Opinion

A dead moose in a Subaru and other scenes from a Maine moose hunt

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In September 1988, a month before the annual six-day moose hunt, I was forewarned by Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife officials in Augusta that crowd control would be my greatest challenge as lead biologist of the Greenville moose hunter check station, the busiest in Maine.

Before dawn on Day 1 of the hunt, I sat anxiously at my desk double-checking a laundry list of tasks. My regional office’s half-acre parking lot, packed with vendors and people eager to see dead moose, resembled a tailgate party. Many moose watchers gathered in front of portable propane heaters. Others, wrapped in blankets, sat in folding chairs.

A day earlier, I’d erected Maine Department of Transportation barricades to separate onlookers from hunters backing trucks with moose into the weigh station inside the Stobie airport hangar, 100 feet from my desk. A Piscataquis County deputy sheriff, wearing a fluorescent vest and white gloves, directed new arrivals to parking lots in town.

Early Monday morning hot beverages and doughnuts could be purchased outside the hangar. Burgers and hot dogs went on sale at 11 a.m. A sprightly grandmother, clutching a mug of coffee, proudly pointed to her wide-eyed, twin 6-year-old grandsons — dressed in identical hunter orange clothing — and said, “Schooling shouldn’t interfere with their higher education.”

Undercover Warden Glenn Perkins interrupted my last minute preparations. “Can you spare a few minutes?” he asked. I followed him through a sea of hunter orange before stopping at the Moosehead Chamber of Commerce mobile food trailer, staffed by well-liked local resident Casey Lascase.

Perkins wasted no time getting to the point. “Casey,” he said, “selling caribou stew is illegal.” Surprised, Casey replied, “Glenn, I shot the caribou in Canada. I’m selling stew to raise money for charitable causes.” Although the two were friends, Perkins was unmoved. “Selling game,” the warden explained, “fosters an illegal market.” Casey stepped outside, and with the swipe of his hand, he erased from the blackboard, “Caribou stew $2.50. Free crackers.” He quickly re-wrote, “Free Caribou stew when purchased with $2.50 crackers.” Amused by Casey’s clever word switcheroo, Perkins smiled and said, “I’ll let it pass today but no other days.” Casey assured the warden that the popular stew would be sold out by day’s end.

A crowd of 200 included journalists, taxidermists, meat cutters, headhunters (middle men who purchased bull moose heads for wealthy clients) and my favorite entrepreneur: an Anson logger with a team of oxen who twitched dead moose from woods to vehicles for $40. He set up shop in a Department of Transportation rest area a few miles south of Greenville, parked his dump truck perpendicular to busy Route 15, and advertised his services with hand-painted white words “Moose Haulin’ and Bush Hoggin’” on the truck’s door panels.

One evening I met the logger, who introduced me to Babe, an ox named after Paul Bunyan’s beast; the other ox answered to Tiny, but only when he felt like it, according to the logger. “Tiny’s as stubborn as a mule,” he said, “Whereas Babe is easy going. If he could, Babe would whistle while he worked. Him and Tiny get along real well, like peanuts in a shell.”

Monday’s 8:40 a.m. arrival of the check station’s first dead moose triggered a tsunami of people storming the hangar. An elderly man, rushing to see the wide-antlered bull, fell headfirst from a truck’s tailgate. A warden rushed the injured man, who had driven from Pennsylvania to photograph each dead moose, to Charles A. Dean Memorial Hospital.

Day 1’s most memorable moose arrived in a large wooden box mounted on a retrofitted twin snowmobile trailer. The box, labeled “Moose Coffin” in bold black letters, was lined with blue plastic foam and filled with blocks of ice. Two small PVC drainpipes funneled melt water from the box onto the roadway. Inside, a hide-less bull moose wrapped in bedsheets was sandwiched between several hundred pounds of ice. Its four lower legs, bone sawed at the knees, were neatly wrapped in clear plastic, to be made into a wall-mounted gun rack and table lamps. Its light pink brain was exposed by the removal of its antlers and skullcap.

While hunters pinpointed the kill location on a map, I inserted a metal tag through the tendon on the bull’s right rear leg and removed a tooth with a buck knife and screwdriver. For the first time, but not the last, a jokester said, “I’m sure glad you’re not my dentist.” By 5:30 p.m., a team of six biologists had inspected approximately 50 dead moose.

At the end of each day I phoned Greenville’s moose figures to Paul Fournier, the department’s media specialist. Throughout the week, Fournier produced a table with updated statewide moose numbers, and faxed it to newspapers. The table, showing columns of shot bulls, cows and yearlings, was printed on sports pages, adjacent to Major League Baseball playoff box scores.

Day 2 was predictably busier with approximately 100 moose inspected. Tuesday’s most memorable animal — a cow moose — arrived inside a Dodge Ramcharger. It had been shot late Monday afternoon north of Caucomgomoc Lake in Township 6 Range 15, Maine’s version of the outback. Just before sunset, a hired skidder operator lowered the animal onto the vehicle’s roof but stopped when it buckled. Somehow the cow was forced inside the vehicle through its rear door. Two flat tires convinced the exhausted hunter to spend the night in the woods.

On Tuesday morning, as the Dodge rolled into the check station, moose hooves sticking through an open window were the only visible animal parts. Rigor mortis had set in, and with it a sour odor. Opening the door, I was greeted by hundreds of winter ticks crawling on the hunter, seats and floorboards. The Mains Brothers — operators of the check station’s refrigerated meat trailers — refused to quarter the spoiled moose. As the hunter sped away, Warden Charlie Davis quipped, “There goes a canned moose well past its expiration date. What a shame.”

Day 3 produced several surprises. A Ford F-350 truck arrived pulling a trailer with a small Kubota tractor and a skinny yearling moose. Behind the Ford was a late 1970s Datsun pickup, its tires pancaked under the weight of a handsome 1,100-pound bull. I joked with both drivers that they should have traded moose. The comment wasn’t well received by occupants of the Ford. The hunting party, unsurprisingly, refused to weigh the yearling.

Inside the hangar, Datsun driver explained that the heavy moose had caused his vehicle to blow its radiator cap on Scammon Ridge. Thirty minutes after the engine block cooled, he refilled the radiator with brook water, capped it with duct tape, and limped into Greenville.

A Subaru Brat, also climbing Scammon Ridge, didn’t fare as well when it caught fire after overheating. Firefighters attributed the blaze to its cargo — a heavy bull moose, which, according to a firefighter, exceeded the Subaru’s maximum recommended weight limit. A flatbed from Guilford transported the charred mess to the Texaco Station in Greenville, where Warden Pat Dorion and I met the hunter. While the warden interviewed the man, I was dumbstruck by the blackened moose: Its hind end sat in the bed of the Subaru, the torso draped the roof, and the neck and antlered head covered most of the windshield and hood. Unsure what to do, I recorded the hunter’s moose license number, placed a metal tag in the moose’s leg, removed a sooty incisor, and jumped to the ground.

On the drive back to the office, Dorion briefed me on the mishap: a hunting party with two vehicles had planned to spend the week searching for a trophy bull. But a family crisis forced the subpermittee with a pickup to return home. That left the permit holder — owner of the Subaru — without a truck. The following day he shot a large moose, and with help of a skidder operator, loaded it onto the Subaru.

Day 6 — the final day of the hunt — unfolded uneventfully. Shortly before quitting time, a bull moose arrived at the check station. I secured its antler base with a heavy chain, attached it to the electric hoist, and lifted the moose toward the ceiling. Standing atop an 8-foot stepladder, I craned my neck and announced the scale’s reading, 1,050-pounds — a figure that drew scattered applause from a dozen diehards, including the elderly Pennsylvania man, now wearing large gauzes taped to his swollen forehead.

As the suspended moose twisted in air, its liver fell from the open chest cavity, glanced the tailgate, and splattered on the cement floor. A woman screamed when Watson, a basset hound, scooted between her legs to claim the liver. The short-legged dog had spent much of the week in the hangar, stealing moose organs and dodging blocks of ice falling from moose being weighed. Watson dragged the liver across the parking lot and past a spilled box of popcorn.

At 5:50 p.m., I lowered the hangar door, walked to the office and phoned Fournier with the day’s meager moose numbers. My moose season was over. I felt an emotional letdown after running on adrenaline all week. Exiting the parking lot in darkness, my truck’s headlights caught Watson dragging a moose’s lower front leg across the pavement. For the comical-looking hound, the moose hunt, it seemed, hadn’t quite ended.

Ron Joseph is a retired Maine wildlife biologist. He lives in central Maine.

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