Alone in the Northern Wilds of Maine.
A year ago, in the summer of 2022, I first scratched the surface of Maine's inland forests. It was only a 4-day solo visit, not really knowing what to expect, only there to scout and see what this remote region of the Northeast was about. Many people have been up to Baxter State Park, or Moosehead Lake, but north of that lies a thriving ecosystem the size of Connecticut, interlaced with rough dirt roads and meandering waterways spilling into vast lakes and isolated ponds. Well I was inspired after that first visit, and came home with two main takeaways: 1. a beautiful capture of a Canada Lynx and 2. a determination to return the following year with a kayak.
My friend, and a photographer I look up to with much respect, Rick "The Mooseman" Libbey, helped to ignite this interest - he lights up every time he speaks about Maine's wilderness, where he has spent decades exploring and photographing, and that excitement was contagious. Before I knew it I had deposited on a new kayak, and started scouting satellite imagery planning for a trip to Maine in 2023.
In the months leading up to the trip, I poured over satellite feeds and topographic maps endlessly, searching for possible campsites by lakes, ponds and marshes that showed potential as moose habitat. There are over 3.5 million acres in Maine's North Woods, with only dirt roads in varying states of traversability. Some haven't seen a vehicle in years, have washed out bridges, or are completely overgrown by the forest. Such details aren't visible by satellite, nor is there anyone to call and ask; it's merely part of the adventure of discovery.
There's a lot of logistics and critical gear needed for a remote solo expedition. If something goes wrong out there it is up to you to get yourself out. I've built my Tacoma pickup truck to be capable of overlanding and overcoming harsh terrain-- she's lifted 2.5" with upgraded shocks, 33" 10-ply tires, full size 10-ply spare tire, skid plate, portable air compressor, tire deflator kit, tire repair kit, tow straps, 48" farm jack, shovel, two extra fuel tanks, GPS & offline maps, medical kit, etc. I also left detailed maps and plans with my wife of course.
When the time came to execute my plans in early July, I loaded the truck with everything I anticipated needing and headed due North.
It's about 7 hours drive from my home in southern NH to the southern entrances to Maine's North Woods, where the pavement ends, and it was another 4+ hours from the entrance to my proposed first campsite.
Well the road I had hoped to use to get to the campsite was quite overgrown-- certainly hadn't seen a vehicle this year, perhaps several years, yet it was passable with some effort. Within a mile I came to a large conifer across the road which I cut with a handsaw while the deer flies had their way with me. The saw snapped on this first tree, not the way I wanted to start, and the next few fallen trees I had to chop with a hatchet. Inching mile after mile after mile down this overgrown trail, my excitement grew-- truly an adventure, and I was sure to have the place to myself.
Finally made it to a small clearing which would be camp. The lake I e-scouted was visible through the trees, and as I set up camp I could hardly wait to get the kayak down to the waters edge. But before I could do anything more than get the tent pitched, a heavy rain set in and it didn't stop for over 24 hours. Thankfully the tent kept most things dry, but I did have a most unfortunate casualty in that first rain storm-- my salt & pepper shakers. Damn. Damn. Damn.
When the rain finally let up, I finished setting up camp and enjoyed a cup of boiling hot tea in the boiling hot sun. Ahhhh. Refreshing.
The next morning, my alarm woke me at 4:15am, and already I could see daylight wasn't far off, so made haste to get going as quickly as possible. Now, anyone who knows me, even some people who don't know me but have received my unsolicited opinions, know that I am not a "water person." I don't go in the ocean, I don't swim in lakes, even a swimming pool at night can freak me out. In my tunnel vision to photograph moose, I seemed to have overlooked that minor detail, and I was reminded of it that morning at 4:30am as I slipped into that black water and began paddling, alone, in the darkness for the far shore over a mile away... "What in the eff are you doing??" my land-mammal biology screamed. "No guts no glory, bitch." I said under my breath.
On this first paddle, as I neared the far shore, I spotted a cow moose and her small calf feeding along the waters edge. Unfortunately, she was much more skittish than I expected and within moments of spotting me, still 100+ yards away, she took off with her calf. They stopped to give me a second look before disappearing into the woods, and I was able to get a few clear images.
The next morning, the alarm sounded at 4:15am and it was easy popping out of bed as I could see mist rolling over the glassy lake, exactly the conditions I hoped for, and I was eager to see what might be out there for me to find.
Again my land-mammal instincts questioned my intelligence as I pushed off the shore into the dark waters, but again I persisted, paddling hard to reach the far shore which showed the most promise for moose activity based on satellite imagery. At about the same spot I had seen the cow and calf yesterday, I slowed way down and began silently paddling close to the shoreline. If these moose are as skittish as that cow was, I was going to have to really concentrate my efforts into remaining undetected.
No more than 5 minutes later, still before 5am, I picked up on some movement ahead, obscured by the heavy mist and dim light. Something large was writhing, and contorted, rising from the water. What am I looking at? What kind of swamp monster is happening here... Holy shit, it's a big ole' bull moose!
Honestly, if I didn't know a thing about moose I would have sworn this beast was rising from the lake bottom. Even though it was the exact scene I was looking for, it still took several moments to process what I was looking at, my mind didn't believe my eyes!
The few moments that following were surreal and I must have blacked out from excitement cause I can barely remember them. In the predawn light the scene was very abstract; heavy mist rolled by in cool blue tones, but as the twilight gave way to sunrise, and the hot sun hit that mist, there was a couple minutes when the whole world seemed to glow in peaches and golds. I snapped a few more shots as the mist burned off, and the big bull fed his was to the shore and slowly ambled into the dense undergrowth.
With a long exhale I thanked my lucky stars to be able to witness such beauty, and admittedly felt proud for pursuing this challenging endeavor and seeing it through.
The best part about accomplishing the objective early, is that it takes the pressure off entirely and any more encounters & shots were simply a bonus to an already successful mission. That bull moose turned out to be the largest I encountered on this trip, although I did see many more moose in the days that followed. I moved camp a couple times, wanting to explore more areas of this vast wilderness, covered 220 miles of dusty dirt roads, and must have killed 10,000 mosquitos. I wouldn't say I overcame my fear of water, that fear is alive and well, but I did persevere through it each day. It was the longest I've gone in complete solitude, and there were many challenges along the way, much uncertainty, fatigue and suffering, making it one of the most challenging missions I've undertaken. But that is exactly what motivates me towards these solo adventures-- suffering and uncertainty are great teachers; you will learn about yourself and how to control your circumstances lest you fall victim to circumstance. You will grow and evolve at an accelerated pace compared to your normal daily routines because you're continually challenged and expanding your comfort zone.
It's not only the personal growth that keeps me coming back to nature however, it's the magic. There's magic out there in the wild for those willing to seek it. A world so rich in diversity, fragility, and interdependence that it's an endless source of knowledge and inspiration, of which even the brightest minds of human existence have only scratched the surface. And created by this web of biological complexities and inter-species relationships, there remains an ecosystem: a harmony, each moment the perfect end result of this cosmic chaos & order-- like dawns silence broken by the deep breaths of a huge bull moose, standing in the mist of twilight at the waters edge.
Anyway, I'm glad to be home and get a proper nights sleep without fighting the bugs all night. You'll see my best images from this bull moose encounter in my "Wildlife" gallery here on the website, and on my Instagram. Of course, Patreon members have already seen most of my best shots, as well as all the behind-the-scenes content.