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Wild moose chase

Even if catching a glimpse is rare, adventure is part of the challenge

By Steve Greenlee
Globe Staff / September 18, 2011

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GREENVILLE, Maine - Seven years and zero moose. Seven years we lived in Maine, and not once did we see a moose.

So last month when my wife and I took our three kids on a weeklong vacation to Moosehead Lake - a region where moose supposedly outnumber humans 3-to-1 - we left no room for error. We plunked down $175 for a four-hour moose safari ($50 for adults; half price for kids).

Northwoods Outfitters in Greenville has been running these trips for 15 years. They are offered from spring to fall, though the best times to spot moose are late spring and early summer (when the moose feed more) and early fall (which is mating season).

We are at Moosehead Lake in the dead of August, the most difficult time to see a moose. Even so, the safari is a proposition with little risk. Northwoods claims that more than 95 percent of trips result in sightings, even in August. And anyone whose trip fails to spot a moose can go again for free.

Our guide, Ashley Simpson, 26, has a lot of experience. Twice a day, from 6 to 10 a.m. and 4 to 8 p.m., she leads groups into the woods - by van and canoe - to find the thousand-pound beasts.

“Being in the right spot at the right time is what it’s all about,’’ says Simpson, who grew up in the area and describes herself as an avid hunter - though she doesn’t hunt moose, because doing so could put her out of a job.

Nine of us - my family and two other couples - pile into a van with Simpson and head north up Moosehead’s eastern shore. Simpson explains the challenge before us: It’s warm today, so moose are less likely to be standing in the open. And black-fly season is over, so there’s nothing to drive the moose out of the woods.

Too, there have been fewer moose sightings this year, she says. The reason: More people are looking for moose. “It’s not a decrease in the moose population,’’ she says. “It’s the increase in human activity.’’

Northwoods Outfitters is no longer the only business running these moose safaris around Moosehead Lake, either - a point that doesn’t sit well with the company.

“There’s sometimes too many people on the pond,’’ says Northwoods owner Michael Boutin. “It’s too congested. It has changed the experience. The inexperienced guides are definitely scaring the moose away.’’

Not that he doesn’t understand the desire to see a moose. As he talks, it becomes clear that the sight of one still excites even him.

“It’s a rare thing in North America to see a moose in the wild,’’ Boutin says. “There’s just not that many places to see a moose in the wild - to see an animal that’s a thousand pounds, passively feeding on a pond.’’

To Boutin, a moose safari is about the entire experience of searching for the moose, not just the moment when everyone takes out their cameras and starts snapping.

“We do ours as kind of a nature tour,’’ he says. “We really want people to experience the outdoors and have more than the experience of sighting a moose - paddling on a remote pond and so forth.’’

A remote pond is where we are headed. On the way, Simpson gives us pointers. Chief among them: If we pull over to look at a moose, leave the van doors open, because the sound of them closing will scare off the moose. Also: If you spot a moose, don’t shout “Moose!’’

Soon we’re on dirt roads in a place known as Township A, Range 12. We arrive at a pristine pond where four canoes are waiting for us. I get in a canoe with my 12-year-old sons. My wife, Kelly, is with Simpson and our 9-year-old daughter.

Simpson is all but certain we will see a moose here. We paddle toward inlets on the far side, trying to stay quiet and keep the canoes in a straight line.

At the first inlet, Simpson spies fresh tracks along the shore and vegetation at the water’s surface, and surmises that a moose has been there within the hour. If so, it’s gone now. We paddle back out.

The second inlet also yields nothing. After more than an hour on the water, we give up and head ashore. The trip has not been in vain, though: We had the pond to ourselves, and twice we paddled by loons that allowed us to creep close.

“You guys got everything right,’’ Simpson tells us as we pack up the oars and lifejackets. “You were nice and quiet. There were just no moose out there.’’

But Simpson is not discouraged. If anything, she is emboldened. She knows the logging roads around here, and we are going to their hidden marshes. At dusk, the moose are bound to be out there.

Down the first road, by a field that appears to have been clear cut by a paper company recently, a man on our tour shouts: “There’s one!’’ But it’s only a whitetail deer - and then three more, running up the hill toward the woods. Slowly we continue down the dirt road, but there are no moose.

It’s approaching 8 p.m., the time our tour is scheduled to end. “We’re going to be about 15 minutes late,’’ Simpson announces. “I just feel horrible if I don’t give an extra effort.’’

The entrance to our final logging road is unmarked except for a giant stick holding up the power line where a telephone pole has gone missing. We drive slowly, in near darkness. A mile into the woods, a marsh opens up, with no moose. But there is a second marsh another half-mile down the road, and Simpson reveals that it is her favorite spot to find moose. We wonder if she has been saving this all along, for the tour’s big finish.

Again, there is nothing.

Simpson is disappointed but notes the limitations of her task. “It’s awfully hard to sneak up on something in a 15-passenger van,’’ she says.

She gives us a final tip before we disembark: Head out at 5 one morning and drive north - either on the lake’s western shore toward Rockwood or on the eastern side toward Kokadjo - and you will see moose.

Armed with Simpson’s advice, we scout for moose on our own. Two evenings later, we spot the giant stick holding up the power line and turn down the logging road. We inch along and arrive at the first marsh. Nothing. We head to the second marsh and are not there for a minute when a huge dump truck screams down the road, tailgate clanging, a monstrous dust trail following.

We go back to our cabin.

There is one last possibility. Just south of Greenville on Route 15 is a Department of Transportation garage that is purported to be the easiest place in all of Maine to see a moose, because of the salt stored on site. On the drive back to Massachusetts, we stop there. It is quiet and empty.

We surrender and point the car toward Boston.

Seven years, one week, and zero moose.

Seven miles south of Greenville, we see a van pulled over at the side of the road by a swampy pond, a couple standing beside it. My wife and I look at each other as we drive past: Wait a minute. Did they have a video camera pointed at the pond?

We pull a U-turn in the middle of Route 15, drive back, and park 30 yards behind the van. On the far side of the pond, there it is: an antlered moose, standing knee deep in the water, drinking. We get out, remembering to leave the doors open.

Our equipment, though, is packed away. We open the hatch and frantically dig through our bags, finally locating two pairs of binoculars and a camera. For five glorious minutes, we watch the male beast, who is oblivious to the humans surveiling it from a quarter of a mile away.

It is a transcendent sight.

A pickup with New Hampshire plates pulls over. A couple gets out and slams both doors. The woman shouts something at the videographers, probably “Is that a moose?’’ She laughs loudly. She shouts again. She laughs again. And then, on cue, the moose raises its head and lumbers into the woods.

Steve Greenlee can be reached at greenlee@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @SteveGreenlee.

If You Go

5 Lily Bay Road, Greenville
866-223-1380
www.maineoutfitter.com
Moose tours April 1 through Dec. 10. Prices start at $39.95; children 12 and younger are half price.