Thursday, November 17, 2011

Got Moose? 11-13-2011

My mother and father never brought us up to globetrot. Travel, we did. One summer we hit up Toronto for the Hockey Hall of Fame; the Blackhawks won when we saw them play at Chicago’s United Center (my brother and I were rink rats, if you haven’t figured that out yet).

But international was simply a word in front of “House of Pancakes.” Fine, Canada is another country and I played my share of hockey tournaments in Montreal. But in the early 90s you didn’t need a passport to get across the border and you didn’t have to speak French to know the Canadian kids were going to kick our ass. So they don’t count. 

What all this did mean, however, was an ingrained love for our places: those worn down used up but too damn comfortable to throw away spots we all grew up with. A cabin, a lake, a beach, a dock, a park, a hotel, a game or for some of us, the pursuit of the elusive.

Right outside of North Conway, New Hampshire, hidden down a dirt road (it’s been paved since Bush, Sr. but I like to remember it rustic) surrounded by the White Mountains, my mother and father gave us nature. It was a small condo with a wide-open yard, perfect for campfires and sledding, depending on the season or how dumb my cousins and I decided to be at any given moment. There were blackberry bushes, raccoons, even black bears. Fresh air and family time were great, but now, in hindsight, I realize there was something bigger at play. There was another, more mysterious reason for why they drove us three hours away to this mountain village.

Moose. Not the hair product. Not the dessert. One moose. Many moose. Brake for moose. Just moose. Got moose?

It was the one elusive creature native to the White Mountains that my mother and father had never laid eyes on.

I can hear Dad now saying, after we sold the condo, “I always wanted to see a moose.”

I see vividly the line of cars along Route 16 just outside of Jackson, all pulled over onto the grass. I can hear Mom ask one of the bystanders what they were looking at and the woman, with a look of pity in her eyes, reply, “You just missed them. A mother and two babies. Moose. They’re gone, down into the trees. They were breathtaking.”

Breathtaking might have been a bit superfluous of a description (I used to think). But nevertheless, we were a minute late to see something many folks never come close to in nature.

In the years since the condo has come and gone, our trips to the White Mountains dwindled and altered into lake vacations and jaunts to Maine. Rebuilding the “our places” motif, nothing changed there, but always knowing some big, antlered hole would always remain.

But Canada changed all that (see, I had a reason for including them a few paragraphs ago – and you were scratching your head wondering why I’ve been mentioned the maple leafs so much).

Fast-forward a dozen years, hundreds of passed “Brake for Moose” signs and zero moose sightings.

The signs along the highway from Quebec City to the U.S. border don’t command you to stop for the massive creatures. They simply say “Moose.” Basic enough, and yet loaded enough to spark a conversation about moose between my wife and I on our way home from a long weekend in the great white north. 

We skipped across the Canadian plains that edge the countryside, hopped the border and began winding up and wending down Vermont’s high-altitude hills. At the state line New Hampshire welcomed us with Bienvenue (how appropriate) and the “Moose” signs continued.

Slipping through Franconia Notch, we rounded a turn near the Old Man of the Mountain site. The highway here narrows into one lane on either side, tightly packed between rocky faces and scenic turnoffs. I took my foot off the gas, thinking maybe it’d be nice to stop and admire the national park service’s identified tourist stops. The Notch is beautiful, even on an overcast day and we had been driving for way too long. We needed a pit stop.

But something made me skip over the Old Man of the Mountain stop. He’s crumbled and gone and frankly, he always sort of creeped me out.

Just as we rounded the next bend, I immediately regretted my decision because of the line of traffic and red brake lights that stretched out ahead of me.

It had been such smooth sailing, I thought, it’s Sunday afternoon, what the hell is going on. Accident? I bet it’s an accident. I should’ve stopped, then at least we could’ve taken some pictures instead of waited behind all these cars.

Then I noticed here was no accident. There were people standing outside their cars, staring down a short slope at the forest’s edge. People with cameras.

My wife said, “Why are all those people out there. Is that an accident?”

I immediately regretted regretting my decision to stop. I immediately knew.

“Moose,” I said to her. “It’s gotta be a moose. People wouldn’t stop like this for anything else.”

So we did too.

Down the slope, less than twenty yards from the road, a bull moose larger than my Ford Explorer with antlers you could sit in like a Lazy-Boy stood proudly, inquisitively searching over the dozens of human adults gawking like school children.

He shifted slowly, then took a few long, slow strides, his legs leaning like timbers hinged together. My heart was in my eyeballs when I crouch to take a photo, zoomed in and in that snap, he looked directly at me. Around those huge brown nostrils, the edges of his mouth curled up into what could only have been a smile. He was milkin’ it for the camera.

He had a brown coat that shifted like a gradient into white at his rear. The antlers rose from his crown like golden tree limbs, almost shiny from our vantage point. At the risk of sounding hackneyed, the damn thing was majestic. Breathtaking, even. Animals in zoos are one thing; but to stare at a solitary creature in the wild (as wild as the side of a main thoroughfare can get), one with the power to trample everyone in sight at the snap of a twig, really does stop your breathing a bit.

After ten minutes, none of the people were leaving. The curious thing was, 90% were adults. Just a few scattered children. And two locals in camo hunting gear that walked through the crowd salivating and saying, “that there’s the biggest damn moose I ever saw.”

People only moved along once the main attraction had his fill. He turned his antlers into the high brush and lumbered through the undergrowth until all you knew of his existence was the creaking sound of saplings being trampled under his girth.

I think I smiled all the way until we got cell phone service. When we finally did, I called my father.

“Hey day,” I said, giddy as a child, “what’s the one thing you’ve always, always, always wanted to see up in New Hampshire?”

“No you didn’t,” he said. “Did you take a picture?”

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