Ed Mathieu pulled the Jeep to the side of the road, the tires rumbling on the icy gravel. He jumped out, walked purposefully around the vehicle and squinted at the crusty snow. As he bent down for a closer look-see, I recognized his intense expression; it was the one I’d seen on the faces of trackers on safaris in the wilds of Canada and Africa. Ed was staring at the past, described in a trail of footprints: A moose had been here. Now if only he could predict the future: that I would see the moose that had made those marks.
Setting out from Portland, Maine, for the two-hour drive north, I was buoyed by the odds. According to state wildlife biologists, 75,000 moose reside in Maine, with about 1.3 moose per square mile in the Moosehead Lake vicinity. I knew from an earlier conversation with Ed, who runs Moose Country Safaris & Eco Tours, that we were going to canvass a wide swath of wooded land and shoreline near the lake. Since moose typically roam within a two- to four-mile radius, I imagined a veritable petting zoo of Bullwinkles.
If my faith started to falter, I had road signs to restore my hope. Near Waterville, a yellow posting warned drivers to watch for crossing moose over the next six miles. Not a problem: I would certainly brake for moose, because I had a feeling that they wouldn’t grant me the same courtesy.
Ed, a wildlife guide for 28 years, was more than just a spotter with an impressive track record. (When asked his lifetime moose count, he answered, “Thousands.”) He was also driver, educator and, during lulls between clues, entertainer. On the ride to the lake, about an hour from his house in Sangerville, he wore his ranger hat and filled my head with the animal’s statistics. For example, the females can weigh up to 800 pounds, a slender physique compared with their male counterparts, which can crush the scale at 1,200 pounds, rack included. Unlike deer and elk, moose are solitary creatures that, like loners at high school, dine and wander the hallways solo.
“They’re more or less big, gentle creatures,” said Ed. “They’re a nice symbol of the wilderness and of the North Woods of Maine.”
Most of the region’s moose-viewing operations run in the spring, summer and fall, when the Maine outdoors is reborn and revitalized. Though Ed conceded that winter is not peak season, he did draw an L.L. Bean-esque image of moose grazing beneath boughs of snow-tinged evergreens, their coats thick and gray and snuggly. The state’s official animal — Maine has the second-largest population after Alaska — is most visible between Mother’s and Father’s Day. During this period, the snow has ceded to an all-you-can-eat buffet of young shoots — pure moosenip.
In addition, the five-week summer invasion of demonic black flies forces the moose to flee the forest for less irritating places, such as open roads and storage areas for winter road salt, which the moose lick up like children in the land of lollipops. Despite their menacing size, the animals are docile and oafish, unless you catch them during the fall rut season, when they turn aggressive in their pursuit of the ladies.
“The life of the moose is easy,” said Ed. “All they do is eat, sleep, drink and mate.”
In December, we didn’t have to worry about lascivious moose. This time of the year, they’re more interested in dining than dating. Based on Ed’s briefing, I could potentially charm a moose if I doused myself in salt and wore a crown of broccoli (yes, these vegetarians have a hankering for the popular stir-fry green).
Moose viewing is similar to whale watching and celebrity stalking, in that you always hear about how so-and-so saw this-and-that the day before — but never on the day that you’re on critter patrol. Ed, whose record day yielded 28 moose, mentioned, for example, the wife of a couple from New York who came face to face with the lumbering beast while she was using nature’s toilet. How embarrassing — for the moose. More recently, a man parked on the side of the road shouted through his open window that he’d spotted a cow, a calf and a bull … yesterday. Well, I wanted to retort, I saw a moose the day before, too, in the Manchester, N.H., airport. Moreover, the steel statue was made by a sculptor who’d encountered a bull in the woods.
As for a real moose, it was my turn. I knew it. I could read the tea leaves in the snow. As we drove up to Moosehead Lake, into the towns of Greenville and Kokadjo (population “not many”) and around the Roach Ponds (seven in all), Ed and I found clear evidence of their presence. First, we discovered a set of prints across the street from the Department of Transportation, whose hillocks of winter salt draw the four-legged diners as well as two-footed gawkers who park along the side of the road. We also noticed the pitter-patter of moose feet on a section of Lily Bay Road, logging territory that also goes by the nickname “Moose Corridor.”
“That’s a virtual salad for the moose to come eat,” Ed said of a tasty toss of branches and greens.
Despite the signs of a small stampede on the ground, the northern Maine setting was still and nap-time quiet. When a critter did make an appearance, I would bounce with excitement, thrilled to see any member of the animal kingdom, even those on the bottom rungs. I pointed crazily at a chipmunk and, when two black birds swooped overhead, Ed emitted a yelp of “Yippee, crows.”
Although moose don’t have a designated lunch hour, Ed did. On an empty road bordered by bushy trees, he pulled out a cooler stocked with ham-and-cheese sandwiches, apples, Christmas cookies and a mug of hot cocoa. He grabbed a sandwich and wandered over to the edge of the woods, incapable of turning off his tracking device.
While he followed the hops of a snowshoe hare, I pointed my beagle nose in the other direction, toward two pairs of moose prints. The impressions belonged to a mom and a calf, strolling down the snowy stretch together, big beside little. I pressed my own boot prints into the wintry carpet as I walked down the lane with a moose on either side.