Photo by Jeff Gunn.
We drove up into the mountains shortly after dawn on a late-September morning full of mist and fractured sunlight. While the valleys were still resplendent with color, the mountain peaks were starting to go by. The raw, black jeep trail was splattered with fallen leaves – “autumnal confetti,” Bill called it. He navigated the trail slowly, the engine barely above idle. At one point in the journey we pulled to the shoulder to let a caravan of bear hunters pass: wizened men with smokey, intense eyes, their hounds restless in pickup kennels, pacing with energy and a lust for the hunt.
We parked in the deep woods and headed deeper on foot, eventually gaining a wilderness plateau that stretched on for miles. The land here was good moose country – expansive bogs interspersed with dense spruce/fir peninsulas. In the abandoned beaver meadows, tawny-colored sawgrass swayed gently in the breeze like an immense field of grain.
We were here to learn about moose, to get a handle on how the local population was faring. In the 1970s there were few moose here, then in the early 2000s there were lots of moose. Now, there are not so many moose. Maybe the moose are declining because of brainworm or winter ticks or hotter weather. Maybe the early 2000s were a bubble and this is the right number of moose that this forest can support. We were just here to observe.
We traipsed through sulphery-smelling bogs, slalomed and limboed through fir-thickets, studied tracks and beds, old hookings and scat. We saw moderate sign. We’re going into moose breeding season, so you can call them in this time of year. We threw the songbook at them – mournful bellows like a horny cow, throaty “errr-oughhs” like a rutting bull – but none were inclined to answer. Or maybe none were fooled.
“Great,” said Bill, a big barrel-chested man with kind eyes and a loud, drawn-out laugh that punctuates everything he says. “Now we’ve established that the moose are also suffering from a mysterious ailment that causes them to go deaf and/or lose their libidos.” Then that laugh. He carried a gun over one shoulder; he’s from the old school that way, where you arm yourself during fall walks in the woods and passively hunt based on whatever season is open. Number 6 shot in the right pocket for squirrels, slugs in the left in case you saw a bear. “You just never know.” On his back was a camouflage knapsack from which hung a pastel-colored string of beads: pinks and greens and then some letters that spelled DAD.
Having learned all we could about moose, we soon found a berry patch by a large beaver pond and contented ourselves with picking the year’s last wild black caps. The berries came in a variety of flavors: sour, bitter, washed out, and accidentally wormy. We were a few weeks too late. Afterwards, we sat on the bank and were lucky enough to take in three otters at play. Nature’s jesters, they regaled us with a modified game of King of the Mountain, all three struggling for purchase on a rotten stump, wrestling, contorting, flopping like little freshwater seals.
It was a nice, simple fall day. No epiphanies. No dramatic action sequences. No game. Just a nice, simple day, the kind where you get to hang out with a buddy and soak in the last of summer’s sun. Take a deep breath before pre-winter chores dominate your domestic life. Get excited for deer hunting season, just a few short weeks away now, and the notion that soon you’ll get to disappear into these mountains in earnest.