Few if any people know the Moose River Plains in the southwestern Adirondacks as well as retired forest ranger Gary Lee. He's spent years working in the area and continues to visit regularly.
In recent years, Lee has had a new fixture to his routine when he passes through there: He often stops by the Helldiver Pond.
That's because for the past couple summers, the pond has been a main feeding ground for a mature bull moose that Lee estimates is about 1,200 pounds.
Photo by Gary Lee
Water drips off a bull moose as it feeds in Helldiver Pond in the Moose River Plains in the southwestern Adirondacks on June 16, 2011. This moose has been seen frequently in recent years in this same pond.
Lee said the bull moose was at Helldiver Pond last summer from June 16 until July 22. This year, Lee first noticed him on June 10 and hasn't heard of him being around since July 18. The moose had been most frequently seen in the early morning hours at about sunrise, around 5:30 a.m. It was often feeding on lilypads and aquatic vegetation.
Lee recalled seeing the moose last summer.
"He put his head right down in the water that first day I saw him, and the water would drip right off his horns," Lee said. "It was really neat to watch that. Then, towards the end (of the summer), they seemed to be more sensitive and he would just stick his nose in the water and he'd hardly even get his horns in the water at all. He was eating in shallower water, but that first day when I photographed him I had him to myself for a week. No one was even going in to see him but me.
"He was there every day, which was really kind of neat. And he's such a beautiful animal."
Lee said he's seen other moose in the Moose River Plains in the past. Sometimes a large moose would appear in the road while he was driving, or a cow and a calf would be spotted. But he's never known an animal to appear so frequently in one location. Lee said he's heard reports of the moose being in Helldiver Pond for about four years.
Word has really got out in the past year, with photos and videos of the animal appearing on the Internet, often with the tagline "Helldiver moose." Lee has also written about the Helldiver moose in recent years, mentioning him in a column he writes for the Weekly Adirondack newspaper in Old Forge. For those reasons, large crowds of people have gathered there early in the morning.
"Sometimes there's 30 people there," Lee said.
Lee recalled that one time when he stopped by Helldiver Pond he ran into an angler who had just had a relatively close encounter with the animal. The fisherman was out on the pond in a rubber raft, when the moose entered the water.
"He comes back in that rubber raft," Lee recalled "He says, 'Oh, my god. Oh, my god. I'm out there and this bull moose comes out.' He had to back-paddle, he says. He didn't have a camera or anything. It was like 2 o'clock, 2:30 in the afternoon or so."
Inlet tourism director Adele Burnett said she's never seen the Helldiver moose, but she's heard reports of him and other moose from time to time in the Moose River Plains.
"A lot of people will see them, but we don't necessarily hear about it," Burnett said. "But we have the signboard, and once a week somebody's putting up (a note that) they've seen the moose out there."
Moose were extirpated from the Adirondacks in the 1860s, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation's website. They then began being sighted in the 1980s. The moose population is now estimated between 600 and 1,000 in the Adirondacks, DEC wildlife biologist Ed Reed said.
Reed said that the Moose River Plains is one of those areas where moose first returned to in New York state.
"Historically, it's been a spot where the moose first colonized, so they are ahead of the curve as far as the population goes down there," Reed said. "I don't know any specific numbers for that area. I wouldn't even venture to guess. I think a lot of the last two years, a lot of the pictures are of the same moose in Helldiver. It seems like he hangs right there and is easy to see and is predictable, so people do see it a lot."
Burnett said she's only seen one moose in her 40-plus years of living in the Inlet areas, but she's heard reports of them for 20 years.
"I'm not saying there's more moose necessarily, but more people are talking about it, so more people are actually getting up early and going and looking for the moose," Burnett said.
How many moose are actually in the Moose River Plains or other parts of the Adirondacks isn't really known and no scientific studies have been done. Lee said he thinks the population is probably increasing because he's heard reports of cows and calves being sighted, which means they are reproducing locally. Reed was a little more guarded in talking about a population increase of the animal.
"We're not seeing a lot of change in that the last couple of years," Reed said. "We use things like road kills and our aerial survey. We have a hunter survey that we use too. Those are all staying about stable. They aren't really increasing, so I'm not sure what to make of that at this point."
Reed said the DEC is planning on using federal aid money to fund moose research projects that would be done in collaboration with universities. The goal would be to study the health of the Adirondack moose population, do a habitat assessment and perform a population estimate.
"The reproductive rate is a very important key; not only how many they are having, but how many survive," Reed said. "You can predict future populations using that. When you have some baseline to start with, you can reconstruct how the population got to that point."
Right now, there are several areas that are known to be moose "hotspots." Reed noted that population exists in the Upper Chateaugay Lake region, near Lake Desolation in Saratoga County and just east of Lake George.
Lee said one of the places he's noticed the most signs of moose was near Boreas Ponds, which is in the southern High Peaks region.
That was about four years ago when he was helping the Wildlife Conservation Society locate moose scat. The scat, hair and tissue samples of moose were tested for DNA as part of a larger study of the animal.
"In all the areas that we searched, that was the highest concentration that I saw," Lee said about the Boreas Ponds. "I saw fresh tracks in the road. There was fresh tracks in the lake, there was fresh tracks everywhere there. We didn't see any moose, but they were all around us all the time."
Boreas Ponds is owned by The Nature Conservancy, but the state recently announced it would purchase the land within the next five years to make it Forest Preserve.
As for the Helldiver Moose, Lee said he hasn't seen him recently. But that doesn't mean he's not around. He might be feeding when people aren't in the area.
"He might come out there during the night right now - who knows - and eat and just ignoring us now, saying 'You've had your show,'" Lee said.