Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Close Encounters of the Moose Kind

A recent issue of The Economist reported how moose were brought to Newfoundland almost a century ago to encourage tourists and hunters and to boost the economy of Britain’s last colony in North America. Moose, often considered a Canadian icon, were not indigenous to insular Newfoundland, but then it did not join Canada until 1949 and now they have more moose than they know what to do with. With no natural predators on the island, not even the hunters (5000 additional hunting licenses granted this year alone) have been able to hold them at bay and the current population is estimated to be around 150,000. The only effective means to reduce the moose population is to hit them with your car, which the Newfoundlanders have been doing in increasing numbers. Around 700 moose are hit annually on provincial roads.

OK, I have learned from my own experience that moose are not the smartest critters to come off Noah’s ark at the end of the big flood. Their eyesight and sense of hearing are both limited and, if one is careful, one can often get quite close to a moose before it realizes you are there. As shy and passive as they seem to be at first blush, they more often than not seem perplexed when they encounter humans, especially if they are caught in the headlights of a car cruising down the highway. Despite the small number of roads compared to the hundreds of square miles of uninterrupted and uninhabited forest and tundra found in the primary moose habitats, they (especially juveniles and their doting mamas) tend to congregate near or on roadways. Perhaps they are escaping the pesky biting insects found in the woods and swamps, but more likely they are attracted to the salt that has accumulated on or near the roadbeds during winter snow removal. Recognizing this fact, the province of Québec is now using less salt on its roads and other jurisdictions are following suit. This said, you still need to remain vigilant when driving through the northern woods, especially in the summer months. Several years ago I almost hit an imposing bullwinkle standing in the middle of the highway at night as I crossed Grafton Notch near the Maine-New Hampshire border. This before I learned to take “Moose Crossing” signs seriously. You would too if you considered the consequences of a half ton or more of moose flesh coming through the windshield at 55 mph!

Not every encounter with a moose has been quite so dramatic The first confrontation occurred when my family and I were hiking a wilderness trail in northen Maine’s Baxter State Park. We chanced upon a relatively large cow (yes, that is what they call a female moose; a male is a “bull”) blocking our path. Being city folk, we were not quite sure what we were suppose to do. Would it ignore us? Would it charge us and kill us on the spot? At the moment it did not seem to pay us any mind as it quietly fed on twigs and grasses along the trail. We approached a little closer so that we could get a good photograph. It still ignored us. So we moved a little closer. As we approached, the cow turned her head in our direction. Did she hear? Did she smell us? She continued to look our way but we were not sure if she saw us as she resumed her feeding. So we moved a little closer. This time she suddenly raised her head and once again turned in our direction. She shook her head and her ears went back. We knew she had spotted us and we stopped dead in out tracks. There was no way for us to go except the way we came in and as fast as our legs would carry us. But we did not run. We waited and in a few moments the cow walked gently and quietly into the surrounding puckerbrush and soon disappeared from sight. We were amazed how such a large animal could move so discreetly. We continued our hike, and upon our return to that spot we stopped and looked around hoping we might spot her again. But she was gone . . . or was she?

On another outing in Baxter, we were in a canoe on Kidney Pond when we spotted a moose feeding in water. Most of the time it was completely submerged except when it raised its large head out of the water to chew the vegetation it had pulled from the bottom of the pond. Once, when its head was submerged, we boldly navigated closer to have a better look. And we paid for our daring, for as soon as we approached the spot where we had last seen the moose a huge swarm of until then invisible flies that had been drifting over the moose quickly shifted to engulf our canoe and we could not paddle fast enough to escape them. Perhaps the crack about the moose being dumb was a little premature.

Since those early encounters I have seen numerous moose in the wild; while hiking through the woods, but more often along the highways, particularly a stretch of US Highway 3, in New Hampshire just below the Canadian border known affectionately as “Moose Alley.” During the evening in the summer one can find people cruising the highway at dusk trying to spot moose who have come out of the woods once the traffic has died down. Now traffic is a relative term up there. Several minutes or longer can pass before one sees another car, usually a border patrol vehicle, or the occasional truck hauling pulpwood down from Québec. Otherwise it is pretty quiet up there on the roof of New Hampshire.

So it was this past weekend. We had not seen any moose in northern Maine as we drove up along the Carrabassett and Dead rivers to Coburn Gore and the Canadian frontier. Nor did we spot any as we cruised the back roads of Québec’s Eastern Townships despite the signs announcing their presence. But upon crossing back into the USA and New Hampshire in the early evening we spotted a moose standing in the middle of the road less than a mile from the border where we saw the familiar signs warning us to watch out for moose on the highway. Later than evening, as we were returning to the cottage in Maine, we spotted a large bull along the highway in Grafton Notch, not far from that earlier encounter.

How can one not be impressed by the sight of a large moose in the wild? I guess it’s possible. The story goes that Warren G. Harding, during the first ever visit by a American president to Alaska, yawned and barely masked his boredom during his first encounter with a moose. But then again, the only time he got excited in the natural world was when someone was cutting down trees and blowing things up. I am sure for him the only good moose was a dead one. For the rest of us though, a moose sighting is pretty exciting. I know it is for me. I prefer to encounter them in the woods, but a spotting along the roadside is good too. If you know where and when to go, there are enough moose up here to satisfy your desire to find them. Just remember that they don’t share our understanding of the rules of the road and the concept of yielding the right-of-way. Drive carefully and leave the moose for others to enjoy.

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