Hunting The Moose
By: Gary Gray
To be in position by sunrise at 6 AM I'd have to be awake and moving in my Explorer with coffee by 5 AM, which means I'll have to set the alarm for 4:30 AM to have a chance at any of this. Rationalizing, I can estimate that photography at sunrise isn't really going to be all that great because it takes a while for the sun to get high enough over the mountain peaks to the east to light the area I'll be working. I can lollygag just a bit if I need to.
The camera equipment is packed and sitting by the door of my cabin, the coffee is hot. It's not gourmet, it is Folgers, but at 5 AM it's as good as the nearest Starbucks, which by my estimate is at least 50 miles of mountain road from me in the opposite direction. Where I'm going, there will be very little in the way of modern convenience, unless of course I've taken it with me. If I were an eagle, I'd have to fly about 35 miles in a straight line to get where I'm headed this morning, but my wings look exactly like tires and for me to get to the peak of Cameron Pass, I'll need a good hour of drive time and at least a half thermos of coffee before I'll be anywhere near the Shiras Moose I'll be looking for.
You might not know it to look at one but the Shiras Moose are the smallest of the North American sub-species of moose. They can be found in Montana, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. A full grown bull (male) can weigh as much as 1,400 lbs and the females can weight up to 1,100 lbs. Moose are excellent swimmers and can often be found in mountain lakes grazing on the grass that grows beneath the water. They are curious animals and have been known to wander into populated areas in search of, well, who knows. For the most part, they are not afraid of humans and will keep a comfortable distance. If approached, they will generally turn and go the opposite direction but they are also unpredictable and can become aggressive if they feel threatened. Females can be especially protective of their young and have been known to attack trucks. Moose are also very cautious of dogs, so approaching a moose with a barking dog is not a good idea. Otherwise, you can normally find a nice close viewing spot and the moose will not be overly concerned with your presence. Just be quiet and don't move around much and you stand a good chance of getting fairly close to them without having to fear them. As with any wild animal, don't try moving directly towards them. It triggers a fight or flight response and if you're looking for photographs, that's not the way to get them.
There are at least 3,200 moose in Colorado and North-Central Colorado, also known as North Park, is the moose viewing capital of Colorado. The open range and high country between Walden Colorado and Red Feather Lakes to the east has reported moose populations in excess of 600 animals, and this population is growing at a healthy rate. I personally consider the town of Gould, just west of Cameron Pass to be ground zero. Moose can also be easily found in the central mountains as far South as Indian Peaks, Kenosha Pass, Guanella Pass, Bailey, Boreas Pass, Breckenridge, Dillon, Silverthorne, Grand Lake & Grandby areas and are quite abundant in Rocky Mountain National Park, North of Denver
The trick to photographing moose though is to not rely on them coming to you but to go where they live. Go into their world, respect their way of life and you'll be treated to a wildlife show you've only dreamed of. As the old saying goes, leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photographs
My favorite time of the year for photographing these magnificent animals is July and August. Their antlers are close to full, but still covered with velvet. The males can be found hanging out together in lush willow marshes, sometimes in groups of a half dozen or more. The females and calves normally keep a distance from the bachelor groups, but can generally be found within a few miles of them. As Summer edges closer to Autumn, they will begin to co-mingle. Around the last week of August, you can expect the males to begin losing the velvet from their antlers and many of the males will already be courting the females.
By 5:15 in the morning, I'm on my way out of Red Feather Lakes and moving south along road 69, over Pingree Hill and south towards highway 14 which runs east & west along the Poudre River. Once I reach highway 14 at Rustic, CO, I'll turn west and drive another 27 miles to Cameron Pass. I know there's a good possibility of finding moose at the top of the pass, but that to me is low hanging fruit. I'm after something more than the moose feeding in the willows along the side of the highway. I'm going for the high country lakes and I want to be there before the sun hits the water.
There are a number of choices to make and the best choice is going to be determined by previous scouting trips and current weather conditions. I also take into account the amount of camping activity in the area, as I don't generally like to work near camp grounds, as they tend to be noisy, smelly and unattractive areas for photography. I don't like people and cars in my shots and most campers/tourists don't know how to behave. I also don't like to take tourist level photographs from the side of the roads along the entrances and exits to campgrounds. I prefer to earn my photos by moving more than 50 feet away from my car. I use the parking lots near trail-heads for starters and I'll lug my gear along the trail for a half mile or more to get to the more unimproved areas in most of the lakes.
Since I teach workshops, I'm not going to spill my exact hot spots, but I can give you a general idea of where to go if you are so inclined to rough it yourself.
Highway 14 between Chambers Lake and Gould is the hottest area this year. You can more often then not find moose along the side of the highway, sometimes in the highway and almost always within a mile or two of the highway along some side route. I always begin by scouting the area in advance. Just about any lake or stream in Rawah Wilderness, Roosevelt National Forest, State Forest State Park and along North Michigan Creek is a good place to look. Chambers Lake, Lost Lake, Joe Wright Reservoir are very accessible and you can almost be guaranteed to find moose in the vicinity of one of these lakes.
This particular morning, I've got my eyes on several moose I've seen at a small lake I've scouted prior. I've photographed females with calves, adults males both young and old. I'm pretty sure I'll get a moose or two if I get to the right spot along the shore of the lake before it's late in the day.
When I arrive at the lake, it's already 6:20 AM, and though there is enough light to see, it's still fairly poorly lit in the woods around the lake as the sun hasn't risen above the trees yet.
“Perfect timing” I'm saying to myself as I grab my camera pack, a tripod and a camping chair from my Explorer and head across the marsh towards the eastern side of the lake. It's a little nippy this morning. At 10,000 feet above sea level in mid-August, one can expect it to be a little on the chilly side. I grab a light, waterproof jacket and a pair of light gloves. My waterproof Ecco Boots are lightweight and provide the traction I'll need to stumble through the wet ruts of the marsh between me and the lake. By mid-day, it will be warm enough that I won't need the jacket, but the walk to the lake at this altitude and at this time of day is going to be cold and wet. I always come prepared for the elements.
I'll have to walk about 300 yards to get from the dirt road to the lake's shore, and most of that walk will be through marsh along game trails running parallel to the edge of the forest. As I begin moving I can already see that I'm in luck, as there is a female moose about 100 yards ahead of me grazing in the willows east of the lake, between me and the lake. If I make just a little noise, she'll likely notice me and move off closer to the lake for her morning breakfast. It works. As I get within 100 yards of the lake shore, I can see clearly that she is no longer loitering in the willows and is in fact nowhere in sight. I approach the lake through a path in the woods, quietly now, so as not to alarm any moose that may already be in or near the lake. Once the lake becomes more visible through the woods, I can see the female I spotted earlier along standing along the shore my south, about 200 yards away. She's barely in the water and busy pulling grass from the bottom of the lake. I'm certain she's aware of my presence, however, she's not at all concerned with me being along the shoreline some distance from her. I'm no threat and I'm not paying much attention to her. She continues to graze as I find a spot along the wooded shoreline to set up my primary photography location.
Parked along the tree line on the North side of the lake, I have a very nice view of the entire lake and when the sun comes up to my left, I'll have excellent light until about 10 AM. In a perfect world, I'd set up camp on the South shore, but it's a rocky and steep cliff on that side of the lake and there is no cover to work from. Plus, the absolute best spot to photograph moose in this lake is going to be on the North-West corner of the lake in the lily pads and grassy shallows, and the spot I'm in will allow me to to get close to any animal that ends up in that portion of the lake while keeping the sun to my back.
I'm in heaven and the sun hasn't even hit the water yet. There's already one large female on the far side of the lake and she doesn't appear to be going anywhere but further into the lake. Each step she takes brings her closer to me in better light.
Within a few minutes of arriving at the lake, I've got my lawn chair positioned, my tripods up, a camera and my high-definition video camera are mounted and ready to record images. Time for another cup of coffee and a granola bar. Breakfast with the moose.
My camera kit this morning is a Canon EF 100-400mm L lens mounted to a Canon EOS 7D, mounted to my Manfrotto tripod. In my pack as a backup camera I have a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L mounted to a Canon EOS 1Ds MKII, which I'll use if and when the moose come closer to me. I have a Sony HDR-SR1 with Zeiss glass, 1080 High-definition camcorder mounted on a carbon fiber tripod. The Sony has a zoom lens equivalent to a 28-400mm reach and the Zeiss lens is pretty darn sharp all the way out to 400mm.
I've just begun to eat my granola bar when other moose begin to appear.
It doesn't get any better than this.
The moose show continues for another two hours until a group of young campers shows up on the road above the lake making far too much noise for the moose. Within two minutes of the camper's noisy arrival, the moose have left the area and are out of sight. The poor campers will never know what they missed. The only thing they would have seen when they go to the lake was a distant view of my backside as I walked out through the marshy willows towards my SUV with my cameras full of photographs and a smile on my face.