I am embarrassed to say that it was the most exciting week of my life since turning sixteen and losing my virginity – an experience that did not last a week, I can assure you of that!
I doubt that I will embark on a moose hunting trip again for a couple of reasons. The chance of winning another moose lottery permit before physical infirmity takes hold of me is nil.
Besides, I wouldn’t want to “hunt” without the best possible companion, in this case, my best friend from childhood. Finally, although all hunting trips have their special rewards, moose hunting, as you will glean from my subsequent descriptions, is constantly engaging. I recommend it to anyone without a moral opposition to hunting and with an interest in seeing the world through a new lens.
Pictures and descriptions await you. If you don’t want to read about hunting, stop here.
And let me address any sensitivity about hunting at the outset. If you don’t want to read about hunting, please stop here. This is not a forum to discuss the morality of responsible hunting as exercised by me, my friends, and responsible guides. No one who has leather products, eats meat, or uses cosmetics with ingredients sourced from animals has any foundation for criticizing others for their choice of harvesting sustenance. If you don’t source any form of sustenance from animals, I applaud you for that lifestyle choice.
On another note, anyone who is unwilling to explore the world of outdoor sporting life is contributing to the widening gap in our society defined broadly by conservatives (who make up most of the outdoor sports aficionados) and liberals (who don’t); or by the well-to-do who can afford to buy meat versus the rural poor who cannot. Finally, everyone must keep in mind that responsible and regulated hunting allows the state to study animal populations for better wildlife management control. *
Now, a second aside. Although some descriptions of the conditions of our hunting camp might be off-putting, that might be because I am not well versed in camping techniques, and it is hard to maintain hospital standards of personal hygiene when dealing with twenty disparate individuals living outdoors without electricity or running water. I want to emphasize that our guides were consummate professionals, devoted to their craft and dedicated to responsibly harvesting animals. I would recommend them, without equivocation, to anyone interested in a successful hunt.
But, back to the excitement.
Stumbling into the world of sport hunting
I am not a hunter or outdoorsman by nature. I enjoy my creature comforts. As a physician, I can get up in the middle of the night and go to work, but I prefer to sleep long and sleep well. I get no thrill from the anticipation of killing an animal. I do not look forward to challenging myself physically. I exercise only to slow the decline of aging. When it comes to embracing progress, I am generally lazy. I avoid change. I rail against technology. I work modestly to maintain the status quo of my life and I only tolerate change that I cannot avoid. I do not want to be bullied into the future.
These descriptors do not apply to my friend of 57 years and my boarding school and college roommate. David is a ball of energy with a restless mind. He likes to push the envelope of gentlemanly pursuits like organic gardening, gourmet cooking, sport fishing, hunting, land conservation, wood working, boat building, boating, golf, tennis, and community service. He embraces new technologies at every opportunity to enhance these endeavors. Give me a compass, a map, and leather hunting boots. David prefers a satellite phone with GPS coordinates, topographic imagery, and technical gear.
Ten years ago, when I moved to Maine, I looked forward to seeing him more frequently. I did not foresee the slippery slope he would set me on when he admonished, “Sammy, you have to take the Maine gun safety course. We need to do some deer hunting.”
The hunting course was a ten-week lecture series, every Monday evening, in the auditorium of the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. It ended with a practical demonstration of safe gun handling, a written exam, and an oral exam focused on the safety equipment required by responsible outdoorsmen and women.
The course was a pleasant undertaking during the first autumn of my newly-retired-physician status. Surrounded by gung-ho students, it was an enjoyable diversion for the lengthening evenings. I appreciated the lessons on ethics and fair hunt practices by senior Maine Guides. I enjoyed the quiet of the hour-long commute from Stonington. But, as a non-gun owner, I saw little practical use for my new knowledge.
David handled that by increasing his arsenal with the purchase of a Thompson Center rifle with interchangeable barrels for small and medium size game and a 7mm Remington Magnum for my use with our moose hunting partnership in mind.
PETA as our sponsor?
Our deer hunting started modestly enough. For the first three years, hunting through the woods in parts of Maine and New Hampshire, we did not see a deer. We finally settled on hunting on David’s large property, effectively his back yard, in exurban Maine. We knew he had plenty of deer on his property, although we almost always saw them before or after “shooting time” – a time that is specific to the minute for a given day, in a given location, when there is enough light to responsibly sight in an animal. It proves to be, roughly, 6:30 AM to 4:15 PM in November.
PETA would have been happy to be our sponsor. For the first five years of hunting companionship, we did not fire a shot except to sight in our rifles. We simply complained about the other person making too much noise, or engaging in too much wiggling, to attract an animal while sitting in a blind, or snapping too many twigs while walking through the woods.
With time, and without my help, David learned more about the movement of turkeys and deer around his property. With the help of friends and neighbors, he was able to site his hunting blinds in the most advantageous spots. Now he was taking game quite regularly and, ultimately, I joined in. My biannual trips to join him for Spring Turkey or Fall Turkey season were great. My annual trip to join him for deer season in November was always exciting. In year six of my journey as a hunter, I shot my first turkey. In year eight, my first and only deer.
I have written, before, about how hunting places one at the heart of nature and its beauty. Nature is more acutely appreciated by those who are actively and purposefully analyzing its changing face, whether they are foraging for animals, vegetation, or photographs. I will add that David’s encouragement opened new doors in bonding and friendship. Quiet hours in a hunting blind will bore some but are savored by others. Teamwork is involved in maintaining hunting sites and settling into tree blinds.
The Maine Moose Lottery
I will not bore you with details about the Maine moose lottery. It is a big money maker for the Maine government and the odds are slim that any single person will win in any given year (2,000 to 4,000 permits for 70,000 applicants). People go for decades without winning. Suffice it to say that I never thought that I would win. And then I did. David (listed as my sub-permittee) was ecstatic!
We basked in our glory for several weeks. Residents of Maine wait for the lottery results and peruse them like a racing form or gossip column. Acquaintances in town came up to me and congratulated me on my status as a permitee, uniformly with envy. But David and I postponed making plans.
We did not fully understand that there are two kinds of moose hunters. There are those who know exactly how they plan to get a nine-hundred-pound animal out of the north woods (think a mile or two off the nearest dirt road and sixty miles from cell service) and those who want to think about it. Those who know what they are doing have a pick-up truck equipped with winches, hundreds of yards of rope, block and tackle equipment, a flatbed trailer, a friend with experience as a butcher, and a refrigerator truck at hand. Those who don’t should hire a guide.
While David and I struggled with the logistics of the do-it-yourself approach (what could go wrong with two seventy-year-old men and 900 pounds of flesh miles from civilization?), we lost precious time hiring a guide. Within days, all the good guides were booked, and we spent several weeks trying to get on a waitlist for one.
Ultimately a slot opened up with a reputable group and we were on our way.
Although most guides work with lodge owners and offer cabins or buildings, our guiding company had a “camp.” This camp, a small clearing, was licensed from a private logging company, that owned more than 3.5 million acres of land overlapping the wildlife management district where my permit applied. The camp was advertised to consist of six walled tents for twelve “sports” (aka hunters), a cooking tent, a shower tent, and a loo.
Moose permits apply for one of three discrete weeks in the Fall from shooting time on Monday morning to the end of shooting on the next Saturday night. There is no hunting on Sunday in Maine. Permittees are expected to arrive on Sunday afternoon or evening. To ease our way into the wilderness, David and I drove to Presque Isle, ME on Saturday to spend one last night in civilization at the state’s northern-most Hampton Inn before driving 90 miles west (including 60 miles on dirt roads) into the woods.
On Sunday morning in Presque Isle, we woke to a light snow and significantly colder weather than predicted. Anxiety mounted as I reviewed the layers of clothing that I had packed. One of the unfortunate hallmarks of life in rural Maine, but a Godsend on this morning, is that you can count on finding a Walmart open at 8 AM on any given Sunday. In this case it was just a short walk across a wide street from our Hampton Inn. We found the hunting aisles crowded with other anxious permit-holders looking for extra thermal layers before heading into the wild. I found an amazing camo belt which I continue to wear as a trophy of surviving my first Walmart adventure.
Compared to the small size of most New England states, northern Maine is its own beautiful country. It is on approximately the same latitude as Quebec City. The eastern half of the northern expanse is devoted to potato farming. The western half is devoted to logging. Although, from a distance, the logging forests look untouched, they are crisscrossed with dirt roads. Some of the roads are almost two lanes wide and have names. Most of them are one lane and in progressive stages of being overgrown with grasses and alders. There are also vast “cuts” – areas that have been denuded of pines that are lying fallow pending the planting of new firs or spruce.
Looking across this vast landscape from any elevated vantage point is inspiring, especially while fall color still holds sway. Driving into this landscape for the first time is exhilarating in a “Heart of Darkness” sort of way.
Turning a city slicker into an outdoorsman
We arrived at our campsite in the midafternoon, one mile off a main road and two hundred yards down a rutted path with branches scraping both sides of the truck. We were the third pair of twelve “sports” to arrive that day. We were introduced to our guide, a 23-year-old electrician from Rhode Island, and subsequently to our tent, its woodstove, the woodpile, the loo, the guides’ tents, and the cook tent. The guides’ tents were at some distance from the hunters, presumably so that they could discuss plans without our input.
Soon we were introduced to the cook, a thirty-something, licensed clinical social worker who told us she found camping (in her case, getting up at 3:30 AM to prepare breakfast sandwiches and coffee for 18 other souls – twelve hunters and six guides – and getting to bed after some clean up, sometime south of 9 PM) to be therapeutic. With ice chest refrigeration, no running water, a grill, and a griddle, her repertoire was understandably limited. Much of it was meat. Much of that proved to be grouse breast* or moose heart,* a delicacy that I struggled to appreciate. Moose heart has the eye appeal of escargot and the texture and taste of boiled hockey puck.
The week before ours, the tent was occupied by bird hunters and their dogs. We swept aside their dirt and dog hairs. There was no place to unpack. We stowed our belongings under our cots. We reorganized our daypacks and fortified our sleeping bags with frost and snow in the forecast. We stoked our fire. We took a walk in the fading light and assembled for supper at 6 PM.
At supper we exchanged names with the other hunters. Two of the pairs were married couples. We discussed the organization of the camp. We learned the two inflexible rules of camp culture that could get one ejected from the group: first, no loaded weapons in camp and second, no mention of politics. We choked down the evening equivalent of a breakfast sandwich and, watching our breath congeal, we went to bed under a full moon.
Six tents cheek by jowl with each other added an unexpected auditory component to the evening’s overall sensory experience. There was surround-a-sound snoring. There were rhythmic sleeping bag adjustments. Wood stove doors creaked and clanged as wood was added throughout the night. We heard every tent zipper rise and fall as our companions stepped out to void and then returned to their groaning cots.
The next morning, after fitfully sleeping with the wild temperature extremes that an unregulatable wood stove guarantees, we rose at 4 AM for breakfast and a 5 AM drive to a site, about an hour away, where our guide’s drone had spotted a large bull the day before. We parked at the end of a rutted and overgrown track and, at 6:30, when there was enough daylight to both take a responsible shot and to satisfy the “shooting time” regulations, we hiked through glades of alder into a small clearing.
On the opposite side, amid some thick undergrowth, a medium-sized bull reared his head, waved his paddles (antlers), and analyzed our silhouettes. Our guide put his hand on my arm saying it was too early in the week to settle for such a small trophy and, with a sigh of relief because I could not see the animal’s heart/lung target area through the brush, we let this one slip away. The animal was left to wonder if we were a female moose worth pursuing or another bull encroaching on his territory.
We spent the rest of the morning hiking several miles through the dense woods, over deadfall, through streams, under leaners, between dense alders, around ponds, and through creeks hoping to engage another moose in conversation and thanking the Lord at every turn that we had not slipped and broken an ankle on a moist rock or tree trunk, or lost an eye to a spring-loaded branch. We returned to camp at midday for a sandwich and a rest.
Moose hunting 101
For the uninitiated, moose, like deer, rest most of the day and graze most of the night. The best chance to catch them up and about is early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Without snow or mud to help track them to their wallows, there is little point punishing oneself in the woods at midday. Unlike deer, moose have very bad eyesight. They have exceptional hearing and smell, however. Whereas deer run from noise, during the rut the male moose respond to the noise of branches breaking and leaves rustling by approaching the noise in pursuit of a cow in heat or to defend its territory from a trespassing bull.
This is where moose calling comes into play. Using the scapula bone of a moose or a dairy cow, a good guide simulates the noise of a moose walking (sometimes crashing) through the woods. They also simulate a bull call that translates loosely as, “Come challenge me,” and a plaintive cow call which has a “come hither” quality.
A tired bull will not respond to an aggressive bull call. A spent bull might not respond to a cow call. Every bull will avoid a human scent, a human voice, or a mechanical noise like a car door slamming.
That afternoon we returned to the woods for more hiking. At sunset we drove back to camp for dinner, a beer, some stories, and an early bedtime. The older pair of brothers from New York had “tagged out” (gotten their moose) that afternoon and we watched as they stripped their animal’s skull and antlers of flesh, preparing their trophy for a “European” mount – familiar to us as the typical naked skull and longhorns of a steer seen over the gate to a Texas ranch.
The next day we resumed our cat-and-moose hiking and calling in the morning and the afternoon. Although we made voice contact with an animal every day, we did not see another bull until Friday evening. But the pace of camp life, the excitement of connecting with an animal, the stories of the pairs of hunters who tagged out on Tuesday and Thursday, and the changing weather, kept us fully engaged. This is not to mention the restless anticipation – and I don’t mean this in a good way – of the next meal of coagulated griddle fare* or of the related concern that one’s bowels might permanently lock up or, alternatively, explode.
A gastroenterologist explores the world of north woods sanitation
Of course, no narration of mine, as a gastroenterologist with a comfortable familiarity about intestinal activity and yet a respect for hygiene, would be complete without a discussion of bodily functions, so let me describe the public health and sanitation measures practiced in the north woods. There were virtually none. There was truly a Middle Ages quality to camp life with dogs circulating around the central wood pile which anchored our tent quadrangle and defecating on our stoops, moose skulls in various stages of preparation at the door to the successful hunters’ tents, the New Yorkers butchering their animal on the tailgate of their pickup, and the “wash station” (a large container of cold spring water and a soap dispenser) inches from the trash station and the sandwich preparation station.
The privy was a boxlike, plywood throne in an old hunting blind. Suspended below the opening of the “one-holer” was a contractor’s trash bag – the thickest plastic bag one can obtain for a 55-gallon drum and a bag that is destined to survive millennia. The “flush” consisted of a trowel full of lye. The “sink” was a combination of baby wipes and hand sanitizer.
Exactly what the plan was to dispense of this contractor’s bag at the end of our stay captivated my thoughts. How would they maintain its integrity until that plan could be exercised? But how best otherwise to deal with three weeks of accumulated fecal matter and lye from the innards of 20 people is a conundrum. My own attitude is that with three and a half million acres of wilderness to deal with the waste of a few humans for a few weeks a year, a “carry in/carry out” approach is unnecessarily impractical. Besides, a contractor’s plastic trash bag that will never disintegrate but might fill with fermented gas and explode is not the definition of “leave no trace.”
Indeed, the combination of a fiber free diet and a revolting latrine played enough tricks on the autonomic nervous system of the most avid camper to disrupt one’s daily regularity. It put me in mind of Cromwell’s admonitions to his soldiers to, “Work hard, trust in God, and keep your bowels open!” Locked bowels can be more debilitating for a soldier than diarrhea – true too for a novice hunter.
To our guides’ credit, Tuesday and Thursday were shower day. Pulling this off was no mean feat. Large containers of water were filled from a nearby spring and brought back to camp in a pickup truck. A hose was fed from these containers through a pump that was energized by a generator, via a propane camp water heater, and into the shower tent. All of this was held together by duct tape and illuminated by a head lamp.
The women were offered a bit more time and a bit more privacy, but because the water could not be turned off between bathers – for fear of disrupting one of the tenuous components of this Rube Goldberg apparatus or running out of water – each of the men had to stand in line in the mud and cold, draped in their towels, awaiting their allotted few minutes in the shower, and then we had to sprint many yards to our tents to dry off. It was an invigorating experience.
So, enough with the digressions, back to the actual matter at hand, hunting.
Moose hunting as narrative
One of the sports was Joan, a 50ish year-old woman with a corporate job, an engaging personality, and a phlegmatic but hilariously on-point boyfriend. She always wore a string of pearls. On Wednesday, she engaged in, and subsequently described the quintessential moose hunt. It went like this.
Their guide heard a moose respond to the guide’s thrashing of brush, simulating a bull moving through the forest. When they ascertained the direction from which their prey was approaching, they moved further down wind and started calling. First a bull call, then a cow call. After nearly twenty minutes, the bull appeared about thirty yards away and thrashed the alders with his paddles, trying to make an intimidating sound and trying to decipher if he was facing a bull he had to fight or a cow he had to seduce. At that point, he moved into a broadside position and Joan felled him with a single shot.
From a hunting perspective, our activities and the weather on Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday were like Monday. The weather changed on Thursday evening with the development of wind and rain. The latter made for a swamp in the cooking tent and the former meant there was no point in hiking through the woods. Swirling winds meant that the moose could smell us and hunker down or evade us before we could engage them. So, we spent Friday in the truck looking for moose across large open spaces. The shrubs and early growth in the cuts along the road serving as delicious moose buffets. It was a long day driving from area to another.
Early in the afternoon, we saw two cows cross the road ahead of us. We waited for a bull who might be following them. Nothing. We circled back and waited again. Nothing.
As the light faded and feeling as if our chances for a trophy were dwindling rapidly to the last day, Saturday, our guide turned the truck toward camp. Still an hour away, riding shotgun, I saw a cow at about one hundred and fifty yards, up a slope, on the driver’s side of the road. David saw a small bull appear behind her exiting from a copse of alders. The guide stopped the truck. “Get out, get loaded, don’t shoot the cow,” he hissed.
David and I got out and walked quietly to the driver’s side. The cow moved a step or two ahead. With the scope I could see the bull’s small rack. “The cow is in the lead,” confirmed the guide with his binoculars. “Take him,” he directed with respect to the bull. I dropped him with the first shot. David and I scrambled one hundred yards up the hill and each put a bullet into the chest.
Our chests were pounding with excitement and exertion. The light was fading. The temperature was falling. We felt exhilarated! The work was about to begin.
With a satellite GPS phone our guide texted our location to camp and within an hour a combination of nine guides and our companion hunters arrived at our location and made their way uphill with backpack frames, meat bags, knives, and a chain saw.
There are two ways to get a moose out of the woods. One way is to gut it (field dress it) and haul it out with ropes and pulleys in one piece. Another is to quarter it (cut it into manageable pieces) and carry it out piecemeal. Because we were within two hundred yards of the road, either option was available to us, but our team’s modus operandi was to quarter the animals and that is what they did here.
I stood aside as the more experienced hunters skinned, quartered, and bagged the meat. I reviewed and relived the details of the hunt with our be-pearled campmate. One guide chain-sawed a path through the deadfall so that we could carry our loads, now attached to frame packs, downhill more safely. When we got back to camp the guides iced the meat down. We ate, drank, and repaired to our cots. It would be another 4 am alarm so that we could drive back to Ashland to register the moose and keep an 8 am rendezvous with the butcher who would refrigerate the meat and prepare it for pickup later that week outside of Portland.
After returning to camp, we spent the rest of the day in and out of the truck. David hunted grouse, but my blood lust was sated, and I was happy to simply wind down.
Sunday, two old, old friends drove back home. A long, quiet drive through a large, beautiful state.
A different world with a lot to offer
Putting myself in this totally new world of hunting and camping was a personal challenge. For this, I thank my friend, David. The fact we survived without injury offered enough excitement to have justified the experience and the expense. But after the emotional and physical investment of six days in the woods, getting a moose was truly a highlight reel moment.
The sports with whom we shared the week were from various backgrounds. Two were blue collar workers in their early twenties. Half-brothers, they loved hunting and had no other family responsibilities. Two others were also brothers, retired, small business owners from New York. Four were corporate types who enjoyed the big game hunting mystique. Two of them were also friends from high school. The final pair was a physician’s assistant who enjoyed bird hunting with his wife and their dogs.
Our guides were a mixture of construction managers, blue collar workers, and firemen/EMTs whose vocation supplied the steady income but whose passion was clearly to be out in the woods, hunting and fishing. Their professionalism came through in many ways. They worked late into the nights to pack and protect the meat and trophies. They worked together to help each team with its animal. They spent their off hours scouring the roads and flying drones to spot potential game animals.
Although I do not foresee any more big-game hunting trips in my future, I am thankful that I won this lottery. Who knew what it truly entailed? Who knew that I could do it? I wear my camo belt with pride. I feel like Teddy Roosevelt.
*Maine moose are suffering from a serious tick infestation caused by winter ticks, also known as moose ticks. These parasites are enjoying a population explosion as the result of a warming climate. They hunt in packs and can infest a moose with up to 50,000 to 90,000 ticks. Two manifestations of the disease process influence the moose population and have resulted in the deaths of 90 percent of calves born in certain areas. Calves suffer from infestations before their coats are mature. When calves scrape their hides against trees to rub off the ticks, they denude their own skin. These bare patches of skin do not regrow, and the affected calves freeze to death during the winter. Other moose, suffering from massive infestations, become weak from anemia, making them susceptible to predation, infertility, and illness. Curiously, no ticks were obvious on our bull. In recent years, Maine officials have been issuing many more permits in Wildlife Management Zone 4, the zone with the largest moose population, to study how decreasing the density of the animals might decrease tick transmission.
*To be fair, the food could have been perfectly edible and, I am advised, under the circumstances comparatively good. However, it was the custom for the group to wait until all the pairs of hunters reported back to camp before starting the evening meal. We had one pair of sports who insisted on driving nearly two hours away to further isolate themselves and by the time they returned, two hours after sunset, much of the dinner was predictably cold.
Grouse breast appetizer: slice the grouse breast into bite size pieces; dip in milk and roll in a bag of crushed Cheetos; sauté on the grill; salt and pepper to taste.
“What is the difference between a grouse and a partridge,” I hear you ask? According to a Down east acquaintance of David (insert Down east accent here), “You shoot a grouse on the ground and a partridge in the air.” Translation: practically speaking, grouse are shot for food when you see them and need sustenance; partridge are shot for sport, after being flushed by dogs. Same bird, different approach.
Moose heart: Brine for 24 hours; open the chambers and remove the valves and lining; slice into ¼” slices; season with salt and pepper; Sauté in butter.
P.S. I have recovered from Long Covid
Long Covid lasted about eight weeks for me. I’m pretty much back to normal at this point. Thanks for your comments and support.