This was the first magazine length feature story I wrote for my third year print class. I have a great fascination and respect for this creature and love hearing the folk tales. I wanted to combine them with some interesting facts about the moose. I hope you will enjoy this piece.
Margaret Rowney at the post office told me about it first, and local artist and musician J. Alex McGibbon backs her up. They tell the tale of the government salt truck overturning years ago, leaving behind a load of salt. Legend has it the salt leached down into the mud.
“Deer and moose and cattle and that, they just love salt and apparently it helps keep their electrolytes going or whatever salt does,” McGibbon said. “So that attracts them out and whenever they need a fix, of salt as it were, they’ll come out there.”
Hundreds of slender white birch stand tightly like soldiers along both sides of the highway at Sucker Brook near the village of Gagetown. A few relics of the towering pine or stately spruce are all that remain from the once lush forest destroyed by fire in the 1980s. This is another draw for the moose; the young shoots are exactly what the awkward-looking beast loves to browse on.
The highway curves tightly and slopes towards the brook. On the lower side a salt reserve is created from the highway’s winter runoff. Water, salt and fresh shoots add up to a moose haven and a driving hazard. Fortunately, the locals are aware of it.
“The moose were just kind of, you know, topics of conversation… everybody knew they were there, every time you came around that turn you kind of took a little care,” said McGibbon.
McGibbon’s eyes light up as he tells me tales of growing up in Gagetown and of coming back to retire after a career of teaching art. He talks of one fateful day when his wife’s bad luck turned into his good fortune.
“…it was a Sunday morning and my wife attends the Anglican Church…I get this call… and she says I locked my keys in my car, could you come up and open the door? So I went up… and on the way up I saw two moose at Sucker Brook… and on the way back there were three there… the bull and the cow and the calf, and I said it’s a wonder that no one’s ever written something about the Sucker Brook moose, even a song.”
McGibbon hums and plucks at the strings of his Takamine guitar. The bald eagle motif circles the sound hole as his fingers work out the chords of the moose song he wrote that day.
“I think I can remember all the words,” he says giving me a private performance.
McGibbon divides his retirement time between music and art. A member of the trio, 3 Point Hitch he and his band mates play local jamborees and perform regularly at the Creek View Restaurant in Gagetown. While all three members dabble in writing McGibbon takes the credit for one of the group’s most popular tunes.
On a Saturday night in March you can feel the grips of Old Man Winter begin to loosen but folks still prefer to gather indoors. At the Creek View tavern they’re out to support the local boys. They clap and sing along with the mixture of cover tunes originally performed by greats such as John Prine, Gary Fjellgaard and Marty Robbins. But the fans really get rocking when their beloved moose song is played.
Sue McGibbon laughs and blushes when her husband gets to the third verse. Alex McGibbon admits this part is fiction, but it’s fun nonetheless.
One day my girlfriend, Sue and I, a-courtin’ we did go
We found a road out by the lake and we drove in real slow
Well, we were making out real fine, she offered no excuse
But standin’ there a watchin’ us was a great big jeezly moose.
The mostly white-haired crowd of about 50 sings along with the chorus while a plush moose toy dangles from McGibbon’s mic stand, a gift from a fan he says.
His legs are long and his eyes are black and his horns are all amok
The biggest bull you’ve ever seen, the moose at Sucker Brook
The crowd thins out as the evening wears on and as people leave someone invariably cautions them. “Watch out for the moose.”
Highway travellers are wary of the moose especially in the early morning and after dark. Their black colouring makes them extremely difficult to see. Although their eyes glow like deer, their height generally prevents headlights from reaching them.
For most people moose are a fleeting sight along the highway but for Dwayne Sabine they occupy most of his waking hours. Sabine is a biologist specializing in moose. He tallies the provincial moose population and calculates the number of licenses issued to hunters to keep the herd healthy.
New Brunswick doesn’t have wolves so the moose have few predators.
“The only predator I think we really have here for moose is black bear, which will occasionally take new born calves in the spring. That’s it, and then humans,” Sabine says.
Besides death by hunter, there are approximately 400 moose killed on the province’s highways each year. The other problem for moose is much smaller than man or machine, but it’s deadly just the same.
”The other big issue for moose is a disease called Parelaphostrongylus tenuis or P. tenuis; it’s also called brain worm.”
Sabine describes the brain worm as a little nematode which uses deer, snails and slugs in its reproductive process. The deer have evolved to tolerate the brain worm, but if moose, caribou or elk accidentally eat an infected slug or snail it can be lethal.
“… [About] 40 to 50 per cent of all moose that get infected will die,” he said.
Sabine laughed when I asked if he’d had any encounters with moose.
“Well once, yeah I was doing bird surveys and I just happened to walk up on a cow moose with a calf probably a week or so old.”
It was near dawn on a clear day, Sabine was working as an ornithologist. He was listening to the different bird calls to identify the species in the area to determine how they might be impacted by the proposed highway plan.
“I kind of surprised her and she kind of surprised me. I stopped, anyway she looked at me for a few minutes and then decided she really didn’t want me around.”
Sabine was about 30 metres from her when they spotted each other.
“As soon as the calf stepped out of the bushes and next to her, the hair on her neck and hump stood straight up and she laid her ears back, then she started coming. No trees to climb so I ran. It was the strangest thing, for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t attacking me… I had to run a few hundred yards back out to the road where my vehicle was.”
Sabine heard the bushes and trees crashing behind him as he ran for his life.
“I couldn’t figure out why she hadn’t caught me yet and when I ran up on the road and turned around she climbed right up the bank behind me…”
By the time Sabine made it to the road the cantankerous cow was only six or seven metres away.
“Luckily a car came by and she moved across the road and I went to my truck. It was only at the road that the broken leg was visible… hind leg broken about mid-way up and hanging by a couple of tendons. She was running on three legs.”
Sabine escaped what at best could have been a bad beating and possibly even death.
“Bad for her but good for me,” he laughs. “I waited about 20 minutes at the truck and then headed out again for my surveys.”
Sabine says there’s merit if not concrete evidence to the legend of Sucker Brook. He says the moose require a source of sodium as part of their habitat and the cows especially need it for producing milk.
“Sodium’s an element that’s in short supply naturally… so there’s [sic] a few places where you have natural salt licks where the bedrock has some salt in it,” but Sabine says these are rare.
“For moose they get a lot of their sodium actually from certain aquatic plants that tend to accumulate it in their roots and one in particular is… the yellow water lily, the pond lily.”
Hunters in search of moose must first win the yearly lottery draw for a license, then while the clock ticks down the mere 72-hour season use every trick in their rucksack to tag one.
Mike Makepeace strokes the ears of his black lab as he sits at the kitchen table with his coffee and cigarette telling me his favourite hunting stories.
“They’re a pain in the ass until they get to the plate.”
Makepeace says planning is an important part of hunting these big beasts.
“If you’re way out in the middle of nowhere and you get a big moose down, you gotta do something with it quick, you just can’t let it lay there.”
Makepeace relives one occasion where getting his moose from the forest to the freezer was extra challenging.
“It’s a pain in the ass, you got a moose a 150 feet out in the middle of the beaver pond – dead,” he pauses for effect.
“And you gotta get it out of there… [you] head down there in the woods with the tractor, end up getting the tractor stuck, then you end up getting it unstuck, finally getting to the moose with about 200 feet of rope, chain and stuff – get the moose pulled up close enough to the tractor to haul it out, then the tractor gets stuck again, and you can’t get it out,” he pauses again.
“So then you’re beat, you gotta get something to get it out of there right then…so then you go get the truck and the float and you load the bull dozer on and you bring it down and you unload it and you go down and get the bloody moose, you gotta get it up to the house… pain in the ass,” he says again, shaking his head.
The moose hunt begins on a Thursday in September, when the moose are rutting and calling for a mate. Most hunters use moose calls while patiently waiting from a tree stand, for the beast to walk into their sights. Makepeace is not like most hunters.
“Flashlight,” he says. “Flashlight works best. Wednesday night, avoid the rush.”
I’m not sure he’s joking.
Makepeace says he’s not convinced of the legend of the overturned salt truck at Sucker Brook.
“They do lick the salt off the road and you can bait them with salt. That’s what the Indians are doing down here… they would throw salt down in that little wet hole. I used to do it out at the beaver pond too. They’d come muck around in it, sip it and taste the salt.”
Makepeace has encountered moose on the highway, in the forest and even in his front yard by his daughter’s swing set. He likes them best on his dinner plate. Makepeace says he’s never been charged by a moose but he’s been circled by some bulls posturing for territory.
“Nothing I couldn’t handle, pretty safe when you got a rifle…it’s quite an experience when you get two bulls or three bulls right within 50 feet around you and they’re all kind of jockeying for position… actually it’s a heart pumper for sure.”
While he feels confident holding a rifle, he knows driving his truck is not as safe. Like most of the locals Makepeace thinks moose when he’s on the road.
* * * * * * * *
There aren’t any flashing lights and the lines of this crosswalk are faded. You can tell who’s “from away” simply by how fast they’re driving. Local traffic slows down here, especially when it’s dark. The muddy tracks are generally contained within the lines but some stray up the centreline of the highway before they cross to a logging road. Sucker Brook is more than just a place where the moose savour the salty mud; some argue it’s also the site of Canada’s only moose crosswalk.
Legend has it the crosswalk appeared overnight, painted on the highway as a joke by some of the locals. Nobody will say who painted the lines originally, nor can they say how many years have passed since the paint was fresh. Some would like to see the crosswalk repainted for the safety of the moose and drivers. Others like Alex McGibbon would like it done to highlight the novelty of the Sucker Brook moose.
“I’d go down and do it myself,” jokes McGibbon