I learned some interesting things this week as I embarked on my newfound hobby, chasing the Aurora. First, it’s super hard to capture it, even if all the conditions are in your favour. You don’t know where or when it will show up; you can try to find the darkest sky, and it may not be dark enough, you must be super patient and Aurora Chasers have their own lingo.
When my son and photographer Graham, texted me the other night and said, “Pants on!”, I knew exactly what he meant. The Aurora was going to show up! Opposite to “Pants Off”, which means no Aurora, go to bed.
The conditions were perfect, the solar winds were strong, and the activity numbers were high. I got a phone call from a friend, and she was heading out to a destination not far from St. Albert, that we were told about by a famed Aurora chaser, who we met out at Big Lake. Graham and I decided to gather our gear and join her.
I must admit driving in the dark to destinations I’m not familiar with, and trying to find hard to find roads while being directionally challenged, is not my favourite thing to do, but my son has a keen eye and a good sense of direction, so he was able to spot my friend's car, and the road we needed to turn onto.
We hung out for a bit looking at the sky, listening to the geese we disturbed, but nothing happened. No brilliant green and purple lights, not even dull green and purple lights. Graham had to get up early for work and we figured it was a bust. We headed home. Not far from home I got message from another Aurora fan, and she said the aurora was out near Big Lake. After dropping my son off I headed out to see what I could find.
Big Lake is a popular spot these days for walking, biking, and photographing wildlife, but that night it was crowded with Aurora fans. The parking lot was almost full, but unfortunately, I arrived just a bit too late. It had fizzled out and all I saw were some dull green in the sky, but better than the last spot. Oh well, such is the way it goes in Aurora Chaser life. I headed home to unwind and eventually head to bed.
Aurora from the parking lot at Big Lake (Canon Photography)
I knew I should have gotten up earlier the next morning, but since the previous night was a bit later than usual, I got out of bed by 7:00 am, at least an hour or so later than my usual rising. I checked my Aurora app, and wouldn’t you know it, the activity numbers were high. I quickly got dressed and grabbed my cell phone and went out the front door. As I was standing on my driveway, sure enough, there it was! Maybe not as spectacular as it would have been if I was out somewhere darker, or if I was outside at 1:00 am when all the action had happened, but I could still see it and amazingly enough my cell phone could pick it up, even better than my eye.
Oct 4, 2021 - Aurora from my driveway - Iphone photography
I hadn’t planned on going to Big Lake that morning as I wanted to get busy painting, but seriously, the numbers were still high, even after 7:00 am and the sun wasn’t going to rise for over an hour; I figured I might as well give it a try. I grabbed my gear and headed out to Big Lake. When I got there, I could see a very faint green on the horizon in the northwest, what it was I wasn’t sure, but I had hope. It was still reasonably dark; I figured I could get to the observation deck and see what I could see. As I was walking towards the John Poole Boardwalk, I thought about putting my headlamp on so I could see what was ahead of me for the walk through the wetlands, especially since I notice some dark shapes ahead. At the opening of the boardwalk, I realized that one of the dark shapes I was seeing wasn’t a tree or something along those line. You guessed it! It was a moose, and I assumed it was a mama moose! I had seen a mom and her two babies the other day in the wetlands and thought it was probably the same ones. I didn’t want to take the long way around on the path and between the woods because, you know….it was dark, there were moose. I figured I would just wait them out, maybe they would hang out while the sun came up. Who cares about an Aurora when there were moose!!
Entrance to the John Poole Boardwalk in the Wetlands - Big Lake, predawn. See the moose? Iphone photography (making it lighter out than it actually was)
I waited and waited, fortunately, my cell phone takes photos even in low light, so I set it up on my tripod thinking, maybe, just maybe they would come my way, I was close enough to safety and the parking lot so I figured it was okay to stay. I was still assuming there was more than one. Nothing happened in what felt like forever, then the large moose moved off the path into the woods and a smaller one came up from behind and stopped, I knew it was the mama and babies, but I was stuck where I was. Just then three people came walking towards me from the parking lot, two guys I don’t know and a fellow photographer I had met out at Big Lake. I told them what was going on, the two strangers decided to keep going, my friend was going to take the path, he like me, had been charged by a moose before and wasn't interested in a repeat, but the strangers didn't seem to think it was a big deal and continued towards the opening to the boardwalk. Luckily, for them, the moose standing in the way ran into the woods; quickly after that a third moose crossed their threshold. Since the moose were out the way, both my friend and the strangers decided to carry on and go to the observation deck via the boardwalk, I decided to wait out sunrise and see if I could get some shots of the moose.
I went to the boardwalk to try to get a different vantage point to see if I could see the moose through the woods. I saw dark shapes but little else. Someone came from the parking lot and walked past the area I saw the shapes, I saw a moose head bob up and look in the direction of the walker, but quickly lower it's head to finish eating, I'm assuming. A few more people came from the parking lot, this time with dogs. Sure enough as they were walking on the path, the dogs started to bark, I waited but nothing happened, no screaming, or running, or such! I waited some more then decided to go back out on the path as the day was starting to brighten. As I walked towards the path, I saw a guy with a dog off his leash. I met up with him and he asked me if I saw the moose, I told him what I had been doing and I was waiting for it to get lighter, with the hope I might get a shot or two. He asked me if I wanted him to flush the moose out the woods for me, this sounded just a wee bit too crazy and I politely told him no thanks, he told me he hunted moose and knew how to do it safely, I could envision that “safe” herding of moose as they would probably come straight for me, heads down and hoofs ready to lay me flat. No, I said, that’s okay, I’ll just hang out and I’ll see what happens. Just as I was declining his crazy offer, the three moose came closer to the path, eventually coming right on to the path. We were a safe enough distance from them, and I didn’t feel like we were in any danger (okay, yes, naively I thought that before, but hey, I wasn’t alone, so it was much better and there were some shelters close by). The moose ignored us and started to eat along the path, the fellow and his dog left, and I stayed. I kept my safe distance and continued to take low light blurry photos with my telephoto lens. One of the youngsters came across the path and onto the open field I was standing in. He was still quite far away, so again, I felt safe (ish). They posed and ate and sauntered around for quite awhile, then they went back in the woods. I figured they were probably done with me and my camera for now, and I decided to go and check out the observation deck and see what the geese were up to.
Mama moose in the woods, babies in the field - Iphone photography
After spending some time photographing the Canada Geese taking off in flight for the day, and also capturing a few deer, I decided to go back to the moose encampment. The sun was up, and shirley I could get at least one crisp photo if they showed themselves again.
Big Lake - Canada Geese (telephoto photography)
Deer across the lake (telephoto photography)
I decided to be brave and walk along that scary path instead of going through the boardwalk. I don’t know why I felt braver now, after all that was the place I was charged by a youngster last spring. I figured I would stick to the open field if I saw or heard any moose like noises coming from the woods. As I was walking towards the area where I saw them disappear just a little while ago, I noticed some movement, I may have tore off into the field, but since there were no witnesses, let’s just say I walked calmly. I passed the area where I heard the movement and saw a sweet face of a baby (not so little) moose eating branches. I kept going and once again at a safe distance I was able to get lots of semi blurry and obscured photos with a few crisp ones mixed in the bunch.
Sweet baby in the woods (telephoto photography)
I walked a little further away and noticed more movement in the woods. I found a safe spot, close to the building and decided to wait and see what would happen. The next thing I knew both babies were coming out of the woods and eating branches along the side of the path. One kept looking up at me, the other didn’t seem to care. As I was taking the photos the inquisitive one decided to venture a little closer to me, which made me freak out just a little bit, and I backed up quickly. I was still a long way from the baby, but they can move fast. When I backed up, he lost interest and continued to eat, then he changed his mind and decided to come a little bit closer to me, I decided I had enough and walked closer to the building. Again, he lost interest in me and continue to eat, and then checked out what his sister was up to. They were so cute, and sweet, but could be dangerous, although it was such a special moment watching them, I remembered my previous experience, it had taught me a good lesson about keeping your distance. After a bit they went back into the woods, then something spooked them, and I could see them running towards mom.
Twins hanging out (telephoto photography)
I decided to go back to the boardwalk and see if I could make them out in the woods from the other side once again. No luck, but I did find my friend and another fellow I had seen out at the lake. He was an older gentleman, a photographer and artist, who especially loved birds and I met him many mornings on the boardwalk both of us cameras in hand. I told them about my moose photo opt and they wanted to go and see if they were still there. My friend and I followed along, and we all went out on the path, we didn't see the moose as they were still in the woods. The other fellow decided to go into the woods…….what…….that was crazy……there were moose in them woods. Before I could say anything, he was gone. My friend and I decided we needed to stay a safe distance away and went into the field. We waited for the other fellow to come back out of the woods; eventually he did. He said he found the mother and then went straight back in to take some photos. I had a feeling this wasn’t a good idea and waited to see what would happen. Would he get his photos or would he be running out of the woods with moose in tow? Anyway, I got my camera ready, just in case something interesting happened.
Nothing happened for a few minutes, but then sure enough, the fellow came running out of the woods and guess who was on his heels?! One of the youngsters! Yikes! I knew this was going to happen and all I could do was watch, the fellow stopped, and the moose went towards him; the fellow brought up his hands and clapped and yelled, the moose veered away from him and guess where the moose was running next! To me! He was coming straight at me…..what the heck! I wasn’t even close; I was in the field for Pete’s sake! I turned and started to move in the opposite direction and in the nick of time the moose turned and went behind me and eventually went back towards the path and into the woods. Whew! That was close and super crazy, and my heart was beating so fast.
Baby moose after she ran behind me (telephoto photography)
For a minute or two I thought all the excitement was over when suddenly, the moose came out of the woods again and ran straight towards the other fellow who was still standing in relatively the same place. Luckily, he was successful at scaring the moose off once again. This time the moose didn’t head for me, but went into the field, turned, and then ran in the direction of a jogger who was now in the field and away from the path. I wanted to yell for her to run, but it happened so fast, she stood still, and the moose just went past her and headed towards the path and went back into the woods.
Chasing the moose away (telephoto photography)
Moose running in direction of jogger (telephoto photography)
After all the excitement and near-death experiences (okay, maybe a little exaggeration there), my friend headed towards the boardwalk, which was the way the moose went, so I trailed behind, not sure if it was a good idea, but what the heck. Two moose were in the wetlands and a third ran in shortly after. The two babies met up and snuggled each others’ noses, and mom and the babies went off to continue their breakfast. Everything seemed okay, but I’m sure there was a lot of stress involved, I know I was spun up, I can only imagine how the moose felt. Then I saw the other fellow walk into the wetlands after the moose and all I could think was “Oh no, here we go again”, but nothing happened, he kept his distance.
Twins relieved to be reunited (telephoto photography)
What a morning! I was so relieved no one got hurt including the moose, but once again this is a good lesson to remember to keep your distance from moose. Whenever I am fortunate enough to come across a moose I try to keep my distance or to turn around if I run into one on a path. Its best to show them you are leaving, or get behind a tree, better yet, give them a wide berth. If you have a good telephoto lens that is the best way to get photos. They may seem like they are docile animals, I made that mistake last spring while taking photos and let one get too close to me. Most of the time they come across as being pretty calm, but that can be a façade, they can be super dangerous and it’s not worth the risk for a photograph. These young ones are still just trying to figure their world out, they are sometimes just curious about us, sometimes they may be a little aggressive, but as long as we give them the room, the outcome for both moose and people should be okay. The youngster we had the encounter with was probably a bit confused when she came out of the woods and saw us in the field, on retrospect, it probably wasn't the best place to stand.
So maybe there wasn’t Pants On regarding the Aurora when I got to Big Lake, but it sure was for seeing moose.
Previous photos of the John Poole Boardwalk and moose in the wetlands