When pundits claim Anchorage is only a 30-minute drive from Alaska, they must be talking about Chugach State Park. Less than 30 minutes from downtown Anchorage, the park's Powerline Pass Trail is the best place in the world to view and photograph wild moose.
Denali National Park is better known for wildlife viewing. But, in addition to its proximity to the state's largest city, Chugach State Park doesn't require access permits. Visitors aren't forced to watch orientation videos or ride buses, and moose are much easier to find and more tolerant of humans than in the national park. The moose are more habituated to humans because many of them have spent time in the nearby city and even in the park they frequently find themselves surrounded by people.
Nowhere in the park are the moose more tolerant than along Powerline Pass Trail. Until you are within 20 yards or so, you might as well be a bump on a log for all the attention a moose will pay you. Don't let their nonchalance fool you, however. These are still wild animals, and they can occasionally be uncharacteristically wary or ornery.
Powerline Pass Trail is usually accessed from the Glen Alps entrance to the park. Moose are sometimes encountered in the parking area, but the surefire way to see them is to walk the trail. With any patience, as many as 20 to 30 moose can be seen on most days in September and October, when the moose are rutting. Wind tends to drive moose into cover, so calmer days are better for viewing purposes. Many will be a mile or more away, but moose are often near the trails and allow people to approach closely.
BBC filming Alaskas wildlife
For all of these reasons, I recommended the Powerline Pass Trail to John Brown, a veteran British cameraman working for the British Broadcasting Corporation, who wanted shots of moose-rutting behavior for an upcoming film about Alaska's wildlife.
I've worked with Brown before. Our pattern is to find moose and set up the camera, after which we don't move much, talk in stage whispers, and let the moose move towards us if they are so inclined. It's important to avoid chasing them off or changing their behavior.
Although the BBC often operates on a shoestring budget, it recognizes the need for patience in wildlife photography. Camera operators aren't usually expected to capture amazing footage in a day or two. Brown scheduled more than two weeks in September and October to film a variety of moose behaviors, from feeding to fighting, mating to sleeping. We saw a lot of feeding and sleeping.
Having spent several long days in the field acquainting ourselves with where the moose were and compiling the easy footage, we had high hopes for our Friday outing. Bulls and cows were congregating, and the day before we'd found a group less than two miles from the trailhead. We approached the first overlook, about half a mile from the trailhead, at the crack of dawn with high hopes. As anticipated, Brown spotted a cluster of moose up the valley within seconds.
Before he could tell me about them, a fellow on a cruiser bike rolled up behind us, grated to a stop, and said, "Well?" After ascertaining he was also looking for moose, we told him about the ones we had seen up the valley. We started walking, but the cyclist soon passed us at a high rate of speed.
Giving interlopers the bums rush
Within a half mile we noticed a couple of other photographers observing a large bull next to the trail, then spotted the cyclist maneuvering on foot on the opposite side of the bull. "Let them have that one," Brown said. We continued hiking along the trail until we were near the large group of 13 moose. They were crossing Campbell Creek, drifting slowly away from the trail. We left the trail and set up the camera to film the group from about 100 to 200 yards away. Within minutes the cyclist walked up behind us and stood quietly 20 yards to the side.
After several more minutes we figured the moose were relaxed enough to allow us to move to a different location. Gathering up the camera and tripod, we waded the creek, which was icy cold and fast, nearly overtopping our rubber boots. We set the camera off to the left of the congregation, about 50 to 100 yards from the moose. That was close enough for Brown's long lens to record intimate closeups of moose interactions. The moose ignored us.
One of the largest bulls was an individual Brown had filmed on three previous occasions. Earlier in the breeding season the bull had injured his right foreleg; it may have torn a ligament or tendon because the lower leg joint bowed out painfully whenever he put weight on it. I had dubbed him Norman, after the character in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho." His sobriquet came from the crazed look in his eyes when he interacted with other bulls. In previous days Norman had employed an aggressive tactic when other bulls approached any cow he was attempting to woo; ignoring his excruciating injury, he'd gave interlopers the bum's rush, vaulting over intervening brush like a muscle-bound mule deer. Despite acting a little more placid now, the other bulls still edged away or pretended they were eating whenever he sidled up to them and tilted his antlers in a challenge.
First of two interruptions
Shortly after we resumed filming, the cyclist followed us across the creek in his hiking boots and sweatpants. To our horror, after he had emptied his boots and wrung out his socks, he strolled directly into the middle of the moose gathering, pulled out a smart phone and started clicking.
The cyclist's behavior was highly irregular. How many times have you noticed a stranger about to take a photograph and waited patiently for the shutter to click before walking in front of the camera? It's a universal courtesy. The practice is, if anything, even more common in natural areas because most people don't want strangers standing in their photos of wildlife and imagine others feel the same. What would you think if someone positioned himself between your camera and your subject for an extended period?
A thousand or more people visit Powerline Pass every week during the moose-rutting season. On most days a pulsating file of bikers, runners, hikers and dogwalkers can be seen on the trail, but during the rut the number of people carrying cameras and tripods outnumbers other recreational users. Moose attract a lot of attention. The unofficial protocol is to stand quietly on or near the trail, often clustered in a group, and enjoy watching or photographing the animals. Consequently, we didn't expect to have the moose all to ourselves, but we didn't appreciate being ignored by a latecomer.
Watching the cyclist zigzagging between the moose was like trying to enjoy a play where an audience member climbs onto the stage and walks amongst the cast. Brown certainly hadn't flown halfway around the world to film a guy with a beer gut, clad in sweatpants, and brandishing a smart phone. But we were reluctant to plow through the moose to ask him to get out of the way, because it might have caused more disturbance. So we waited. We waited an hour.
After one of his traverses through the moose-rutting arena, I'd had enough. As he approached us, I jumped up and high-stepped through the knee-high willows to accost the idiot. Debating whether to unleash my mounting frustration or adopt a more polite approach, my first words were a brusque "Would you please get out of our shots?" He replied, "I don't care about your shots, I care about my shots."
Apparently the polite approach wouldn't have worked with this guy anyway. Still expecting a hint of remorse, I said something like "You've been walking around between us and the moose for an hour." He gazed over my shoulder towards the video camera, curled his upper lip, and said, "I don't have a telephoto lens." I said, "You could buy one." He said, "I'm leaving anyway." And I said, "Good, I hope you fall in the creek and drown." I'm afraid I threw in a few obscenities. Later I regretted stooping to that level. However, I meant what I said about drowning himself. I have a low tolerance for jackasses.
Norman rises to the occasion
After the cyclist left, Brown and I circled below the moose so we could keep an eye on the ones he had pushed farther away. The moose folded up for their midday naps and I did the same. After an hour or so I woke up and saw another person standing amongst the moose, which were also starting to stand and move around. Our new nemesis was also rotund, with a neck that bulged slightly, as if his head was screwed on a couple of twists too tight. Brown told me the fellow had appeared out of nowhere and didn't seem to be concerned that the video camera was pointing directly at his current location.
This numbskull had a long lens of his own mounted on a tripod. There was really no need to brazenly position himself 20 yards from a moose. The bulls and cows watched him out of the corner of their eyes, but went about their business. The problem was mostly Brown's. It was difficult for the camera to follow any moose more than a few yards without panning across the rotund guy. Again, we waited patiently.
Eventually he was escorted from the center of the stage by several bulls that were following cows directly towards him. He ended up next to a patch of mountain hemlock, very close to several other bulls, including Norman. Stepping away from his long lens and tripod, the guy pulled another camera with a shorter lens from his pack and started stalking the bulls, getting within 10 yards or less. Brown and I were rooting for a smackdown, but Norman, contrary to his usual deportment, chose a more subtle approach. He ambled over to the guy's tripod and gazed vacuously at the horizon.
Nothing is more patient than a moose. While the guy waited irritably to rescue his camera, his very expensive telephoto lens, and his pack, Norman hardly flexed a muscle. After an hour, the bull vanished behind the dense hemlocks. Judging from the guy's subsequent reactions, Norman had hunkered down within a few feet of the tripod. And there he stayed for another three hours.
After the unexpected intermission, the bull stood up and slowly limped away, allowing the guy to retrieve his gear. By then the shadow of Flattop Mountain was slipping quickly across the valley. The guy beat a hasty and ignominious retreat under Norman's dark stare.
Wildlife viewing etiquette
Brown has filmed wildlife in about 20 countries during his 15-year career without witnessing anything quite like our two encounters with boorish local photographers. However, we were greatly amused at the way the play turned out.
Fortunately, Brown was able to capture decent footage despite the rude interruptions. But you never know what might have happened if the moose had been allowed to interact naturally.
The vast majority of wildlife viewers in Chugach State Park don't need advice on how to treat wildlife or other viewers. However, several associations of nature photographers have offered guidelines for ethical viewing and photography for those who don't get it. For example, the North American Nature Photography Association recommended using an appropriate lens to avoid getting too close to wildlife, not interfering with their normal behavior, preparing yourself and your equipment for unexpected events, and treating other viewers and photographers courteously.
After the second photographer had exited stage left, Brown recapitulated the moral of the story: "I suppose there's a lesson to be learned here – don't leave your gear untended – but more importantly, don't be a dick."
Former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott writes a regular column on the outdoors. Reach him at RickJSinnott@gmail.com.