May 27, 2019
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Defining the iconic Maine moose

Julia Bayly | BDN
Julia Bayly | BDN

I’ve seen moose in odd places. High on Sunday River Whitecap a bull moose looked down at me from bog boards across a granite bulge among stunted spruce. Viewed from Mt. Katahdin’s Knife Edge, a cow moose stood in a shallow pond, high on the mountain’s shoulder, surrounded by miles of impenetrable spruce. One afternoon, a cow moose stood in the yard of a Bradford dairy farm, watching the cars go by on Route 221.

There are nearly 30,000 moose in the state; despite seeing moose in unusual places, what has surprised me is how often I’ve hiked or paddled through good moose habitat without seeing any.

Bull moose, in general, spend the summer at higher elevations than cows. Food may be harder to find up on a mountain — especially aquatic vegetation — but it’s often cooler and less buggy. The moose I saw on Sunday River Whitecap was probably more interested in staying cool than in finding something to eat.

Cows generally stay lower in the summer because calves can’t wander far, and cow moose prefer denser vegetation for easy foraging and as cover. Nearly every baby moose I’ve seen was standing in water. This may be because in the summer about half a moose’s diet consists of aquatic plants. These aren’t particularly nutritious, but are the animals’ primary source of sodium.

Logically, then, the best summer habitat for cows and calves are low elevation areas with good hardwood browse, lots of aquatic vegetation, and dense cover for hiding from predators. Bulls, of course, need the salt in aquatic vegetation, but don’t need cover and can wander more to find what they need.

Moose tend to winter on south-facing slopes, especially among regenerating hardwoods. They also like to be near large softwood stands, which they use as refuge from deep snow. Also, with little else available, moose eat balsam fir.

Good winter habitat acts like a moose magnet. For example, the Appalachian Trail across Gulf Hagas Mountain winds through brambles and low, bushy hardwoods and is covered by several inches of moose scat from winter. Downslope in the Pleasant River valley are numerous cutover areas with good browse.

Moose are willing to travel several miles from their core range for salt, but their winter and summer ranges are generally near each other.

One of the “moosiest” places I’ve paddled is the south end of Lobster Lake, in a large, alder-crowded bog. On the shoulder of Big Spencer Mountain, just to the south, I regularly find evidence of moose:

• Day beds near the old caretaker’s cabin;

• Scat in the stream below the steep climb to the summit;

• Prints in the game trail that leaves the hiking trail and slabs around the mountain. I suspect that Lobster Lake and Big Spencer Mountain are popular with moose because their proximity offers both summer and winter habitats.

Most moose I’ve seen were on or near roads. Evidently, moose would rather follow a road or hiking trail than find their way through the woods. Also, moose seek out salt, and roads are a good source, especially in the months when aquatic plants aren’t available.

Seeing a moose along a road just isn’t the same as seeing one while paddling or hiking. We carry around an iconic image of moose in our heads: a bull moose lifting its head out of a pond, vegetation hanging from his antlers as water drips from his face and ears. There is a pond along the Golden Road with a view of Katahdin. On any summer morning there will be several photographers with their tripods set up, waiting to capture just that image.

A moose is no less a moose wandering down a logging road than when feeding in a pond with a spectacular view of Katahdin. I try to value each moose for its unique moose-ness. If we spend all our time holding out for the ideal, the iconic, we miss a great deal that the north woods has to offer.


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