Living the Dream: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Moose Hunt in Maine’s North Woods
Shortly after the author set out on an adventure he’d been waiting for his whole life, reality set in and he learned a valuable lesson: Careful what you wish for
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 firs 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.
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 wigeon-whistles 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.
Koch picks up an inch-thick branch and snaps it. The wet wood breaks with a subtle pop. “That’s all we’re listening for,” he whispers. It’s a sound as subtle as the splat of a raindrop on a sleeve. “You’d think you wouldn’t have to listen so hard for a thousand-pound animal, but that’s what this game is like.”
Deep in woods scored and raked and thrashed with moose, we call, into the falling dark, and listen hard to another nightfall of nothing.
After three days of hunting hard, reality begins to set in. At camp that evening, as I leaf through the current issue of The Maine Sportsman magazine, a headline catches my eye: “Canoe Hunt for Moose.” Jim Andrews, the author, wrote: “This type of hunting is not for everybody. Canoe hunters see far fewer moose than other hunters do.… There’s no guarantee of seeing a moose, and waiting for a trophy bull is foolhardy.… It takes a certain kind of hunter to decide it’s a good idea to punch their once-in-a-lifetime moose permit for this.”
I am that certain type of hunter, and while I am loath to give up on the dream—the canoes, the remote ponds, the misty cedar swamps—I can feel time fading. At breakfast the next morning, Jason Bouchard plays the cheerleader. “Day four in the woods,” he says. “Time to separate the real hunters from the pretenders.”
The ever-optimistic Koch weighs in: “Day four—otherwise known as paint-the-ground-red day.”
There is reason for optimism: The weather is cooling, and other guides are reporting animals on the move. The urge to breed can’t be ignored. “It’s not going to get worse,” Koch says, before adding a word of caution. “But the reports of moose activity are all from the hardwood ridges.”
He lets the line hang in the air with the scent of sausage and eggs. I know what he’s thinking. Part of a good hunting strategy is letting the tactics evolve with the ground game. I’m still emotionally and aesthetically tied to the water, but at this point I agree to swap the canoes for boot treads. A mist falls as we all pile into Koch’s truck. An hour later, when the headlights cycle off, I hoist my rifle and daypack. As I will discover, if I’d thought the only hard way to hunt moose was by canoe, I was mistaken.
The slope down from the rutted two-track logging trail is cloaked in ferns, vines, and shrub huckleberry. As the terrain flattens, the hard ground turns to a slop bucket of muck that sucks at our boots. In these bogs every footfall sends ripples across the ground. Shrubs shimmer and shake, showering us with water even when the rain slackens. At one point, we’re hemmed in on three sides by a nearly impenetrable bog. Koch pushes in one direction, then I attempt another. We each turn back.
“That way is terrible,” he says, “and the other way is horrible. In front, it’s just a shithole.” I catch my breath and wipe blood from my forehead. “Come on,” he says. “The shithole it is.”
A few hours later, we’ve climbed out of the swamp to a long, shrubby slope that leads back to the old logging road. Suddenly, moose beds appear like moon craters—first a handful, then by the bucketload. In four days, we’ve seen widely scattered moose sign. Now, in 100 yards of stalking, we count 34 moose beds smashed into chest-high grasses and wild cucumber vine.
Koch is wide-eyed. I’m ready to shoulder the rifle at every twitch of a leaf in the rain. It’s coming down even harder now, pelting our jackets so hard we can barely hear each other whisper. But it’s the wind, not the rain, that worries me. It’s shifted, blowing down the shrubby opening toward the mother lode of moose beds in 30‑mph gusts.
“That’s it,” Koch says, leaning close. “We’re outta here. We can’t take the chance with this wind. We’ll slip in tomorrow after it turns. And you can cancel Christmas on him—you’ll have your moose.”
Daylight has already begun to fade. There can’t be more than 90 minutes of shooting light left. “Man, we are right here,” I say, practically pleading. “Right here.”
“It’s your hunt,” Koch counters. “I say we bolt. But you’re no beginner. You know the deal.”
My legs are quaking from our all-morning bog slog, and I’d love to take a seat and watch a moose come into view through the rain. But Koch is right. Let your guide be your conscience, as a guide friend of mine is fond of saying. I shoulder my rifle and bend my head toward the truck.
On the drive back to camp, though, I’m fighting a full-blown panic attack. My heart is pounding and I’m wringing my hands in the passenger seat. I just can’t leave the woods with daylight on the clock. I make Koch pull over at the first decent woods opening, and we fast-hike into a slash-choked timber cut to sit out the last few minutes of legal light.
Bouchard hears it first. During our hike in the next morning, Koch and I are so intent on getting through the brush quietly and making it through the dark to our marked hide on the ridgetop that Sherry has to punch me in the arm to get my attention.
“Bull!” she mouths. She makes a what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-you-guys scowl, and jerks her head toward the dark woods behind her.
The bull grunts again—brrrt. He can’t be more than 60 feet away. Suddenly, it’s a Keystone Cops moment. We’re pinned down on the old logging road, a quarter mile from the hide we had marked yesterday. We turn one way and then another, wide-eyed, mouthing words—You hear that? How close? Don’t move! We’re not sure what our play should be, but then a third grunt seals the deal. The bull is close enough to hear our breathing. I high-step 10 feet away toward the closest copse of shrubs I can reach on the uphill side of the clearing, while Bouchard and Koch hit the ground nearby.
Over the next 24 hours of skinning, butchering, and packing meat—and hashing out the story a hundred times—the next few minutes will come into sharper focus. With my back against tall shrubs, I draw up into a small ball and settle the rifle on my right knee, turkey hunting style. And then two shows play out simultaneously: the one with Koch and Bouchard, and the one that evolves in front of me. Different perspectives of the same reality, as everyone’s hopes and dreams take shape.
Koch and Bouchard grunt quietly. As shooting light seeps into the clearing, a yearling bull steps into view, 15 yards away. He grunts in frustration, scenting something unfamiliar, it seems to me, then he turns and bolts into the woods. He passes 12 feet off my right shoulder as I sit frozen in place. Just then, a cow in heat bellows from up the rise.
Bedlam erupts in the woods just behind us—thrashing, grunting, limbs cracking. The furor can’t be 30 feet away, and I feel for the scope ring to make sure it is cranked down to 3X, just as another animal bursts into the clearing.
I am gobsmacked by the sight. From the base of the neck to beyond the tip of the snout, the moose’s head is swathed in a massive salad of branches, shrubs, and cucumber vine, all raked and torn from the forest up the hill. I nearly panic, unable to see an eyeball or inch of antler, unsure, even, of what I am looking at.
Koch hisses out loud: “Shoot! What’s wrong with you? Shoot!”
Then the moose grunts and pounds the ground with a hoof, panting heavily. I snap into focus. He shakes his body as leaves and vines rain to the ground. I can make out a small sweep of palmate antler, and three tines, and I know instantly that he is not a huge bull, but I am five days into a six-day hunt. He is so close that the body fills the entire scope. The bull grunts again, and I find the daylight under the armpit and shift the crosshairs north.
The moose shudders at the first shot, then bolts down the spine of the ridge, directly between my rifle and the guides. Koch and Bouchard press low to the dirt, worried that either the moose might run them over or my follow-up shot will be headed their way. I trace the bull’s line of escape, cucumber vine spilling from his antlers with each heavy step, and I let him run far past the spot where my friends lie. The second shot whomps him hard, and he sags. Shoot until you run out of bullets, Jason Bouchard had told me earlier. So I do. With the third shot, he stumbles. The fourth puts him down.
For a solid five seconds, I watch the brown body through the scope. The crosshairs seem never to waver. I am surprisingly calm. Then the shakes come—from the cold and the wet, but mostly from the moose.
Over the next few weeks, my sleep will be marked with a new vision of moose. In this dream, the animal appears in the clearing, exactly as before, his head swaddled in greenery. I shoulder the rifle and pull the trigger, time and time again, with no apparent effect on the bull but for this: With each crack of the rifle, a few branches tumble from his antlers. Vines and leaves shake free of the tines. I see the head, the bulbous snout, a glint of eye. Shot by shot, all is revealed, until the bull stands alone in the riflescope—no canoes, no misty lakes, no gravel bars under hoof. Just a moose in the glass, on the crest of the ridge, finally in reach.