LIVING THE DREAM
Field & Stream|Volume 125 - Issue 4, 2020
After the author arrives in Maine’s fabled North Woods with a moose tag in his pocket, an adventure he’s been wanting to take his entire hunting life, reality sets in, and he learns a valuable lesson: Be careful what you wish for
T. Edward Nickens
ALL OF MY HUNTING LIFE, MOOSE have haunted my dreams. Literally, since I was a child, I have had the same dream. The basic storyline never changes, but as I’ve matured as an outdoorsman, the details have become more specific and meaningful.

I’m in a Maine Guide canoe with a long-shafted beavertail paddle in hand. A lever rifle leans against the bow thwart. My guide and I cruise slowly around a sharp bend in the stream, careful to keep the bow from scraping on the river gravel. Brook trout dimple the water. Mosquitoes buzz. The guide grunts and bellows with a rolled birch-bark call, and the sound seems to skip over the water like a thrown stone, mellowing as it reaches the far shore. I scan the dense woods, picking apart the latticed boughs for the glint of an antler or the horizontal line of belly or back. In the dream, I am looking for pieces and parts of a moose and then, suddenly, the bull is right there, complete, at the water’s edge, silhouetted in front of a sheen of sunlit spruce.

And that’s how it ends. Every time. The dream never progresses beyond this point—no matter how many times I have had it, no matter how often I lie in bed trying to fall back to sleep so I can dream my way into slowly reaching for the gun, as the guide braces the boat for the rifle’s recoil. Over the years, I came to accept that a moose hunt might be a dream I would never have the chance to live. But if I did, I didn’t want to scout from a truck and hunt from a road. I wanted my dream— canoes, remote waters, paddling under the early- morning stars, stalking and calling, and nothing easy

“This wind is killing us,” says my guide, Peter Koch. Gray clouds race above the serrated first crowding a narrow, marsh-edged slack in the stream, what Mainers call a deadwater. The light is fading, but the far shore is within easy rifle range. “This is the glory hour,” Koch whispers, “and nobody can hear us.”

This is no dream.

We’d paddled for miles in total silence, communicating in hand signals, hauling the boats across two beaver dams—Koch and I in the lead boat; Sherry Bouchard, another Registered Maine Guide and a longtime friend, and photographer Tom Fowlks in the other. We were worn out before we even started. This was our second long paddle of the day, having left camp at 4 A.M. for a dawn patrol of a distant deadwater. Now we’ve beached the boats and crept across a peninsula of dark forest and bog.

Strong gusts lay the fir tops over like marsh grass. Koch grunts through a birch-bark moose call, and a red squirrel chatters across the water. “He’s still there,” Koch says, his confidence masked by a furrowed brow, just as the bull answers for the third time.

I silently beg for the bull across the cove to step out and give me a look, even if it’s not up close and personal. The bull grunts again, the sound muffled through wind and soaked timber.

“Can you see into the woods?” Koch asks. “Do you have enough light?”

I sweep the scope crosshairs above the water’s edge, 120 yards distant.

“I’m good.”

Koch rakes a nearby birch tree with a canoe paddle, snapping off limbs and shredding bark like a bull moose that’s ready for a brawl. More light bleeds from the sky.

“Can you still see? You good? We’re dying here.”

I search the dark timber. “Yep. But he’s gotta show quick.” The third time Koch asks if I can shoot the timber, I answer, dispirited, “No.”

“O.K.,” he says. “We’re done.” There are two minutes remaining of legal light, but when there’s not enough light to shoot, it’s over. He doesn’t want to push our luck and bust the bull. We have five more days to connect. “We’re playing the long game,” he says. “Trust me.”

And to be honest, on a six-day rut hunt for northern Maine bull moose, I want this to take its sweet time. I would soon learn to be careful what you wish for.

The North Country

Founded in 1902, Chandler Lake Camps and Lodge is one of the oldest traditional sporting camps in Maine. I’ve fished for brook trout and landlocked salmon and grouse-hunted the big North Woods out of Chandler long enough to count Sherry and her husband, Jason Bouchard, who own the lodge, as friends. I even served as witness at their fireside wedding a few years back. For me, hunting moose out of Chandler was like being hit by happy lightning twice. Drawing a resident moose tag is a near once-in-a lifetime event, and when Sherry drew her second tag nearly 20 years after her first, she invited me to hunt with her. (Each tag holder can invite a friend to participate in the hunt.) We’d be looking for bulls in the 4 million acres of timber and swamps of the sprawling North Maine Woods, between Moosehead Lake and the Canada border. Good fortune, I knew, wouldn’t count for much in those woods. I pored over ballistics charts and hit the gym hard, biking a million miles of imaginary moose trails and logging roads.

Two days into the hunt, though, the weather we encountered was more a hunter’s nightmare than lifelong dream. The midnight temperature was 70 degrees, and we ate breakfast in short sleeves. When the rain came, it was a hot rain—not the brisk leading edge of a cold front that kicks up the breeding urge—and it was forecast to fall in scattered sheets for the next few days. In a typical year, the peak-rut woods can be a frenzied madhouse of sparring bulls and bellowing cows, but so far we’ve had only one close encounter.

On our first morning, we paddled for an hour in the dark. No headlamps, no talking. Herons croaked in the dark as I mentally tracked each paddle stroke to prevent scraping the hull. I could hear the canoe’s V-wake trickling behind me and sense the boat shift with Koch’s strokes. Tall brush on each side of the stream darkened the shore, leaving a single lane of silvery light that ran down the center of the creek. I skipped a paddle stroke to wipe away a false tear trickling down one cheek. Heavy mist wetted my face and gave the water’s surface a gauzy glow. Suddenly, there was a rustling in the reeds and a low, inquisitive grunt. We all froze, paddles in midstroke, stunned by the closeness of the sound. I could hear the water drip from my paddle blade as a bull moose stepped from the brush, hesitated for a moment, then crossed in front of the canoes at 30 feet. Backlit by moonlight, the massive animal glided through the water almost silently, its black bulk like some ghost ship on the horizon.

It seemed like an omen of good things to come, and for a moment on that misty stream, I wondered if my dream might come true too soon and too easily. But it was the only moose we would see that day. And ever since, finding the quiet bulls in the low marshy country where we’ve pulled and paddled and humped the canoes has proved another level of tough.

The next morning, as we drive in the dark for another long paddle, Koch talks a mile a minute and has high hopes of getting in front of undisturbed animals. “They’ve been bedded down, they’re soaked, they’ve got to get food,” he says. “They’re just like us—they’ll want to move around a bit, see what’s up. And we’ll be right there. We’re playing the long game, don’t forget that.”

A few hours later, Koch is still talking, but in a different language. Days earlier he’d stripped a single piece of birch bark from a tree and stitched it into a megaphone shape with a strip of leather. The call is as much a part of old-school Maine moose hunting as beavertail canoe paddles. With his nose pinched shut to deepen the tones, his guttural bull grunts sound like something bubbling out of a wet hole in the earth—a primeval, nasal belch with a brawler’s edge.

But it’s his cow bellow that rocks the woods. After stashing the canoes in a marsh, we post up on an edge of alder and scrub juniper overlooking an open meadow painted with red, orange, and russet fall flowers. Wearing electronic shooting muffs to better siphon the air for a response, Koch lets go with a 40-second wailing, lubricious moan that rises and falls with a quavering fervor. It’s the sexiest animal call I’ve ever heard, urgent and needy. He’s silent for a second or two, then grunts softly, as if an answering bull is being reeled in by the hot-to-trot cow.

This is Koch’s favored approach: Sort out the squirt bulls and piss off the big boys. He rakes a canoe paddle up and down the lower trunk of a tree, cracking off branches. He thrashes small shrubs, then rakes the ground with paddle and boots. Such aggressive tactics run the risk of pushing off a few animals, no doubt. “A little one, a mulligan,” he says. “He’ll answer but not come in, because he doesn’t want his ass handed to him. But we’re not looking for somebody that will talk back and then bail on us. We’re looking for Mr. Big.”

Sixty moose-less minutes later, though, neither big bull nor runt has responded. It’s already our third morning in the woods, and I’m thinking back to that moment on our first day of hunting, when I hoped it wouldn’t be over too soon.

In the late afternoon, we paddle up another quiet deadwater, probing the bottom with the paddles to find where the deep muck gives way to hardpan, a clue to a possible moose crossing. Woodcock careen overhead, a sign of the turning season, and we take heart. The stream opens into a wide, remote pond, and 15 minutes into an open lake crossing, Koch suddenly wigeonwhistles to halt the boats.

“Cow moose,” he says, “right there!”

A big girl is back-deep in the pond, 80 yards from shore. We shift into total sneak mode, feathering the paddles through the water so they don’t flash and shine, lying low in the hull. Moose have notoriously poor vision, so we make landfall a few hundred yards from the cow just as she steps onto land, alert but seeming unalarmed. We scramble for the woods, teetering on the tops of shrub hummocks until we get to the dark timber. We’re in sign immediately. The woods are latticed with trails, muddied with tracks of moose and bear. Trees are slashed and broken. We sneak 50 feet through the woods, keeping a screen of dark timber between us and the cow. I exchange glances with Koch and Sherry. We can smell moose. We have a live decoy by the water.

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