There’s no sense in quibbling about fall now – it’s here and there’s no question about that. For some reason the entire leaf-peeping season depended on two consecutive rainfalls, one pouring several inches on the region and another that was more typical of October in Maine; a cold, steady drizzle that generated plenty of “damp cold” jokes.
The Joaquin rain, such as it was, seemed to stimulate a stagnant fall color progression that lit up Maine’s 17 million acres of forest literally overnight. Things stayed more or less the same until a second period of rain struck and suddenly the entire northern portion of the state was at peak color. I was lucky to find myself surrounded by hardwood confetti during my annual pilgrimage to the Harrington Lake area just outside Baxter State Park. Though hunting was notably slow for most bird hunters, we ran into enough grouse, spruce grouse and especially moose to make anyone’s vacation a happy one.
We crossed paths with several cows and young bulls over the course of three days, but the most memorable encounter was with a huge bull that we spotted trotting up the logging road in front of us, not a care in the world. We were already stopped and had pulled off the gravel to brew some tea when I spotted the bull loping toward us.
I kept my binoculars on him the entire time while everyone else took pictures. He was running hard, head down, bell swinging from side to side, and came to within 30 yards of us before he realized we were there. He stopped and stared at us for some time, drool running out of both sides of his mouth, but he did not seem belligerent, frightened or even concerned. Whatever he had been thinking about was still fresh on his mind. He kept standing there, drooling, for several minutes, and then turned left, then right, and finally just walked away into the dense fir and cedar tangle that borders the roads in that area for miles. We could hear him snapping branches and grunting as he went, no doubt more concerned over the whereabouts of an estrus cow than a truckload of tea-sipping bird hunters.
Though he was not the biggest moose in the world I doubt that 99 percent of hunters would have passed on him. His antlers had 22 points and were fully palmated, each paddle wide, long and well formed. All moose are big, of course, but this guy was outstanding, deep and black as coal – a trophy in anyone’s book and carrying enough meat to feed a family for a year. Of course, it wasn’t moose season and no one in our group had drawn a permit, so he will be fodder for next year’s dream hunt.
Just as interesting, to me at least, were the numbers of spruce grouse we were seeing. All told, we saw about twice as many of these so-called “fool hens” as we did ruffed grouse.
What’s the difference, one might ask? Well, as the joke goes, “About $2,000,” because that is the fine for shooting a spruce grouse. These birds appear to be black with a splash of red above the eye, and resemble ruffed grouse except in color and for the lack of a crest at the back of the head. But, spruce grouse are actually quite colorful birds if one is fond of muted shades of black, gray, white and buff. We were able to walk right up to spruce grouse pecking grit in the roadway, often getting close enough to pick one up. And then, when the bird finally came to its senses and flew off, it would go only a few feet, up to the nearest tree branch, and just sit there watching us go by.
Believe it or not, ruffed grouse used to be nearly as “foolish.” In the 1960s I’d encounter them on long-forgotten logging trails deep in the woods and the birds would walk along with me for quite a distance, showing no signs of fear or nervousness. Nowadays they flush whenever a human ventures within 30 yards of them, which only goes to show what 50 years of training will do.
I am certain that no more than 1 percent of the local grouse population is encountered while riding the roads, the traditional method of “hunting” birds in Maine’s wilderness areas. I am also certain that if a hunter decided to walk straightaway off the road in any direction he’d bump his limit of four birds before long. Unfortunately, to do so requires strong, young legs and an iron constitution because it’s all but impossible to sneak up on anything in the tangled brush, blow downs and moss-covered branches that covers the ground for miles in any direction. You’ll earn every bird you bag, that is a certainty, but then that has always been the case with ruffed grouse, one of few truly wild game birds anywhere. I’ve hunted pheasants, quail, doves and assorted other fowl all over the U.S. and none compare to the challenge of hunting Maine’s native grouse.
Yet another good reason to road the wilds on either side of the legendary Golden Road is how remarkably clear and abundant the stars and constellations are, due in large part to the fact that there are few lights and no towns in the vicinity. When camp generators go out (usually around 9 p.m.) the world is locked into darkness so thick you can’t see your hand in front of your face. But, look up and you’ll see Orion, the Big Dipper, Venus, Mars and Jupiter fully, clearly and so bright that it seems you can almost touch them.
There is much about fall in Maine that makes it more than worthwhile to live here. The wild world seems to be abuzz with activity as winter approaches, and the brilliant foliage only adds to the spectacle. The season is short and harsher times are close upon us. Get out there and make the most of these grandest days of the year. Just keep an eye out for love-struck, wandering moose!