2023 Gunflint Summer Trip recap
Each encounter with one of Minnesota’s moose is special. Their massive size instills awe in those who see them. They are iconic to the forests of northern Minnesota and yet it isn’t uncommon to hear someone remark “I’ve never actually seen a moose in Minnesota.” Even some locals lament their lack of sightings despite living in close proximity. Their abrupt decline in population over the past 15 years makes seeing one that much more special. My summer trip to the Gunflint was nothing short of spectacular, and while I saw many moose, there were three encounters in particular that were a highlight of the trip.
At the beginning of June, my family and I made our now-annual summer trek to Grand Marais for a week of teaching photography and exploring the Gunflint area. This was my second year of teaching a beginner photography course with North House Folk School and we decided to turn it into a week long trip. What made this trip different from every other trip we have taken was that it was no longer just my wife and I. On April 1, my wife and I welcomed our first child into our family, thus forever changing our efficient travel capabilities. Nonetheless, we were eager to show our daughter the place that feels like home away from home and introduce her to the wilds of northern Minnesota. We had to scale back on certain endeavors, but for the most part we did our best to incorporate her into our usual activities. She experienced her first canoe ride, saw her first moose, experienced long drives up and down the Gunflint in search of wildlife, and enjoyed all of our favorite restaurants in Grand Marais and along the Trail. All in all it was a successful trip - not only because we didn’t lose our minds traveling with an infant, but the amount of wildlife we encountered exceeded all of our expectations.
I’ve written about past trips up the Gunflint - the first time I saw a moose, the frustrations of striking out when searching for wildlife, as well as my trip from last June where we saw six moose - at that time a personal record for sightings in one trip. I would have been content with repeating last year’s success. My hopes were for a handful of sightings and several decent photographs documenting what I believe to be the most symbolic animal of northern Minnesota.
My hopes were shattered in the best possible way.
Over the course of 8 days, I had over 24 moose sightings with what I believe to be close to 20 different individuals. My first morning of searching I saw 7 moose, walking away with some of my all-time favorite images I have ever captured. At that point I considered the trip a success! Day one I had already seen more moose than I typically do in an entire weekend. And the fun was just beginning. Instead of recounting each individual sighting, there were three in particular that will forever stand out to me that I feel like sharing in addition to a series of photos connected to each encounter.
First was a young bull. I’m assuming 3 or 4 years old based on its antler growth. I was photographing two smaller bulls when, out of the forest, he came strolling down to the water and proceeded to cross the channel right in front of me. For the next 30 minutes or so, he fed along the shoreline, allowing me to silently paddle at a safe distance, capturing image after image. From time to time he would look up, check me out, and then resume his morning meal. After he went back into the forest I paddled back to shore. I was elated, knowing I had captured arguably the best moose photos I had taken in Minnesota. I had gotten to spend nearly half an hour with this moose in beautiful morning light. He was a patient subject, providing opportunities left and right for photos. It was unlike most encounters I’d had, and in that moment I didn’t think it could get any better.
Well, I was wrong.
Three days later, as we drove up the Gunflint towards our campsite, I noticed a couple cars pulled over next to a pond near the center of the trail. I immediately got excited, knowing it was likely a moose. I was expecting a young bull or a cow. What I didn’t expect was to see was one of the largest moose I had encountered in Minnesota. Not only were his antlers already quite large for June, but he was built like a tank. Yet even more unique was his demeanor. Typically the larger bulls I’ve encountered don’t tolerate humans for long. I’m usually lucky if I can fire off a handful of photos, praying for one or two to be in focus. But instead of retreating into the woods, even as car after car pulled over to see him, he continued to linger. I slipped on my waders, carefully made my way to water’s edge, and ventured into the pond up to my waist to get the eye level shots I never thought I would get of a moose this size. My shutter clicked away, capturing different movements, water dripping from antlers, shots straight on with the moose staring into my lens. All the while his body language was calm, his ears alert, but not indicating aggression. Then, after about an hour, he glanced towards the growing crowd and sauntered into the woods.
Later that evening I decided to head back to the pond with no expectation he would return. Well, there he was in the exact same spot. And the same story the next morning. Each encounter yielded hundreds of photos. These were the “summer moose” shots I had sought after for four years. A large bull moose in velvet, eye level and feeding in a pond, water dripping from its antlers. This was a moment I had been chasing - hundreds of hours, thousands of miles. Driving, hiking, paddling, bushwhacking, portaging. It was an incredibly rewarding moment.
Last, but not least, was an encounter that will forever have a sense of mystery around it. Shortly after my first encounter with the aforementioned moose, I was driving further down the Gunflint and noticed a large shape across a lake. I snapped a quick photo and zoomed in. Sure enough, another bull moose, this one even bigger! It was a couple hundred yards out - too far for a decent photo and before I could even think of attempting to paddle across the lake, he had disappeared. The next day, I noticed a different moose in the same spot. This time I was able to slide my kayak into the water and paddled across the lake. It was a cow moose feeding along the shore. I raised my camera to snap a picture, when suddenly I noticed a large shape to my left. It was the moose from the previous day. His head had been submerged while he fed, and in the fading light I hadn’t noticed him. We paused, surprised to see one another. He hoisted himself out of the lake and crashed through the brush to feed in private. After reviewing my images, I noticed it was the same moose as the day before. He had a unique antler shape and a distinct notch in his ear. I figured that was the last I would see of him and, after an additional morning of searching, I assumed he had moved on. Well, on my last morning, I ventured back out onto the water in my kayak. I decided to check out a new area. As I paddled into a bay I hadn’t explored yet on this trip, through the mist I could see a moose at the far end. I snapped a picture and zoomed in. Sure enough, there was the distinct notch and antler shape of large, mystery moose. This was several miles from where I had previously seen him and it was a complete surprise. It was a serene moment - the lake was still, mist rising all around, the sun coming over the trees, and this moose feeding along the shore. Even at a great distance, he noticed my presence and, as was customary for him, took off into the woods.
Encounters like these are what draw me back time and again to Northern Minnesota. They are reminders that there are giants that walk among these forests. Sometimes they allow themselves to be seen and other times they are practically invisible, traveling silently through the trees, a legendary presence symbolic of Minnesota’s remote wilderness.
Keywords: adventure, animals, explore, explore minnesota, forest, Grand Marais, gunflint, Gunflint Trail, minnesota, minnesota moose, minnesota photography, minnesota wildlife, moose, nature, north, north shore, superior national forest, wild, wilderness, wildlife, wildlife photography
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