Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, in Alabama, and has written features, columns and interviews for numerous magazines and newspapers. He’s visiting the University of Maine this summer.
Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s in Australia, my friends and I were always amused when international tourists expressed disappointment that kangaroos were not leaping across the busy streets of Sydney and other metropolitan areas. After moving to Chicago in the 1980s, and later to Alabama, I’ve since strived to avoid being branded as that oblivious traveler with unrealistic expectations about wildlife while traveling the U.S. But coming to Maine this summer has challenged my tourist instinct — I wanted to see moose everywhere!
No, I didn’t expect to find herds of moose roaming down Union Street in Bangor, where my wife Debby and I are spending a three-month working vacation.
But I did the math. With some 70,000 moose spread over the state’s 35,365 square miles, I calculated there should be about two moose per square mile. Reasonable odds if they were evenly distributed over the state which, of course, they are not.
Nevertheless, in our spare time, we embarked on several excursions to regions having denser populations of the much-loved massive Maine mammal.
Our adventure began in late spring when we rented a house on Pleasant Lake in Stetson. I knew Maine sunrises and sunsets could be stunning and on the first morning experienced that firsthand around 4:30 a.m. But we didn’t spot any moose.
We also dined at several local restaurants, gawked through the gate of the creepy Munster-like Stephen King mansion on Broadway, navigated the Bangor City Forest trails and Orono Bog boardwalk, and enjoyed strolls along the banks of the city’s beautiful Penobscot River. Still no moose.
Our first notable trip took us to Acadia National Park, a short 50 miles southeast of Bangor. Although moose-spotting expectations were low for the region, the gorgeous panoramic view did not disappoint. I quickly came to the conclusion that it is nearly impossible for anyone (even me) to take a bad photo from the Cadillac Mountain summit, even one of what appeared to be a dead tree.
Returning to our moose mission, Maine’s largest body of fresh water seemed an obvious destination. Covering some 1,270 square miles, Moosehead Lake is almost the size of Rhode Island. While we knew moose are most likely seen at dawn or dusk, we were told it’s still possible to spot one while driving to and around the lake during the day.
We chartered Jack’s Air Service in Greenville to fly us over the area by seaplane. As a former private pilot of small, single-engine aircraft, I found taking off and landing on water thrilling and, despite the slight haze, the 30-minute flight northbound over Spencer Mountains (Big and Little), Mount Kineo, Rockwood and the Moose River was exhilarating.
The return journey flew over the east and west outlets of Moosehead Lake, as well as the Kennebec River, Indian Pond and Moose Mountain. With a mountain, river and lake named after the local majestic creature, we took it as a sign our luck would change, which it did when the pilot pointed out a distant gray figure creating ripples in the water below. Although difficult to clearly make out in dark water from a moving airplane at over 1,000 feet, we followed the ripples to observe our first moose.
Still craving an up-close-and-personal moose encounter, we asked locals at Greenville’s Stress Free Moose Pub (lunch) and Kelly’s Landing (supper) for viewing tips. They directed us to a boggy area at dusk just out of Shirley on Route 6 near a Department of Transportation facility. A mother and young calf had been spotted there in recent days.
Sure enough, as we pulled off the road around 8:30 p.m., two shadowy figures could be seen grazing some 300 feet away. Though light had all but faded and they moved off quickly, it was our best moose sighting to date.
Another day trip took us to Baxter State Park, supposedly prime territory for moose which like to forage in boggy areas for pond grasses. We saw several swampy patches while driving for miles over gravel roads in the park with hardly another car in sight, but the moose proved to be even scarcer.
When first advised to check out Bigelow Preserve, I anticipated sampling a tasty jar of fancy local jam. Turns out the preserve is 36,000 acres of remote forest in the western part of the state, ideal for campers and backpackers willing to trek through thick forest to reach the many splendid summits such as Cranberry Peak. But for us car dwellers, we remained on a rather grim gravel road for some miles until it dead-ended, almost losing our Chevy one time down a pothole the size of a moose.
While it was mostly thick forest, we paused over Stratton Brook (on what some might call a bridge) for one of my favorite photos of the distant peaks and perfect cloud reflections in a small, mirror-like pond.
We spent the night in Rangeley, at the historic Rangeley Inn and Tavern. Our waterfront room was spacious with a small private deck overlooking pretty Haley Pond with rows of tall, colorful lupines.
We secured more local moose-watching tips before heading off that day. It was suggested we proceed along Route 16 to Stratton and stop around dusk at a sandpit with a small swampy area where moose had been seen. We headed out late morning (on our way to Bigelow) and about five minutes from Rangeley I heard the scream I had long awaited.
“Moose!” Debby called out excitedly, pointing to a long-legged brown female on a grassy area adjoining a forest of trees on the opposite side of the road.
Fortunately, there were no other cars in the area, so I slowed down as I reached for the camera. We remained inside the car, camera shutters clicking away from about 200 feet.
But the moose didn’t appear to enjoy the attention.
Initially bathed in sunlight, she promptly walked into the shadows but not before stopping, briefly staring directly at us with a “what are you staring at, bud?” evil moose eye, just before disappearing into the trees — all in the span of about 30 seconds. It’s surprising that moose spook so easily. You’d think with their imposing size — often over a thousand pounds and 6 feet tall at the shoulders — they would be a bit braver.
Had it not been for a long line and a 15-minute delay waiting for ice cream at Pine Tree Frosty on Main St., we may never have seen it. Thrilled, we continued down the road knowing how lucky we were to have seen “Icy.”
As our journey through Maine continues to unfold throughout the summer, we look forward to following new paths, hopefully in the footsteps of another moose or two.