SOUTH OF ISABELLA, Minn. — Paul Sundberg hopped out of the van for a closer look at the moose tracks along the Stony River Forest Road.
“Those are fresh,” he said.
It was just after sunrise on a late September morning. Sundberg and I had risen early to see if we could call in a bull moose.
We weren’t hunting. We were just out to see if we could lure one of Minnesota’s most iconic creatures close enough for photos, something Sundberg had done a half-dozen times before. The Grand Marais wildlife and nature photographer has made some excellent images of bull moose at this time of year, when calling is productive because it’s mating season for moose.
We drove slowly along the moose tracks until we saw where the bull had gone into the woods. We parked nearby and walked into a small clearing.
Sundberg lifted a megaphone-shaped fiberglass cone to his mouth and from deep in his chest came a sound like a lovesick cow moose. It was part grunt, part moan, low and evocative. In the early-morning stillness, the sound must have carried forever. It echoed off the trees and seemed to hang in the air.
Sundberg issued six or seven more of these love groans.
Within seconds, we heard a grunt from off in the woods. We looked at each other with big eyes. Soon, Sundberg offered another series of cow calls. The bull grunted again, and now we could hear him sloshing through a swamp. We could make out every slogging footstep.
They sounded close. The bull grunted again.
I dropped into a slight depression bordered by some brush. I thought it might act as a blind from which I could shoot.
But the prospect of soon being in the presence of a 1,000-pound critter that may or may not be somewhat cantankerous, as bulls can be this time of year, is a sobering thing. There were no climbable trees close to us.
“We’re too vulnerable,” Sundberg said. “We’ve got to move.”
So, we both retreated closer to the van, where we could quickly hop inside if necessary. Now we could hear branches breaking in the woods in addition to the bull’s grunting.
And there he was.
The medium-sized bull emerged from the edge of the clearing on the move. We didn’t have time to compose any photos before the moose moved behind a cluster of alders and a couple of birch trees. He was about 50 yards away. We could just make him out if he moved.
We were sure he would continue ahead and step out from behind the cover. If he did, we would have some perfect photos of the deep brown bull set off against the back-lit leaves of the young forest.
The bull must have been eyeing us suspiciously. He stood there for what seemed like forever. It was probably about a minute.
Then, he turned and trotted away, offering no photo opportunity.
“He must have decided we were not the love of his life,” Sundberg said.
We trailed him a short distance, thinking he might stop to check us out. But he was on his way back to mooseville.
Already, Sundberg was kicking himself.
“I’ve got to quit being so scared of those things,” he said. “If you had stayed where you were, you’d have had some good shots of him.”
That was easy to say in retrospect. But bull moose in mating season are notoriously unpredictable. They’ve been known to charge a person, forcing him to climb a tree to escape.
Twice in his moose quests of previous years, Sundberg has come away from moose encounters without a single photo, simply because he was taking evasive action with a bull coming in.
We drove on up the Stony River road for a few miles and saw a huge cow trot across in front of us. We stopped and called, and a bull grunted back several times. But we couldn’t get him to come in.
Maybe he had already met that cow and determined she was the love of his life.
Mark Braaten, a former Duluth resident now living in Wasilla, Alaska, is an expert moose caller and hunter who has produced a DVD called “Moose Calling and Hunting with Mark Braaten.” It’s $19.99, plus shipping. Call Braaten at 907-240-4752 or write to him at P.O. Box 298816, Wasilla, AK 99629.
For more of Paul Sundberg’s moose photos, go to www.paulsundbergphotography.com.