cover available, such as the shoreline, grasses in the water and the glare of the sun to hide in. You must move slowly and carefully, drawing closer with deliberate and small movements, and only when their heads are underwater as they feed, or facing away. Even then, a slight knock of the paddle on the hull, or scrape against a stick or grass can send them scurrying away. You don’t speak to your friends, and if everyone is careful, you don’t even know your friends are with you. When taking a photograph, your camera is on silent mode, and you only move the camera and lens when you know the movement won’t be seen.
Even when exercising all of these precautions, it is not always possible to get close to experience their natural behavior. But sometimes, everything comes together perfectly; the preparation, the natural conditions and the timing, for a spectacular experience. Spending an hour with a majestic bull moose as it works the shoreline feeding in a natural setting without stress or anxiety is a truly remarkable experience. Their heads dip underwater to reach the vegetation, and when they break the surface, water cascades off the paddles of their antlers. Their jaws work meticulously on the greens as they shake the water from their head and shoulders. Sometimes they grunt to one another, and suddenly snap their heads up to listen as an animal crashes through the undergrowth or splashes in the water nearby. When the moose has had it’s fill, and slowly ambles out of the water to return to the forest, without feeling any threat of your presence, you sit back and smile, pleased to have witnessed the show, without having played any part in it.
One morning of this trip stands out to me, as being particularly special, and potentially a once in a lifetime experience. We awoke well before sunrise with the intention of heading out to the far side of the pond in hopes of spotting moose. We quickly ate, gathered our gear and made our way to the dock. A thick misty fog had formed overnight and visibility was very low. We rigged our kayaks, collected our gear and shoved off into the predawn darkness, consumed by the mist. We made the one mile paddle in just over twenty minutes, making good time across most of the open water. When we were about three quarters of the way across, the distant shoreline began to take shape through the mist, and on this shoreline, two dark shapes stood out from the grass and alders. We slowed our pace, and began our methodical and silent approach. Using the shoreline and grasses to hide our movements, we drifted in as close as we could, delighted to find two beautiful bull moose feeding just offshore.
With perfect timing (largely credited to good fortune), as we moved into position the sun broke free of the horizon behind us. Suddenly, the scene in front of us was bathed in a beautiful golden glow, cutting through the shadows and illuminating the bulls in the mist. We spent over an hour with these two bulls as they made their way along the shore feeding, either unaware of our presence or more likely knowing exactly where we were, but not perceiving us as a threat. After quite some time, both of these bulls made their way back to shore. Upon hearing the approach of a third bull, they exited the marsh up a moose run, leading into the cover of thick trees. This newcomer marched up to the shoreline, and with the mist having dissipated, posed for us in strong golden morning light, taking his turn posing for the camera.
We saw moose, near and far, every day that we were there, sometimes at the farthest reaches of the pond, and others, right in front of our cabin. Every experience whether brief or enduring in this beautiful and wild landscape, was a memorable one. These moose are the kings and queens of the North Maine Woods, regal and majestic as they make the rounds within their kingdom, gracing us, the visitors with their presence.
All images created with Canon 7D Mark II and 5D Mark III camera bodies, and Canon 300mm f2.8is II Lens.
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