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Bearskin Lodge Photography Series: May is moose-viewing season — how to find and photograph wildlife in the spring

Here is a conversation we have in our lodge many times a week, winter and summer.

The discouraged visitor says, “I’ve been coming to the Gunflint Trail for 10/20/30 years, and I’ve never seen a moose.” Or bear. Or wolf. Or whatever animal it is that they most wish to see. Often they have a beautiful camera hanging from their neck and the dream is to capture that perfect memorable Gunflint Trail wildlife picture.

We say, “So, when are you usually here looking for wildlife?” The answer is generally some version of July or August. We encourage them to keep looking and offer suggestions for likely viewing spots. But what we’re really thinking is that they are probably destined for continuing failure. The truth is, you might have great luck searching for your perfect moose photograph in late summer, but there are much better times to be here if your goal is to see animals. Come to Bearskin in May and very early June and you’ll get your picture.

Spring is moose-viewing season. It is not uncommon for Bearskin to have moose right on the Main Lodge grounds during May and early June, often cows and newborn babies. Our hypothesis is that since we are a dog-free lodge with very few canine smells, and because wolves don’t often venture into the resort, perhaps this area feels like a safe zone for pregnant cows and mothers with calves. Our nearby Summer Home Road and other quiet gravel roads are also excellent places to find moose in the spring – just look for their big footprints in the mud.

Bears are also easy to find and photograph in spring. The secret? Dandelions. Those pesky yellow flowers may be an invasive species that nobody wants growing on our waysides, but don’t tell that to the bears. They love munching on dandelion heads found along wide mowed shoulders of some parts of the Gunflint in the spring.

We asked a group of our favorite photographers to share their suggestions for finding animals to photograph in May and June. We encourage you to look at their photography websites, or follow their Facebook pages to see the photos of all the animals they are sure to find this spring.

Katie Mumm

Katie Mumm was our Bearskin staff photographer for several years, and she continues be an increasingly well-regarded moose photographer. Katie drives along the Gunflint between Swamper Lake and Loon Lake regularly in the spring, camera ready in her car. “Every evening I jump in my car, armed with my camera and take off in search of moose!” she says. “My travels take me in different directions on the Trail but I always visit my ‘usual’ places where I commonly see moose. Sometimes I drive to the end of the Trail and other times I take a gravel road here and there in search of new spots and sightings. You never know who/what might appear. When I’m lucky enough to find moose, I always keep a safe distance from the animal, for my safety as well as theirs. I don’t want to frighten them, so I prefer to shoot from a distance.”

She adds, “Persistence is the key in photographing wildlife. There are many nights when I come down the Bearskin Road with nothing to show for my time. But other nights, it’s a gold mine! You just have to keep trying, keep travelling, and keep shooting.”

See Katie’s latest pictures on her Facebook photography site here.

Thomas J. Spence

Tom Spence’s superb lynx pictures made the news all around Minnesota during the winter of 2018, but regular followers of the Bearskin Facebook page have been seeing shared wildlife, northern lights, and Lake Superior photos from Tom for several years.  According to Tom, it helps to be an early riser if you want to get great wildlife pictures. “I like to get out early to find the critters,” he says. “The earlier the better. I’ll often head into the woods before sunrise to put myself in a location at first light. I’m usually focusing on water areas such as swamps, rivers and inland lakes in and around the BWCA.”

“Spring,” he continues, “is a very active time in the woods so you are bound to see some kind of activity just about every trip out. Of course, any time is good to be out, but the morning light and activity are the best in spring, in my opinion.”  You can check out more of Tom’s pictures on his Facebook page or browse and buy photos you like on Tom’s SmugMug website.

David R. Johnson

Grand Marais photographer David Johnson is a fan favorite on the Bearskin Facebook page, where we often feature his wildlife, northern lights, and Grand Marais pictures. “I put on many thousands of miles and hundreds of hours looking for wildlife,” David says. “My cameras are dialed in for conditions for the day I am out, so I can shoot at a moment’s notice. You have to be fast to get some shots most of the time.”  

“As far as finding wildlife, you go to where the food is. Lynx’s main diet is the snowshoe hare, so I look where there are large populations of them. I look for tracks.”  David also watches for road-kill, especially along Highway 61, and occasionally spots wolves, foxes, and eagles nearby.  Finding moose, he says, can be “hit or miss.” In spring and early summer moose are looking for fresh greens, aquatic plants, and new tree leaves.  “Willow are hot,” he says. “All waterways are good to check: beaver ponds, swamps, and lakes.”

David’s photos can be viewed and purchased on his Zenfolio site.

Nace Hagemann

We frequently share wildlife and northern lights photos from Nace Hagemann, and for several years carried his cards in our gift shop. Nace has a reputation for getting great moose pictures, although he feels he has seen fewer moose on the Gunflint Trail during the last few years, perhaps resulting from the tribal hunting season that has been held during the past few autumns. Nace has learned that “Moose are looking for the fresh growth of aquatic plants in the spring and are often in and around water. I often see other animals by driving.”  Nace owns a construction company and works all over Cook County, so he also spots animals near the road while driving to his jobs very early in the morning. Nace’s pictures can be seen on his Facebook site and can also be purchased here.

Crystal and Chris Clemons

For several years the number-one ranked moose photo on Google was this photo of a gangly, long-legged young moose, taken by Crystal Clemons on nearby Clearwater Road. Crystal is not a professional photographer, but she is a very successful amateur photographer whose tenaciousness in searching for animals each spring results in many cool wildlife sightings. Crystal and her husband Chris regularly drive hundreds of miles down quiet Cook County side roads, searching for wildlife. Persistence is their strong point, plus a willingness to return even when they didn’t have good luck the last time.

Crystal says, “In the early morning when the sun is coming up or in the evening when the sun is going down, we drive down the Lima Grade, South Bruhl Road, Lima Mountain Road, and Greenwood Road. And of course the famous area, Swamper.”  They watch the road for fresh tracks as they drive, the possible sign of an animal being nearby.

Chris and Crystal especially recommend looking for fox dens at the end of April and early May, when fox kits are born. Crystal and Chris also have a great deal of luck getting pileated woodpecker pictures, often on Clearwater Road. They have a favorite spot where they’ve taken many pictures of pileated woodpeckers poking their big red heads out of nest holes.

Crystal also suggests, “Here is a good spring idea for anyone, moose antler hunting in late April and early May (depending on the snow depth). We have good luck every year. The trick to that is go to one or two year-old logging cuts, walk around in them, look for little trees that have been rubbed on (trying to shed antlers), then just walk around and look. Finding antlers is like a treasure hunt and it’s an awesome feeling when you find them. We have yet to find a set. It gets the family outdoors.”

So when is the perfect time to find and photograph our Gunflint Trail wildlife?

May and early June have undeservedly become very quiet seasons on the Gunflint Trail, for three reasons: our erratic, sometimes long-lasting winter season; spring’s frequent rainy May days; and springtime bugs. For those of us who live up here, spring is high on the list of favorite seasons, but making the most of spring as a visitor requires planning and realistic expectations. There will be amazingly perfect spring days and yes, there may be some rainy days.

First, it helps to pay attention to when the snow and the ice melts. Even if it’s warm in the Twin Cities, like it has been in recent years, weather on the Gunflint won’t be on the same schedule. Snow and ice can occasionally disappear here in April, but it’s more likely to be gone in early May. Watch our web cam to keep track of how the weather is changing on the Gunflint. Our usual ice-out day is around May 6th, but it’s happened 5 weeks earlier or 2 weeks later. If anything, ice-out has been edging towards earlier dates in the past few years.

Secondly, come prepared for some rainy or misty days. Bring rain gear and mud shoes. We love May for taking long, springy 50-degree walks on the trails and gravel roads, but if you don’t happen to get that weather, be ready to head out in spring showers. The animals don’t mind a little rain, so your hunt for the perfect moose moment can still succeed even if we’re experiencing May precipitation.

Lastly, what about those bugs?  The trade-off for being here when the wildlife abounds is that there are more bugs than in late July and August. Come prepared to deal with them and with luck, they may not even be an issue. The days between snow-melt, whenever that occurs, and the last week of May tend to be almost bug-free. Eventually the notorious black flies, those little annoying ear-biting gnats, appear around Memorial Day. That’s when a head net and the screen porch on your Bearskin cabin are appreciated. Mosquitoes also start to appear at about that time, depending on how much standing water there is in the woods. Some years are better than others. May is also the month for ticks. Our area has very few occurrences of Lyme disease (we just don’t have many deer on the Gunflint), but regular old ticks are out in force right away during the spring.  Dress appropriately and take the standard tick precautions, and you should be fine. We sell a tick spray you can use as extra protection.

What if May/early June doesn’t work for me? Will I ever see a moose?

Honestly, you’ll only see a moose if you’re super lucky or incredibly persistent in July or August. It happens, especially on canoe trips into the BWCAW, but late summer moose sightings aren’t a daily occurrence like they are in the spring.

Your next best bet for wildlife pictures is to visit in the fall. As the temperatures cool off and the Gunflint Trail gets less busy, we start to see more moose action in September and especially October and November. Moose mate in the fall, so they move around in search of true love during that time. David Johnson noted that, “In fall moose are getting into rut. The bulls are on the move and can be found where you see the cows; they won’t be far away.”  There is, of course, a downside to chasing moose while they are in rut. (Remember the infamous Andy story?) But let good sense prevail, and you can successfully see wildlife, including moose, in autumn.

Wildlife sightings are much better in the fall than in late summer, but no season compares to spring for finding and photographing a wide variety of animals and birds around Bearskin Lodge and the Gunflint Trail. Visit us!

Moose-viewing season spring rates at Bearskin

We’ve lowered the prices for most of May. “Value season,” the least expensive time of year to stay at Bearskin Lodge, now extends until just before Memorial Day. Pack your camera and a “just in case” rain coat and head up to the Gunflint Trail to capture that perfect picture or memory at a great price.