It was not in my youth that I developed a lasting affection for the moose, and that is not unusual, given that I grew up in southern Illinois where any sighting of a moose would have been a harbinger of the apocalypse. It’s possible that my first taste of moose love began in college when I was introduced to Moosehead Beer, my favorite, but I suspect my deep and durable affection for the moose came to me a few years back, well into my adulthood, when the moose came to represent, for me, more a place than a mammal, a land of cool summer days, fresh lakes, pine-smelling air and moist paths through remote, quiet woods. I told a close friend that I love moose because wherever they are is where I want to be, and while that’s generally true, the line specifically referred to one place: Moosehead Lake, Maine.
Moosehead Lake is big—the biggest lake in Maine and the “biggest mountain lake in the eastern United States” although I’m going to call foul on that latter distinction simply because resorting to two qualifiers to attain significance is desperate. There’s a spot on the Interstate halfway across Pennsylvania where a sign marks, “The highest elevation on I-80 east of the Mississippi.” Too many qualifiers. That sign is akin to the kid who gets a trophy just for participating. Moosehead Lake is too wonderful to need such fatuous cheerleading. It is 1,268 square miles of clear, fresh water with over 80 islands and surrounded by green mountains, most prominently Mt. Kineo, a little over halfway up on the eastern shore of the lake. Thoreau, in his book The Maine Woods, speaks often and affectionately of the lake, but then he would, wouldn’t he?
I’m still not entirely clear where the name comes from. Some locals told me a story that has it getting named in the late 19th century, but when Thoreau was there in the 1830’s it already had its name. The Native Americans back then also called it Sebemook, which they told Thoreau meant “Moosehead Lake.” Some sources say the name comes from the fact that the shape of the lake resembles an antlered moose, and it does, but I’m not sure how far back that type of aerial view of the lake was available. The most likely explanation Thoreau got was that Mt. Kineo, which commands the lake, is shaped like a moose’s head. For whatever reason, that’s its name, and it’s perfect in that region where moose outnumber people 3:1—an ideal region for a moose safari.
It was a neighbor who told me of these moose safaris, and he spoke very highly of the experience, which was odd given that he’s the type who complains about everything in the world and does nothing constructive to improve anything beyond his house or yard. I made reservations for my wife, my son and me, and a little after five o’clock on a perfect August evening, we were picked up at our inn in Greenville (the town at the bottom of the lake), the Blair House Inn, certainly one of the loveliest in all of New England: www.blairhill.com. The owners, Dan and Ruth, lived a long time in Illinois, so I had me some Land-of-Lincoln chat with Dan, who I believe graduated from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb–the birthplace of me, Cindy Crawford and barbed wire.
Our guide was named Chet. Not really, but Chet (or Dirk, or Cody) evokes that dreamy quality of a tall, ruggedly handsome outdoorsman who kills grizzlies and subdues snakes and, in the evening, cooks elegant meals before writing some poetry—an utter fiction in other words, but Chet was tall and fit with not a gray to be found in his dirty blonde hair, even though he was easily in his mid-fifties, so he wasn’t far from a fictional ideal. Best of all, he had a sizzling sense of humor, which came out not long after we got into his van and I asked, “So tell me about the worst client you’ve had.”
We had over an hour to chat as he drove north into increasingly remote country before turning off onto a gravel access road built by lumber companies. He eventually came around to tell us about his worst client, a woman who saw three different moose on her safari but complained the whole time because the moose weren’t close enough. He finally told her, “Lady, what you want is a zoo.” I had assumed that just by going on a moose safari, I was guaranteed to see a moose, but that wasn’t the case at all. Chet confided that he spent much of his summers worrying about his safaris. “The only time you’ll see them is when they eat, which is morning and evening. Your chances are always better in the evening because the sun rises so early in the summer that it’s hard to get out there in time. It’s a lot of pressure in June around the solstice.” Then he interrupted himself to point out a sign for a campground we drove past. “The owner puts a salt lick under the sign, and every evening moose come by and lick and people take pictures that they post on Facebook. Most brilliant advertising campaign ever, all for the cost of a salt lick. If we end up not seeing a moose, we can always come back here later.”
Once we pulled onto the access road, we drove another half hour. This was not the Alaskan wilderness or the unpeopled wilds of the northern Yukon, but it was decidedly remote, and it was gorgeous. Moose are solitary creatures, and you often have to go a ways into their turf to see one. They are also quite fierce; for a fight, they use their antlers and their sharp hooves for kicks of almost bionic force. They can easily best a black bear or pack of wolves. I have two friends who spend a great deal of time in the outdoors and aren’t scared of much, one of them a former marine, but both speak of moose with a singular reverence and fear. I have another friend, an avid birder, who is terrified of them. Their antlers are made of bone, and they shed them every winter, one at a time, usually over the course of hours or a couple of days; they grow new ones in spring. Moose across our northern border, from Montana to Maine, are currently dying off at an alarming rate. Scientists are trying to figure out why, and right now the best guess is the winter tick, which is thriving due to climate change (those Chinese are thorough with their hoaxes, but you can afford to be with labor that cheap).
We finally parked and loaded into canoes, and I had no idea where on Moosehead Lake we were. My son and I were in one canoe, and my wife was thrilled to join Chet in his. Chet told us not to speak and to paddle quietly, which we did for almost an hour, but we saw no moose. I didn’t much mind—I was so intoxicated with the scenery and silence. Chet, however, did. I admired how conscientious he was about his work, and his agitation was visible, but what more could he do? On the drive back, he did stop at a stone bridge over a shallow stream where he said moose often come near nightfall, and indeed one did. I would like to say I tingled with thrill, and they really are unique, remarkable beasts, that massive body and that horse-like snout and those antlers, but it felt a little like cheating to see a moose by virtue of our van; it increased my already high disrespect for the gun hunters who ride ATVs; some of my closest friends are strictly bow hunters, and that does strike me as the only noble way to do the sport. As we stood looking at the moose, a young local woman came barreling down the road and over the bridge in her truck at an alarming speed, honking at us because our presence slowed her down enough that she lost five, maybe ten, seconds. Chet laughed and shrugged it off. “A transplant trying to act like she’s lived here her whole life. She probably moved up from Boston last year.”
Two years later I gave it another shot, this time with my son and his friend and a close friend of mine from Illinois, Spatch. We stayed at Wilson’s Cabins directly on Moosehead Lake, far more rustic but perfect: https://www.wilsonsonmooseheadlake.com/. When I made reservations for this second safari, I requested Chet, and we met him in town in the parking lot of the outfitter where he worked. “If you wait inside they make you do stupid stuff,” he said. “Once I had to retrieve a guy whose truck broke down in the woods. I asked for his location, and he said, ‘Well, there’s a pine tree and a big rock across the road.’” Chet shook his head. He had no recollection of me or our conversations from two years before, and when I told him I’d sent a friend and his wife for a safari, and they’d joked with him about hiring someone to wear a moose costume and stand in the woods, he said, “Narrows it down to about half of my clients.”
We drove another hour plus but this time to a different spot on the lake. We got into our canoes, my son in mine between me and Spatch, and paddled in complete silence for approximately forty-five minutes. Then we sat and waited. Chet pointed to our right, and expecting to see a moose I turned eagerly to see two river otters, which were no less thrilling, marvelous and elusive little creatures I’d never seen outside of a zoo or aquarium. They always look full of play, and they swim so flawless and fast. Then my son’s friend gasped, and we all turned to look the other direction, and there he stood, a massive moose about thirty yards away in water past her ankles. She put her snout in the water and came up with a mouthful of seaweed and chewed.
“Dinner?” I whispered to Chet.
“Dessert. Seaweed is like chocolate to moose.” Chet spoke quietly, but he did not whisper and spoke loud enough for all of us to hear. “She knows we’re here, and she’s okay with it. So follow me. We’ll paddle around to the other side of her, up wind, and we’ll see how close we can get. Paddle easy. No sudden movements.”
We did. We eased well out in front of her then turned around on the other side and slowly paddled closer. By the time we stopped, we were only about twenty feet away.
We sat silently and watched her eat. It was more than a tingle or thrill. It was the weight and wash of something profound. A massive, marvelous beast, one of the more peculiar in our world’s tragically diminishing collection and one who could charge and kill us in seconds, stood and ate while we sat and watched, two actions we do frequently and therefore have come to think of as banal, eat and watch, but in that context I was reminded of how awesome, ultimately, both actions are, eating from God’s natural bounty and watching closely a small but breathtaking part of our endlessly miraculous world. Perhaps that’s why Chet was always so conscientiously nervous about his clients seeing a moose in their habitat. It wasn’t that they paid money and he didn’t want them to get ripped off, though probably there was that. It was more, though, that if they saw what he knew was out there and in a way he knew it could be seen, they would have a close encounter with the tangibly Divine. Yes, the Divine can be found almost everywhere, but sometimes the transcendent is a tad more obvious—Pavarotti’s voice, children on the playground, Federer’s forehand, holding your beloved, and watching a moose eat dessert as the sun sets on Moosehead Lake in Maine.