Moosed opportunity on a well-worn trail
The French word for moose is orignal. Like original, as a French-Canadian woodsman explained to me 20 years ago, when I came to Adirondack Life. The moose was the ﬁrst project in the Creator’s repertoire. After putting the legs of a heifer in high heels on a plow-horse torso and attaching a boxing-glove nose to a buffalo’s hump, a bell-shape goatee was dangled beneath rubber lips and the ensemble was topped with a gargantuan pair of garden forks. Other creatures would simply ﬂow from harmonious parts; the moose turned out to be a ﬁne response to a particular landscape.
This place had been real moose country, big boggy woods the half-ton deer love. But they vanished in the 19th century, not as a herd ﬂeeing in a brown sea of cloven hooves, but one by one, hunted down or squeezed out. When the farmers cleared land the whitetails soon followed, and they carried a parasite their larger cousins could not tolerate. So man killed the moose off twice in the Adirondacks—with lead bullets and steel axes. These giants were not alone in their disappearance. There were mountain lions here, tawny cats that loved sunny ledges and plentiful prey. Prey that included sheep and cattle when the settlers took over, so the “painters” became commodities. Their ears—turned in for the $20 bounty—kept the ﬁgurative wolf from the door. Real wolves were here, maybe not the 150-pound timber wolves, but more likely their lithe, adaptable brethren, the red wolves. When pressed they moved north to Canada’s Algonquin Park and south to the Carolinas. Adirondack counties shelled out thousands to erase the slim canines. Wilderness then was not at all a romantic ideal but the grim fact of life in an unforgiving terrain.
Nature is a persistent force, given an opening. Or in this case, a closing. As agriculture dwindled from subsistence to unsustainable, old ﬁelds ﬁlled in with succulent saplings. The moose herds grew in nearby Vermont and Quebec; the behemoths trotted west and south, covering miles as easily as you or I would cross a country lane. First lonely bachelors, then eligible cows, and by the end of the 20th century there were enough moose in the Adirondack Park to warrant “Moose Crossing” signs on state roads. Of course, these made desirable souvenirs, and the yellow-and-black diamonds became as scarce as the animals once were.
So many of my Blue Mountain Lake neighbors were getting glimpses of moose that I vowed to ﬁnd one for myself. A friend caught a cow kneeling beside a brook to drink, the beast’s legs tucked daintily under her chest and chocolate-brown rump high in the air. People saw moose pose beneath streetlamps, stroll through their yards and trot past their docks. The animals ranged over the town dump, loped in front of school buses, maneuvered through parking lots. The moose were everywhere that I was not.
I went on moose hunts on my mountain bike, pedaling down logging roads. I paddled mucky marshes in my solo canoe, hoping to ﬁnd one hock-deep with a mouth full of pickerelweed. I saw lynx (four of them the summer they were reintroduced to the Adirondacks), plus bears, coyotes, raccoons, a bobcat or two, otters, ﬁshers, deer with peculiar antlers, piebald deer, does with triplets, bucks in velvet, three-legged deer, tailless deer. But not a single orignal.
One October afternoon, bright with fall’s seductive light and false promises of more glorious days to come, my husband, Tom, and I climbed the mountain that hovers over our town. I had been up the broad trail countless times, but this walk was different. My feet knew the way, the feel of sand and rubble, and I powered over the rough spots supported by poles. What was new was the smudgy landscape, the gray nothing where green ferns and red swamp maples once had been. My horizon had collapsed to a dim tunnel on one side and an indistinct hemisphere of fog on the other. In less than a week’s time I had become a blind person.
The hike was a break between visits to perplexed doctors and grieving hours at home. I simply could not believe that my eyes, my brain, had failed me so miserably. I felt the same, when I patted myself down, the same knobby elbows and calloused feet, but where was I really, since the mirror gave back nothing? For that matter, where was there, exactly? The landscape that had so moved me was about as fascinating as looking up a stovepipe at night.
That day was a lesson, the ﬁrst of many. I was teaching myself to rethink space, to sense rather than see. Once, an illusion I think, I could make this ascent with grace, hopping from ﬂat rock to ﬂat rock. Before, I could ﬁnd the faint track that led to a high patch of blackberries and nimbly pick them. Could I ﬁnd a blackberry today, even if it were dropped into the palm of my hand? Our hike was literally a crash course punctuated by skirmishes with branches and battles with my own will. This was a new kind of wilderness, not at all beautiful. In fact, it was blatantly hostile.
When we hit smooth rock I knew we were within striking distance of the summit. On top we were alone, a rare thing considering it was a tack-sharp day. I walked to the edges of the open summit, ﬂexing my feet where the land sloped away into stunted spruce. Tom admired the view, the dog chased red squirrels, and I thought about what I remembered of this place, to add that to a catalog of impressions. I conjured the full circle of mountains, the watersheds (some ﬂowing north toward the St. Lawrence, the rest south to the Hudson), the thin threads of blacktop. Foreground gray rock, mid-ground green trees, background those faint blue lines and tesserae of water, and ﬁnally the terrain folded here and heaped up there. I knew in my heart the forest would be orange, red, brown and tan, but what lay in the miles before me was merely dark. I willed all of this into a map, not for navigation, but for posterity.
As we left the scraped stone near the summit and followed an old service road down, Tom noticed we had not been alone on the mountain that afternoon.
Atop our ascending footsteps were the fresh, deep prints of a moose. Sharp-edged and still moist from crossing a stream, the heart-shape hooves were longer than the outline of my boot. The moose followed our route for about half a mile, then veered off into the woods. We had missed him by minutes.
I had missed him by a lifetime.