It’s so early the sun isn’t up yet over Moosehead Lake. But we are. Coffee is hot in the thermos, and we’re in a truck with a Greenville guide heading north into the Maine woods.
Chris Young’s hands are cupped over his nose and mouth, and he’s standing on a rutted hilltop road as he makes long, guttural calls. He’s squinting, his eyes tear up, and his face flushes crimson from the effort. The temperatures are low-40s, a mist is hanging in the air, and many of the leaves in the woods and fields around us are shades of amber, russet, and gold. Even the ferns have turned reddish with the cooler days of fall.
In this kaleidoscope of scenery, the 35 year old smiles. “My favorite color,” he says, pointing to his camouflage-print cap and shirt. Young competed against other hunters and registered guides to win the Maine Moose Calling Championship two years ago. He’s our guide for the day. The sound he’s making comes from a place he describes as “half-nasal and half-mouth,” and he sometimes enhances the call by blowing through a megaphone-like horn. Meanwhile, he carries an old wooden canoe paddle and uses it to rustle nearby branches and brush. What he’s mimicking is a cow moose in rut (ready to breed) that’s “awake after a cold night and calling in bulls.”
He calls again and scans the horizon. It’s an urgent, moaning noise that cuts through the wild landscape. We’re standing quietly and very still a few yards away, and we’re watching, too.
We didn’t come to Greenville to shoot a gun, but we’re certainly on the hunt for wildlife. The aim of this trip is the adventure of seeing moose and other animals in their natural habitat— acting, well, naturally. Young is providing expert help. He’s from Winslow, and was raised hunting and fishing around Moosehead Lake. At 40 miles long and ten miles wide in places, Moosehead is the largest lake in Maine—glacier-carved with the steep cliff of Mount Kineo towering in the middle. The region has a history of timbering and of classic hunting and fishing camps; other developments are still few and far between. Mostly, I see trees and water, and locals contend that there are many more moose than people here. In the town of Greenville on the lake’s southern shore and the villages of Rockwood, Lily Bay, Kokadjo, and Beaver Cove there’s a combined year- round population of around 1,800 (people). Meanwhile, throughout Maine, the number of moose is estimated to be in the tens of thousands. The odds sound pretty good.
That brings us to the misty morning of the “guided, private safari,” when Young explains that the techniques are the same as traditional hunting. Everything we’ll do to get closer to the animals is what a hunterwith a gun would do, except we’ll simply observe.
To improve our chance to see wildlife we should be up in the morning before they are. That’s what Beth Young adviseswhen I call to arrange this fall excursion. Married to Chris, the Greenville native is a partner in Young’s Guide Service and handles the online bookings. Photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I drive in a day early—Moosehead Lake is about 150 miles northeast of Portland—stopping to buy a few $1 pumpkins at a farm stand on the way, and checking in at the hill-topping Kineo View Motor Lodge. The lodging really does overlook Moosehead Lake and Mount Kineo, and I hear that moose often wander the grounds just outside. We look but don’t see any (yet), before continuing down to the lakeside streets of downtown Greenville.
Outside one of the town’s historic storefronts, the dropped antlers of moose (bulls naturally shed them each winter) are for sale at Kamp Kamp, along with local- made or local-interest antiques, moccasins, books, vintage boat motors, and furniture. Walking in feels like an introduction to the lodge and camp aesthetic of the whole town—often paired with the smell of balsam fir needles—and I follow the lead of other customers who lean in for closer looks at the moose head, deer, salmon, and other taxidermy specimens on display. At dinnertime, we go to Kelly’s Landing and order platters of linguini and drink Black Bear beers (made in Orono) in the large dining room, which is right on Moosehead Lake. On the walls are photographs of loons, and the waitress talks of the winter ahead. “The lake will be three feet thick by January, and we’ll be really busy.” She recommends the “wicked good” lemon crème cake with blueberry sauce and I order a slice to bring back to the room. Inside the box is a heavy chunk of yellow cake that I’m glad to taste before going to sleep early, while wondering about the moose possibilities. The final forkfulsdipped in sauce are a snack at about 4:30 a.m. (for energy), and by 5 a.m. we see truck headlights. Young is picking us up from the lodge in pre-dawn darkness. When we open the Chevy’s doors and the interior lights click on, I notice the seat covers are camo print. We’re off.
Young knows where to go in this gateway region to the 3.5 million acres of the North Maine Woods. This town is an early riser. Other trucks are pulling up to Auntie M’s, across the street from the lake downtown. The small breakfast and lunch cafe opens at 5 a.m. and in a glow of warm light through the front windows I can see people already at the counter and tables inside. We continue up Lily Bay Road along the eastern side of the lake. “We never guarantee anything, we just let the day happen,” the guide says. “But you’ll know it’s a good trip if you hear a moose chewing.”
That would mean we got pretty close to the largest member of the deer family, which also happens to be the state animal of Maine (moose were given the designation by the state legislature in 1979). While the morning light is still dim, we have our first chance within minutes. A smaller moose, what Young describes as a yearling, is ambling near the roadside and stops to munch some grass, giving us the chance for a good long look. Young turns off the truck’s engine and lights. I study the profile of its horse-like body with a stubby tail that’s perched on stilt-long legs—for wading into lakes and rivers—and then the mule-looking head with widespread, oversized ears. This moose doesn’t have velvet antlers, but from a distance I’ve seen others that did, including a few times from a float plane when the bull had been swimming in a pond. It’s always an amazing sight. Until this moment, though, I’d never been near enough to hear a moose tear at grass and lap it up into its floppy, soft muzzle.
Fueled by the excitement of the early sighting, for the next several hours, we keep looking. Young turns off onto side roads, paved and unpaved. We stop and hike onto clearcut acres and taller woods— we step through mud and follow narrow paths. Getting out on foot feels even more like a safari expedition. Young is trying different settings and terrains. Much of the landscape we visit is active timberland, but it’s open for recreation, too. Young gets a call from Beth about a moose at the roadside up near Kokadjo, but by the time we drive a few miles to get there, any signs of moose or people are long gone.
At our next stopping place, Young pulls out a bottle that he uses to spray a pungent, musky scent into the air—he tells us it’s cow urine that’s collected, bottled, and sold by a Canadian company. We stand far enough away to miss any blow-back, but when some of the fine mist blows into his own face, he says the smell “will wake you up faster than coffee.” There’s more. After we bushwhack several hundred yards into a boggy woods, he stops and motions for us to stop too. Then he pulls another bottle from his pocket and holds it out at shoulder height. This one is filled with water, which he pours slowly into the edge of a bog. The splashing is meant to sound as if a moose cow is urinating, he explains, which can be a signal, and an attraction for a bull moose. Here and there we see hoof prints in softer mud—the wider, heart- shaped prints of cows and the longer, more pointed prints of bulls. Along a logging road, the ground looks trampled and the grasses are flattened. Young finds clumps of stiff, bristle-like black moose fur. It’s all evidence of a recent breeding session, he explains.
Young loves it all. His parents have owned a camp on a Greenville-area pond for over 20 years, and he met and married Beth here. Young says he once tried moving about 70 miles away to live in Bangor and work as a machinist, but when his employer downsized and his job was cut, he couldn’t wait to return to the woodlands around Greenville. Here, he’s a Registered Maine Guide and a snowplow driver—he’d simply rather be outside, regularly waking to a 4 a.m. alarm clock “to chase a bull moose around the woods.”
FLICKER AND GROUSE
There’s more than moose to our day, though. On one path, Young stops to gather a few handfuls of white cedar and crushes it with his fingers so we can better smell the aromatic needles. We come across a small herd of deer at the edge of woods, as well as a northern flicker woodpecker, and a covey of spruce grouse wandering along an unpaved road. By lunchtime, we return downtown. Peter Frank and I had seen the sign for the “broasted” chicken at Flatlander’s Pub— chicken that’s baked, dusted with flour, and fried to order. When we go inside right at noon, we’re the only customers in the narrow space, but by 12:15 p.m., the tables are nearly full, and our chicken arrives crispy hot and served with coleslaw, mashed potatoes, and creamy chicken gravy.
In the late afternoon, we meet Young again for a little more exploring. This time, he says, we’ll go higher. We start again on Lily Bay Road and then follow other roads to higher elevations. He points out Little Spencer Mountain ahead. The leafy show from this vantage is like a multi- colored tapestry all the way down to Moosehead Lake. While I look at the larger landscape, Young is using binoculars to search for the elusive moose. By 4:40 p.m., he announces, “There’s a moose right there.”
Still no velvet rack of antlers, but this one’s even closer than the moose we’d seen in the morning. It’s walking in shoulder- height brush toward a stand of trees. Some say moose are awkward or gangly-looking but I see power and grace in the large, dark creature. Moose are known to have smell and hearing superior to their eyesight, and this moose doesn’t appear bothered by us at all. The sighting is the finale of our safari. It’s been a good day.
While we drive back into Greenville, Young talks about the popularity of the tours, but also about how the younger safari- goers are sometimes skeptical. They think they’ll become bored quickly in the offline world of the North Maine woods. I consider this. Maybe it’s because they haven’t yet spent a day in the fresh air with the adrenaline rushes of seeking moose, grouse, or deer roaming free. It’s always an honor to see a wild animal. The animal is in charge, most of the time. They have to let us see them. We better our odds by learning more about the natural world, and then, like Young, by being a bit artful and stealthy. There’s nothing boring about that.