Thursday, July 7, 2016

A Dirty Swim with a BIG Bull Moose

Copyright 2016 by Lori-Ann Willey

DISCLAIMER -  I do not recommend that others attempt approaching a moose.  I do not claim to be an expert, but I do have knowledge and experiences in what I do.  I am fully aware that I take the risk of getting injured, or worse, killed if something should go wrong.  However, I am very careful.  Just the same, you will read that it does not take much of a surprise for a moose to show signs of aggression in a hurry.  I KNOW the subtle of subtlest hints of warning or possible warning signs.  I also know when close enough is close enough not just for my own comfort but also for the comfort of the beast, too.  My husband and family members know that if I get hurt, I will quickly claim responsibility and will not point fingers elsewhere except at myself.  I believe in being safe and taking safety precautions, but still, wild creatures are unpredictable.  I approach with absolute and total respect and knowledge of any and all beasts.  I  learned my lesson with Mr. Bear a few years ago.

It is no secret that I thoroughly enjoy swimming in any body of water.  As a child and teenager, I always avoided the weedy areas, but as an adult, I am lured to them like a kid walking past a candy store – I just want in!  I have Paul to thank for my love for snorkeling. I had not known the difference between snorkeling and scuba diving until Paul was stationed in Hawaii.  He bought us each a snorkeling set -fins, masks, and tubes.   Once I felt comfortable breathing underwater via snorkel tube, I knew I had a life-long love for the sport.  Over 30 years later and at 50 years old, snorkeling is where my heart is and into the weeds is where you will find me.  There is where the well-camouflaged hunters (snapping turtles and big fish) wait for unsuspecting prey!  There, is also where you can find moose, too.

I have written about swimming with moose before, each experience is different, each moose is different, and the conditions are different, too.  Most attempts find me successful and though rewarding in many ways, swimming with moose is not an easy task.  I find as much comfort around the moosies as I do the waters in which they roam, but that does not mean there are not many challenges along the way.   The most difficult challenge is navigating through large areas of very densely populated lily pad plants.

As written about before, there are certain conditions that must be met before it is plausible to swim with moosies.  The sex of the beast, its size, its location, etc. are not an issue with me.   However, I will avoid swimming with a cow moose and her baby.  The biggest challenge is seeing a moose in the first place. After that, the conditions have to be favorable for a safe swim, too.   I have to be able to approach the beast. If I cannot, then, like Paul, and other “sane” people, I simply watch and observe from afar with binoculars or my camera.

Last evening started out a bit early.  The temperature was 75 degrees.  There was a light 3-5mph wind, and the sky was mostly cloudy.  When we decided to go look for moose, we hoped the warm day would lure the moose into the water for a lily pad feast while trying to avoid the biting flies, too.  Here in Maine, we tend to call the deer flies by an alternate name -Copperheads.  Copperheads elsewhere mean poisonous snakes, but I assure you, our copperheads have a ferocious bite of their own, too.  Then, of course, there is an inch-long biting fly that I grew up calling, a moose fly.  This year, those bites are causing me a bit of an allergy issue that require Benadryl.  My father always told me and my sisters, “We always called them moose flies, because wherever they are, there are usually moose”.  As an adult, I know that is not always true, but it is a great memory …and not so farfetched as people may think, as they both enjoy the same type of habitat.  It’s that necessary co-existing lifecycle thing.

Yesterday, it took us a while to find a moose, but when we reached an area “way up in” and “way at the end” and “tucked into a corner” we finally saw one standing in a couple of feet of water. That area is more bog-like than lake-like, so traveling with the boat was iffy, if do-able at all.  Due to his location, I knew there was no way to swim toward him through all that mess and shallowness.

Paul turned off the boat motor and allowed the boat to drift forward while we watched and photographed the moose from afar. I took lots of pictures.  We sat still for a long time as we appreciated his beautiful, rugged, and rectangular-shaped body.   It was good to see a moose not sickened and weakened by a massive tick invasion!  He was very black and very beautiful with an impressive velvety rack.  At the base of his jaw was a dangling bell that swayed with motion as the beast moved his head about.  He was perfect in all ways. Picturesque and majestic.

The moose had seen us coming.  He stood still, perfectly poised, and on full alert.  After a while, he apparently deemed us not a threat …at least from that distance.  Soon, he slowly walked along the shoreline.  With those long legs, only a few steps were needed to move more into the open by a few dozen feet.  When he entered the water, I knew then, that I had a chance to swim closer to the massive beast.

Paul raised the boat motor and used the quiet electric motor to inch closer.   He told me that he’d try to get up to the lily pad mass, but did not want to get the motor propeller blades entangled in the thick weeds.  I agreed.  We were still quite a distance away, but Paul slowly closed the gap while I had my camera to my eye peering through a zoom lens and continued to read the beasts body language while at the same time I snapped dozens of photos.  Accurate assessment of not only the moose, its location, and the dense lily pad blanket between us and the beast, but I also had to assess my own abilities, too.   Was my back being nice enough to attempt the challenging and laborious swim through all those plants?  I needed to be smart and safe.  As much as I hated to, I had to be honest with myself …and honest with Paul, too.  I deemed the slow, gentle swim would soothe and massage my sciatica.  It wasn't long before I realized that I had already justified the attempt while still being honest.  It was a mind ovah mattah thing.  Most everything is.

At the edge of the lily pads, Paul stopped and ever-so-quietly dropped the anchor while I stripped down to my suit, attached the boat ladder, put my camera and snorkel fins where I could reach them once in the water. Paul helped by handing me my fins and the float for my camera.  He told me that we were in very shallow water, but as I looked down, all I could see was blackness around my legs as my feet perched on the ladder.  I knew the water was very black in this area, but not to see the stumps and logs that my knees rested upon once my feet left the ladder?  Despite Paul’s warning, I don’t mind saying that was quite a shock. I shrugged off the shallowness and told him, “I’ll be OK as long as I can swim over the top of things.” He chuckled, and said, “Be careful.  Have fun.  Good luck!”

At about 30 feet away, my fins started touching a few submerged driftwood logs and rocks, not to mention, the lily pads already stated to entangle my ankles, too.  By then, I was already thankful that I decided to try a float system for camera stability, because that kept my upper body higher.  That way the weeds didn’t instantly tangle around my neck within the first few feet.  Without the float, I would have turned back after only a few yards from the boat.  They were thick, thick, thick!

In the past, swimming through lily pads deemed not only exhausting, but very dangerous.  Their stalks can be quite strong and string-like.  They quickly and very easily wrap around my neck, snorkel tube, arms, hands, legs, ankles and fins that, in the past, made me wonder if they were survivable!  Pulling and breaking the wrapped weeds from my body is a constant battle when doing such things as swimming toward a moosie, and I will admit, a bit nerving and attention grabbing when their 3-10’ long stems catch on the other weeds and get further and more tightly entangled. There are times when I can let them accumulate for a few feet, or a few yards at a time, but when they prevent forward motion, I have to stop and rip them from my body. This is especially so around the neck.  Really and truly, there is only a certain amount of strangulation sensation that I can tolerate, before I need to stop and free myself …save myself, if you will.  Luckily, with the float, those lily pads were not a problem upon any part of the body except my ankles and fins.  PHEW! I will modify the float a bit to better suit such situations, but for the most part, I’m happy with what I have for now.

As mentioned above, at about 30 feet way from the boat, I learned just low shallow the water really was.  I had a long, weed-filled swim ahead of me still.  Soon, the need arose to draw the float closer so more of my arms rested on top, therefore giving my upper body more of a lift over the weeds. I hated like hell to do that because that meant raising more of my body out of the water, which meant I would be more   obvious and noticeable to the moose.  Usually, I like just my mouth upwards exposed so I do not look like a human as I get closer to the beast.  That is why, too, that, despite the slow, laborious swim, I usually don’t like to use any sort of floatation device.

In this area, there were no protruding rocks or stumps to swim behind like there is in other areas.  Such protrusions allow me to swim closer as I can use the objects to hide my body.  They are also great places to pause, pull weeds from my body, adjust camera settings, or simply observe the beast before I continue.   Here, I was totally exposed in my approach and at any moment, I fully expected the moose to be alerted of my presence.  As a result, I could not pull the tangled weeds from my ankles, adjust a fin strap that slipped, or check myself over for bloodsuckers either.  I didn’t mind the bloodsuckers, but the weeds always prove problematic.   I paused once to use an underwater stump to slide the fin trap onto my ankle, but if the moose spotted me from afar, he paid no attention to me.  I was thankful that I could take full advantage of his poor eyesight with my own subtle movements.

The closer I swam to the moosie, the shallower the water.  My fins were constantly hitting those submerged logs, stumps, and rocks. I was already advancing slowly with deliberate and slow shallow fin movements as it was, but I had to slow even more.  I couldn’t help but think my fins were nothing more than little wiggles, much like fish fins when they keep their bodies in place …to “hover” if you will.  If the weeds weren’t bad enough, the shallowness really made me wonder if I could continue or if I should just turn back before I literally got stuck between a rock and a hard place. 

Remember earlier when I mentioned the biting copperheads and moose flies?  Well, they found me quite easily out there by myself.  There was no way to swat them without giving away my position, so all I could do is wait for them to bite, and then, fly away.  They were especially attracted to the skin at the edge of my black suit.  I know Ima Big Woman, but really, I am not a moose …despite my size and the color of my suit!  My scalp was another area where they feasted.  Though annoying and quite painful in spots, I was able to block them out and pretend they didn’t exist. However, I did not realize how much they enjoyed my scalp until I climbed the ladder and felt the top of my head.  It was very swollen and very tender, but not bloodied at least.  This morning, as I write this, touching the top of my head is still very tender.  My hair part took a lot of bites! Fortunately, my father instilled the mindset of, “work through it”.  Some call that stubborn, but to me, that mind over matter is mental determination, strength and endurance that comes in very handy throughout life.  Without that mindset, I doubt we could live our off the grid lifestyle given Paul’s disabilities.   I am OK with that “Stubborn” title that some are so quick to spout.

Somehow, maybe it was my own will and determination more than anything, but I figured as long as I could float, I would continue closer.  Soon, my knees almost constantly bumped underwater obstacles. I not only kept a near constant eye on the moose in front of me, when I could see a gap between the lily pad leaves, I’d try to peer through the water blackness to determine if the lake was in deed that shallow, or if I was just swimming over a lot of “stacked” rocks, stumps, and logs.  Unfortunately, the water was so black, I could not see beyond a few inches, and it didn’t help that the surface reflected the sky above me.

Although the moose was only a few feet from the shore, his legs and part of his stomach were submerged in water.  I knew that meant one of two things.  I was either swimming over a high rise under water, or the moose was standing in some very deep muck.  “Muck” here is nothing more than built up sediment and silt from natural debris of water plants, blown leaves, tree bark, and decaying logs from many years gone by.  Hoping to eventually hit deeper waters ahead, once again, I took the chance and pulled the float toward me to help raise my body for easier movement.  With the float now under my armpits and my arms resting in front of me, navigation was in deed easier, but it left me more exposed than I wanted.  Still, the moose, if he saw me, paid me no attention.

When I got to a spot where my legs were literally dragging across log after log and rock after rock without relief, I stopped and rested.  In the way of weed entanglement, the swim was a much easier swim than in the past, and I remember feeling grateful that, through all those weeds, not once did I feel like I was being strangled.  That was when, I not only kept an eye on the moose’s subtle body language, but I was now close enough to take in its massive size and that impressive velvety rack of his.  He was a beautiful, beautiful beast.

Again, if the moose saw me, he paid me no attention. He continued to submerge his nose into the water, pull, and then, chomp the weeds.  I was not close enough to hear his chewing’s like in swims in the past, but I could easily and clearly hear the nostril bubbles as he submerged them.  Moose have a flap inside their nostrils that close off when they put their head underwater.  When they raise their head, the flap moves again so they can breathe air.  That flap gives them the ability to swim underwater, even! 

From that location, I walked on my knees the best I could while still floating my upper body and dragging my fins behind me wherever possible. I knew that if I could get a bit further, I was bound to find some deeper water, and I did!  However, that water was so silt filled that I felt like I was swimming in an over watered bowl of oat meal. I could feel thousands upon thousands of small natural debris pieces.  It really did feel as if I was swimming in watery oatmeal.  That is the best description I can give you.  

I must’ve reached a divot in the lake bottom because my knees no longer walked on a hard wooden or rock surface, but when I lowered a knee, I felt the sediment enclose around my entire leg. I lowered my elbow and felt the same thing.  I tried to peer into the water, but again, it was just too black to see anything but blackness.  When the moose turned his head, I slid my hand off the float to feel the sediment that surrounded me.  Yuck!  What a feeling!  The moose was standing up to his belly in that stuff, too!  He is used to it.  I am not.  His legs are covered in more hairs than the hair on my own hairy legs!  For a second or more, I was quite envious!  Some of you will get that reference and chuckle …and rightfully so.

Still, I continued to inch closer.   At the point of rest, I was within 50 yards of the moose and getting closer. With one more attempt to advance, I snapped a few photos after my chest bumped and held me steadfast against an unseen stump.  I was going no further.  My mind knew it and the lake knew it, too.  I also have to wonder if even the moose also knew.   

While I rested upon the stump, I scrutinized the huge beast before me.  In total content, I allowed my mind to wander a little.   I thought about how not in a million years would I intentionally swim in such conditions unless it was to rescue someone, safe myself, or swim up to a moose.  That’s just how I think, I guess.  Funny, how I apparently put swimming up to a moose into the same type of category.   Then, I kind of justified those thoughts by thinking of the Kinap book I wrote.  One of the characters in that book is named Loof.  He is the village fool whose character befriends and rides a tiyam (moose).  I had to smirk at the irony.  No, I have no intentions on trying such an act, but still, it brings a grin to my face.  I loved writing that book! The editing process has been on hold now for nearly two years.  Shame on me.

I continued to float in seemingly inches of water, when in fact, a solid bottom, through all that black sediment, must’ve been at least six feet below me.  The sediment never stopped moving about my body and that gave rise to the thoughts of blood suckers.  All my exposed skin underwater moved and danced about as if I were laying on an ant nest.  I am not fearful of bloodsuckers, but I am not a fan of them either.  Places like there are usually loaded with them and I probably had a few on me already.  If not, they knew I was there and were already working my way.  I looked at the wet areas on the moose and saw none there.  My hope was that maybe he was giving off enough body heat so the bloodsuckers were already on or near him and not upon or near me.  

When the moose submerged his nose, I took the opportunity, and whispered to him, “Thank you”.  It was time for me to turn around.  However, remember that stump I just mentioned?  While turning around, my fins caught, and in order to finish the turn, I had to flap them out of the water a bit.  That, was when the moose for sure knew I was present.   He continued to eat, but the hair on his neck rose just enough to get my attention as well.  After I turned around fully, and after making a fin splash, Paul said, the moose raised his foot above the water and stamped it downward causing a splash of its own.  I was warned.  Though, I never saw or heard it. 

A second or so later, as I slowly swam away, I kept my head turned toward the moose.  The beast continued to feast as if I was not there.  Nevertheless, I knew better than to turn my back at all.  That is especially so to a beast in the wild, of such size, speed, and power.  I swam for about 50 more yards before I allowed myself to turn my head toward the boat with little back-glances as I swam further and further away. 

The swim to the boat was an easier one for three reasons.  One, I could see my swim path through the parted lily pads.  Two, I knew what lay in that black water, so I already knew what I’d bump into as I swam.  Three, I did not have to keep an eye on a moose and its subtle warning signs of aggression.  I could instead, enjoy the swim knowing that I was able to get a close as my comfort zone allowed for both me and the moosie.

I took my time swimming to the boat and took some video and photos in route as well.  I was in no hurry to exit the warm water.  The second I was free of the silty stuff, the water felt cleaner and seemingly more refreshing.  At the boat, Paul helped bring aboard my float, camera and fins. Then, he waited patiently for me to linger on the ladder for a bit.  I never like getting out of water once I’m in it, and that was especially so last evening with the water there at a very comfortable 78 degrees!  I knew I probably wouldn’t feel water that warm again this summer.

After pulling anchor and detaching the ladder, I wrapped in a towel and thanked Paul for helping me.  Slowly, Paul navigated away from the area.  The moosie continued to feast where I left him.  Before we left his sight, he slowly stepped into the woods and we watched as his body disappeared into the green foliage along the shoreline.   

A few minutes later, as I began to dry a bit, I felt something move inside my suit.  Thinking of a possible bloodsucker in my cleavage, I parted and peered inside.  If there was a bloodsucker in there, I couldn’t tell.  I pulled my suit away from my body so I could see down into my suit a bit further and I saw nothing but natures silt as far as the eye could see.  My body was black and brown with it all. I had to laugh as I showed Paul.   I would have stayed much cleaner if I had just swam without a suit!   After we arrived at camp, I removed my suit and had to literally shake it clean. The sediment flakes stuck to my skin and dried in place.  It took a lot of brisk towel-wiping to rid it all, and even then, I think I brought some to bed with me!  

FACEBOOK - Willey's Dam Camp
BOOKS -  Lori-Ann Willey