How to meet a bull moose

Posted March 16, 2011, at 6:10 p.m.
Pete the moose eats leaves in a tree in Irasburg, Vt., in 2009.
Toby Talbot | AP
Pete the moose eats leaves in a tree in Irasburg, Vt., in 2009.

Moose scat is one of the most common sights on trails in Maine, but actually seeing a moose while hiking is less common. Over time I’ve seen a number of moose — which suggests that if you spend enough time in the woods, you’ll eventually see just about everything. And much of what you see will be unexpected.

I once surprised a young bull moose on the rocky trail below Fifth Debsconeag Lake. Actually, we surprised each other as I hiked around a corner, the roar of the waterfall drowning out the sounds of my approach. But the most unusual moose encounter I’ve had occurred last August. It was the last day of a four-day backpacking trip on the Grafton Loop.

As I hiked around Slide Mountain, sweat ran into my eyes and dripped off my nose — even though it was only 7 a.m. The trail dropped down into Miles Notch, a surprisingly large, flat area with moist, sandy soil beneath widely spaced maples and beech. The humidity in the hot air hung foggy in the angled morning light. As I crossed the notch, the trail began to rise gradually, then more steeply. Soon I was following switchbacks up the rocky shoulder of Sunday River Whitecap.

As I climbed, head down, I noticed a number of fresh moose tracks in the mud between the rocks on the trail. They looked fresh, maybe even since the night before. I took off my glasses and tried to find a dry spot on my shirt to clean them. Above me the hardwoods gave way to spruce, as bare granite replaced soil and dead leaves beneath the trees.

Higher still, the spruce got shorter and more tightly packed. Just before breaking out onto open granite slabs, the trail made a sharp right and climbed 10 feet up a large bulge of rock. On top of the rock, bog boards took the trail out of sight to the left. When I reached the rock, I stopped and looked up, and realized a bull moose was standing on the bog boards looking down at me.

We stood looking at each other. I couldn’t imagine what a moose would be doing this high on the mountain, among these dense, stunted spruce. Slowly, I reached my right hand down to the camera in my pocket. The moose turned and forced his way into the spruce below where he was standing. I could hear branches groan and crack. He went into the thicket about 10 feet and stopped.

I climbed up to the bog boards, looking into the spruce, trying to see him. Not only could I not see the moose, I couldn’t even tell where he’d forced his way into the trees. The wall of spruce looked solid, impenetrable. I was certain that I could not get through them.

The moose huffed loudly. I stood with camera in hand, still unable to see him. Trees  creaked as he turned. I decided to move on without a picture; it couldn’t be much fun hiding there in the spruce. I put the camera back in my pocket, and hiked out onto the bare rocks. The summit of Sunday River Whitecap rose high above me in the haze-fogged air. It took 15 years of hiking in Maine, but I had finally encountered a bull moose on a trail.

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