When I tell people I live in Maine, they almost always ask about the moose. And it turns out there are many misconceptions about moose, such as the idea that they outnumber people in Maine, but the biggest of all is probably that they exist to begin with.
The only moose I’ve seen is on the state flag. Oh, alright, I supposedly saw an adolescent moose running down I-95, but I’m not 100-percent sure that wasn’t a small horse. I didn’t see antlers. And until I see a big bull moose with 50-pound antlers, I won’t be convinced the species wasn’t invented by the Office of Tourism to attract tourists.
I’ve been on a mission to see a moose since I moved to Maine in 2008. Previously, I was one of those never-been-to-Maine types (I’m not a Mainer, but I got here as soon as I could) who thought people in Maine probably kept the animals as pets or something.
As I drove into the state for the first time, the big moose-warning signs made me excited. I was going to see one before I even had a house. Our Realtor told me to be careful on the drive, because that’s how people die in Maine — they hit a moose. I thought I’d be dodging them for Heaven’s sake.
I never saw one. But taking all the best parts of what Mainers had told me about the animals, I developed quite the mental picture. I imagined them stepping over cars, completely unafraid of the highway, their legs like stilts casually moving in and out of traffic. People had told me moose eyes don’t reflect light at night, so I wondered if maybe I had missed them altogether. Maybe they are that stealthy.
I knew friends who had seen moose. I saw their pictures on Facebook, and I studied them for indications that they’d been photoshopped.
“You need to go further north,” a friend who is a game warden told me. “Moose are everywhere up there. You’re guaranteed to see one.”
So last September I took the kids to Mt. Katahdin, and I asked the rangers for the best spot to see moose.
“Definitely Sandy Stream,” they said.
Down the path we went, rain jackets hanging from our arms just in case. When we got to the lookout at Sandy Stream, a couple was sitting there positively radiant from having just seen a moose, which, of course, was gone now.
“Also, last week I was here,” the man said, “and, I’m not kidding, there were a dozen moose in the stream.”
The boys and I sat at the lookout for as long as my youngest son, Lindell, could tolerate. We never saw anything.
Occasionally, throughout the year, my game-warden friend would tell me about moose found wandering the city streets. I even put on the police scanner once and tried to follow the clues to a supposed moose bathing in the Kenduskeag Stream. By the time I got there, the moose was gone.
“Try going in the heat of the summer,” my friend said. “They are more likely to be at the stream to cool off.”
So last month, Dustin and I took the kids back up to Sandy Stream at Mt. Katahdin. This time, we saw moose tracks along the trail. They were as big as Lindell’s head, and I took about 20 photographs of them. I just knew I was about to see a moose this time.
One of the kids stepped in moose poop — it went up his shins and into his sock — and I could hardly stand the excitement. Who steps in moose droppings and doesn’t see the animal?
Two professional photographers were on the lookout. They told us about all the moose they had seen “just yesterday.” “Everyone sees moose ‘yesterday,’” my oldest son, Ford, said. But there were no moose—none—in the stream that day.
The park rangers had radioed their crews in the woods and instructed them to pull back the Office of Tourism-sponsored, mechanical, radio-controlled beasts because the Smileys were coming. (That’s what they do, right?)
Or maybe I’m moose repellent.
A week later, I was on a bus in Washington, D.C., melting from the heat. The driver asked where I was from. When I told him Maine, I hoped he would ask me about lobster, Acadia National Park, loons, or the snow. But I could tell by his face in the rearview mirror what he wanted to ask. He turned around in his chair and said, “Man, you must see a ton of moose up there! Do they, like, walk around in your backyard and stuff?”
Navy spouse Sarah Smiley is the author of “Dinner With the Smileys.”