Although Algonquin Park is thick with moose, my son and I were denied sightings at the outset of our paddle. But the wait was worth it

 

A MOOSE SIGHTING is one of the most anticipated highlights of any trip to Algonquin Provincial Park in central Ontario. Moose crossing signs greet travellers entering the park via Hwy 60, and drivers along that road spot most of the moose seen in the park each year — especially in spring, when moose seek out road-salt residue in the ditches at the edge of the highway.

Despite keeping my eyes peeled, however, there were none in view when I drove in on Hwy 60 in late May to meet my son, Aaron, at Algonquin’s Lake Opeongo for a five-day, round-trip paddle that would take us as far north as Red Pine Bay.

Experienced backcountry travellers know that moose are commonly found at the water’s edge on rivers and lakes, feeding on aquatic plants. At this time of year, however, those plants are just coming up, so moose often eat elsewhere. Perhaps that’s why on our first two days of paddling, we saw loons, hawks, jays and myriad other birds, butterflies and turtles… but nary a moose.

We reached Red Pine Bay on day three of our trip. Aaron steered our canoe to a spectacular island site in the centre. From there, we had a commanding view of the water and channels heading off in all directions.

The first swimming moose in Red Pine Bay. Too far away to see clearly but it’s out there

After making camp, I climbed some rocks at the north end of the island to take photos. To the southwest, I noticed what looked like a couple of ducks swimming in tight formation out from shore. But within seconds, the flotilla’s speed and direction told me this wasn’t ducks — it was the head and back of a moose.

I’d seen moose swim once before, also in the park. That time it was a cow and her young calf, crossing a narrow channel in the early morning.

This was different. The animal — cow or bull, we couldn’t tell (a male’s antlers don’t get big until summer) — headed straight for the widest stretch of water in the bay. In a canoe, we’d probably need 10 or 15 minutes to get from its location to the far shore — and it was moving at least as fast. Moose, despite their sheer size, are great swimmers and have the stamina to paddle 15 kilometres or more at a stretch. Seeing one in action is a marvel to behold.

I ran shouting back to our campsite to get Aaron, and we watched the moose as it made its way almost completely across the bay — then turned around. Was it tiring? Confused? The answer was neither, apparently. One more turn and it headed directly away from us towards the southern shore, now so far away that we could barely see it in the shadows of the trees.

Exhilarated, we returned to the campfire. But wait. What was that we saw in the water to the north? Another moose? We ran to the rocks where I’d started. No, it wasn’t another moose — it was two. Like the first, both had large ears but no visible antlers. They swam single-file to the east, passing close enough that we could hear the trailer calling to the one in front before the pair curled around a point and went out of sight.

That would be it for our trip. But who’s complaining? Three moose in an hour was the kind of highlight we’d been hoping for; that they were swimming was a surprise we’d never expected — and something we’d never have seen just sticking to the highway.

A more typical Algonquin moose sighting. From 2014

Originally published in Canadian Wildlife Magazine, July-August 2016

Images and video: Brian Banks