A Year Tracking Moose in Jasper National Park

When Hugo Kitching finally found the stars of featured in Moose: A Year in the Life of a Twig Eater, he could hardly believe it. That’s because it took the Canadian director of photography and the crew such a long time to locate them.

Hugo KitchlingHugo Kitching

Kitching searched for weeks for a mother moose and her newly-born calf as the subjects in the stunning nature documentary Moose: A Year in the Life of a Twig Eater. He went on to spend the next 13 months with the moose in Alberta’s Jasper National Park to intimately capture the story of a moose calf’s first year of life.

“It was honestly a moment of huge relief,” Kitching said, describing that serendipitous moment when he found what he and his team called the “big calf.” In the film, you can hear him gush as he watched the moose from afar, “I can’t believe I found her.”

Part of the reason could be because moose populations across many parts of North America are in steep decline and scientists believe one big factor is that fewer moose calves are surviving their first year — less than 50 per cent. When filmmaker Susan Fleming conceived of the project (listen to an interview), she wanted to tell the story in a very personal way by sending a cameraman into the field for the entire year to open viewers’ eyes to just how tough it is for a moose calf to survive in the brutal landscape of the Canadian Rockies, from the struggle to find food in harsh winters, to eluding hungry wolves in deep snow. Kitching, who worked with her previously on Meet the Coywolf, was the perfect guy for the job, "He took on the challenge with great enthusiasm and dedication. He has really lived a year in the life of a twig eater."

“It was truly a magical experience. When a moose is fully-grown, it’s one of the largest mammals in North America, so to see a moose when it’s so small and vulnerable, and then watch it mature, is really amazing.”

Kitching witnessed those challenges first hand, and also experienced some of his own out on location. He said keeping track of where the moose were at any given time was a constant challenge and sometimes he would go stretches of weeks when finding them was impossible.

“When these animals don’t want to be found, good luck finding them,” he said. “But as they grew accustomed to my presence, I found I could return the next morning to where I’d seen them last and from there, I could either track them using the moss or the snow, and find them again.”

It definitely wasn’t a typical workplace setting for Kitching. He was sleep-deprived for the year he was shooting and it wasn’t unusual to work 18-hour days during the summer months. He said he found himself “eating bacon like candy” to survive in the winter — anything with a high fat content as he burned so many calories each day from snowshoeing with his bulky camera gear on his back. Then there was that time his car got stuck in the snow and all the other times batteries would die at inopportune moments.

“Like any job, it’s not a question of whether something will go wrong, but when.”

As for any dangerously close encounters with other animals, Kitching did have one story to tell.

“I did have one bull moose bluff charge me in the gut, but that was my fault, as my tripod had snapped a large branch. There was a second bull in the area, he may have mistaken me for it, I’m not sure,” he said.

“It was terrifying, but I got behind a tree and stood motionless and it backed off. I filmed that bull for weeks before and after throughout the year, and never had any other issue with him.”

Hugo in snowHugo hauls his gear through the winter snow.

Kitching has an intimate knowledge of Canadian wildlife and his years of experience working in Ontario's Algonquin Park as a field naturalist has allowed him to become very comfortable working out in the bush on his own. But there’s something remarkable about filming a young moose calf as it grows and learns how to live in its environment.

“It was truly a magical experience,” he said. “When a moose is fully-grown, it’s one of the largest mammals in North America, so to see a moose when it’s so small and vulnerable, and then watch it mature, is really amazing.”

Kitching said spending 13 months in the wilderness reinforced his love of working in nature every day, and it also gave him an understanding of why there’s such a mystique and fascination around moose.

“They have truly evolved to thrive in the Canadian wilderness. It’s quite something to see a 1,000-pound animal diving deep into lakes for food or plowing through a metre of snow.”

“Moose are amazingly beautiful and have a kind of quiet majesty to them. You would think that such a large animal would make a lot of noise moving through its environment, but it never ceased to amaze me just how quiet they were,” he said.

“They have truly evolved to thrive in the Canadian wilderness. It’s quite something to see a 1,000-pound animal diving deep into lakes for food or plowing through a metre of snow.”

Watch Moose: A Year in the Life of a Twig Eater online now.

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