washingtonpost.com
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?"

"No," I admit.

"You'll be fine," Willard decides, and the flight is settled before I can think twice. "First thing in the morning, before your boat trip."

I am nervous but happy that night as I unwrap some marshmallows and toast them over a smoldering fire. I am planning an assault on moose from both sea and air.

The first shred of sun is poking up over the lake, lighting up rivets and wires on the fuselage of Willard's plane.

I don't know much about it, but this Piper two-seater seems awfully small. It looks like a pontoon version of Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis -- and, when Willard informs me that it is "beautifully restored, first built in 1947," I start to get edgy.

"This is a bear-hunting plane," Willard says as we buckle in. We put on headphones to cut the noise and taxi out into the lake. "Hold on," he barks, as we vibrate and hum like Magic Fingers. Suddenly the little plane starts skiing, tips up and rockets into the air.

As direct as an Apollo launch, we're 600 feet up, then dropping down again on a draft from Mount Kineo across the lake. I'm gripping the seat edge, window, roof, whatever I can grab, and trying to look down as Willard banks over beaver dams, the Penobscot River and ponds.

"That's Lobster Lake down there," he announces. "See the claws?"

Sure, sure. But where are the moose?

What I mostly see is forest, endless acres of spruce and fir. "Just curious," I say, "but let's say the motor cuts out or something and you've got no water to land on. What do we do?"

"Well," says Willard. "We'd have to put her down on grass, or maybe on the tops of some trees. Might get banged up a bit."

"I see."

It feels like we're flying all over the state of Maine -- and, at one point, we set down on a whim to taxi over to a village where a man sells us homemade root beer out of a refrigerator on his front porch.

The only problem is that, although we swoop and dive, circle and fly, we just can't find any moose.

I had thought our flight would be like "Out of Africa": The engine of the Piper scaring up majestic herds of moose who would then go thundering across open plains.

"No, no," says Willard, snickering. "Moose are basically solitary animals. Today they're being ornery, too. Uh, what time is your cruise?"

It's still early morning but starting to get hot. A local guy named Harold Hanson pilots the moose boat along the quiet lake shore. On his cap is the phrase "Tis the Season," with a logo of a moose in the cross hairs of a rifle.

Our moose cruise liner is a 24-foot pontoon boat with a couple of plastic lawn chairs added for extra seating -- although there's just Hanson and myself and one other family on board.

Rich and Aimee Mack and their teenage daughter, Jeanne, share a pair of binoculars. We are scanning the woods, staring into swamps and eddies, and looking past low broken trees. But nothing is moving except black flies and our slapping hats and palms.

"Those moose are nervous this morning," says Hanson, slowing the boat. "Awfully nervous."

All around us are fat brown rocks breaking the surface like the backs of swimming animals. Sticks and branches look a lot like antlers. But they're not.

"Moose mirages," says Aimee.

Hanson points out a kingfisher and, later, a beaver that slaps its tail -- whop -- as he dives.

"Sometimes," he says, "when it's hot like this the moose go to a place back in the woods where they like to lie down."

Great, I think. Just great.

To kill time, I ask Hanson about hunting season. About moose steaks. About running into moose with your car.

Hanson happens to agree with a guy I talked to that moose meat is "fibrous, but not fatty." It's a dark purplish color, according to Hanson, who likes his medium rare. "But it has a light taste. It's like a cross between beef and venison, but with a bigger grain."

"Mmm," says Jeanne, sarcastically.

Suddenly, Rich waves his arms for silence. "I hear something! In the woods right over near that stump."

We all listen closely, but the most I can pick up is rustling. Rich is positive it is a moose. "It's a big one," he whispers. "As big as a truck."

We're in a stream now that runs into the lake. Hanson cuts the motor and we coast into the shallows where the water is plexiglass smooth. I don't hear any more rustling and am about to say "false alarm," but I only get as far as the "f."

K-k-krack. Fffflooooosh.

It's a huge bull moose, snapping a log right in front of us. Wading and stumbling smack into the water, and fluming across.

Is he swimming or touching bottom? No one is sure. Spray shoots off his big, sad head and from the antlers, which are surprisingly brown and soft-looking. Just as we try to grab for cameras . . . another.

Ffflooosh.

"That's the cow!" yells Hanson. "See?"

We see. It takes just seconds for them to ford the stream. On fancy, thoroughbred forelegs, they somehow hoist themselves onto the opposite bank. And then they are gone.

Nobody got a picture, and we are speechless. Stunned.

It is the size, the charging swim, and something about moose secrecy. We were here. Right here. Right where they came.

When we do start chattering again, we are so loaded with words we barely notice that Hanson is having trouble restarting the engine. There is some sputtering and a long, sick-sounding buzz.

Hanson checks the propeller to see if there are any vines down there. There aren't. Rich and Aimee try dialing their cell phone. No response.

We are seven miles from base, says Hanson. No one will miss us for hours. And we are out of gas.

We find a plastic oar on board, and Rich and I take turns trying to paddle. The sun is approaching its apex and, according to Hanson, "it must be 90. Record humidity, too, for this time of year."

Can we walk the one-ton pontoon boat? No, the bottom is too muddy. Can we lasso branches with a rope and yank ourselves along? We try.

By afternoon, we get within range for the cell phone to connect, and there is a search party from the lodge and we are rescued, dried off and fed.

But it is while Rich and I are paddling and lassoing trees along the bank, cursing and grunting, that we become aware of a strange thing.

We know somehow that moose -- maybe the ones we saw -- are near us. Right at this moment. Rustling there in the woods. They are watching. They are grinning, if an animal can grin.

This is a cruise they can approve.

Peter Mandel last wrote for Travel about Toronto and SARS.

Details: Moose Cruise

GETTING THERE: Rockwood, Maine, is a five-hour drive from Boston via I-95 and various local roads. Alternately, you can fly to Portland or Bangor, Maine (round-trip flights from D.C. run about $280 and $400, respectively), and drive about 21/2 hours (Portland) or 11/3 hours (Bangor). If you're a guest at the Birches Resort, owner John Willard, a licensed pilot, will pick you up at either airport in his private plane for $180 to $200 per flight (three-passenger maximum).

MOOSE CRUISES: The two-hour morning or afternoon moose cruises are a Birches Resort (see below) original and run daily from mid-May to October. A pontoon boat takes you around the edges of Moosehead Lake where (hopefully) moose are feeding; if you're lucky, you can also see deer, bear, eagles and a falcon or two. Cost is $28 for adults. Call in advance for departure times and to make reservations.

WHERE TO STAY: Built in the 1920s, the Birches Resort (Rockwood, 800-825-WILD, www.birches.com) runs wilderness trips and consists of a cozy main lodge and string of log cabins along Moosehead Lake. The name makes it sound fancy, but in fact it's simple and woodsy, with breezes, views and good meals. For a complete escape, there is only a single shared phone and a communal computer in a storeroom full of rental ski boots. Rates depend on the degree of civilization you want, ranging from $60 (double tent or yurt) to $70 (double room in main lodge) to $130 and up (one-bedroom or larger cabin).

If you prefer a dressy inn to rustic cabins, the Greenville Inn at Moosehead Lake (Norris Street, Greenville, 888-695-6000, www.greenvilleinn.com) is a good choice. The inn, a former mansion of a lumber baron, is full of decorative carvings and sits atop a hill overlooking the pleasant lakeside town of Greenville. Also, locals will tell you that the dining room has the area's best food. Rates: $135-$185.

WHERE TO EAT: Kelly's Landing (Route 15, Greenville Junction), a local mainstay open year-round, is on the lakefront with a dock for outdoor dining. There are sandwiches and plenty of simple seafood, and some Italian specialties like veal piccata. Entrees start at $6.95.

Greenville Inn at Moosehead Lake (see above) is the region's acknowledged fine dining spot, and it's well worth a meal, even if you've sometimes had bad luck with "fancy" restaurants in deeply rural locations. This is the real thing, both in terms of atmosphere (pretty, but not fussy) and cuisine, including fresh chevre with tomatoes, olives and rosemary olive oil, and bacon-wrapped beef fillet with green peppercorn sauce. No moose steaks though. Entrees start at $20.

NON-MOOSE ACTIVITIES: The Moosehead Marine Museum (Greenville, 207-695-2716, www.katahdincruises.com) offers narrated Moosehead Lake cruises aboard a National Historic Landmark, the Katahdin, a restored lake steamer built in 1914. Cruises are offered June 27-Oct. 12 (no Mondays or Fridays) and cost $21 per adult for the three-hour version.

Since area roads tend to be rutted and bumpy, one of the best ways to get around and take in the sweeping views is to fly. Several local charter services can take you up in a float plane, including Folsom's Air Service (207-695-2821) and Currier's Flying Service (207-695-2778). Prices depend on the type and duration of the flight, such as Folsom's $70 hour-long scenic tour (two-person minimum) or Currier's $30 (half-hour) or $48 (45 minutes) flight over Moosehead Lake

In addition, the Moosehead Lake region has outfitters around every corner, for fishing, canoeing, whitewater rafting, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing.

INFORMATION: Moosehead Lake Chamber of Commerce, 888-876-2778, www.mooseheadlake.org.

-- Peter Mandel

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