For my birthday this year, my lovely wife gave me a moose safari. The trip was organized by Voyageur Quest and featured Rob Stimpson as the professional photographer and moose “shooting” guide. Rob is an amazing photographer and an incredibly enthusiastic guide. I had taken a workshop with him at the Haliburton School of the Arts, and was really looking forward to spending a week-end paddling around Algonquin Park with my camera in search of moose in their natural habitat.
Voyageur Quest has a lodge just east of South River, Ontario at the north west edge of Algonquin. Early on Friday morning, I drove up to the lodge and arrived in time to meet the other photographer participants and eat a nice lunch. The food on this trip was outstanding, especially considering that it had to be prepared in less than ideal conditions. The lodge has no electricity, so refrigeration and cooking is all propane-powered.
The other participants proved to be very friendly sorts from all walks of life. The group was quite small – under 10 people, so there was lots of one-on-one time with Rob and the other guides. After lunch, we went out into Smyth Lake to practice our canoeing skills. We would be spending a great deal of time in canoes over the week-end, so this was very important. After an afternoon of paddling skills, we headed back to the lodge for another great meal and headed off to bed to get a good rest before the big canoe trip.
In the morning, we were taken by car to the outfitter depot to pick up canoes and other supplies and then on to a drop-off point by a river in Algonquin Park. After a short paddle, it was time for our first of three portages. The good news was that our two expert guides had packed everything into handy canoe bags and they did most of the heavy lifting of the canoes, leaving us to trail behind with packs, paddles and cameras.
Our first portage brought us to tiny Round Lake. Another, longer portage brought us to Nahma Lake and then a short portage took us to Craig Lake. We paddled down Craig Lake to our campsite and set up shop. The trip took a couple of hours and we had developed a good appetite for lunch.
After lunch, we got ready for the great moose hunt. After a long winter, moose are ready to chow down on some of their favourite water plants. They seek anything salty at this time of year, so you if you want to skip the canoeing bit, you can just drive along Highway 60 through the park and see them eating the shrubbery by the side of the road where the salt from the highway has run off.
We were looking for a more natural setting, hence the safari into god’s country. We set off from our camp and paddled for about a half hour until we reached a shallow bay in Craig Lake that has lots of salty water plants that are a moose delicacy. This is where Rob likes to hang out in search of our quarry. Sure enough, after another half an hour of paddling about, we spotted a moose on the shoreline starting to wade out into the lake, snacking as she came. The water was completely calm and the reflections of the trees, combined with the moose cow coming towards us was a magical scene.
Rob had instructed us on moose stalking technique. Moose are short-sighted, so as long as you don’t make a lot of noise, you can get quite close. When the moose was feeding, we gently paddled towards her. When she raised her head out of the water, we rested and made no noise. When we got within range of our lenses (most had at least 300mm glass), we could shoot pictures as long as she didn’t seem bothered by it.
We spent quite a bit of time drifting in, shooting pictures, until she finally decided that we were not her kind and left the water for the security of the woods.
After that bit of excitement, we headed back for camp and had a very nice dinner (you may be detecting a theme of sorts and you would be right. The food was very tasty and much appreciated by all the participants).
When I heard of this safari for the first time, it occurred to me that insects might be a problem. The Canadian north woods are renowned for black flies and mosquitoes, especially in the springtime. In case you have never experienced these twin curses, black flies are tiny little things that like to take little chunks out of you. To quote Wikipedia: “Bites are shallow and accomplished by first stretching the skin using teeth on the labrum and then abrading it with the maxillae and mandibles, cutting the skin and rupturing its fine capillaries. Feeding is facilitated by a powerful anticoagulant in the flies’ saliva. Biting flies feed during daylight hours only and tend to zero in on areas of thinner skin, such as the nape of the neck or ears and ankles.” Mosquitoes, on the other hand, poke holes in your skin with their mandibles and do so day and night, although they stick mostly to the shade in the daytime. Both kinds of insects inflict itchy wounds that can cause sleepless nights.
The good news for our canoe trip was that the black flies were pretty much over for the year. The bad news? The wet spring had raised a bumper crop of mosquitoes. Fortunately, I’d invested in a bug jacket that covered my head as well. Otherwise, I’m not sure I could have coped with the onslaught. The worst part of the camping experience was the occasional trip to the thunder mug – the toilet. The thunder mug consisted of a wooden box with a toilet seat perched over a pit. As you undressed and lowered yourself onto the seat, the mosquitoes took great delight in biting your exposed behind!
After dinner, we went out for another long canoe ride, back to our moose bay. The sun was getting lower and the reflections on the water were superb.
This time, we had to work a little harder to find a moose, but we found one munching away in a very weedy wetland. We had a hard time spotting her, but I got a few good pictures of her through the long grasses.
After our evening paddle, it was back to the campsite and some nice conversation around the campfire. We also had a very nice sunset with some interesting cloud cover and a lake that was absolutely still. The picture below was actually staged by Rob so that the canoes were picture perfect.
After a couple of drinks, it was off to bed. The mattress was rather thin and the ground was very hard, but after a long day of paddling a canoe, I was exhausted and sleep came quickly. Fortunately, my room-mate had spent a few minutes killing all the bugs inside the tent and it proved to be bug-tight once it was zipped up.
We awoke shortly after 5 In the morning. The wind was blowing a little, so Rob was initially concerned about our planned early morning paddle. However, one of our photographers had come all the way from Perth Australia for this trip and she would not be deterred from another canoe paddle into the moose habitat. Once we got behind the island where were were camping, the water became glass again and reflected the intense blue sky and the clouds. We had a wonderful sensation of paddling in a suspended dimension with sky above and below.
We saw another couple of cows and managed to get quite close to them. The sun was rising and shining on them, lighting up their faces.
All too soon, it was time to pack up again and make our way back to civilization. We retraced our steps, paddling back down Craig Lake, into Nahma Lake, then Round Lake and finally into the river where we had been dropped off. We loaded the canoes back on the trailer and were taken back to the parking lot to pick up our cars. After a nice lunch in the outfitter’s office, we said our sad farewells and headed back to the city.