Long-time friend and superb photographer Nick Fucci was up visiting again for his autumn Alaska photo tours, a combination of one-on-one moose safaris into the Chugach Mountains or other photo sessions in Hatcher Pass, and a bear photography workshop out at the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge. As always, he stayed with us, taking advantage of our spare bedroom and engaging in his annual feline fix. As is often the case during his visits, we found a day where both of our schedules were open and headed up to the South Fork of Campbell Creek in Chugach State Park and along the Willawaw Lakes Trail to check out two of the main wallows where moose tend to mingle in the pre-rut.
We got up to the Glen Alps parking lot at around eight, well before the sun had come up over the ridge to sweep down into the valley. We made our way down the Powerline trail, across the South Fork of Campbell Creek and over on the Willawaw Lakes Trail to the “knob” that marks the eastern turn to Willawaw Lakes. That was our stopping point, the location of two primary gathering areas for moose. Unfortunately, we had not spotted a single moose during the entire hike. It was now 9:30, and light was starting to hit the valley. Nick went out to explore in a little more detail, while I waited and worked on some macro possibilities. Shortly into photographing some dwarf dogwood and crow berries, Nick signaled: he had found some bulls. It turns out, they were two younger bulls that had recently shed their velvet. One had a serious limp, perhaps a healed broken bone or a recent injury, we could not tell.
Later, as we continued to follow these two bulls, we encountered a larger, older bull who was starting to gather his harem. So far, only two cows, but they were enough for him to get rather territorial and fiesty when one of the younger bulls got too close and started sniffing around one of the cows. The cow let out a mewling sound that let the older bull know she was not happy about this interloper. The older bull did not have to get aggressive, he just slowly made his way toward the younger bull with a thousand-mile stare and menacing posture that said everything he needed to say. Granted, the younger bull did not quite get the message, because he came back a few minutes later to try again. This time, the older bull was faster in his response, moving more directly at the younger bull than the slower, wider route he took before. This time, the message sank in, and the younger bull headed back the way he came.
As always, the moose pretty much ignored us. We got so close that most of the photos I took were with my 70-200mm lens rather than the large 500mm that I had dragged along for the trek. Being able to interact with moose so closely, where they are not threatened because they are in a safe area, truly is what makes this part of the Chugach State Park one of the best places to photograph moose in the world.
On our way out, that heavy 500mm lens came in handy. We looked behind us, and a few hundred yards to the south, right where we had first spotted the moose, where a pair of coyote. They just stood there at the knob, surveying the land. I set up my camera, got them in the frame and started to focus when one of the coyotes darted away, with the other one starting to move. I managed only two shots before they were both completely gone. With so little time, the picture was not perfectly in focus, but I keep it anyway because it documents that moment in time, the fleeting coyote on the hill. I quickly hiked up to the knob to see if I could spot them again, but no luck. What I did see, however, was what caused them to spook in the first place: a woman with her three off-leash, larger dogs that were bounding up and down the trail with no control whatsoever. Thanks, lady, for ruining the moment for me, and for making those coyote feel less secure in their own home.