Of Moose And Maine

By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 27, 2003

Neon moose. Stuffed, plush moose. Even a moose with wings: a handsome, hand-painted sculpture by the side of Route 15.

It's easy to tell I am getting close to Moosehead Lake in Maine, about 50 miles from the Quebec border. But while these substitute moose are very nice, they're not what I'm here for. I want the real 1,150-pound thing.

So I've come to Maine, home to 30,000 moose, the most of any state. At Moosehead Lake, I've heard, there's a boat that can take you right where they like to feed. A moose cruise.

There may be beavers, too, I am told. Bald eagles and black bears and weird-whistling loons. But a moose is what I'm after. I want to see that huge, distinctive shape come stumbling out of the woods. Flat antlers. Giant snout. "Bell" hanging from throat. The mighty but gentle animal I've seen in pictures and on Sierra Club calendars, but never for real.

It will be a big one, I hope.

The Birches in Rockwood, Maine, is a lodge and cabin resort stretched out along the shore of Moosehead Lake. It is the home of the moose cruise, and on a humid summer Thursday, I check in.

Sniff, sniff. Has somebody been spraying air freshener around the porch of my log hut? I don't think so, says the man at the front desk. "You from the city?" he asks. "That's the way real trees smell."

Other city mistakes: This is black fly season and I don't have a can of Off! The metal grating in my cabin is not an air conditioner -- it makes heat. And where is my phone? (There's one I can share; it's inside a kind of storeroom stacked with ski boots.) But heck, I like it here. It looks like a lake camp out of someone's dream, with bentwood furniture, cabins built in the 1920s and a fine, big canoe perched on the rafters of the dining room in the main lodge. "Sometimes we've had a moose look in here during breakfast or dinner," says owner John Willard.

That sounds encouraging, I say. How hard will it be for me to see one?

"Not very hard," says Willard. "I used to jog, and I've jogged right into one. Also, there's a guy who lives near here who was trying to drag away a tree he'd chopped down. He found it was difficult to pull and looked back. There was a moose chewing the leafy end."

Willard is a licensed forester and a wilderness-trained Maine guide. It turns out he is a pilot, too, and when I hear this, I get curious. Along with my cruise, could I charter a flight to try and see moose from above?

"It's a float plane," warns Willard. "Ever been up in one of those?"

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