BIG MACHIAS LAKE, Maine — Libby Gardner spent plenty of childhood hours in this neck of the woods, often riding atop the padded center console of her dad’s vehicle, keeping a keen eye peeled for the distinct outline of a ruffed grouse.
She began hunting the same way her dad, Larry Gardner, did: at the side of an experienced woodsman who stressed safety while imparting gentle lessons about the Maine woods.
On Monday evening, Libby curled up in a chair in front of a wood stove after a chilly day afield, grateful for those early memories — and eager to make more.
“It was mostly a bird hunt [back then],” the 32-year-old said, recalling those early days in the woods. “We’d come up and stay the weekend. We’d go out and I’d get to drive the truck. I’d sit on his lap until I was able to reach the pedals and see over the steering wheel at the same time.”
This week was different. After years of entering the moose lottery, Libby was heading out on her own moose hunt this year. So, too, was her dad, a longtime basketball coach at Fort Fairfield High School.
Each had their name drawn during the June moose permit lottery. Each was listed as the other’s sub-permittee. And each had received a permit in the same hunting zone, Wildlife Management District 5 in the North Maine Woods.
Though she was a veteran bird hunter, Libby had never fired a rifle until Thursday, when she went target shooting with her dad. Knowing that was the case, our two-man BDN team arrived with a shooting stick we thought she might want to try out, which she readily accepted.
The trip required some advance planning, and some strategizing. Larry Gardner, always the coach, had come up with a game plan he thought would work out just fine.
“If we saw two with locked horns that gave us a chance to get a couple of shots off, that would be great,” he said with a laugh. “But ideally, I’d like to see her shoot one. It doesn’t matter how big. And we’ve said we’ll shoot the first bull we see.”
The first challenge: Find a bull. Any bull. That can’t be so hard, can it?
Scout and hunt
Finding a moose didn’t prove all that difficult. In fact, just after legal shooting time on Monday morning, a cow moose stepped into the road in front of the hunting party.
The Gardners’ permits, however, allow them to hunt for bull moose only. They called to the cow for a bit, hoping to lure a bull into range, but had no luck.
Larry Gardner knows these woods roads intimately, though, and had an idea of where the moose might be.
Many of the roads we ended up on were “good bird roads,” according to Larry, and we saw plenty of ruffed grouse in those areas. Other spots were more “moosey,” and seemed obvious choices to call in a bull.
That’s not how it turned out.
Though the hunting party had plenty of success in chatting with bulls — brief, half-hearted replies to their calls were common — they didn’t end up having a serious conversation with a lovesick critter who just couldn’t resist stepping within rifle range.
Opening day was perfect for moose hunting, with early morning temperatures below freezing and not a trace of a breeze. As the day progressed, the weather stayed favorable and other animals chose to participate in the outing, but the moose proved finicky.
A couple bunnies and plenty of grouse spiced up the day, as did the sightings of a few dozen root balls on downed trees that looked, at first glance, just like moose.
“Every corner you go around, you’re just anticipating,” Larry Gardner said.
But after a solid 13 hours of hunting, the Gardners headed back to camp after opening day moose-less and weary.
Scattered around the shore of Big Machias Lake are about 40 rustic camps. More than 15 belong to folks from Fort Fairfield who have hunted these parts for generations.
Larry Gardner’s dad, Lawrence “Lockey” Gardner, was among them. He began hauling a small trailer to the lake, setting it up in a gravel pit, and using it as a base of operations when bird season rolled around.
Larry remembers childhood weekends spent there, before Lockey got a camp of his own on the lake.
“Dad was a teacher, too, a principal, and I looked forward to Friday because I knew we were going to pack things up, and head into the woods Friday night, have a meal and hunt the next day,” Larry Gardner said. “Then we’d come home Sunday night.”
That camp is no longer in family hands, and on this trip, the Gardners are staying with longtime friends Hiram Towle III and his brother, Tom Towle — both of Fort Fairfield — at their camp. Also along to pitch in was Larry’s longtime friend, John McCrea.
The arrangement made perfect sense to the Towles, who said they enjoyed Lockey Gardner’s hospitality plenty of times.
“Larry’s dad and my dad were good friends. They all liked to eat and have a drink and play cards. And a couple of them liked to hunt a little bit,” Tom Towle said. “Larry’s dad just loved to have people up here in the fall. Sometimes, we’d have eight or 10 of us up here on a weekend at Lockey’s lease camp.”
As is often the case in hunting camps, the food was plentiful and the stories were equally flavorful. Monday’s menu selection featured steak, potatoes and corn on the cob. No one left the table hungry.
Everyone was content. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be at camp, Libby Gardner said.
“There’s just something very peaceful about it. You get so wrapped up with technology and what’s going on in the world, and it’s usually pretty negative. Just to come here and shut that off, and get back to the simplicity of it all is just peaceful and calming,” she said. “It always seems to bring happiness to people.”
And before long, everyone headed off to bed.
Tomorrow would be even better. Right?
More of the same
In an ideal moose-hunting story, this is the chapter when the victorious hunters return to town with a monstrous bull, smiling from ear to ear.
In a realistic moose-hunting stories, the Gardners took solace in small, special moments.
Like when they spotted four wild turkeys at the same spot they’d seen them a day earlier — the first wild turkeys anyone could remember seeing west of Six Mile Gate on American Realty Road.
And the moose-of-unknown-gender that sprinted across the road and out of site just before legal shooting hours.
And the “Whoa! Thats! No … there was something brown” moment everyone shared when Libby was momentarily sure she saw something moosey just off the road.
And as the group hopped from likely spot to likely spot, low-key Larry Gardner periodically dispensed nuggets of moose-hunting wisdom.
“This would be a good spot to see one,” he said at one point, in a spot filled with moose browse, but featuring some very hilly terrain. “It might not be a good spot to shoot one.”
Then, reconsidering his statement, he added a disclaimer.
“We’ll worry about that after we see one,” he said.
Despite the slow hunting, the Gardners traveled the seemingly endless dirt roads peacefully, sharing occasional observations, but just as comfortable with silence broken only by the scrape of alder trees on the truck’s body.
If asked, Libby would talk about her daughters — 7-year-old Hannah and 4-year-old Hadley — and describe how much they each love going on bird-hunting trips.
“They’re my retrievers. They fight over who gets to go get the bird,” Libby said with a laugh.
Bird season is approaching. Many will head into the woods Monday and drive these same roads in search of grouse. But today, moose are the goal.
And on a day when the breeze built up to a steady wind, calling a bull and hearing a response became increasingly difficult.
A few hours later, with moose still refusing to take part in the hunt, Larry turned philosophical.
“It’ll happen when it happens,” he said. “If it happens.”
Alas, this is where our moose story nearly ended. The BDN contingent couldn’t stand to stay away from the office any longer. We returned to camp. Offered our thanks. Packed our vehicle. Wished Larry and Libby well.
Headed for home.
Or maybe not.
The rest of the story
Just before noon on Wednesday, a cellphone pinged with a text message.
A photo of two smiling Gardners and a massive moose. Another photo of a beaming Libby at the tagging station as her moose was weighed. And a message.
“Here’s your story,” Larry wrote. “932. Libby shot it using your shooting stick. Thx.”
An hour later, the Gardners called in for a more formal interview.
The Towle brothers had come up with an idea, Libby said, and wanted to take the Gardners onto a road where Tom Towle had seen a small bull the day before.
“We were driving real slow, and we kept seeing tracks,” Libby Gardner said. “Tom said, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if we came around one of these corners and we saw that moose standing right there.’ No sooner had he said that that there was a cow right there in the middle of the road. Then, a few feet off to the right the bull was standing right next to her.”
The Gardners hopped out of the passenger side of the truck, walked behind it to get to the driver’s side door and Libby placed Hiram Towle III’s .30-06 on the shooting stick.
The bull didn’t offer a good shot at first, and when the cow walked in front of him, the situation got even worse.
“I whispered to her, ‘When the cow goes by him, he’s going to turn and go with her,’” Larry Gardner said. “Sure enough, she kind of bolted, and he turned broadside.”
Shots rang out. The bull fell. Celebration commenced.
And memories began to cement themselves.
The moose weighed, as the text indicated, 932 pounds, field-dressed. The antlers sported a rack that the Gardners are saying was 63 inches wide. (The official spread is marked at 61 inches, but Larry Gardner said that was an estimate made with a paper tape that wasn’t long enough to reach from tip to tip of the massive rack).
And the experience? It was pretty easy for Larry to sum up.
“Pretty amazing,” he said.
On Friday morning, Larry Gardner called again to offer a final update.
Earlier that morning, he and Libby returned to the same road they’d found the 932-pounder.
Standing in the road were two small bulls.
Larry filled his tag, too, taking a bull that weighed just over 520 pounds.
“She got Bullwinkle and I got Bambi,” Larry Gardner said. “She got the trophy and I got the one that’s going to be better eating.”
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