New Hampshire is prime moose country. I lived in the state for two years and saw countless Moose Crossing signs, plenty of “brake for Moose, it could save your life” warnings, indeed you can even get a car license plate with a moose on it. But the nearest I came to an actual moose was a lifesize wooden statue I drove passed once.
Last summer my boyfriend tried to rectify this sad state of affairs by taking me on a moose watching tour in Mount Washington, NH. We did indeed see a moose, and stayed in the Moose Brook motor inn, and examined a wide variety of moose paraphernalia in the gift shops. In total I believe we saw 4 moose. At first sighting I had to put my hand in my mouth to stop myself from screaming I was so excited. The second sighting I practically broke my boyfriend’s hand I was gripping it so hard when everyone else on the tour could see the moose but I could not.
It was a fantastic adventure. However, it was really a bit hillbilly. As moose can best be seen in the evening and the early morning the tour ran in the evening. Billed as a 3-hour tour we were a little surprised to find ourselves still on it 5 hours later, surrounded by increasingly hungry, angry, and sleepy children who had been promised a McDonald’s after the tour. Of course, being evening, the light faded pretty fast so moose were not visible to the naked eye. Our tour bus had accommodated for this handicap by affixing extra bright headlights and side lights to the vehicle. In England, health and safety would have had a fit. The doctored moose-mobile also featured large torches attached to the side of bus, which you could move around like searchlights to look for moose in the undergrowth. And so we, and about 15 other people, found ourselves in the wilds of NH and Maine, on a DIY moose bus with moveable strobe lighting. The bus windows, our tour guide boasted, were the cleanest in the business, giving us maximum visibility. As we parked up in Maine somewhere near Canada, faces pressed up against the pristine glass, watching the search light probe across the forest, I couldn’t help but think of the scene in the “Sound of Music” where the Nazis searched the abbey for the Von Trapps.
While the searchlights did afford a greater field of vision, there was one serious design flaw with the moose-mobile. Of course the lights illuminated any wandering moose, but it also drove them straight back in the dense forest as soon as the beams shone on them! However, for entertainment value alone I would recommend this trip without question. Our tour guide wore a moose shaped hat for the entire tour, and gamely leaned out the window to adjust her prized spotlights while driving at the same time. And she had 5 hours of solid moose conversation, including far too many details about what they taste like. I believe you would call her a moose spotter, and it dominated her life completely. She socialized with moose spotters, exchanged notes and tips with local moosers, got extra powerful spotlights for Christmas gifts, and vacationed in moose watching spots. A fascinating character in my amble through American life.
With this trip I was able to cross seeing moose off my bucket list, however, now I was hooked. During her 5 hour preamble our moose spotter told us that the best place to go was Moosehead Lake in Maine. Fast forward one year and I found myself at said lake with my boyfriend who organized a serious moose watch for my birthday present. My present had included my choice of accommodation, and I chose camping as we had just bought a new tent. I like camping, but I do have certain limits on the level of rural I am willing to engage with. My rules are as follows- flushing toilet block (preferably one fully enclosed to keep out mosquitoes), hot showers, and an electrical socket somewhere on the camp so we can blow up the airbed. If possible I am also in favor of a fire pit. My boyfriend diligently found a suitable campsite for us and so we set off for Maine.
The drive from Boston to Moosehead took about 4 hours. As we turned off the highway we began to make fun of the quaint little towns, with a couple of stores and odd shops. We questioned how far away it was to the nearest Target, and laughed at how quickly we could drive through the town. Oh the folly of youth! If only we had known these towns were virtual metropolises compared to where we were headed.
We arrived at the campsite, chose our spot and began to pitch the tent. It was then that I began to hear the piercing, high pitched, barely audible sound of a mosquito. Now, I have become fairly intrepid in my latter years, however, this does not extend to mosquitoes. I carry the scars of a visit to Chincoteague Island, VA three years ago when my mum and I unexpectedly walked through Mosquito Death Valley while searching for wild ponies. I believe I have mosquito PTSD. As I watched the mosquitoes float around me like deathly angels, I began to panic. I flailed my arms around, thrashing at any insect within arms reach, and watched the welts appear on my legs as the buggers got me. My gallant boyfriend said I could wait in the car while he put the tent up, I feigned protest while gratefully dashing for the car. In retrospect, we should have practiced putting up the tent before we arrived. Struggling single-handedly with an 8-man tent you have never put up, on a hot day without eating was not really a good idea. However, somehow he did it.
When completed, we had to set off straight away for our moose tour. Google maps told us it was 30 minutes away, when we turned it on, our GPS thought 50. We needed to join the tour in 40 minutes. And so stressed, hot, and hungry we set off on a race against time. We did well for the first 10 minutes or so, and managed to make up some time. Then suddenly before our very eyes, our nice tarmacked road became a stone track. It’s ok we silently told ourselves, we will just have to slow down slightly, it can’t be a long road. It was. It was the longest stone road I have ever seen. The term road here is highly misleading, it was not a road but an ATV track complete with hills and craters. I thought we would die. Seriously thought we would die. Considered how long it would take people to find our bodies on this unused ATV trail in dense forest with no cell reception. I no longer cared about making the moose tour, I just wanted to live. Stones flew up as we attempted to navigate our Honda Civic up and down hills and craters. Scraping, piercing, denting noises I have never heard a car make before filled the air. In between the noise of the stones hailing on the car, and the chassis scraping on the rough trail, my boyfriend assured me he would pay for any damage. I silently prayed to live.
Aaron was worried too, visibly shaken in fact, and he is not one to panic. Finally after about half an hour of hell we came to a junction. Aaron’s voice wavered as he asked what to do- ignore the GPS and head for the tarmac road we both agreed. Amazingly, and I don’t know how, we made it to our moose guide, and even more amazingly our car sustained no damage. I really expected it to be sliced in half when we got out, but no. By this point it was 6pm and we last ate at 9am, so we wolfed down some sandwiches before joining our tour. Unlike our first moose encounter there were only 4 of us, and we went on canoes not a moose-mobile. As I mentioned I do not take chances with mosquitoes, and thus for moose watching I wore shoes, socks with my trousers tucked into them, with a t-shirt tucked into the trousers, a hoodie over the top, gloves, a baseball hat, sunglasses, and then tied my hood up so that only sunglasses and nose were visible. I also wore approximately one can of Deet bug spray- within two feet of a naked flame I would have gone up in smoke. My bf is much braver where mosquitoes are concerned, and thus rejected my offer of bug spray. Big mistake.
We arrived at the designated lake and were told to get in a canoe. I have never canoed before, or kayaked, or sailed, or done anything boat related except for a pedalo. I expected instruction but none came. I was, unsurprisingly, rubbish at canoeing. We lagged behind the other group, our guide beckoned for me to change direction as I looked on hopelessly, and Aaron begged me for more power as I broke into a sweat battling with the paddle, but unable to remove any of my copious layers for fear of bugs. I am sure there is an easy way but I never found the secret. My arms felt like they might break off. However, this cost was minute compared to the pay off when a moose descended into the water and swam right in front of us. It was an experience like no other, watching a creature that looked so foreign and prehistoric swim in the same water as I sat in. I had to fight not to make a noise. Moose have terrible eye sight with only peripheral vision, but incredible hearing and can hear noise a couple of miles away.
The moose swam around serenely in the lake, seemingly undeterred by our presence. It dipped and dived, holding its breath under water for several minutes before rising for air. The moose are attracted to lakes for their salt and protein rich plants, and also for respite from their enemy the winter tick. The tick is rapidly decimating New England’s moose population, covering their bodies and living off their blood during the winter, leaving the moose anemic. In the water, ticks have learned to surround themselves with an airbubble so they don’t die. But in the water the moose can at least get some respite from the constant itching. We saw three moose that day, including the Bull Moose swimming in front of us. It was one of the most breathtaking experiences of my life, worth every mosquito bite and harried car ride. It was otherworldly, and it felt like a religious experience watching the mighty moose baptize itself in the pristine waters of a tranquil lake.
After a couple of hours we headed back to land. Without the bug spray Aaron had been decimated by black flies, his ears and neck were covered in bites and swelled up badly. We decided we should find a place to eat as a matter of urgency, given that we would get back to the camp too late for a fire. Sticking to tarmacked roads we searched for a place to eat. There was nothing, literally nothing. Not even McDonald’s has a branch in Mooselake. There was a Subway but it shut at 5. There was a garage we went to for gas, but after a fellow gas patron started making gun like motions with his hands at us we hotfooted it out of the station without looking for garage food. The GPS took us to various non-existent locations; former restaurants, empty fields, and people’s houses. We eventually found one place and ventured in, but after every single person turned his or her head to stare at us, we back tracked feeling very uncomfortable indeed. And so we found ourselves in the tent eating dry cereal and stale bagels.We had to get up at 5am the next day to go on a morning moose watch. I barely slept a wink, having been so cold I could not stop shivering the whole night. So we were not exactly happy campers when we set off. However, our wonderful guide soon warmed our spirits with her infectious enthusiasm. This time we were the only two on the tour so we got to see moose on foot following their tracks in the mud, and in a canoe. And perhaps best of all I didn’t have to paddle! I got to sit in the middle and moose watch and take photos to my hearts content. On our second tour we saw two moose walking down the road, and then an older female and a yearling in the lake. Again it was breathtaking, almost impossible to describe, but a privileged experience. Looking at a moose, it is hard to believe they exist in our world of computers, cars, and industry. They are not of our world or time. They are beautiful in their awkwardness, and humble and frail in spite of their massive size.
As our tour came to a close and we drove back to the tour center the heavens opened. Given that we planned to spent the day by the campsite pool this was problematic. However, as it was between the hours of 10 and 4 there were some places open in the small hamlet we were in. We had breakfast, and wandered around several stores with heavy wood cabin style furniture, and antler themed accessories. However, even walking slowly we saw the whole town in minutes. Most stores were empty and we felt guilty going in with no intention of buying, the shop workers looked so hopeful. One store had a sign in the window saying closed but if you wanted to visit phone the number below. Another had a broken side window and a message on the door saying the shop wouldn’t be open until the window was fixed. And so by about 11am we found ourselves back at the campsite, soaked to the skin. We raided the camp’s game room and returned to our tent with ‘Disney Trivia.’ We spent most the day playing said trivia game, until we were mildly hysterical.
As the rain began to ease off we took the opportunity to wander out in search of food, and found one bar open. Inside everyone stared at us, but we were becoming accustomed to this. We ate and noted how the lines between employee and patron were significantly blurred as people helped themselves to food and drinks. Returning to our campsite we build a big fire and sat talking, eating s’mores, and playing Disney Trivia until it was time for bed.
The next morning we packed up and returned to Boston. Along the way we tried to calculate how far away Moosehead lake was from any Target or grocery store. We pondered whether these people could get mail, and whether Amazon prime existed in Maine. We wondered how long it took before someone realized you were dead, and questioned whether you even bothered to phone an ambulance, or instead accepted that even a small injury would kill you as the hospital was several hours away. We drove past a sign outside a church that read “Congratulations Class of 2006.” With no municipal hub we questioned how trash collection worked. And we marveled at how many self storage centers there were in the area. As most people owned acres of land, it seemed highly unlikely that anyone would need to store anything. We concluded that the plethora of storage and our question about garbage must be connected- perhaps they store the garbage.
Returning to Boston, it did not seem possible that this other world could exist so close to ours. But, as always, that is the beauty and miracle of my American journey. It includes not only Boston but also moose, moose spotters, mail-less communities, and graduation announcements eight years out of date.