Neon moose. Stuffed, plush moose. Even a moose with wings: a handsome, hand-painted sculpture by the side of Route 15.
It was easy to tell, a few autumns back, that I was getting close to Moosehead Lake in Maine -- about 50 miles from the Quebec border. But while these substitute moose were very nice, they weren't what I was there for. I wanted the real 1,150-pound thing.
Maine is home to 30,000 moose, the most of any state. And at Moosehead Lake, I'd heard, there was a boat that could take you right where they like to feed. A moose cruise.
There could be beavers, too, I was told. Bald eagles and black bears and weird-whistling loons. But a moose was what I was after. I wanted to see that huge, distinctive shape come stumbling out of the woods. Flat antlers. Giant snout. "Bell" hanging from throat. The mighty but gentle animal I'd seen in pictures and on Sierra Club calendars, but never for real.
It would be a huge one, I hoped.
* * *
The Birches in Rockwood, Maine, is a lodge and cabin resort stretched out along the shore of Moosehead Lake. It is the home of the moose cruise, and on a humid Thursday, I check in.
Sniff, sniff. Has somebody been spraying air freshener around the porch of my log hut? I don't think so, says the man at the front desk. "You from the city?" he asks. "That's the way real trees smell."
Other city mistakes: The metal grating in my cabin is not an air conditioner -- it makes heat. And where is my phone? (There's one I can share; it's inside a kind of storeroom stacked with ski boots.) But heck, I like it here. It looks like a lake camp out of someone's dream, with bentwood furniture, cabins built in the 1920s and a fine, big canoe perched on the rafters of the dining room in the main lodge. "Sometimes we've had a moose look in here during breakfast or dinner," says owner John Willard.
That sounds encouraging, I say. How hard will it be for me to see one?
"Not very hard," Willard says. "I used to jog, and I've jogged right into one. Also, there's a guy who lives near here who was trying to drag away a tree he'd chopped down. He found it was difficult to pull and looked back. There was a moose chewing the leafy end."
Willard is a licensed forester and a wilderness-trained Maine guide. It turns out he is a pilot, too, and when I hear this, I get curious. Along with my cruise, could I charter a flight to try and see moose from above?
"It's a float plane," Willard warms. "Ever been up in one of those?"
"No," I admit.
"You'll be fine," Willard decides, and the flight is settled before I can think twice. "First thing in the morning, before your boat trip."
I am nervous but happy that night as I unwrap some marshmallows and toast them over a smoldering fire. I am planning an assault on moose from both sea and air.
The first shred of sun is poking up over the lake, lighting up rivets and wires on the fuselage of Willard's plane. I don't know much about it, but this Piper two-seater seems awfully small. It looks like a pontoon version of Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis -- and, when Willard informs me that it is "beautifully restored, first built in 1947," I start to get edgy.
"This is a bear-hunting plane," Willard says as we buckle in. We put on headphones to cut the noise and taxi out into the lake. "Hold on," he barks, as we vibrate and hum like Magic Fingers. Suddenly the little plane starts skiing, tips up and rockets into the air.
As direct as an Apollo launch, we're 600 feet up, then dropping down again on a draft from Mount Kineo across the lake. I'm gripping the seat edge, window, roof, whatever I can grab, and trying to look down as Willard banks over beaver dams, the Penobscot River and ponds.
"That's Lobster Lake down there," he announces. "See the claws?"
Sure, sure. But where are the moose?
What I mostly see is forest, endless acres of spruce and fir. "Just curious," I say, "but let's say the motor cuts out or something and you've got no water to land on. What do we do?"
"Well," says Willard. "We'd have to put her down on grass, or maybe on the tops of some trees. Might get banged up a bit."
It feels like we're flying all over the state of Maine -- and, at one point, we set down on a whim to taxi over to a village where a man sells us homemade root beer out of a refrigerator on his front porch.
The only problem is that, although we swoop and dive, circle and fly, we just can't find any moose.
I had thought our flight would be like Out of Africa: The engine of the Piper scaring up majestic herds of moose who would then go thundering across open plains.
"No, no," Willard says, snickering. "Moose are basically solitary animals. Today they're being ornery, too. Uh, what time is your cruise?"
It's still early morning but starting to warm up. A local guy named Harold Hanson pilots the moose boat along the quiet lake shore. On his cap is the phrase "Tis the Season," with a logo of a moose in the cross hairs of a rifle.
Our moose cruise liner is a 24-foot pontoon boat with a couple of plastic lawn chairs added for extra seating -- although there's just Hanson and myself and one other family on board.
Rich and Aimee Mack and their teenage daughter, Jeanne, share a pair of binoculars. We are scanning the woods, staring into swamps and eddies, and looking past low broken trees. But nothing is moving except flies and our slapping hats and palms.
"Those moose are nervous this morning," says Hanson, slowing the boat. "Awfully nervous."
All around us are fat brown rocks breaking the surface like the backs of swimming animals. Sticks and branches look a lot like antlers. But they're not.
"Moose mirages," says Aimee.
Hanson points out a kingfisher and, later, a beaver that slaps its tail -- whop -- as he dives.
"Sometimes," he says, "when it's warm like this the moose go to a place back in the woods where they like to lie down."
Great, I think. Just great.
To kill time, I ask Hanson about hunting season. About moose steaks. About running into moose with your car.
Hanson happens to agree with a guy I talked to that moose meat is "fibrous, but not fatty." It's a dark purplish color, according to Hanson, who likes his medium rare. "But it has a light taste. It's like a cross between beef and venison, but with a bigger grain."
"Mmm," says Jeanne, sarcastically.
Suddenly, Rich waves his arms for silence. "I hear something! In the woods right over near that stump."
We all listen closely, but the most I can pick up is rustling. Rich is positive it is a moose. "It's a big one," he whispers. "As big as a truck."
We're in a stream now that runs into the lake. Hanson cuts the motor and we coast into the shallows where the water is plexiglass smooth. I don't hear any more rustling and am about to say "false alarm," but I only get as far as the "f."
It's a huge bull moose, snapping a log right in front of us. Wading and stumbling smack into the water, and fluming across.
Is he swimming or touching bottom? No one is sure. Spray shoots off his big, sad head and from the antlers, which are surprisingly brown and soft-looking. Just as we try to grab for cameras . . . another.
"That's the cow!" yells Hanson. "See?"
We see. It takes just seconds for them to ford the stream. On fancy, thoroughbred forelegs, they somehow hoist themselves onto the opposite bank. And then they are gone.
Nobody got a picture, and we are speechless. Stunned.
It is the size, the charging swim, and something about moose secrecy. We were here. Right here. Right where they came.
When we do start chattering again, we are so loaded with words we barely notice that Hanson is having trouble restarting the engine. There is some sputtering and a long, sick-sounding buzz.
Hanson checks the propeller to see if there are any vines down there. There aren't. Rich and Aimee try dialing their cell phone. No response.
We are seven miles from base, says Hanson. No one will miss us for hours. And we are out of gas.
We find a plastic oar on board, and Rich and I take turns trying to paddle. The sun is approaching its apex and, according to Hanson, "it must be record humidity for this time of year."
Can we walk the one-ton pontoon boat? No, the bottom is too muddy. Can we lasso branches with a rope and yank ourselves along? We try.
By afternoon, we get within range for the cell phone to connect, and there is a search party from the lodge and we are rescued, dried off and fed.
But it is while Rich and I are paddling and lassoing trees along the bank, cursing and grunting, that we become aware of a strange thing.
We know somehow that moose -- maybe the ones we saw -- are near us. Right at this moment. Rustling there in the woods. They are watching. They are grinning, if an animal can grin.
This is a cruise they can approve.
Peter Mandel is the author of the read-aloud bestseller Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook) and other books for kids, including Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House) and Bun, Onion, Burger (Simon & Schuster).