As the moose waded through the shallows, its large, velvet-covered antlers swayed and water streamed down its muscular legs. The animal swiveled its head in our direction, sensing our presence. Moose have terrible eyesight, but their hearing and sense of smell are top notch.
“Oh wow. That’s a beauty,” my 8-year-old niece, Willamina Sarnacki-Wood, said in a hushed tone. Brimming with excitement, she watched the animal through the binoculars as it slowly made its way to the grassy shore of Big Mud Brook.
I smiled at our good fortune. Moose are frequently spotted on the wildlife tour offered by the New England Outdoor Center, just outside Millinocket, but they certainly aren’t guaranteed. Sometimes they show up to munch on the aquatic plants, and sometimes they don’t.
On that final day of July, some of my closest family members had joined me for the evening wildlife tour. Our guide, Ken Gross, met us at the center’s Twin Pines campus on the southwest shore of Millinocket Lake. There we piled into a pontoon boat and headed across the boulder-filled lake to the mouth of Big Mud Brook.
“It’s a good place to see wildlife because the area became flooded when dams were built 140 or so years ago,” Gross said. “That created a terrific environment for moose and other animals attracted to aquatic plants and that edge between forest and water.”
As we motored over the smooth surface of the lake, Katahdin lorded over the horizon, hemmed in by neighboring mountains in Baxter State Park. And to our right, a gray bundle of rain clouds hovered, threatening to find us during the three-hour trip.
Gross slowed the boat to a crawl as we entered the wide mouth of Big Mud Brook. Water bugs danced across the water, which was as smooth as glass. In it, the perfect reflection of trees and sky created a strange illusion that the world had flipped upside down.
A family of ring-necked ducks was our first major wildlife sighting. The fuzzy yellow and brown mottled ducklings followed their stately mother as she swam along the edge of the waterway.
Next we encountered a very bold loon, which swam within just a few feet of our pontoon. As we passed, the bird turned its head to glance in our direction with one bright red eye, then resumed preening its feathers.
“I see the pattern on him now,” Willamina said. “Like stripes and then spots along his back.”
Though everyone in the boat had been outfitted with loaner binoculars, we didn’t need them to enjoy the details of that particular bird.
A loud rattle announced the presence of a belted kingfisher, a bird that perches on branches along the shore to dive after fish. And later in our trip, a number of hermit thrushes called out from the forest with their lovely, haunting song.
When we weren’t hearing or seeing wildlife, Gross quietly shared fun facts about the area. We learned that “Millinocket” is an Abenaki word for “the land of many islands,” which seemed especially appropriate after crossing the island-dotted Millinocket Lake. We also learned that Big Mud Brook was once used as a route for log drives, and Gross pointed out evidence of this history: a steel rung fastened to a rock that once served as an anchor point.
“What are those trees called?” Willamina asked, pointing to the straight-trunked evergreens lining the shore.
“That’s a good question,” Gross said. “Those are red pines, and right over there are my favorite trees.” He pointed to a stand of soft-needled tamaracks, then explained how their needles turn golden before falling off in the fall.
Clockwise from left: Willamina Sarnacki-Wood, 8, looks through binoculars at a loon on July 31, during a New England Outdoor Center wildlife tour; Ken Gross stands at the wheel of a New England Outdoor Center pontoon boat while leading a wildlife tour on July 31, just outside Millinocket.; and Tour guide Ken Gross jots down animal sightings on July 31, while leading an evening wildlife tour for the New England Outdoor Center on Big Mud Brook in the Katahdin region. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Beaver lodges, made of piled up sticks and mud, dotted the waterway. In one area, Gross tasked us with spotting three “hidden” lodges, half-concealed by tall grass. And near the end of the tour, we finally spotted one of the lodge’s inhabitants. Swimming past, the beaver’s head, big front teeth and flat, rudder-like tail were just visible above the water.
The moose was one of the final animals we saw on the trip. It was the cherry on top — a very large, furry, antlered cherry. Even Gross, who has been leading tours for three summers, was delighted to see the iconic Maine creature.
“I’m a total dork. I love seeing moose,” Gross said. “Every time I see one, I get excited and do a little happy dance.”
Though we were viewing the animal from quite a distance, I think it sensed us. It didn’t run or seem alarmed, but it did exit the water and slowly melted into the forest. Within just a handful of seconds, the beautiful bull moose was gone, further demonstrating to us just how lucky we were to have seen it at all.
The Katahdin-area wilderness put on quite the show that evening. On the way back to Twin Pines, we watched the sun sink toward the horizon, bleeding colors across the sky. A gibbous moon hovered over the trees. And the cluster of rain clouds that hovered nearby all evening never reached us. But it did display a beautiful rainbow.
To book an NEOC wildlife tour by boat or van, visit neoc.com/moose-and-wildlife-tours-in-maine/ or call 1-800-634-7238. Three-hour tours are $53 per person, with a discounted price of $43 for children 12 and under. Full day tours are $149 per person. During the COVID-19 pandemic, all tour guides are following Centers for Disease Control safety guidelines and may require you to wear a mask during parts of the tour when social distancing is not possible.
Aislinn Sarnacki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @1minhikegirl, and Instagram: @actoutdoors.