I started hunting deer about the turn of the century when my neighbor kindly agreed to show me the ropes. Being an excitable boy, I also began entering the moose lottery. As I remember, there were about 80,000 entries and about 1,000 winners, so pretty poor odds. My first year “hunting,” I didn’t see even as much as a chipmunk, despite going out at least 6 full days. Second year, again the moose lottery, but that year, I bagged a 160 pound buck. I was alone, so I had to drag him out by myself, about 3/4 of a mile. That experience was as close to a heart attack as I’ve ever come, but I figured it was the deer’s opportunity for revenge, and an acceptable and reasonable trade-off. I survived but decided then and there that 160 pounds was more than plenty, and I did not want any part of being responsible for a 600 pound moose. So I stopped entering the moose lottery and continued to enjoy success with the deer hunting.
Then, my daughter decided that she would like to experience deer hunting, and she was successful her second year. She was just as excited about the whole experience as I was, and insisted that we had to try for a moose permit. I honestly wasn’t all that excited about it, but knowing the small odds, I knew there was no harm in applying. Also, and this is a key point to anyone who is disgusted with moose hunting or hunting in general, the permits will be awarded to someone.
Well, this first year of trying, lightning struck, and I was awarded a permit in WMD 7 (Wildlife Management District), Rangeley Lake region, with said daughter as sub-permitee. Crap. So NOW what am I going to do? Fortunately, my experience with the deer dictated that I do NOT try this at home, only a professional should do this thing, so I hired a professional guide service.
The Rangeley Lake area is just amazing. During the moose hunt, the second week in October, the area is just crazy with the moose hunt. EVERY able bodied soul applies for a permit every year, so the economy truly runs on moose. This is a region where logging and tourism dominates the economy, and helps keeps the citizenry alive, both emotionally and literally. And when I say everyone applies, I mean everyone, no matter how old or young. The person who wins the permit must have a valid hunting license, but is also allowed to name a sub-permitee, someone who is allowed to accompany the winner on the hunt. Either person can shoot the moose (or both), but the two must hunt together. It would not shock me to see an ambulance in the woods with grandma (permit winner) inside, rifle next to her, and grandson or granddaughter riding “shotgun” in the front, looking for their moose.
The logging operations in this area are pervasive, but they seem well managed and responsible. The companies will clear-cut a patch of forest, process the logs, and then move to another area. The clear cuts begin regenerating immediately, and after about 3 years, they are perfect environments for moose and other creatures, turning into a veritable salad bar for the animals. The ground is a mixture of discarded logs and branches and other wood debris, dirt, rocks, mud, etc. It can be a slight challenge to walk over in some places.
There are many many miles of these logging roads, and one interesting feature of the area is the need to have a CB radio in the vehicle if you drive on these roads, and announce to the world where you are and where you’re going. For example, you might typically announce, “Middle Brook Dam Road, mile 2, coming in.” “Mile 12, Farmer Cheney Road, coming out.” One does this at every mile marker if one is smart. The purpose is to know where the huge logging trucks are and where they are going, and to let them know where you are. This cuts down on the collisions. Some people drive like demons on these back roads, including the large truck drivers, and the logging roads are only about 1 and a half lanes wide. CB or marine band radios are the only means of communication up here. There is no cell phone service anywhere, except in very limited spots along the main road.
Here is a link to some pictures of the area that will help give you a sense of moose country:
In Maine, moose are lord and master of all they survey. They run from 500 pounds to 1,000 pounds or more. They stand 8 to 10 feet tall or more. They need to eat all the time, and they are in complete charge for 51 weeks of the year. In years gone by, they were so plentiful and unafraid of anything, that to “hunt” moose meant to simply drive down the logging roads until you saw one in the road, stop, get out, and shoot it. The hunt used to occur in the first week of October, and the rut was in full swing then. Another method was to drive to a clear cut, get out, use a moose call to call in a bull or cow, and take your shot. Things are changing or have changed. The hunt was moved to the second week in October so as not to interfere with the leaf peepers as much, and as a result, the rut is just about completely over by the second week in October, so the moose do not respond to the calls very much. Also, after 30 years of being hunted, they are starting to catch on. They still have to eat, and they still have to cross the road, but in 3 days of driving and walking and hunting everywhere, we saw 2 moose the second day crossing the road 30 minutes before legal hunting time in the pitch black, and one other one wading in a pristine wilderness pond. Everyone we met said the same thing. The moose were not responding to the calling and they were nowhere to be seen. My Master Maine Guide, Fern Bosse, said he had never seen so much fresh moose sign and so few moose. He was very frustrated.
Well, you got the permit, NOW what are you going to do?
The guide service
I was stupid enough to think I might be able to find and shoot a moose by myself. After all, I’d been successful as a deer hunter. It had to be a similar kind of thing, right? How hard could it be? Fortunately, I was also smart enough to realize that the stories about the drama and effort related to removing a moose from the woods and transporting said moose to, first the tagging station, and then to the butcher, were not in the least exaggerated. Some hunters are forced by the circumstances of where the moose drops, to “quarter” the moose (cut it up in 4 huge pieces) and then deal with each of the 4 pieces individually. When this happens, there is a significant risk of damaging and losing some of the meat. I understood that I was going to need professional help with my hunt.
So the first place to turn for assistance was the internet. My permit limited me to District 7, the Rangeley Lake area, so I looked for registered Maine guides that served that area. Many guide services advertize that they will guide a hunt in more than one district. It seemed to me that this could involve a significant amount of travel each day, which I wanted to avoid. I contacted several guides and spoke to a few. I was at a bit of a disadvantage because I wasn’t even sure of what questions to ask. Also, prices ranged from about $1,500 to over $2,500. I didn’t want a cut-rate outfit, but I also didn’t want to pay an excessive premium. I ended up choosing Black Brook Cove Guide Service. The owner spent a total of over an hour on the phone with me during more than one call describing the process and what to expect. I also called two of the references on the web site and got glowing reviews from those past hunters. So I made somewhat of a leap of faith and sent off a deposit check for half of the total cost, non-refundable. This all happened in about July. I then had over 2 months to wait until the hunt.
My daughter was my sub-permitee, but she could only stay for the first two days. The hunt lasts from Monday, October 8th, through to the end of legal hunting on Saturday, October 13th, one week. There was a chance we might be successful on the morning of the first day. The guide service advertised a 100% success rate over the last 7 years, but I realized there was no guarantee. We arrived about 3pm on Sunday. The owner of the Guide Service and campground, Jeff, said I would be matched with another guide because his 8th grade son had drawn a permit, his wife was the sub-permitee, and he and another family friend were going to go with them on their hunt. We had a nice family dinner, and then my daughter and I left for the 15 minute, 3 mile, pitch black drive along a rutted and potholed dirt road to the cabin where we stayed. The cabin was nice, 2 story, the second story being a loft area with 2 beds, and a day bed and bedroom on the first floor. The stove, fridge and lights all ran on propane and there was no electricity. There was hot and cold running water and a nice bathroom with shower. The propane lights were not quite bright enough to read by, comfortably. We could hear the loons crying. We were 30 yards from the lake. There was nobody else even remotely nearby. It was awesome.
Breakfast was to be served at 4:30am when we would meet our guide for the first time, and with the 15 minute drive to the house, and getting set for the day, we set our alarms (cell phones and iPods) for 3:30am. Ugh! We called that zero-dark thirty when I was in the Army.
We met Fern at breakfast. Fern Bosse is a registered Master Maine Guide. He’s small of stature but spry with a white beard, with a Maine accent you could cut with a knife, and about as classic a Maine guide as you could ever hope to meet. We are talking the consummate professional sportsman. We hopped in his truck and away we went down the night road, turned down one of the infinite logging roads, and into the house of the moose. We spent a lot of time driving the logging roads, hoping to see a moose either in the road, crossing the road or somewhere off the road. Although they are not especially afraid of trucks, they are skittish if they see a person. The protocol if you see one in the road is to stop the truck, open the door, get out, letting the door shield you, load your weapon, and try and get a shot. Now that doesn’t sound very sporting, does it? I agree, but don’t forget, many people who live here supplement their food needs with wild game. This is serious business for them.
We also stopped and stood at advantageous spots for up to an hour or more at a time, waiting silently, except for the occasional calling done by the guide. He has a custom commissioned birch bark calling horn and it sounds pretty authentic to me. We also walked several of the cuttings looking for moose sign. There was lots of fresh moose sign everywhere. They are here, but they are are hiding. In the early day, we walked through a large sand pit area that looked promising, but there was very little in the way of fresh tracks. At about noon, we passed by again and realized we had missed what must have been a huge moose party some time in the midmorning, because there were prints everywhere. Rats! For the last 90 minutes of legal hunting time, 5:00 – 6:30, we went back to the sand pit and “posted up,” hoping to catch some late-to-the-party moose. During the day, the weather had been nice, but the last hour, it got cold quickly. At 6:30, we packed up and left.
So we are up at 3:30am, have breakfast at 4:30, it’s 7 ½ hours until we eat our bag lunch, then another 6 ½ hours of hunting, and dinner between 7:00 and 7:30pm. That leaves exactly no time for camp songs and smores around the fire, or a beer bash for that matter. This is not a luxury vacation.
On Tuesday, we headed to a completely different area, and in the dark of the early morning, saw first a cow moose stop in the middle of the road in front of us and ponder her next move for a few minutes before moving off into the woods, followed closely thereafter by her boyfriend, a young bull with spike horns. Our first moose sighting was a welcomed sight. But after that, we spent much more time hiking through recovering clear cuts of brush/woods about chest high, up and down hills, and also around and through several large tracts of younger clear cut. Again, there was plenty of fresh moose sign, but no moose. Although Monday had a good share of exercise in walking, this day involved much more of that and for a 12 hour day, was pretty strenuous, with the added facet of carrying my 30.06 rifle safely the whole time. If you are not pretty well physically fit, you will be relegated to driving the logging roads for your hunt, and will miss 90% of the experience. At the end of the day, I posted up at the edge of a huge clearing until we had 15 minutes left, and then we spent the last 15 minutes driving out, unsuccessfully looking for moose.
On Wednesday, we again went into a completely different area, but one that similar characteristics of the first two days. As we drove in, we crossed a small bridge, looked down into the pond below and did see a beaver swimming about. That was nice. And then we stopped, walked about a quarter of a mile down a narrow foot path, and came onto a pristine wilderness pond. Across the pond, we spotted a huge cow moose sloshing along the edge of the pond. We stayed still, and she never suspected we were there. That was a really nice sight. Then, soon thereafter, we saw a fisher cat scamper into the middle of the road right in front of us, change his mind, and then dart back from whence he came. At that point, I scored the day a win, regardless of what the rest of the day might hold.
The rest of the day, though, was a repeat of Tuesday, with a lot of exercise. At one point, we were standing still in an area, and not a quarter of a mile away, we heard coyotes howling away. That is one eerie and frightening sound! My guide called with the sound of a young calf moose, hoping to draw the coyotes near enough to see, but they weren’t interested. At the end of the day, we decided to sit in the middle of a very large clear cut, and hope to catch some late movement, but then planned to leave the last 40 minutes for driving home along the logging roads. For my final 90 minutes in the clearing, a cold rain started and continued for most of the time. We must have been some sorry-looking characters. My guide was thoroughly frustrated as we trudged back to his truck, but I allowed as how the day was not over yet!
The fun begins and the fun ends
On the drive out, I was keyed up each time we rounded a curve, hoping to see a bull, any bull. But it was more of the same from the previous two days. But then, at 6:08, with 20 minutes left in legal hunting time, I saw a good sized moose about 20 yards into the woods on the side of the road, but he/she was running away, in the same direction we were traveling, but diagonally away from the road. My first thought was that there was no way we would ever be able to follow or find him/her. It was too fleeting a glimpse for me to tell if it had antlers or not. But Fern stopped the truck and urged me to “Go see if you can see him!” So out I hopped, loaded the rifle, and climbed up the bank and further up into the somewhat thick woods, with not a whole lot of optimism. As I continued in, trying in vain to activate some long range x-ray vision, I stopped to listen, and there, about 10 yards away, hiding behind a small pine tree, pretending with all his might to be invisible, was a big moose. Because his head was obscured by the tree, although most of the rest of him was not, I STILL wasn’t certain it was a bull, and I couldn’t shoot until I WAS certain. Then he turned his head to look at me, and I saw, unmistakably, some manner of rack, so I fired twice and hit him once. He ran 20 more yards and then fell. It wasn’t until I walked up next to him that I saw what a magnificent rack he had, and how big he was. I will have to admit, it was really exciting. I apologize to all the vegetarians who are horrified at the whole story, but this is the circle of life. In fact, for one full year, I was a vegetarian after watching a documentary on the commercial meat industry in the United States. Moose, however, is perhaps the finest renewable, free range, organic, hormone and antibiotic free protein you can consume.
This was also where the fun ended.
It was dark, cold and raining. Fern said he had never gutted a moose in the dark by flashlight, but he did that night. I was willing to try and pitch in and help, but what was needed was a lighting coordinator, so that’s what I did. The moose was facing away from the road, but on an incline down to the road. There were no big trees in the way, but there were a number of saplings up to 1 or 2 inches in diameter that we would have to contend with. Fern went down to his truck to try and raise the owner of the guide service on the radio. Remember, he and his family were also out hunting, but presumably done for the day. We needed help. But soon a truck stopped and 4 guys got out to see what was up. Fern asked them to drive back to the campground and to ask that the owner come help, so off they went. In the mean time, Fern got out a chainsaw winch contraptions and began the process of securing it around a tree downhill to try and drag the moose towards the road. Generally, one drags a moose head first, and this was Fern’s first time dragging one tail first. Remember, it’s dark now and raining and cold.
Then, the guys returned and announced they had stopped at the campground, but were told the owner had gotten his truck hung up on the side of a logging road and was hopelessly stuck and needed help himself. Great!
But then the guys got a look at the moose and they were amazed and enthralled and agreed to stay and help. Then their buddies came by and stopped, and we now had 7 admirers and helper. On the other hand, they were all drinking and one was pretty hammered, but fortunately, he stayed mostly in the truck.
We managed to get the winch hooked up and started dragging the moose, being careful to guide the rack so as not to break or damage it. This involved a lot of “Are you ready?” “Slowly!” “Ready up here” “Stop!” “Are you ready?” “Easy now!” etc. We got him moving down the grade about a quarter of the way to the road when the Guide Service owner showed up with his friend, his wife, and his 13 year old son.
Here is where I have to digress again and explain my understanding of the culture in this neck of the woods, so to speak. In this land, it is not easy to survive, let alone raise a family or prosper. There are 22 kids in the entire eighth grade of the Rangeley school system. Everyone knows everyone else, and usually for generations. Everyone knows each other’s business and circumstances. And they all understand that they have got to hang together. You cannot hold a grudge or judge others harshly or treat people poorly and think you’ll survive up here. When you run off the road in a blizzard, or have a medical emergency, or get caught in a road washed out by a rogue stream, or hit a moose, the one person who stops to help could be anyone, and eventually, everyone needs some manner of help from their neighbors. It’s a remarkable culture and one we can all be jealous of. The nearest medical facility is either 90 minutes away in Colebrook, New Hampshire, or 2 hours away in Farmington, Maine. When I asked what happens if someone gets hurt, I was told, “We tell them we don’t have time for this!”
And now back to the scene of the three ring circus. Because we have 11 adults, 7 of whom are hammered to one degree or another, a professional guide, the owner of the guide service and the paying client, me. And we have at least 9 people who are convinced that THEY are in charge and that THEY know how to hook up the trucks to the trailer that will carry the moose, THEY know where and how to drag the moose, etc. All in the dark, cold rain. It was unbelievable. We had enough manpower to drag the moose by hand, or even, possibly, half carry the blessed thing onto the trailer. But, no. Everyone had a better idea. But everyone was also generously contributing their time and equipment to the effort, so we all just went with the flow. And it got done, and nobody got hurt.
Now, in the middle of the confusion and effort, it was one of the good Samaritans whose truck got attached to the moose trailer, and it was facing the wrong way, so he had to get it turned around, which meant a drive down the logging road in the wrong direction to find a place to turn around. It was funny to notice that even though we are in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night, everyone was careful to ask if I had affixed my legal transportation tag to the moose. Because they all knew the game wardens personally and socially, and nobody is anxious or willing to get on their bad side. That meant I had to stay with the moose and ride with the helper guys. So we drove down the road, bouncing on every pothole, me just slightly worried that the moose would bounce off the trailer and into the road. But we made it back to the campground safe and sound. It was too late to take the moose to the tagging station that night, but it was plenty cold enough to leave it out, so we finally got to bed by 11pm.
The next day, at both the tagging station and the weighing station, people driving by stopped to admire the moose, and many took pictures of just the moose, or of each other standing next to the moose. It was funny. I was told by several many people that I HAD to get the head mounted, at an additional cost of some $1,500. When I protested that my house was too small to even fit the moose anywhere, two people said they had built an expansion on their house to showcase their own mounts.
And now, the butcher just called and said my 400 pounds of meat will be ready tomorrow, so I will drive the 7 hour round trip and collect my 25 pounds of breakfast sausage, 25 pounds of apple sausage, 50 pounds of “bacon burger,” 100 pounds of moose burger, and 200 pounds of steaks and roasts. I was told that the butchering would cost $.50 a pound, and that was true. however, when I added in the special orders beyond basic butchering, that full tab came to $600. Yikes! but basically, I paid a total of $6.00 a pound for 400 pounds of organic, free range, hormone and antibiotic-free meat.
I guess one eats 400 pounds of moose just like anything else – one bite at a time.
What an experience!
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