I spent the day at work with a relentless urge tugging at my heart to be surrounded by the forests of Gustavus, AK. This feeling had nothing to do with the duties of work, but the comforts I found in the forest. Once again, I gathered my hiking gear, camera equipment and headed for the trailhead.
I had intended on heading towards Bartlett Lake with the desire of finding and photographing a brown bear. I had seen many black bears the day before that were just a few miles from Bartlett Lake and thought to myself that the browns may be hanging out in the woods near the lake.
As my feet got nearer to the trailhead, my plans dissipated and before I knew it I was on a game trail that my friend Sean had showed me earlier in the summer and not on the Bartlett Lake trail. Instead, this well-used trail began to turn from soft spongy moss to thick mud as I walked out of the forest and into a large muskeg. The game trail led me around the fringes of the muskeg. The trail became larger and well used as it tucked in and out of small dying Sitka spruce trees. The muddy trail turned from unidentifiable indentions into clearly marked moose tracks.
My enthusiasm grew with each step, knowing that I was on the right path and that this time I was looking for a moose instead of a bear. With each step, I felt like I was getting closer to something the large animal, but I did not know that the moose would be just around the corner. The sounds the creature made were enough to stop me dead in my tracks and I suddenly remembered that a brown bear had recently taken a moose calf in the area I was now in.
I stopped immediately on the moose trail, crouched down to look through a hole in the dense alder leaves in the direction of the sounds and was relieved to see a moose staring back at me and not a brown bear. She was peering through the same hole at me, and looked awkward with green willow leaves hanging out of her mouth. It seemed that she was just as surprised to see me, as I was she. Maybe she had also heard of the brown bear in the vicinity.
My feet began to sink into the mud as I stared at this large creature. I was still on the fringes of the muskeg; the moose was eating willows on the other side of a stand of alders, and I decided to use the cover of the trees and back track a few paces and assess the situation.
After a few minutes crouching behind the cover of alder trees, I carefully took out my camera gear. I was concerned that the noise I made would scare the moose away. With camera in hand, I crouched and crawled my way through the trees to my left trying to be as quiet as possible. I had made it about 20 feet away from the moose when I decided to double back and approach her from the cover of the trees.
I found an over turned root system root system of a Sitka spruce tree and watched the moose behind the cover of the roots before approaching any closer. At this point, there was clear line of sight between her and I with a distance of 40 yards. I still had the perfect cover to observe and photograph without disturbing her and without her a threatening me. She was now directly in front of me casually eating and alert of her surroundings. Every couple of photographs, she would lift her head up from her grazing grounds, point one ear forwards and the other backwards and listen to the forest. I would stop photographing when she did this so that we could both listen to the sounds of the forest. We heard the chirping birds, the small steps of red tailed squirrels on trees, and the soft movements of the tiny voles underfoot. Everything sounded normal, except when my finger pressed the shutter button and the loud sound seemed to be amplified in this quiet and tranquil land.
Every click of the shutter seemed like the loudest noise on the planet at this special moment. I could hear her chomping on her food. Her feet would sink into the mud and when she moved, it would make a suction sound as the mud formed a tight seal around her feet and my rubber boots. She grazed to the next tree aware of my presence but allowing me to be in her close proximity.
I began feeling bold and a little more comfortable with her so crept out from the cover of my over turned root system. I began walking to my left while still being covered by another alder tree. The sound of my footsteps was as loud as hers because of the mud. The slower I stepped, the more my feet sank into the muck so I would stop every few steps and wait; seeing if the moose cared about my slow approach.
Sometimes, she would lift her head and stare directly at me and I would stand as still as I could until she went back to eating. She would continue on her diet of willows, alder leaves, and smaller greens that grew on the marshy floor. After a few mouthfuls, I would began to take a few steps, slowly making my way to the alder tree and cautiously making my way closer to her.
It seemed like forever, but I finally made it to the alder tree and crouched down underneath its branches. I sat there making myself as small as I could to blend in. I was in an uncomfortable position, with the mosquitoes biting at my body, my butt hovering above the water and mud, and this beautiful creature a stones throw away grazing its way through the meadow; but I remained still. I was so close, that to startle the moose from this distance could be disastrous to me.
I was in awe of the size of this moose. Its head was easily larger than my torso and fear began to flood my brain as the moose started to slowly walk closer to where I had been hiding underneath the alder tree. It still seemed unconcerned that I was there, and was just hungrily eating all of the greenery in the area; but I was beginning to think I had made a serious mistake. She was casually eating her way towards me and all I could do was sit there and clutch my camera tightly. In between her steps, I would chance a few photographs hoping that the sound didn’t draw her to my position.
The moose would take a step, drop its head, take several bites, lift its head and listen to the forest again, then continue to move towards me. How long this went on I have no idea, I had left my watch and phone in the car and was glad to do so because a sudden noise could ruin this moment. Fear crept into my brain as to what would happen if this moose continued on its path towards me. I thought about the possibilities, looking over my shoulder for a quick escape route, but there was none. I had put myself in a bad spot and my legs had begun to loose feeling from being restrained in an uncomfortable squatting position for so long. I calmed my thinking and decided that there was nothing I could do but stay still and wait for the moose to finish its meal.
It wasn’t much longer, but the moose continued on the path of food and its appetite led itself away from me. She grazed over to the opposite side of the meadow where I had originally come across her. She lifted her head once more to listen to the sounds of the forest, lowered her head back down to the ground and took big mouthful of willow. Then, following a small stream began to walk away chomping on bits of greenery as she traveled in the opposite direction of me.