Last week I made the 3 hour drive from my home near Westport, Ontario up to Algonquin Park. The park is part of the Ontario provincial park system and is often referred to as the ‘jewel of Ontario’. And a jewel it is. Despite being only a few hour drive from two of Ontario’s biggest cities, Toronto and Ottawa, the park is brimming with wildlife. Bear, Eastern Wolf, Fox, White-tailed Deer, Beaver, Pine Marten and a whole host of other animals are abundant in the park. As with most wildlife, a glimpse of some of these may be rare because many of these animals are secretive and avoid humans. But for the persistent who are willing to get out on the trails in the early morning, you may be treated to some great wildlife viewing.
One of the things Algonquin is known for is its moose. The many bogs and marshes within its boundaries provide ample habitat for a healthy moose population. Spring and fall are the best times to visit the park to see moose. So I packed my camera gear in my little Toyota Yaris and headed for the park. This trip was to be a brief one – less than 48 hours for a round trip – but I had high hopes for making some great moose photos.
I wasn’t disappointed. I went into the park for a few hours in the evening and saw one moose, a young bull happily grazing at the side of the road on some lush grass. He didn’t seem bothered by my presence and so I had time to get a few good shots until someone else pulled up in their truck and rather than hanging back quietly to rattle off some frames, decided to walk toward the moose to get a closer shot. That’s never a good idea with moose – some are pretty mellow, but some aren’t and so you need to keep your distance. You certainly wouldn’t be doing what this guy did, during the fall rut when males are charged full of hormones and out searching for females to mate with.
It was starting to get a bit too dark for good photos, so I headed back to my motel room for a good nights sleep and an early return to the park the next morning. I arrived at the park to buy my day permit at 5:45 am. It was light by then, but not bright, so still a bit challenging in terms of light levels for my 600 mm lens. I shoot with a Nikon D200, which I love. But the D200 has old technology and so I don’t shoot about ISO 320 because of the graininess of images at higher ISO’s.
The southern park corridor, where I was on this trip, consists of a paved highway (Hwy 60) that runs roughly 55 km east-west along the southern border of the park. It is the most developed part of the park, with visitors centres, museums and a number of car-camping campgrounds. But in May, before the kids are out of school and families on vacation, the park is wonderfully quiet. And so the best way to spot moose is to drive along Hwy 60, early in the morning. The moose come out of the forest to graze on maple saplings and lush grass at the side of the road or to munch on aquatic plants in one of the many marshes and bogs.
Within a 5 minute drive of the east gate where I purchased my day permit, I spotted a moose grazing at the side of the road. I quietly pulled over, set my tripod and lens up on my side of the road and happily rattled off frames while the young bull grazed, not minding my presence. He was on the other side of the road, eating aquatic plants in a marshy area. I didn’t approach him for a closer look. That would be stupid. Plus, with my 600 mm lens, I didn’t need to get closer. In fact, the only images I could get of this moose were head shots. Yes, being that close with a long lens means you can’t even get a full body shot. Not that I’m complaining at all. 🙂 No way! I’d dreamed of getting these kinds of images for years. But you wouldn’t even need a 600 mm lens to get great shots. A 200 mm with a teleconverter or a 400 mm lens would be plenty to make great images at this distance.
I shot several images of this moose and then piled my photo gear back in my car to head on down Hwy 60. One minute later, another moose. So I got out, quietly set up my tripod and rattled off more frames. Once I was happy with what I had gotten, I headed off down the road again. Not even one minute later, two more moose – this time a mother and what looked like last year’s calf, an older one, not a newborn. I didn’t get any photos of them. Mum was just too wary with her calf by her side and she slowly led her calf back into the forest. Getting great images is so satisfying, but no image, regardless of how amazing it is, is ever worth disturbing wildlife. Wildlife photography needs to be ethical, meaning the well-being of the wildlife comes first. Period. No image is worth harassing wildlife. And so when Mum and calf wandered off into the forest, I didn’t pursue them. They clearly didn’t want to be bothered. So the best thing to do in these cases is to enjoy the fleeting moment you had with these beautiful animals and then continue on down the road in search of others.
Another minute down the road, another moose. Wow! This was incredible! And my good luck continued. Inside of 10 minutes, I spotted 5 moose! In fact, in my very short time in the park, in less than 48 hours, I saw 11 moose. I photographed 5 of them. The rest were either fleeting glimpses or cases where the animal was partially hidden by the forest. But oh, these sightings were fantastic. Moose are remarkable animals. They are BIG. I was seeing mostly young males and females rather than full-grown adults. But these guys are still big. And they are gangly-looking, with their long, spindly legs, robust body, big ears and long face. And the males have a waddle, a fleshy bit of skin that hangs under the chin, which makes them look all the more bizarre.
By 10am, the sun was high in the sky, the temperature and humidity soaring and the moose scarce. This is the best time to head to one of the many hiking trails for a walk. I did two hikes – one to a lookout. It was a steep walk up that got the heart working hard, but the view at the top was well worth the effort. The other hike I did was the first few kilometres of the Mizzy Lake Trail. Typically it’s a 6 hour hike and I didn’t have 6 hours, so I just did the first few kms. And that was plenty, given that I was lugging around my 600 mm lens, my tripod, and a few other lenses. Although I didn’t see moose on the trail, I did see many tracks. This is a good trail to go to early in the morning when the moose are active. Next trip….
Spring is a fantastic time to visit the park because of the abundance of wildlife and the lack of visitors (it gets really busy in the southern corridor of the park, June through August). But having the park to myself came at a cost – BLACKFLIES! Yes, those pesky little biting flies with big appetites. Bug repellent is a must when visiting the park. Unfortunately, the night before I had run out of repellent while I was out walking the Spruce Bog Trail. And by the time I got back to the east gate of the park, the park office was closed and so were all the shops in nearby Whitney, where I was staying. So when I entered the park the next morning, I had no insect repellent. And the blackflies were BAD. I paid a high price for my moose photos. Three days later, my bites are still itchy. And I’d stopped counting when I discovered 30 bites on my neck and the back of my head (I didn’t bother counting how many bites I had on the rest of my body). Yes, they even work their way through your hair to bite your scalp. The blackflies were not fun. But I hadn’t come all this way to photograph moose only to be chased in by a gazillion biting flies. No. Instead, I donated blood to the local blackfly population, but left happy (and itchy) with my moose photos. Next time I’ll check my stash of bug repellent before I leave on my trip. I won’t be making this mistake again….