Photographer Jeff Nadler stalks elusive giants
A CONSTANT HIGH-PITCHED DRONE of mosquitoes sent me into my tent that early evening. They were relentless while I set up camp, preying on every patch of exposed skin even though I had covered myself in repellent. Inside my tent, while reading about Moose River Plains Wild Forest trails in a Discover the Adirondacks series guidebook by headlamp, I heard the rustling of an approaching animal. I wondered if it was a black bear and was comforted that my food was locked up in a bear canister down the trail. The creature suddenly halted alongside my tent. I turned off my light, nervously unzipped the tent ﬂap and peered out into the twilight to see the silhouette of a massive moose towering above me. It was a bull with an enormous antler rack that dwarfed his head. I couldn’t believe that I had left my camera in the trunk of my car. My excitement was tempered by my concern about being on the ground in a minuscule tent beneath this huge wild animal.
After a moment the moose resumed his woodland stroll down the campsite spur road and disappeared into the black forest.
I WAS CAMPING IN MID-JUNE in the Moose River Plains Intensive Use Camping Area—the only camper for miles, perhaps because it was blackﬂy season. The blackﬂies were absent, but the mosquitoes were unbearable.
Despite the insects, I often come to the plains this time of year to photograph boreal bird species such as black-backed woodpeckers and gray jays. But this visit came with another agenda, as I had heard that several moose had been observed around a couple of ponds and the main access road in the Moose River Plains. When I arrived that afternoon their presence was immediately conﬁrmed—fresh tracks lined the middle of the road that connects the gates at Cedar River Flow, near Indian Lake, and Limekiln, near Inlet.
The exhilaration of my ﬁrst Adirondack moose experience kept me from sleeping that night. At 4 a.m., in pitch black and a light rain, I left my tent. I strapped on my headlamp and wheeled my 13-foot rotomolded kayak ﬁlled with photo gear and day-trip essentials along the trail to Helldiver Pond, one of the plains’ wilderness waters. I hoped to photograph a—or the same—moose at dawn.
It was chilly for a June morning. I stood at the shoreline contemplating the wisdom of launching my kayak. But my desire for another moose encounter won out, so I paddled onto the water. It was raining, but a rain jacket, waterproof cap, neoprene gloves and kayak spray skirt kept me comfortable and dry.
Gradual daylight exposed plentiful pond lilies—good moose habitat. The shoreline was a pristine wetland with spruce, ﬁr, pitcher plants and water-loving shrubs. I identiﬁed boreal chickadees and an olive-sided ﬂycatcher by song and calls. Across the pond, what looked like a tree stump started moving.
In the dim light I paddled closer and recognized the velvet antlers of my moose visitor. It was the same bull. I was thrilled to see his gorgeous thick coat, since I recall observing spring moose in Maine that had a messy patchwork of bald areas from shedding. I was surprised when this moose stared at me timidly. In The Maine Woods, Henry David Thoreau described moose as “great frightened rabbits, with their long ears and half inquisitive half frightened looks.”
Knowing the unpredictability and power of this wild creature, I paddled backward to signal that I was not a threat. The moose then resumed feeding on pond vegetation, submerging his head and antlers. I didn’t realize moose could hold their breath for such a long time. In the steady drizzle I took dozens of photographs as he foraged along the shoreline. Then he walked out of the pond and slipped into the forest. I had experienced my two most memorable Adirondack wildlife encounters just hours apart.
FOUR WEEKS LATER I RETURNED to the plains to see and photograph moose in nicer weather. It was July, so there were more campers and my choice of campsites was limited. I picked one near the South Branch of the Moose River.
There was no moose encore the ﬁrst evening, but I heard the enchanting nighttime calls of coyotes and barred owls. I woke before dawn to a starry sky, then returned to Helldiver in my kayak. At 4 a.m., again, I was on the water. After a half-hour of paddling I saw the same moose from my previous visit. In 30 days his ﬁve-foot-wide velvet rack was even more massive—there was at least six inches of new growth. He ignored me, but I kept my distance as he fed on pond lilies.
It was awe-inspiring to watch such a powerful but shy animal. This time the morning mist and a golden sunrise offered the perfect photographic lighting. The shoreline was decorated with pink azalea blooms. To steady my camera in the breeze, I wedged my kayak between clumps of shoreline vegetation somewhat hidden from the moose. He rarely looked my way, but continued foraging some 40 minutes before walking back into the Adirondack forest.
In the 19th century, especially in the deep woods of the northern and central Adirondacks, moose (Alces alces) were thriving; vast, isolated wilderness tracts at West Canada Lakes, Perkins Clearing and Newcomb were ideal moose country. But changes in habitat caused by logging and homesteading forced them into more remote areas. Hunters hungry for plenty of meat and Great Camp trophies took many animals, primarily from spring through fall. By 1900 moose were extremely rare inside the Blue Line.
In the 1980s the trend began to shift. Single males walked—or swam—into new territory south of the St. Lawrence River and on the west side of Lake Champlain. For years the breeding population was minuscule, and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) considered an aggressive reintroduction program. Public sentiment generally opposed this intervention, however, and cows began moving into the North Country’s Forest Preserve and timber company woodlands in the 1990s. Today moose are observed across the park, with an area near Upper Chateaugay Lake believed to have the highest density of the animals in New York. According to the DEC, the estimated statewide moose population as of 2010 was between 500 and 800.
This largest member of the deer family may weigh up to 1,200 pounds and stand up to six feet tall at the shoulder. Beginning in March or April, the bulls grow antlers that can reach more than five feet on mature males. They’re shed from November through January. Moose calves, which can be single or twins and weigh as much as 30 pounds, are born in May and June. They stay with their mothers through their first winter, learning the best places to browse.
Sightings of these charismatic megafauna are most likely from spring through midsummer, early morning and late day, at wetlands and ponds that offer aquatic plants for feeding, such as yellow pond lily and pondweed. By August moose tend to stay deep in the woods. In mixed forests, moose feed on maple, birch, aspen, mountain ash, balsam fir and shrubs. They might consume 40 to 50 pounds a day of bark, leaves and twigs. During rutting season in mid- to late September, a bull moose can be ornery and unpredictable. As winter approaches, moose favor higher elevations to feed on hardwood and softwood trees.
See more of Jeff Nadler’s photographs as well as videos of his Helldiver Pond moose encounter at www.jnphoto.net. When he’s not in the Adirondack wilderness, Nadler is a senior ﬁnancial analyst with GE Energy. He lives in Burnt Hills, New York.