Shooting m43 on a moose safari.

(My Olympus E-M1.2 floating in my kitchen sink)

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I’ve lived in Canada very nearly my entire life and am a self professed patriot.

Canada has always had a problem defining itself.  The fall back position is to define ourselves in contrast to our American cousins but, that is both lazy and somewhat untruthful. 

To many newcomers, Canada is that final haven from conflict, discrimination, famine and disease.

To most citizens, Canada is a socialist democracy with free speech, a free press, free health care and guaranteed human rights.

Which is why even naturally born Canadians almost never experience the quintessential Canadian experience  –  because they either don’t know it, or have forgotten it after a poor experience learning Canadian history in school.

I found myself on Friday afternoon right after work traveling 300 km north of Toronto to take part in the 3 day/2 night annual Algonquin Moose Safari.   This would also be my first real excursion since the pandemic and hopefully a harbinger of a return to normalcy.

Canada is paradoxically, a small country.   Toronto might share global familiarity with the likes of New York City, London, or Paris but unlike those cities, venturing only 300 km north of its center allows the thin veneer of civilization to crack and collapse.  Algonquin Provincial Park is a massive protected wildlife preserve with no WiFi, no cell service, no electricity and no plumbing.  Every single item we needed we had to carry in and every piece of garbage we generated, we had to carry out.   And not by horseback.   The park is home to thousands of discrete lakes making passage by canoe the best option.  Which meant the occasional dreaded portage.  In my case it was three in and three on the way out.  I hated them with a vile passion.

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The dreaded portage, the canoe has to be emptied of all cargo and it and the canoe has to be transported across rough land to the next shore, often requiring several trips.

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To add complication to the portage, one site was inundated with sunken logs preventing access to the shore so we all had to get wet in order to drag the lightened canoes in.

Privileged Canadian children briefly learn skiing and canoeing as part of their school experience.  When I moved to Vancouver for a decade and had easy access to the world famous Whistler ski resort, I had to basically relearn how to ski all over again.   After nearly 12 hours in the canoe this weekend, I can say I’m well past that stage.  I had to learn how to paddle with no sound so that we could stealthily creep up to our moose targets.    I had to acclimatize my shoulder and arm muscles from cramping up so that I could paddle tens of kilometers and at speed to power through head winds and because I never wanted to be in the last crew back to camp.  

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Vital to the existence of Canada as a sovereign nation was the economy created by its 17th to 19th century fur trade.  French Canadian voyageurs would spend several months paddling massive canoes throughout the entire Great Lakes system and portage deep into the center of the continent in order to trade with First Nations peoples for their furs. Our group spent the entire weekend reliving a taste of this experience and seeing no other human beings throughout the time spent on pristine natural lakes.  I have never participated in a more thoroughly and genuinely Canadian experience.

So what did I bring to shoot the moose?  I was obsessed with the idea that I would capsize my canoe and lose my camera so I went with my older Olympus E-M1.2 body and the 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO with MC20 since 300mm (equivalent to a 600mm lens field of view on a full frame sensored body) was the minimum focal length I felt necessary.  As a spare body I brought along the Lumix GX8.   I also brought the Lumix GM1 with the Lumix 14mm pancake lens because it’s so small that it fits easily in my bug coat pocket and provides that wide field coverage. I also brought several extra batteries, USB chargers, two lithium power banks and my 11” Macbook Air. 

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When I learned how little space we had in the canoe for gear, I jettisoned the Mac Airbook, the lithium power banks and all the battery chargers for space for an extra pair of shoes. Which was prescient since I needed an extra dry pair of shoes like nothing else.   You will notice the E-M1.2 encased in an Outex waterproof silicon sleeve.   The water sealing is excellent with optical glass at the lens and EVF/rear screen locations.  Not only is the camera now fully waterproof, it gives the camera positive water buoyancy so that you can find it easily after it falls out of the canoe.

After making camp on an island in Craig Lake, we had lunch and made our first excursion to look for moose. We were all grateful for the wonderful weather since it had rained heavily the night before. The dull one dimensional light of an overcast sky would have made it difficult for photography and paddling in the rain is always a miserable experience. The third wave of the pandemic had also delayed reopening the provincial park by two weeks allowing the hordes of voracious black flies and mosquitoes to die out and we encountered relatively few bugs. This was also driven by the dry climate causing lake levels to drop and beach areas to expand.

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Our first moose, a young female found sauntering along a beach before noticing us and returning to the forest.

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Our second sighting was a bull foraging on water lilies which come into abundance at the start of June. These aquatic plants are particularly rich in sodium and necessary for antler and hair growth and milk production. Terrestrial plants are mainly rich in potassium and a winter of eating bark and twigs means the moose needs to replenish its sodium stores.  Moose sight is quite poor but at one point it caught our collective scent (sunscreen and/or bug repellent like DEET), realized our presence and escaped back into the forest.   For an animal that fears no predators, it has a very shy disposition.  The EXIF data shows we were about 100 meters away from the bull before he detected us.

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Bull moose hastily beats a retreat.

Moose often lie down in the cool, sun shaded depths of the forest for an afternoon nap so we decided to return to camp and then try closer to sunset.  Since the summer solstice was approaching on Monday, this far north the sun was not going to set until well after 9 PM.   The guides wisely decided that we should not make an excursion after dinner since they fed us extremely well (dinner was marinated BBQ pork loins, poached lake trout with lemon, and stir fried vegetables with quinoa) and provided abundant cans of Moosehead beer so we tried again at 6:30 PM and returned for dinner at 8:00.

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Another bull was discovered on the opposite shore of the lake but was spooked by something we did and made his departure. I’d be happy if the bull charged my canoe in anger with my Outex waterproof covering. Can you imagine the shots I’d get leading up to the collision!  Our guides theorized that the two week delay has reduced our moose sightings because often clouds of black flies drive the moose into the water to escape their torment.

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This final young bull for the first day stared at all of us for several minutes before losing interest and returning to the forest.

We all agreed to wake up at 4:30 the next morning and leave by 5 hoping to catch some moose activity in the safety of twilight. I went to bed early thinking that I would awake tomorrow immobilized, with every muscle and joint stiff and unyielding. I was surprised to find myself in a functional state.

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Mist rising off the lake surface as the sun begins to crest the treetops. Most of the trees lining the perimeter of land are of the variety of northern boreal forest conifers whereas the trees inland are typical of the southern Carolina deciduous forest. The park falls right in the middle of the transition zone between these two forest types.

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My fellow photographers entering the lake mist across the classically calm mirrored water surface of early morning,

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I was on point and my guide, John, was paddling slowly at the rear of the canoe to give me all the opportunities to shoot.  Marg was in the middle, an extremely brave 80 year old woman who did not let her reduced mobility hinder her participation in this frankly physically challenging trip. I was the first to spot this young female, a Maiden in the Mist. But no shouting allowed, you have to give the high sign to alert the others.

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We spent an hour with her. She often looked directly at us before resuming her feeding. At this shot my canoe had closed to within 40 meters and some were even closer. When she was full, she calmly waded towards some of our canoes and climbed back on shore instead of moving away from us. It was the magical moment of the trip.

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Being the self appointed moose whisperer, I quickly located our second moose of the morning, a cow deep in the mist.

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There was little that could top our first moose experience of the morning. Except perhaps a female moose with her weeks old newborn calf !! We could hear her speaking to her calf as she left the water and urged it back into the safety of the forest away from these strange creatures.  I did spot another cow well on shore and she disappeared while we maneuvered towards her.  After three hours on the water, we returned for breakfast which was cut cantaloupe slices, cinnamon pancakes and amazing candied maple bacon with coffee.

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This is Rob, our pro photographer/guide. He gave us some tips like shooting at f/8 to maximize depth of field in case you miss focusing accurately on the moose. And to shoot at high ISO to get a fast shutter speed. I shot wide open at f/5.6 since the smaller m43 sensor ensured plenty of depth of field and although sensor stabilization means no need for high shutter speed, it can’t overcome the rocking of the canoe even in calm waters so best to shoot fast so I kept it at ISO1600.  I always shoot multiple frames using Low speed to ensure refocusing in between frames since this permits you the luxury to choose the most photogenic shot back home.  There also doesn’t appear to be the need for the silent electronic shutter since the noise of multiple cameras exposing did not seem to deter the moose. The most valuable lesson I learned from Rob is to not care at all about losing your camera.  Look at him with his camera resting on top of his knapsack at a level above the seats. One roll and the camera will go into the lake. Rob says this is the only way to be able to grab it and shoot it quickly, having it strapped around his neck will only hinder his paddling.  And when you tally the number of moose you saw, it’s OK to count the ones you’ve seen twice!   My camera setup was certainly the most compact in my group and next time I’ll bring the Zuiko 300mm f/4 prime with the 2x teleconverter to give as nearly as compact a combination but with a far reaching 600mm focal length.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              This brief video demonstrates that even the best sensor stabilization in the industry cannot cope with the random movements of a rocking canoe, especially at high focal length.  Unfortunately there is no sound, the Outex sleeve covers the microphones.

And so I did see seven and a half moose,  I’m more than satisfied and extremely grateful at how well this trip turned out.   My thanks to John and his great team at Voyageur Quest for a true Canadian experience bar none. 

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That’s John, Marg, and me on the hunt! Thanks to Lisa for taking this photo for me!

2 Comments

    1. Hi Graham, given how everybody was easily coping with larger bodies and much longer lenses, the next time I’m taking the 300mm prime and MC14 with the E-M1X. The new 150-400 f/4.5 would be ideal since a zoom is always preferable to changing lenses in these conditions.

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