Algonquin Park in Ontario is half the size of Wales and absolutely packed with moose. Nick Smith ventures in search of Canada?s biggest animal.
Give an anatomist care blanche to design any animal they want, and the chances are that a moose would be the last thing they?d come up with. In fact, it would be a brave, blind or mad man who would stand up and say that the moose is well proportioned. Its legs are too long, the ears too big, the muzzle too big and bulbous, the tail too short, and its general appearance is, well, a bit on the lumpy side.
If, on the other hand, that same anatomist was told to design something twice the size of a bear ? over 550kg in weight, 2m high or more at the shoulder ? with huge antlers, strength beyond imagination, and the ability to survive both the bitter cold of Arctic winters and the sweltering, mosquito-infested hear of summers in Northern Ontario, they might just come up with a moose. They?re simply awesome and having read so much about the, I?ve decided that it?s not enough to look at the photographs: I?m going to Canada to see them in the flesh.
This is what it says in my guidebook: ?It is impossible not to see at least one moose on a drive through Algonquin.? How can they be so sure? Well, the theory runs like this: through the ice-bound winter the moose live by eating twigs off the trees. The problem with twigs is that they don?t provide the moose with the salt it needs to stay healthy. So when the snow melts in late April, the moose quickly find a delicious pool of fresh water bursting with sodium-rich plant-life , and since there are countless pools and well over 5000 moose in the Algonquin provincial park, the chances are pretty high that you?ll get to see one of these beasts. Algonquin it is then.
Hiking into the ?bush?
Canada?s capital city of Ottawa (some 150km east of Algonquin) is where I go to prepare myself for the hike into the wilderness. A quick spin around the Museum of Civilization (to familiarize myself with Canada?s First Nations ? the current political correctism for Native North Americans, or those our parents would have called Red Indians), a quick stock-up on mozzie repellent and I?m ready for the interior. But before you go anywhere in the bush - a term that applies to the Canadian wilderness as well as the African jungle ? it?s a good idea to get yourself a local guide.
You just know when you see a huge guy dressed in techno-sandals and a baseball cap, bushy red beard and a loping gait that this is your guide. Meet Dustin, or Dusty as I got to know him ? though ?know? may be too strong a word. He?s the outdoor type: strong and silent, through he has a knack of saying something incredibly funny just when you least expect it. Spirits are high and I?m confident of seeing moose ? after all, I?ve already seen a few whitetail deer on the roadside before even getting to Algonquin.
I join a small but select party under Dusty?s professional guidance and we drive to the trailhead, leaving civilization far behind. All we have now until we get to the log cabin is what we can carry, and most of that is water. You don?t want to dehydrate out in the bush and, as Dusty says to me, you don?t want to break your leg either: ?This is the wilderness ? you could die out here?. Thanks Dusty.
Canadian nomenclature for the local flora and fauna is hardly what you might call inspired. It goes like this: you spot a bird that looks like a blackbird with red wings and you ask what it?s called. Dusty says, ?Red-winged Blackbird?. You see an animal that looks like a squirrel, only it?s black, and Dusty says, ?Black Squirrel?. I try him out with a blue flower and yes, that?s called ?Blue Flower?. So you may think these guys have got no imagination, but you?d be wrong. They keep it all in reserve for their apparently lush sphagnum bogs.
The world is divided into those who like to wear as much protective footwear as possible when they walk through a sphagnum bog, and those who want to go unshod. I am of the former persuasion, while Dusty is decidedly of the latter. He explains that this is virgin bog, we?re probably the first humans ever to walk this land and we must walk it barefoot to appreciate the delicate sponginess of the sphagnum moss. Though hardly convinced, I acquiesce anyway, thinking that if God had wanted us to carry our boots then he?d have put handles on them. But this is an adventure and I?m not going to wimp out.
It?s hard to describe the sheer bloody agony of walking barefoot through a sphagnum bog. Okay, so the moss is soft, but it?s the sharp sticks that really cut your feet up. I can?t help felling that it?s first blood to the moose, and I?m starting to dislike it. Minutes later though we all cheer up, crowding around Dusty who is rolling what looks uncommonly like a ball of fresh animal dung around between his thumb and index finger, with the air of a man about to light a Cuban cigar. Dusty looks at us solemnly and says one word: ?moose?.
As we get to the far side of the bog there are more animal trails in the soft mud. I ask Dusty if this is what we?re looking for. He examines it closely before saying: ?Not unless you?re looking for a size 10 walking boot.? Well, they look pretty similar to me. I trudge sheepishly past the soon-to-be familiar ?dead end? sign up to the lakeside log cabin, which is to be our base while we track down the moose.
It?s four in the morning and time to leave the log cabin to get on the trail. So far all we?ve seen are a few fresh scats and some hoof prints, but Duty?s optimistic that we?ll see the real thing this morning. We?re joined by another guide, Jen, and the idea is to paddle our canoes 10km across this round lake, called predictably enough, Round Lake, then down stream to some good moose-viewing banks.
We paddle in silence into the sunrise, the mist burning off the surface of the water. It?s remarkably easy work, and there?s something deeply, deeply stirring in the experience. You can?t see anything manmade, and you just keep thinking that this is what the world must have been like before we came along and spoiled it. There?s a calm primal feeling about it all: a loonie bird (don?t ask) calls to its mate, a fish rises in the distance and a beaver makes essential repairs to its hut. But there are no moose.
Once across the lake we paddle down to a portage, which is a place where you carry your canoe from one river system to another. This is where we make breakfast: pancakes, bacon, maple syrup and coffee. In Canada there?s only one way to cook bacon ? fry it until you think you?ve completely ruined it, then fry it some more. They adopt a similar policy for the way the prepare coffee. Refreshed, but still distinctly mooseless, we reckon that if we retrace our path, we may get better luck. Jen says she saw some tracks on the shore of the lake.
Waiting for the storm
Back in our canoes, we head upstream, hoping against hope that every strange noise coming out of the bush will be the tell-tale ?gawunk? that moose make when in communicative mood. Nobody told me that paddling upstream was this hard. The sun is uncomfortably high now, there are blisters on my hands and the mosquitoes are starting to get to all of us. When we get to the lake we?re hit by a fierce head-on wind: we?re already knackered, and I can see no way that we?re going to paddle 10km back over those whitecaps and into that wind. To make this daunting situation worse, Dusty thinks that there might be a ?thunderbanger? on the way ? ?Man, you don?t want to be out on the water when those babies are in town: - so there?s nothing for it but to press on.
The return paddle across Round Lake is not easy. In fact it?s one of the hardest things I?ve ever done. I try to keep my eyes on a fixed point in the distance, asking myself if it?s getting any bigger. My hands hurt, my back hurts, and the mosquito bites have just crossed over from being a hassle you could do without to being abject torture. Here I am in the most beautiful place on Earth and all I?ve found are new forms of pain. Oh, and no moose.
Howling for wolves Dusk comes but the thunderbanger doesn?t, so Dusty decides that we?ll drive north up a rarely used track. The evening is sweaty and heavy, and he thinks the humidity, and the mosquitoes that go with it, may bring the moose out into the open.
Jen reckons that it?s her turn to drive: all the way up the trail in the twilight Dusty holds forth about women not being genetically programmed to drive. Jen scowls and talks about how boring men are. It doesn?t matter where you go, there will always be this same conversation. It?s quite comforting.
Which is more than can be said for the mosquitoes. Okay, so these ones are not malarial, but they?re like Flying Fortresses and there are millions of them. We put on our mozzie veils and get out of the jeep. Dusty explains, ?They?re attracted by carbon dioxide ? try not to breath out.? As we walk towards the lake I ask Dusty if we?re going to see the moose here. He says he doesn?t know, but we?re going to try to howl up some wolves.
There?s an old saying around these parts that for every wolf you see, there?s a thousand watching you. This doesn?t make a great deal of sense here since even the most optimistic estimates reckon there can?t be more than 300 wolves in the whole of Algonquin. But it kind of suggests that they?re elusive. IN fact they?re not just elusive: they?re anti-human and they don?t like mixing. But you can howl they up, and this is what we?re here to do.
It?s simple: you howl once, listen and howl a few times more. If they?re in the vicinity and are of a mind to, they?ll howl back. In my mind I have this surreal vision of a thousand Dustys all howling away to each other in the night, but Dusty says this doesn?t happen.
Neither do real wolves tonight, but in an unwanted compensatory gesture, the mosquitoes are buzzing with a frenzy that the locals here call the ?siren?. A siren is rather like a migraine: you don?t know the meaning of the word until you get one for real, and one is enough to last a lifetime. Despite the fact that you?ve got a veil on, trousers tucked into your socks, button-down long sleeves and half of the world?s bug repellent, they still swarm all over you, biting relentlessly. After five minutes of this I really have lost my sense of humour and am desperate to get back to the jeep.
On the way back to the log cabin, we see a snapping turtle laying her eggs by the side of the trails. No wolves, however, and definitely no moose. I ask Dusty where the wolves are, to which he replies in his deadpan Canadian drawl: ?If I were a wolf on a night like this I?d be curled up deep in a cave somewhere with a dead raccoon, that I?d killed specifically for the purpose, stuffing up the entrance to keep out the mosquitoes.? He has a point.
The days roll by, and as I settle into the rhythm of the Algonquin, the moose almost gets forgotten. I see some of the most glorious things nature can offer: the mountains, the rivers, the sunsets. But despite all these distractions I still want one last try for a moose.
Again we come tantalizingly close, finding fresh tracks and scats in the early morning mist by the lakeside. I still think I heard one bellowing in the distance, but no one else heard it, and they thought that I heard it in my head because I wanted to. So I never did get to see my moose, which just goes to show that however much faith you put in your guide, you should never put too much in your guidebooks.