The Day The Moose Came Out
By: Gary Gray
The best sources I can find inform me that moose never lived in Colorado in stable breeding populations; however, there is folk history that indicates moose were hunted by Native Americans in the state, so it’s very likely moose have wandered in and out of Colorado from neighboring states for ages. The reintroduction of moose into Colorado in 1978 and in the mid 90’s was a success. Today, by some estimates there are over 3,000 Shiras Moose living in stable breeding populations in Colorado.
Each year in July and August, my moose hunts occur. I’m trophy hunting. Trophy photographs, as lethal hunting season is a distant reality when I first break out my camera gear.
I normally try to plan a private trip with a good friend each summer and this year, August 2017 was the month. Jonathan Steele, a well respected photographer from Connecticut, would join me for a week of record setting moose wild-life photography in Northern Colorado. We would work from my cabin in Red Feather Lakes, about 30 miles directly south of Laramie, Wyoming, as a wobbly crow flies. Our photographic hunting grounds would be Northern Colorado’s Laramie Mountains and an area referred to as North Park.
My best day ever for sighting different moose started normally enough at 5 am with darkness and frozen breakfast burritos, overheated in the microwave oven. One cup of well water coffee down our throats and we’re half way over Pingree Hill when the first signs of light are making the narrow dirt mountain road more visible with each mile traveled.
This was Jon’s first full trip into the Colorado wilderness to look for moose and he’s a little bit apprehensive about what to expect. Me, I’m not concerned in the least, the week before I broke a record for sightings in one day with twenty moose counted and many good photographs captured. It takes us an hour to arrive at our destination, 12 miles to the far end of forest road above 10,000 feet in the Laramie Mountains of Colorado.
Arriving on location as planned, it was three miles down the dirt road when we first encountered two bulls and a cow moose, browsing the willows near the road. We stopped long enough to get a few shots, but I knew the good stuff was up ahead of us. We didn’t want to dawdle and lose first light. It was 6:10 AM.
Our first non-moose animal encounter was a bull elk. Browsing the wildflowers amongst the forest downfall near a lake in the morning sunrise mist. This elk as we would later learn was about to begin the process of shedding velvet from his antlers.
Within a mile of spotting the bull elk, we encountered a group of five Shiras Bull Moose eating breakfast in the willows next to a lake. It was shortly before 7 AM, our coffee wasn’t cold yet and we had already encountered 8 moose in the morning sun.
Jon and I worked the moose for another hour until they drifted into the woods and out of sight.
As we broke off from the group of bulls, Jon and I began laughing a bit at the good fortune we had with only an hour of sunlight behind us.
“It’s like they are lining up to get their photos taken this morning” I said.
“Yeah, that’s 8 moose and counting. More than I’ve seen in my life.” Jon replied.
“Yep, take a number. Now serving moose B9.” I said.
“Calling number B9” Jon says with a laugh. “Why the B?”
“Because moose B good” I replied.
It was still before 8 am.
Five more minutes of dirt road behind us and we came across two moose cows with calves and a young bull, all jockeying for position to get their turn at a known watering hole. One of the cows and her calf came walking boldly down the road, stopping only when they realized there was a major jam-up at their intended destination. The mother didn't hesitate and careened off the road to their right and up along a hillside above us to the left.
The calf was left standing dumbfounded in the middle of the dirt road when it realizes mother has already left it behind. Gathering its composure, it scurried up the hill and quickly joined mother who had now circled us and was going for the water from behind us.
After maneuvering, the mother moose realized that the problem of getting to the water hole wasn’t solved, as there was another cow with calf already there with a young bull lurking in the trees beyond. She took her calf off to a nearby field where she could wait until the action died down a bit.
It isn’t long before hunger begins and we decided to work our way towards the town of Walden where we could get breakfast at my favorite place to have breakfast. The Moose Creek Cafe.
As we drove through State Forest State Park along highway 14, I said to Jon, “lets check mile marker 61.”
“What’s so special about mile marker 61?” Jon asked.
“When somebody asks me where to find moose, I always say stop at mile marker 61 and watch for an hour. You’ll probably see moose.” I replied.
“I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve driven past this point and seen moose. It’s part of their main highway system, the move through here like a train station.” I said.
A few minutes later, mile marker 61 was in view. It’s nothing special. Just a pull-off along the two lane highway, but there’s a side road and a large pull-out area. Beyond are the willow fields and a creek.
I turned the engine of the F-150 off and within 2 seconds, 4 moose jump out of the willows along the service road and proceeded to move directly into the creek and willows in front of us. We wasted no time taking photos I will add.
Breakfast can wait until this group leaves the field, we both thought.
Though not all moose we saw before breakfast were in photographable positions, we counted 29 different moose by mid-day, shattering my previous full day record of 20 sightings.
"Now serving number B29." We repeated the mantra after each sighting, the number moving higher in count with each new furry beast seen.
We did chase a few dead ends near Walden after breakfast. A bit late in the day for full sunshine activity, we explored a white pelican colony and along the Illinois River to the south. Once back in the mountains, the weather changed to cloudy and dreary, which actually makes for good moose photos, as you can shoot all day long in what I call “moose light.”
We found a Bingo almost immediately after returning to the mountains. A healthy young bull moose in a lake. Close to us, so we didn’t have to slog our gear through a marsh in the rain, at least not too far.
We continued working the same general area for other cows and calves, finding several more moose in nearby locations as the rain continued to spit at us and the light remained high country dreary.
One thing about moose photography, you can be certain you will not find a lot of moose in nice shooting conditions. They live above 10,000 feet and love water, wet, marshy, cold, nasty conditions that nothing else can move through. ISO 1,600 is good light.
Our luck improved a few hours later when we found another bull moose in a different lake filled with lily pads. Moose B Good.
Not only had our luck improved, so had the weather. Enough so, we were able to get a little sun light and broken clouds in the distance. Jon and I spent a good part of the afternoon taking photos of one lone bull eating lilies in the lake.
As the day lingered into late afternoon, the light again faded with a renewed round of rain. We continued finding moose, B34, B35, etc...Having agreed before that we’d head for the cabin and knock off for the day in time to have a well deserved hot meal and get some rest for tomorrow. It's been a 12 hour day of photography at high altitude.
It’s an hour’s drive back, so we knocked off at moose #39 and headed for the restaurant at Glen Echo before they closed for the day.
As we continued over Pingree Hill back to Red Feather Lakes along the darkening forest road, Jon and I lamented the fact that we only found 39 moose that day and not a good even 40. Jon got whimsical and said.
“You’ve talked about moose being in your yard in Red Feathers, wouldn’t it be cool if #40 was standing in your yard when we got back to the cabin?”
“I wouldn’t totally rule that out, but I wouldn’t plan on it. Highly unlikely.” I said.
We arrived at the cabin at the last light of dusk, enough to allow us a few moments of solitude from one another. Jon sits on the deck and calls home on his mobile phone as I walk around the yard, looking around the area while the light allows.
I spotted something moving across the dirt road from the cabin, maybe 30 yards away. It was big.
I walked across the road and spied that signature long brown face of a moose standing in the trees behind my neighbors cabin.
“Jon!” I yelled. “Now serving number B41” I said pointing my finger in the direction of moose #40.
Jon was across the road in less than 10 seconds.
When Jon returned to the road, he said to me. “Bull with a big rack, right there. Can’t believe it.”
“Now serving # B41.” Both Jon and I repeated in unison as we walked back to the cabin across the dirt road.