It wasn’t her size that impressed me so much as her silence. Female moose can weigh just shy of 360 kg, 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 swivelling like antenna, and I became 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 that 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. I chose to visit Cape Breton Highlands National Park at my earliest convenience, taking advantage of its unnatural emptiness to photograph a moose while on foot, an objective I’ve pursued for three years.
On my first visit to this park in 2017, when I originally became obsessed with moose, its easy splendour delighted and inspired me, but the more popular trails were crowded with international visitors, more still from Ontario and Quebec. No wildlife dared to present itself. It was on the usually crowded Skyline Trail in the pandemic quiescence of 2020 that I would find my first moose. It took 20 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 a lookout 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 that the masses would have scared off in other summers.
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, July 6, 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. 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 calf, which I hadn’t seen until now.
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. Quickly.
Recovering my nerve, I watched them from afar, milling around the clearing. Then something curious happened. Mother and child approached again, not directly, but meandering, perhaps following a trail of their own, coincidentally paralleling the human one.
Maybe they were just curious or the mother had become comfortable enough with this single, quiet primate. Every five minutes or so she raised her enormous head to evaluate me, going back to grazing once I broke 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. They continued to approach, and I continued to retreat, engaging in an unspoken dialogue for over an hour.
When I decided to leave them and return to the trailhead, the memories I’d just formed felt unreal. By the time I reached my car the entire incident felt like an intense daydream.
Humans eradicated eastern moose from Cape Breton Island by the 1930s. Parks Canada replaced them with western moose in the 1940s, using 18 from Elk Island National Park in Alberta. The arrival of these western moose has been anything but seamless in the absence of wolves (their main predator, 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.
Editor’s Note: Tourism Nova Scotia financially supported the writing of this article; it did not select the topic or approve the article’s content.