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December 20, 2010

Travelogue 2009-2010, Part 3: Moose Safari, Fall 2009

Filed under: General,Photography,Travel,Wildlife — Steve Hamlin @ 8:27 pm

Artists Bridge, Monday, September 28It’s always good to have a fall-back objective when out to photograph wildlife, just in case the wildlife has other ideas.  Covered bridges are predictable in their habits and make excellent alternative subjects.

Shortly after returning from our summer trip to Maine, Vermont and the northwest corner of Massachusetts, we began making plans for one last trip to prepare us for the long, dark winter.  During the July week we spent at Sunday River Maine, we saw numerous moose, but only one bull.

Ever since our week in Errol, New Hampshire in 2007, when we had come so close to getting the moose photographs we were lusting after, moose cows and pre-rut bulls with immature antlers had lost some of their thrill.  As much as we still liked seeing them, they only whetted my appetite for trying again for a bull at the height of his majesty – overrun by hormones and thinking only of cows in estrus.

Linda went to work looking for accommodations and we checked the calendar for a sweet spot between our commitments and before hunting season.  Meanwhile, I fell back into my workaday routine, catching up on bills and work that had piled up and meeting my cycling and music-playing buddy Carl for rides and rehearsals.

Linda found an interesting rental opportunity in Bethel Maine, just down the road from the place we had stayed at in July.  The price was attractive and there were several one- and two-bedroom units available during the period we had settled on.

We had invited our daughter and her husband to join us for a few days of the last week of our summer trip – the week at our home resort in northwest Massachusetts.  That gesture hadn’t worked out as we had hoped.  The tension was thick, draining the enjoyment from the visit and leaving Linda and me feeling relieved when they left.

Despite the reservations our recent experience had left us with, I still held out hope that we could re-capture some of the camaraderie we had shared on our first couple of trips.  I suggested that we invite them to join us in Bethel.  I laid down ground-rules for the visit – best behavior, no fighting, no uninvited guests, etc. – to which they agreed.  It would cost an extra $100 for the two-bedroom, but Linda and I would also have the benefit of a larger, more comfortable bedroom and private bathroom.

With assurances that everyone would get along, we set the date and made the reservations.  It would be the week beginning September 24 and ending October 1.  This all happened within the first two weeks after our return home from our summer trip.

The month remaining before our newly-made reservations would pass quickly.  On top of our regular work and town commitments, we had the annual Josh Billings Runaground triathlon – a race that Linda and I have run the finish line at for some fifteen years – on September 13, and Carl and I were preparing for a music gig on Columbus Day weekend.

On Tuesday, September 8, our whole world was turned upside-down when I crashed on my bike, breaking my hip and ending up in the hospital.  I wrote about that mishap in a previous post (“An Unwelcome Adventure”), so I won’t repeat the story here, other than to say it put our plans for a moose safari in jeopardy.

Linda checked into the possibility of getting our money back on the condo reservation in light of our situation.  The rental policy stipulated a 50% penalty for cancellations with such short notice.  The manager graciously, if reluctantly, offered to make an exception due to the circumstances we were faced with.

I held out hope that we’d be able to keep the reservations and follow through on our plans.  I reasoned that the condo in Bethel was as good a place to rehabilitate as home.  We waited anxiously to see the surgeon for my post-op appointment – I wanted to have his blessing on the plan.

Everything was carefully choreographed – there were two weeks and a day between my surgery and our scheduled departure date.  We got a follow-up appointment precisely two weeks after the surgery – the minimum that the doctor felt necessary.  I had been diligent in following the instructions of my nurse and my physical therapist and that, on top of the general level of fitness I had attained from riding 2500+ miles in the preceding months, helped me to gain the confidence of my doctor.

He was concerned about the five hour drive, but, with assurances from me and a conspiracy of restrictions between him and Linda, he assented to letting us go.

Meanwhile, our daughter’s marriage collapsed.  It began to appear that we would be spending the week alone.  The likelihood that we wouldn’t have company was a bit of a relief, not only because we’d be spared the turmoil of the end-stages of the marriage, but also because the master bedroom was up a flight of stairs, while the smaller bedroom was on the first floor, along with the living room, kitchen, dining room and second bathroom.   In my newly hobbled state, I welcomed the prospect of living on one floor.

September 24th arrived.  We packed the van and headed for Maine.

Bethel is located in the region identified in state tourism literature as the Western Lakes and Mountains.  It’s very near the New Hampshire state line on Rt. 2.  This location means the area is about equally convenient to I-91 as to I-95.  Leaving from western Massachusetts, the drive on I-91 to northern New England becomes increasingly scenic and less congested – not so the route via I-95.  We set out for St. Johnsbury, Vermont.

Upon leaving the interstate, “moose crossing” signs begin appearing along the sides of the road almost immediately.  Those who know what to look for will also see considerable moose sign – tracks and wallows – to lend credence to the signs of the highway department variety.  Despite both classes of signage, we have yet to see a moose along Rt. 2.

Whenever the opportunity presents itself, and the drive either to or from Bethel is a perfect opportunity, we like to drive Rt. 16 through 13-Mile Woods from Milan to Errol New Hampshire, then past Lake Umbagog (pronounced um-BAY-gog) and through Grafton Notch on Rt. 26.  That route takes in some of the best and most productive moose territory we’ve explored.

On our way to Bethel on this trip, we got to 13-Mile Woods at around 6:00.  In what might have been an omen, we didn’t see any moose, but we spotted some wood ducks in a backwater along the Androscoggin.  We drove through Grafton Notch, passing the state park sign as darkness fell – a time when moose in the road change from welcome photo-op to deadly, hard to see hazard.

Both Linda and I had a fair idea where our accommodations were, but neither of us knew exactly.  We had good directions though, and, after having stayed in the area several times before, we were quite familiar with the roads and the landmarks.  We followed our directions and found the complex easily.  On locating our unit, we were chagrined to find that there were two flights of stairs just to get to the front door.

Linda has a difficult time with stairs, ever since injuring herself falling through a snow-covered hole in the jetty at Rock Harbor in 2003.  She intended to carry our luggage, hers and mine, to spare me taking unwise risks with my newly repaired hip.  On seeing all the stairs, we realized that wouldn’t be possible, so I pitched in, juggling cane in one hand, bag in the other and wondering whether it was better to limit the weight I was carrying or to limit the number of trips up and down the stairs.

Once inside and having surveyed the unit, we decided we might as well take advantage of the master bedroom (subscribing to the “in-for-a-dime-in-for-a-dollar” rationale).  We carried our bags up those stairs and collapsed in exhaustion on the sofa.

Through the slightly over two weeks since my surgery, I had been going through a progression of various discomforts and palliatives – a progression that intensified in Maine.  Percocet was prescribed for pain management.  It worked quite well, allowing me to get much-needed sleep, but it had a nasty side-effect.  It induced constipation the like of which I had never experienced in my life.  I couldn’t wait to get off it.

Between weaning myself off the Percocet and becoming increasingly active, I began to wake in the middle of the night with a throbbing pain in my hip.  Rather than take more pain medication, or while waiting for those that I allowed myself to take effect, I iced the affected area for relief.  The ice helped, but brought its own brand of discomfort.

I fell into a pattern of staying awake and active as long as possible, tolerating the pain until I couldn’t stand it any longer.  Once past the point of tolerance, I would allow myself some pharmaceutical relief, usually falling asleep in exhaustion, only to wake a few hours later to start the cycle over again.

Consequently, I found myself waking in pain at around 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning.  On the positive side, it made it easy to be out at first light.  The downside was that by mid-afternoon I was worn out.

Our first full day in Maine dawned bright and sunny.  I know because I was awake to see it arrive.  I woke Linda early and suggested we do an early morning cruise for moose.  As I recall, she groaned, but tolerantly got up and dressed.  We drove up through Grafton Notch, passing countless wallows and moose trails but seeing nary a moose.

I delivered Linda back to the condo to shower and rest up from being woken at such an early hour.  I was tired too, but I was determined not to squander daylight hours, especially ones so glorious.  I drove over to the Artists’ Covered Bridge – a well-known bridge (reputedly the most painted and photographed in Maine), just a mile or so from where we were staying.

It’s always good to have a fall-back objective when out to photograph wildlife, just in case the wildlife has other ideas.  Covered bridges are predictable in their habits and make excellent alternative subjects.

The foliage was just beginning to change color.  The leaves on some of the understory were turning yellow, but the stars of the annual show – the maples – still clung to their summer green.

I climbed out of the van, grabbed my photo bag and tripod from the back seat, and picked my way carefully down the path to the riverbed.  I set up my tripod and camera on the gravel, hooked my cane over the strap to keep it within easy reach and began a series of shots using different filters and settings.

Artists Bridge, Friday, September 25My goal was to capture the best photo I could of the classic New England scene before me.  I had a beautiful blue sky with just a few fair weather clouds, a picturesque bridge and river, and foliage with a touch of fall color.  I was in no hurry, enjoying the warm sun.  I shot a number of series of photos, moving the camera/tripod setup from vantage to vantage.  It was a splendid, relaxing morning.

After about 45 minutes and several dozen shots, I packed my gear, flung it over my shoulder, and trundled back up the path to the van.  I drove back to the condo to eat lunch, rest up from the morning’s activities, and study my photographic haul.

In the afternoon, Linda was still puttering around, not ready to go out, so I decided to take another series of bridge shots in different light.  I returned to the riverbank and repeated the morning’s movements.  The mid-afternoon sun lit the scene quite differently, and the clouds had thickened, making the light conditions very changeable.  It took a little more patience, but I was able to capture the scene as I had hoped.

Having gotten shots from various positions under a variety of light conditions, I felt satisfied with the day’s work.  I hoped to have another sunny day later in the week to give the foliage a few more days to turn.  In the meantime, we had another job to do.

I went back to the condo, picked Linda up and we went out to take advantage of the late afternoon light scouting for moose.  We headed down through Evans Notch to a bog we had learned about from one of my nurses.  Unfortunately, the dam that flooded the bog was being rebuilt, so there was both very little water and too much construction activity to be conducive to wildlife.

We cruised the dirt roads of the Maine White Mountains until the light failed, but came up empty.  As evening fell, we headed back to the condo, stopping at the grocery store to pick up the makings of dinner on the way.  It was a full day for me and I was tired and achy.  I rested and iced my hip while Linda fixed dinner.

I allowed myself a Percocet at bedtime to help me sleep.  I woke at about 4:00 with a throbbing in my hip.  Unable to get comfortable, I got up, went downstairs and iced my hip again.  After a half hour, the pain had subsided enough that I was able to doze off, but not for long.

So the pattern went: rise early in pain, ice, drive for hours looking for moose, return for lunch and mid-day rest, ice, then drive for hours in the afternoon looking for moose.  We searched north, south, east and west.  The only day the pattern varied was the day we drove around the long loop through Grafton Notch to Errol, New Hampshire, south through 13 Mile Woods and on to Gorham, and back to Bethel.  That day, we ate lunch on the road, so the morning cruise segued seamlessly into the afternoon cruise.

Still – no moose.

By Monday afternoon, I was beginning to lose hope.  We had driven hundreds of miles through known moose territory; we had staked out prime wallows; we had tried early morning, late afternoon, mid-day and dusk.  No moose.

We were running out of time.  Monday was another beautiful fall day, so I took advantage of it by photographing Artists’ Bridge again.  At least I would bring home a fine collection of landscape photos.

Bill, the manager of the condos we were staying at, had told Linda that he could recommend some likely places to find moose.  Having come up empty so far, Linda called him to get his recommendations.  One place he suggested was a pond right at the Maine/New Hampshire state line on Rt. 2.  Since that was an easy jumping-off spot for other likely places in case we struck out again, I decided we’d try that in the morning.

As had become the pattern, I was up early icing my hip.  The day dawned overcast.   I woke Linda and we set out by around 7:00.  We passed the pond, did a u-turn and I pulled onto the shoulder to park.

As I gathered my gear and my chair in preparation for a stake out, Linda surveyed the pond from the passenger seat.  When I asked if she was coming, she said no, but told me I should go ahead.  Unhappy, I said I wasn’t going to leave her sitting by the side of the road while I went off by myself.

I stowed my gear and climbed back into the van, biting back my irritation.  I began driving to no place in particular. Since we were pointed in that direction, I drove back into Maine.  I was driving in the direction of the condo with no particular plan to go there – it was more intuitive than by choice.

We were driving along the Androscoggin.  I was in a frustrated funk.  The week hadn’t gone at all as I had hoped.  The gray morning matched my mood perfectly.

Linda announced that she thought she had seen something.  I was skeptical, but I knew better than to ignore her.  She had been wrong many times, but she had been right more.  I backed up to where we had a view through the dense roadside trees.  Sure enough, there was a moose cow in the river.

I pulled forward and parked in a roadside pull-off.  We shouldered our gear and made our way down a dirt road in the direction of the river.  We found ourselves in a mown right-of-way that led to a ford of a backwater off the main river.  It was difficult to tell which water body we had been looking at from the road.

I limped towards the main river, while Linda headed for the ford.  I worked along a path out to a ledge jutting out into the river where it met the backwater.  I looked back to where I had left Linda just in time to see a big bull moose trot out of the woods across the backwater headed right towards where I had last seen Linda.

Androscoggin bull, Tuesday, September 29Two thoughts rushed into my mind as I raised my camera with its 600mm lens and squeezed off several shots: 1.) I hope Linda is safe; and 2.) I hope Linda’s getting these shots.  There was no way I could cross the distance to where Linda and/or the moose were with my injury, so Linda was going to have to keep herself out of harm’s way.

The moose disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. I limped back along the path to rejoin Linda and make sure she had escaped unscathed. She was fine, but she had quite a story to tell. A cow had emerged from the woods with the bull close behind. The bull had stopped at the woods edge, watching as the cow cavorted across the meadow. I never saw the cow, but Linda had been eyeball to eyeball with her. The bull had hung at the edge of the woods until either he was sure Linda was no threat or lust got the better of him – we’ll never know which – then trotted determinedly after his paramour.

Whichever it was, he had passed quite close to Linda, but his mind was on the cow.  While he had made Linda a bit nervous, she never felt threatened.  She had also gotten a very nice series of shots.

With that, the trip was a success.  It’s funny how quickly fortunes can change.  We continued to search for moose for the rest of the day and again on Wednesday after packing for leaving.  We had no more luck, but we had accomplished what we had gone for.

I left feeling much stronger than I had when we arrived.  The week of walking up and down the numerous stairs and into and out of wildlife viewing spots had been useful exercise for my healing body.  We returned to Massachusetts feeling content with our year’s adventures and prepared to face the long winter, if not happy about it.

All text and images © Steve Hamlin
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