It started in September when Erin Merrill and I won a moose safari with Epic Adventures. Brian Donaghy donated the day-long trip to Friends of Maine BOW for our fund-raising auction. It’s the trip she mentioned in Thoughts From a Tree Stand last week.
The alarm went off at 3:45 am. Not that I was asleep, mind you. We’ve been waiting impatiently for weeks, and I was excited. Brian pulled into the drive promptly at 4:30 am. He wasn’t just our guide for the day, he was our chauffeur, chef and educator. He knows his stuff and answered our questions about all things moose, fishing, and more.
The temperature dropped between our ride from Skowhegan, up through The Forks and further north. Soon after leaving the pavement onto a dirt road, the first of the five moose we’d see ran up the road in front of us. Brian stopped on the Lower Enchanted Road. It was 34* and the air was still as the sun rose. Despite a forecast that called for a 50% chance of rain, the cloud cover was sparse at twilight. The weather was perfect. Moose are more likely to move when the temperature is cool. The still air lessened our chances of moose picking up our scent. We grabbed our gear and started the half mile walk to a side road Brian wanted to start on.
A partridge, only the second I’ve seen since opening day last week, flew from the side of the gravel road and off into the woods. We stopped to talk with a man who was out early to do a little scouting. He’d heard a cow but not seen anything. Brian promised us the good stuff hadn’t started yet.
Brian set up to film the moose we might see each time we stopped. His call was answered quickly but a cow bawling ahead of and to the right of us. He sprayed bull moose urine, gathered during a successful hunt he guided last week. Brian called. She bawled. He called. Eventually, nothing. “We’ll go to that line of trees,” he said.
Erin took the handmade “rake.” Brian screwed two shoulder blades to a rod. One blade is plenty for raking but having two ends makes him look like a bigger moose when it’s raised over his head. Erin raked saplings and brush as we walked. Bulls rake their antlers against saplings, brush and small trees to mark their territory. We wanted the moose to think there was another bull in the area.
At the second stop, a cow answered Brian quickly. He called again, upsetting the cow. She wasn’t willing to share her bull with another cow and lead him away from us. “If you’re up for it we’ll go in further.” We were ready.
Stop three was exciting. Two bulls grunted and two cows bawled, all from different directions. It sounded like the cow ahead of and to the right of us might be coming closer. The bull on the right grunted again and we could tell from his change in location that he was moving toward the bull. Erin raked with such gusto it was as though she were a bull.
I now had possession of the liquid gold, urine from a bull moose in rut. Holy gawd does it stink. Imagine the worst litter box you’ve smelled. Multiply that times one hundred. My stomach instantly resented my nose for moving in so close when Brian offered up the bottle for a whiff. I sprayed a little urine to get the aroma out on the breeze again.
Still no moose in sight. “If you’re up for it, we can go down closer to the alder bog.” Let’s go! We picked our way across slash piles, rocks, a few wet spots, and around holes. Brian found a stump beside a boulder, a perfect spot to set up his camera and increase the area he could see. The view was gorgeous. We could look out to the next ridge.
We listened for grunts and bawls, squinting through the understory for movement. Falling leaves are loud when you’re concentrating, listening hard for any sound that might be a moose. And there it was, a grunt and snapping branches as a moose to our left moved closer. Brian held his hand up, squeezing the air with his trigger finger to tell me to spray more urine. I looked at Erin, grinning from ear to ear. “Here we go.”
The young moose moved closer but wouldn’t come out of the trees so we could see him. I assume the urine was strong enough that the small moose thought he was in the company of a mature bull. We could see his body, his hump, two ears, parts of pieces of him. We waited. Brian raked, drawing the little bull in closer.
I don’t understand what happened next. A cow charged up from the bog, coming straight at us. Dried out branches left behind during a logging operation snapped beneath her hooves. She smashed through the woods like she owned it. She veered to our right, made a sharp turned and crossed in front of us, turned again and crashed her way back to the bog. Brian expected a bull to be chasing her but she was alone. I’m not sure whose eyes were bigger, mine or Erin’s.
We were standing in the door way of their bedroom, as Brian politely said.
A crack in the woods behind us, off to the right, caught my attention. “Behind us,” I whispered in the kind of whisper that would be quieter if I’d just said it out loud. Excitement was taking over. There were two bulls nearby, at least two more in the bog below us, a moose crashing in behind us, a cow bawling from the bog, and a cow bawling from the direction of the grunts moving in behind us. We had moose on all sides of us. It felt like we were completely surrounded and it was hard to keep track of everything that was happening around us.
I realized about twenty minutes into standing 18″ from urine-sprayed brush that if you give it time, it really isn’t that bad. It’s not a good smell by any means, but you get used to it enough to ignore it. I’m sure the excitement helped.
The small bull to our left was all but forgotten now. A bigger bull reached the edge of a thin strip of woods separating us from him.
Brian grunted and raked to get the bull moving.
“Holy,” I uttered. He walked toward us, swaying back and forth, tipping his head side to side, making himself look bigger. Brian stopped grunting and stayed still so the moose wouldn’t come too close. He stopped15 yards away, watching us, barely moving. His face reminded me of a panda with his dark nose and area around his eyes. I wondered if he’d come in closer and planned my escape route.
“Hey Buddy,” Brian called as the moose sauntered away, none too concerned about us.
I’ve been a lot closer to moose while standing on Big Rock at Sandy Stream Pond in Baxter State Park, but it felt nothing like this. The moose at Sandy Stream Pond are not tame but they are familiar with humans. I trust Brian and was never afraid. This was pure exhilaration. We exchanged “that was awesome” and talked a bit, then realized we were not alone. The young moose was still just out of sight, still there, listening to us, probably trying to figure us out.
Brian called and raked a bit more. Six geese flew overhead. Two bulls fought in the bog below, antlers clashing, water splashing. Grunts and bawling continued around us, and the small bull walked away. We talked about getting closer to the bog but at that point it seemed clear the moose were done with us.
This was one of the best days I’ve ever had in the woods. I’ll tell you soon about the lunch Brian made for us, and our walk to Grand Falls. Thank you for an incredible experience, Brian!