My friend, Steve, is a rabid back-country skier. He also happens to be an avid horseman. So, it was kind of a surprise he didn't realize what animal made the tracks he found, at first glance. He was still excited when he called me the following day.
"We were skiing into Cathead Mountain, near Benson in the Silver Lake Wilderness Area," he explained. "And, the snow was really deep for the first mile or so, until we started climbing."
"Then, it became real easy going, with packed trails going off in all different directions. It looked like a herd of horses had come through there, and I wondered, who in the hell would be riding way up here?"
"But, when I dug down through the deep snow to the look at the tracks, it was a split hoof, with a distinct dew claw. It was the first moose tracks I'd ever seen," he continued. "And after looking around it was obvious moose had been feeding heavily on the saplings, breaking limbs and chewing the bark off trees."
Much like whitetail deer will 'yard up' in a thick cedar swamp during the winter, moose will also gather in a 'winter yard.' Similar to the behavior of whitetail deer, moose will concentrate their numbers in one location for protection from predators and for ease of travel.
Moose yards are often found in dense, low-lying softwood forests located near watersheds or marshes. Conifers provide cover, diminish snow depth, offer food sources, break wind and hold heat better than open hardwoods.
Moose are the largest animal in the park and although extirpated for more than a century; they are still considered a landscape species and a icon of the Adirondacks. Since the 1980s, I've come across moose tracks on numerous occasions. I first found tracks along the railroad tracks in our backyard in Ray Brook, and again one morning in the fresh snow, right outside the door of our hunting camp near Scarface Mountain.
Since then, I've found plenty of tracks and watched several moose, both in the wild and in the middle of town. My first moose encounter occurred on Fish Pond in the St. Regis Canoe Area, when I observed a bull moose walking in the shallow water along the shoreline. It was a huge animal and like a first kiss, I'll never forget the moment.
I've seen a number of moose since that time, crossing the highway, wallowing in a marsh or swimming in the lake. However, my closest encounter occurred in the middle of Lake Placid village in the fall of 2009.
I was hosting a German photographer on a photo safari for birds. We had just departed the local marina on Lake Placid and we were headed out of town, when I noticed a big female or "cow" moose in the garden of a local home. We stopped, of course, and as the photographer fumbled furiously through his gear to find an appropriate camera lens, I captured several images with an inexpensive point and shoot camera.
Although he owned all sorts of telescopic lens, they were too powerful to capture a moose at a distance of less than 10 yards. Sadly, he never got a shot.
When moose first began returning to New York in the early 1980s, they were considered an oddity. They typically remained rather elusive creatures until their breeding season rolled around in the fall. Back then, the wide-ranging creatures would usually be found in local farm pastures, chasing after cattle, with amorous intent.
At the time, moose were so unusual we gave them pet names, such as "Big Richard." But, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the New York State moose population is currently estimated at more than 500 animals and growing.
In towns such as Newcomb, Indian Lake, Speculator or Inlet, the sight of moose is no longer considered an unusual occurrence, especially during the early fall when bull moose will cover upwards of 75 miles of territory in the search for a mate.
In fact, moose have become so common in New York State the department no longer tracks moose with radio collars, and they don't even bother to collect reports of moose sightings. Since first reports began to trickle in back in 1980, the department has collected more than 3,000 sightings. However, the department does still conduct aerial surveys during the winter, when the budget allows.
Sadly, over the 30-plus years it has taken moose to reestablish a viable breeding population in the state, numerous animals have been involved in car accidents. Nearly 60 moose have died due to road kill, while more than 30 have been killed legally. The DEC estimates our moose population is increasing at about the same rate as Vermont's, with an increase of about 10-15 percent per year.
Several advantageous factors can assist in the search for moose during the winter. The snow covering serves to reveal their tracks and to expose their trails. The white background also highlights their dark silhouette, which when combined with a more open forest, serves to expose the big animals more than any other time of the year.
Frozen marshes and bogs, and a suitable crust can also provide skiers or snowshoers will easy travel opportunities to cover such terrain during the winter season.
With adequate snow cover, a competent cross-country skier can cover many miles of terrain in a day's travel, which makes it is entirely possible to cut a moose track or find the heavily trafficked trails near a 'yard.' If you discover moose tracks during the winter, it is very likely you can follow them back to their owner.
However, it is important to remember these big animals yard up for both safety and ease of travel. Do not approach close enough to present a threat or otherwise disturb them, for your sake and for theirs.
If you are fortunate enough to locate a moose, it is recommended you observe it from a safe distance and depart before causing any alarm.
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.