My search for wild things in wild places
By Zack Metcalfe
It wasn’t her size that impressed me so much as her silence. Female moose can weigh just shy of 800 pounds, but to watch that mass of mammalian muscle tear through the waist high brush and stunted spruce of the Cape Breton Highlands without the slightest impression on the ambiance of early morning was…startling.
She paused in a frame of golden hour light, her ears swiveling like antenna, and I became very aware of the empty space between us, the primal mechanisms for self-preservation turning in my mind. And then she was gone, passing effortlessly through walls of vegetation which would mangle the human skin. I resumed breathing.
There are no bright sides to a pandemic, but the upending of the world does provide opportunities for nations and individuals both. I chose to visit Cape Breton Highlands National Park at my earliest convenience, and take advantage of its unnatural emptiness to photograph a moose while on foot, an objective I’ve pursued relentlessly for three years without success.
On my first visit to this park in 2017, when I originally became obsessed with moose, the easy splendor of its mountainous wows delighted and inspired me, but the more popular trails were, at the time, inundated with international visitors, and more still from Ontario and Quebec. The Skyline Trail, for example, was so flooded with selfy-sticks that no wildlife whatsoever dared to present itself. It was on this very trail in the pandemic quiescence of 2020 that I would find my first moose. It took me twenty minutes.
On a national and regional scale, these are modest mountains, but even on their busiest days they are a reservoir of experience and introspection. For this year only, they do better still. You come upon lookouts intended to support a hundred visitors at once and find it completely empty, or stumble across species reclaiming ground long over trodden by an army of tourists. Or, you can spot a moose which would have otherwise have been frightened off by the masses.
After composing myself and commencing my hike of the Skyline Trail, I found a spruce grouse with her four small and colourful chicks, a bunny and innumerable songbirds, and had to myself vistas with available seating for 50 people. It was three hours before I saw another hiker, and on every other trail that day, the story was much the same. I’ve never known exclusivity like this.
The following morning, Monday, July 6th, this park became more quiet still, the overcast fog and periodic rain shrouding all efforts to push my luck. If the weekend yielded a moose with minimal effort, what might I find on the dead silence of a pandemic workday? My answer was on the banks of Benjie’s Lake, motionless until I had the audacity to clear my throat within earshot.
Here was another female moose, tall, powerful, and spooked by my momentary indiscretion. I saw her dart from the trees and into the open spaces bordering the trail, so I followed, settling on what I deemed an appropriate distance over which we watched each other. She was frightened and I was awestruck, grateful for each minute she didn’t disappear. Eventually I found my manners and broke eye contact, which made her more comfortable. After a while she calmed sufficiently to start grazing from the brushes or surrounding trees, and began, slowly, to walk toward me.
Moose are members of the deer family, naturally skittish with excellent hearing, but terrible eyesight. I’ve seen wild caribou walk within inches of hikers as though they weren’t there, provided the hikers remained still and quiet. It was difficult to interpret the approach of this moose, slow and unassuming, but with the occasional, cautious glances in my direction. I wanted to be near her, to be unafraid and for her to be likewise; this is a deeply human fascination, I guess. She’d closed half the distance between us when I saw two small ears emerge from the high ferns next to her, belonging, I realized in a moment of abject terror, to her baby, until then obscured from my view.
Violence, in my experience, is not the default for most wildlife, but when there’s a baby, acceptable distances change, and stupidity becomes costly. I retreated, and quickly.
Recovering my nerve, I watched them from afar, mulling around the clearing, but then something curious happened. Mother and child approached again, not directly, but in a meandering sort of way, perhaps following a trail of their own which coincidentally ran parallel to that maintained by Parks Canada. Maybe they were just curious, or else the mother had become comfortable enough with this single, quiet primate that she grazed with impunity. Every five minutes or so she raised her enormous head to evaluate me, but would go back to grazing once I’d broken eye contact. The baby watched me too, at first staying close to its mother, but after a time it bounced enthusiastically through the ferns and became distracted by things entirely unhuman. They continued to approach, and I continued to retreat, engaging in an unspoken dialogue for over an hour.
When I finally decided to leave them and return to the trailhead, the memories I’d just formed began to smack of fiction. By the time I reached my car the entire incident felt fabricated, as though the product of an intense daydream. This is a fascinating psychological phenomena, tempering the exceptionalism of an event so we can function thereafter on mundane tasks, like signaling, steering, and the almighty brake pedal.
Eastern moose were eradicated from Cape Breton Island probably by the 1930s, replaced with Western moose by Parks Canada in 1947 and 1948, using eighteen individuals recruited from Alberta’s Elk Island National Park. While I have long been a subspecies purist, and the arrival of these Western moose has been anything but seamless in the absence of wolves (their main predator, also eradicated from the Island in the 1800s) it was a privilege to see them make Nova Scotia their home, a privilege afforded me by the painful closing of our borders, and the need to find beauty within. For now at least, there’s plenty to go around.
A western moose near Benjie’s Lake, Cape Breton Highlands National Park. (Metcalfe photo)
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. The writing of this article was supported, in part, by Tourism Nova Scotia.