Updated: May 2, 2022
I’ve seen a lot of interesting things in the Maine woods. In fact, some things have been so unusual, at least in the perspective of what is normally seen, that I’ve had a hard time convincing others that I actually saw them. For example, when I was in college, I was way back in the woods in Chester, sitting on a stump overlooking an old field when I saw a wild turkey. It slowly emerged from the woods along the edge of the field, scratching and picking along. It was a tom, with some color on his head and a scraggly beard. I watched him for about ten minutes until he simply wandered back into the woods.
Big deal, you say. Seeing a turkey is about as common as seeing a robin in the spring. Nothing unusual about that. But this was in 1987. The re-introduction of turkeys in Maine was still in its infancy, with the first birds released in York County in 1978, and while a limited turkey hunt had been established by 1987, it was by restricted permit only and limited to the far southern tip of the state. I had never seen a wild turkey in Maine before, nor had anyone in my family. So, when I told my parents about the bird, they just laughed. “There aren’t any turkeys around here” my stepfather said. “I don’t know what you saw but it wasn’t a turkey”.
Nowadays, I see turkeys everywhere, large flocks crossing the road in front of me on the way to work, feeding in the clover field while I’m bow hunting for deer, and occasionally hens with broods in tow crossing the yard right in the neighborhood. So, I know what I saw then was a turkey. How it got there, how many might have been around way back then, where it came from? I have no idea. I just know I saw one in the woods of Chester, and no one believed me.
Shortly after that incident, maybe the next fall, I parked my truck on the powerline and headed down to the bog to bow hunt. I spent the morning hunting and around noon, decided to call it a day and headed back up the powerline. As I got closer to the truck, I noticed something on the hood. Just a lump of something. Curious. When I got within 20 feet or so, the lump stood up. It was a chicken. A chicken! It was all white, except for a red comb and waddle. It looked at me for a second or two, then jumped – fluttered to the ground and scurried up the dirt road. Now, there is really nothing unusual about seeing a chicken, but I was at the end of a dirt road, and as the crow flies, was just over two miles from the nearest house. I have no idea how far roosters wander, but I don’t think they ever get too far from the hens in the barnyard, so why this guy decided to go for a hike through the woods is still a mystery. Again, I got some curious looks when I told my friends what I had seen.
After that, I decided to start carrying a camera with me whenever I went in the woods. Keep in mind that I was young, and didn’t have much money, so when I say camera, I really mean the cheapest, smallest device that is actually capable of taking a picture. I found one that fit the bill, barely. It was one of those cheap, small, plastic cameras that simply snaps onto a roll of 110 film. If you’ve never seen one, it looked like this:
As you might imagine, picture quality is not its strong suit. But it did take pictures and the whole thing was small enough to fit in my pocket so I always had with me. Which turned out to be very fortunate several years later, because I actually have photographic evidence of perhaps the strangest thing I’ve ever seen in the Maine woods.
I was bowhunting behind the house in Glenburn. We only had two acres, but there is a large undeveloped bog of several hundred acres that I could get to right from our back door. And those acres adjoined several hundred other acres that had been cut two winters before. And that’s where I found myself about 8:30 one morning. This spot was fairly typical of a woodlot after it had been cut by a skidder crew. Little stretches of standing trees and brush, interspersed with narrow twitch trails full of slash, and in low spots, deep skidder ruts filled with water. The patches of standing trees were easy to get through but trying to walk along the twitch trails was far trickier. It was a tangled mess underfoot, easy to trip, hard to be quiet.
I was creeping along, trying my best to not make noise, but wasn’t having much luck. The slash left behind from the cutting crew had dried out and everything was brittle and breaking with almost every step. Just as I thought I was making too much noise, I heard a huge crash and branches breaking nearby. I cursed myself for making noise and jumping a deer, stood still and started scanning the woods for white flags to see if I should try and go after the deer.
But I didn’t see any flags. I didn’t see anything. But I heard something. More branches breaking. More crashing and thrashing. It seemed to be coming from fairly close by and didn’t seem to be moving away. I tried to pinpoint the direction the noise was coming from, then moved that way.
I emerged from an uncut stand into another twitch road. Obviously, the skidder crew hadn’t
cut this section when the ground was frozen, because the trail had a set of deep ruts. Perhaps as deep as my knee, and steep walls the width a single skidder tire. And there, in the trail, in one of the ruts was a moose. A moose! She was laying half on her side, half on her back in the rut. Her hide legs were sticking out of the rut and off to the side. Her front legs were also off to the side and she was stuck. Really stuck.
I’m not sure if I had spooked her and as a result she had moved too quickly and tripped herself into the rut, or if I had just happened to hear her thrashing around as she was trying to free herself. Either way, here she was. A moose stuck in a hole.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t have a cell phone and it was at least a half hour back to the house. And who would I call anyway? The wardens? Would they believe me or even care about a moose in a hole? Even if they did, how long would it take them to get to her. So, going for help didn’t seem practical.
I looked her over carefully. Aside from being stuck like a turtle on her back, she didn’t seem injured. She was lifting her head and looking intently at me, her hind legs were moving, and nothing seemed broken.
Maybe I could help, but how? I made a few cautious circles around her and thought that if I could somehow get her front legs under her chest, she might be able to shift her weight enough to get into a better position. Simple, right?
I found a long spruce pole, jammed it into the rut under her neck, and started prying. She panicked and started thrashing and bucking. I was worried that she might hurt herself, or me if I got stupidly close to her, but realized that every time she bucked her neck, her front legs were getting more and more under her chest. I kept at it, for a long time. Even on a chilly mid- October morning, the sweat was soon pouring off me, so I stripped off my jacket, and eventually my top layer of camo. I snapped a few pictures during one of the many breaks I took to catch my breath and let her calm down.
Eventually, she had her front legs pretty much under her chest, but even with that most of her weight was still in the rut and she just couldn’t quite get the leverage she needed to stand up. She wasn’t going anywhere. But we were in this together now, and I wasn’t leaving until she was up. I’m not sure if she was getting exhausted or if she had come to the conclusion that I wasn’t trying to hurt her, because she wasn’t thrashing anymore, and she didn’t react as I got closer and closer to her when I was prying on the pole.
I don’t remember making a conscious decision to take the risk I was about to take; I think it was either compassion or stubbornness that shoved the thought of danger out of my mind. Looking back, it was stupid. Really stupid. Way back in the woods, alone, no phone, nobody knew exactly where I was. If she had broken my leg or kicked me in the head, I’m quite sure I could have died because of what I did next. But again, I didn’t think of that in the moment.
I cleared out the brush from her hind legs, stood right against her chest, squatted down to grab her hind legs in both hands, and did my best power lift. I pulled as hard as I could and managed to get her hooves right up against her belly and chest. I dropped them into the edge of the rut, then shoved and stomped her hooves as deep into the rut under her belly as I could. While I was doing this, she had turned her head, so her nose was only a foot from my face. Supervising I guess.
After that, it only took a minute. I snapped a few more pictures of her with her legs more or less under her.
I got back behind her, jammed the pole into the rut under her hind quarters, threw a big rock under the pole to get as much leverage as I could, and heaved with all my might. I yelled, she grunted, and with one final lurch, she stood up. She was up!
I’m not sure who felt more relief – me or her. She stood still for a few seconds, looked at me carefully, then wandered down the trail. She didn’t seem to have any injuries, just tired and unhurt. I was the same - tired but unhurt. I gathered up my gear, put my shirt and jacket back on, and headed for home. What a story to tell. And this time, I had pictures!! Even if the quality of them is poor, I had pictures!!!