The Company I Keep

It happened this morning – just hours ago as I write this. I awake to see light inside the tent, which wasn’t there the last time my eyes were open. After a night of dream-filled slumber, morning has arrived in the wilderness.

At first Bella and I are unimpressed. If we were home I’d have been forced awake half an hour ago by my phone’s daily alarm, but we’re not home and today is a federal holiday. My dog is nestled beside me in the sleeping bag, just as she has been all night long, except that now her head is down somewhere beside my knee instead of up by my shoulder, where it was the last time I remember.

The drowsy cloud in my brain doesn’t care about the hour, or the fact that it’s daylight – in early July, it seems like it’s always light out – and wants to linger here in comfort for a while longer. And I might be inclined to agree, except—

Except! I turn over, careful to keep Bella covered as I do so, to see just how sunny it is. Our first day here, Saturday, was wet and glum. Sunday was more cloudy than not, but the cool weather had put all but a few mosquitoes to sleep. Today, though, promises to be brilliant, once the bank of mist is burned from the surface of the lake.

Years ago, a younger version of myself thought it was blasphemy to sleep in on such a morning. Then I got older and decided sleep was kind o’ nice too. But when I think about what I might see across this lake on this morning the question is easily settled.

When Bella sees me stirring, she is up on all four paws too – and indeed she is outside the tent before I can even find and put on my grungy old Crocs. An attack wing of mosquitoes sits in a state of torpidity outside the screen dome surrounding me, awaiting an influx of warmth before rousing into action. They aren’t a concern. Yet. I open the flap as high as my head and slide foot-first out of the tent.

Indeed a carpet of thin white fluff is spread over the lake, but it is already thinning; the basic shape of the surrounding mountains can already be seen. I am surprised I can see the marshy shoreline directly across the lake so clearly, but the view widthwise through the mist is better than the still-obscured view down its long axis.

And there, out amidst the distant lily pads, is the big, brown lump of fur I thought I might see once more.

* * *

He first appeared in almost the same spot early yesterday afternoon.

I had been up the hill gathering firewood, collecting the movable pieces of a poplar that had fallen since my last visit in November. I dropped the wood beside the fireplace and stepped down to the water, just to soak in the view one more time. And then, too, I had seen the big brown lump standing in the water where previously there had been nothing.

The object was a quarter-mile away and indeterminate, but I knew a moose when I saw one. Even if this was only the third moose I’d seen in the Adirondacks, ever. What else would wade way out into a lake just to hang out with the lily pads? I abandoned the firewood effort and reached inside the tent for my camera. And I grabbed my backpacking chair and set it up in my favorite lakeside perch.

With Bella unimpressed that I was apparently just staring across the lake – she never once acted like she had any idea what I was watching, perhaps because it was too far away to be of concern – I trained my camera toward the far shore. There is no telephoto lens for this point-and-shoot camera, and I had to stretch the optical zoom to its limits just to confirm the presence of antlers. Big antlers. A big bull moose had waded out for a midday lunch (1 P.M. on a summer day is technically high noon, as the sun climbs) and I had nearly missed it!

The animal seemed in no hurry to flee. I was the only human present on this entire wilderness lake, and he had nothing to worry about from me. So, realizing I might be here a while in observation, I grabbed a can of maple-flavored mead from my stash behind the tent and made this my Main Event. This was something to celebrate!

In twenty-four years of exploring the Adirondacks, these moose encounters have been very uncommon. Maybe the fact I hike with a dog is a contributing factor, and maybe not. The last moose I had seen had been five years ago to the day: July 4th, 2016. I had been at Boreas Ponds that morning and was drawn to the sound of something long-legged walking in the water. Scooting down a hill to the shoreline, I found a bull moose slurping down enormous lily pads like cold spaghetti. He had already had his fill and was walking toward shore when I came across the scene, but he lingered long enough for me to get several decent photographs.

Come to think of it, the first of my three moose encounters had also been on a holiday. On Memorial Day 2010, I spooked a cow from the old roadside trailhead at Coney Mountain, but that was just a fleeting encounter and hardly satisfactory.

But yesterday! This time I sat for at least forty minutes, watching the solitary bull eat his lunch in the middle of the lake – this lake, which I have seen so many times. Was I surprised? Well, yes – not that I saw a moose here, just that I was here to see it.

As he ate the moose slowly moved toward shore, unperturbed by his mucky environment, his ears occasionally flicking away a nuisance fly. From what I could make out through the camera’s viewfinder his bulbous nose spent much time in the water. Then he would lift his head up, displaying his broad rack like hands splayed in supplication. They looked ponderous, an evolutionary over-indulgence, even if I already knew that evolution had produced much larger racks on other cervids lost to extinction.

Then the moose reached shore, and in what seemed like a prolonged, relaxed routine, he stepped out of the water and disappeared – rack and all – into the brush.

Adirondack Moose

That experience alone would’ve been quite the memory! I gazed across the mountainside across the lake and imagined the bull moose striding lazily into the hills, disappearing into the inscrutable depths of the vast wilderness that surrounded us both.

I had snapped a lot of pictures during those forty minutes, knowing that my camera was working at the limits of its abilities, but I would not know how good the results were until I got home. So I continued to go about my day, the lake behind me now populated “merely” with muskrats and loons and kingfishers and great blue herons. It pleased me to know a moose had been in the vicinity, and that I had had this chance encounter.

And when a bear stumbled across my secluded campsite, grunted, and then bolted into the woods – a bear! – even that little episode seemed like a sideshow to what had already transpired. (I did, however, make sure my food was sealed and the ever-inquisitive Bella was safely contained inside the tent.)

But then around 9 P.M. my attention was grabbed by the sound of something stepping through water on the far side of the lake. I had been sitting by my campfire, marveling that the rain had not returned or that the mosquitoes were not rousing to spoil my evening. It was still light out, but close to darkness; one or two distant booms spoke of an impending fireworks display somewhere far away. So I did not bother with the camera this time, but I did return to my shoreline perch.

And there was the same bull moose, striding through the distant grasses before slipping into the brush. The same moose, returning to the same brush just eight hours after I had first spotted him. I can only assume he had been out supping on another lily-pad meal – and I had never thought to look until I heard him making his exit.

* * *

So, that was two encounters on the same day. It suggested a pattern: the moose had not left the lake, and was indeed targeting its lush growth of lily pads for three square meals a day. And as I guessed, breakfast was indeed the next meal on his mind.

Here I am, freshly awaken from a sound night’s sleep. And here he is once again, out among the same patch of lily pads, if anything just a bit south of where we was yesterday by a matter of yards. Munching away, perhaps keeping a leery eye on my distant intrusion.

Twenty-four hours ago I had gone a full five years without seeing a single moose in the Adirondack wilderness. Now I’ve seen the same one three times. This experience hardly qualifies me to be a moose expert, but it seems reasonable to guess this particular moose has found this undeveloped, seldom-visited lake to its liking and intends to stay awhile. Perhaps if I return later in the summer, he’ll still be here, having turned his attention to the smorgasbord of lily pads farther down the lake in the outlet.

Or maybe he is just enjoying a multi-day sojourn like I am, and he’ll be gone by the afternoon. Like I intend to do.

Once more I watch, wishing I had a cup of coffee. It is a cool morning, a rare July day beginning in flannel, but the mist is burning fast. A cloud caps the neighboring mountain like a bonnet, and the lake’s surface is glass-still. The moose stands up to his ribs in the water, turning slightly from right to left; although he is too far away for me to see such details, he is probably swallowing the stringy stems as well as the waxy leaves. Then he turns altogether, his nose pointed toward shore.

And a few minutes later he steps out of the water and disappears back into the brush from whence he came.

This routine has now played out so many times that I suspect I might be able to circle the lake and go pay him a visit. I won’t, of course, but I can’t ignore the pattern of his behavior. Some of the same qualities that attracted me to this lake are what brought him here as well; the need for solitude that I feel in an atavistic sense is a behavioral necessity for him. I am here to escape; he is here to live.

For the rest of the morning, as I make coffee and eat breakfast – and then as I begin to pack for the hike out of the woods – I continue to scan the far shoreline, which now seems blank and nondescript. My only companion is Bella, who cannot comprehend the purpose of my stares across the lake; she helpfully offers the nubbin of a stick to play with, because obviously that’s what I’m really here for.

As the sun climbs the day is growing warmer, and this is driving the mosquitoes out of hiding; I’d love to stay, but it will soon become difficult to enjoy my time here. Now it is almost 11 A.M., nearly a full day after the first sighting. I take one last look across the lake, but only the trees sway in the wind.

I cinch the waist strap to my backpack closed and tug on the shoulder straps to adjust the weight, which is now much lighter than Saturday. And with Bella leading the way, I aim our path toward people, Facebook, and dollars. Somewhere behind me is the moose, perhaps already feeling the hollow spot in his belly that he will soon fill with lunch in his comfortable routine.

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