Photographing Moose in Maine
In Maine there is a rock. Well, I’m sure there are trillions of rocks in Maine, but there is one in particular. Gracefully, or perhaps violently placed by an ancient glacier, it sits perfectly positioned at the edge of a pond, Sandy Stream Pond. This rock is large and accommodating. A portion of the rock gently ramps into the water and the remainder creates a platform that stands a good three feet above the shimmery surface. At any given moment 15 to 20 people can easily take up residence on this rock and wait.
Wait, you ask? Yes, wait.
This rock is magical. It’s hard and cold and very impersonal on the surface, like any other rock, but with time all those superficial characteristics disappear. The boardwalk trail winds through the scented evergreen forest and delicately terminates with the last board merely a step to “the rock”. For some this is a turn-around point, simply a dead end. I’ve seen them oh so many times. They step up onto the rock and peer around as if looking for a bridge to join the rest of the trail. Disappointed they turn and step back to the board walk.
Oh, what the impatient miss.
It is part magic and its part mental. In our hurried lives we hardly ever wait by choice, myself included. But here it is different. Here I’ve learned from experience that waiting pays off. Putting everything in perspective I calculated that we drove over 1,400 miles to be here at this moment and we have at least 14 hours of daylight for the next three days. We have nothing else to do with our time and we should be rewarded for waiting. At least I hoped. Thoughts come and go and there is a calm that only nature can provide. With gentle breeze blowing, birds calling from different angles, water lapping softly, time stops being measured.
In my hand I’m holding a knife and patiently whittling my “waiting stick”. The chips drop from side to side and I’m only vaguely aware of the two other photographers who have arrived and set up their tripods. Next to me, my son Max has created a sailboat from a discarded limb of the forest. How he did this in such a short time, I have not idea. What time was it? Again, I had no idea nor inkling to learn. Seeing the two photographers dutifully scan the horizon, I smile, lower my head and continued my waiting stick.
Breaking the timeless trance, Max leaned in and ever so carefully whispered, “moose”. Trance broke, my neck pivoted to the pond and began a quick scan. Then a tap on my shoulder and his finger pointed to the backside of the rock, where the board walk meets. He was right there within riding distance. Yes, I’ve imagined just jumping on a big bull and riding him, but I think I’ll just leave that idea in imagination land. Being oh so prepared, as I thought I was, with my 200-400mm Nikon lens mounted on my tripod, I couldn’t even focus on him at that distance.
Nonchalantly, as if we were nothing more than a couple squirrels sitting on the rock, he lumbered off the trail along the pond’s edge away from us and into the water.
Moose are herbivores and ferocious eaters. Some experts believe that new born moose, usually calved in June, need to gain 600 pounds before winter in order to survive. Nursing cows have to eat for two and bulls appetites are just as enormous. Saplings, twigs, plants of all kinds, but especially aquatic plants are big on the moose menu.
Moose will venture into relatively shallow ponds looking for plants to graze. Once the plants are located, a moose will spend hours grazing in water. They dip their heads underwater and presumably graze much like a domesticated cow. With a large bunch of plants plucked, they lift their heads and chew and chew. Then they repeat, over and over.
Sometimes the fly situation will get so bad moose will dip underwater just to get some relief from the swarms. Unfortunately, the swarms simply hover and wait for their host to return. Head nets are a must for these adventures and as silly and socially awkward as they can be, they are also a life saver.
After spending a morning with this hungry bull, we too went and had lunch. Returning in the afternoon with beautiful back light, we found the same bull back in the same spot, only now with completely different light. After a couple seat-level shots I noticed the bokeh in the sparkling water. Carefully, using my rain jacket as a base, I positioned my camera as close to the water as possible. This served two functions. First it made the layers of sparkling water much more dramatic.
Secondly, it visually placed the moose in the “middle” of the scene by having the horizon overlapped by the moose. By seeing the moose head breaking the horizon we immediately know that the moose is forward of the background. Sounds minor, but from a higher angle the moose simply looks like a blob in the middle of the water.
Apparently moose have a cut off point in their stomachs. On more than one occasion I’ve seen moose simply stop eating and walk straight out of the water. And this was the case now, except something was different. He was heading straight for us. Naturally, we kept shooting and shooting as he approached. Even though he was showing no signs of aggression, he was getting pretty close. Max and I moved from the low position to the upper portion of the rock, and of course, kept shooting. Except, the dang moose did it again. He got so close I couldn’t focus. Which, by the way, the close focus distance for the Nikon f/4 200-400mm VR lens is eighteen feet. Yes, this moose left an area probably 300 yards away from us, on the other side of the pond, and walked within eighteen feet of our location, again, with zero concern or fear for us.
With my camera essentially useless and my remaining gear packed away in my backpack at my feet, I did what any desperate photographer would do. I grabbed my iPhone and made a video. LOL Remember, it’s not the camera that is important. It’s what you do with the camera.
There is a rock in Maine that is not a rock. It is a gateway, a bridge, for us humans to see into a wild world as it was, perhaps as it is supposed to be. This rock is a place where nature does its thing and carries on unaffected by time. Here on “the rock” it could be 2014, 1776, 1861, 1620, or 1492. Except for a slim silent trail made by a microscopic jet crossing above, there is really no way of knowing.