Winter was over at the end of April. It was a busy winter with a lot of skiers and plenty of snow. Even with all the snow, it was an easy winter for wildlife. It seems as if there are deer everywhere, and turkeys are beginning their spring rituals. Our snow came a little at a time with multiple storms, rather than in big dumps. It has been a long spring thaw, but the grass is finally getting green.
We want to thank all our winter guests for a great season. Starting in late January, our weekends were filled right into mid-March. I was able to open all my trails, and Huts and Trails groomers were busy all winter. Conditions were good for the entire season and beyond.
The decline in our moose population was clearly evident this winter. The snowmobile trail to Carrabassett Valley travels through traditional moose habitat, and signs of moose are common. In 2016-17 there were sections of trail where several moose browsed and bedded. Alders and small trees in sight of the trail were rubbed and shattered by antlers from the fall rut. Now the fall signs are all old and faded, and I saw no fresh tracks all winter. In late March, I did find tracks of a cow and calf, moving into their spring territory. A few days ago, Pat and I were excited to see a large cow with her yearling calf crossing our field. They looked thin and shaggy, which is typical for spring, but both moved as if they were in good physical shape. Since then I have seen the track of a single moose along Michael Stream near the house. For many years that area has been a birthing place for cows, so I am encouraged by that sign. Perhaps we will see a newborn soon. Yesterday we drove “up the mountain” to the end of Long Falls Dam Road. Usually we find multiple moose tracks up and down the shoulders of the road when the snow is gone. On this trip we saw only one track. From my experience, the further north I go, the more moose sign I see. The explosion of the tick population has moved steadily north, and I believe there is a direct connection. We have seen these cycles before, though not as extreme. In the past, after a period of high mortality, the ticks declined, and the moose population rebounded. I have my fingers crossed.
Mud season is over, and it wasn’t all that muddy. Howard Hill Road seemed to have very little frost, and it dried and hardened with only a couple of days of soft surface. Spring was slow in coming though. The last of March and the first half of April had only an occasional teaser day. There have been many nights with cold in the single numbers and the snow refused to melt. It did make for a long and productive sap season. I have a new neighbor who has a lot of maple trees to tap but no evaporator. We teamed up and produced almost 40 gallons of new syrup. He also has 250 acres of mostly hardwoods, and I moved my skidder there for the firewood detail in March. For every cord I cut for him, I got one for us. I discovered that my age is catching up to me while I was doing the logging. During the first half of the day I feel fine but after lunch I find it difficult to make myself go back to work and when I do, it seems as if I trip over every little twig. It is a good thing that we added the new propane heaters.
During the last 10 days in April, the snow disappeared from all the surrounding hills, and finally the “peepers and croakers” started singing. I have two vernal pools that I like to check, and both are full of activity. It rained hard for a couple of days (on the 25th and 26th), and the Spotted Salamanders made their move. One pool had more of them then I have seen in other years, and it was filled with Wood Frog eggs. I missed the “congress” of salamanders in the other, but even a couple of nights later there were plenty of salamanders still there, and lots of eggs from both salamanders and frogs. The deer have left their wintering grounds, and our local family has returned. There are 9 in the regular group. Of course, “Big George” is here two or three times a day.
Now May is here, and it is time for smelt runs and birding. I went to Rangeley for a few days and explored places where smelt runs occur. It was raining, and the ice was still in Rangeley Lake when I got there. I stayed at the Town and Lake Motel right on the lake and awakened to geese honking in the mist. There is a little brook that runs under the road on Route 16 and into the lake. It is an easy place to look for smelts, and if there are eggs there, the smelts are running everywhere. When I looked the first day, I could see no sign that they had begun. From there I drove some logging roads to the Kennebago River. There were places where the road was a snowmobile track still frozen, and frost was receding, of course, leaving quick-sand like mud hazards to negotiate.
My track was only the third or fourth of the season, and at one place, I could see that someone before me had become mired in a particularly nasty spot. I debated turning around, which would have been the sensible thing to do, but instead I continued with more caution, getting out to walk over any suspicious looking places. It takes a long time to weave through ten miles of this terrain, but I finally crossed the bridge at the Kennebago River boat launch. At that point I realized that I wouldn’t be doing much fishing for a day or two. The river was in flood stage, out of it’s normal confines and into the woods. I usually launch upstream of the bridge and float under it, but there wasn’t enough space to swim under without ducking your head. After watching some huge slabs of ice slam into the bridge and break up, I turned and headed west for the Megalloway. Another eighteen miles of mud and snow and I was on the number 10 bridge, looking at such a flow that it was difficult to know where the river channel was. I would not have dared drive that far except there were tracks of trucks that ventured in before me. With rivers flowing that high and ice still covering most of the lakes, I turned back toward Route 16, thinking of a warm wood fire in my little cabin in Rangeley. On the long ride back, I began to meet other trucks on the way in, even though the sun had set, and dusk was settling in quickly. Each truck had the long-handled nets of smelters protruding past the tail gates. All of these trucks, save one, passed me without slowing, obviously eager to get to their favorite smelt stream. The last one I met stopped for only a moment, and when I mentioned how difficult it would be to dip smelts in such high water they laughed and drove off without giving a hint of where they were going. Smelters, no doubt, are in the running for “the most hard-core sportsman” award. The discomfort they endure for 2 quarts of tiny little fish borders on insanity.
I confess I suffer with the same mental illness, but it isn’t the exquisite taste and smell of bacon fried smelts for breakfast that draws us. It is the miracle of spring awakening. After long, dark months encased in ice and snow, these tiny little fish that are the major sustenance for game fish in the lakes, emerge under extreme conditions and spawn to keep the food chain intact for another season. Those few of us who go out are witness to something miraculous that few people experience, and I will go as long as I am physically able.
Kate came to Rangeley for a night and we spent quite a lot of time trying to find a place to fish that was free of ice. We drove miles and miles looking for a smelt brook on what we thought was a loop road. When we were nearing an intersection that we thought would give us a short route out to Route 16, we came to a bridge that was out and had to retrace our steps. Rangeley Lake began to open the next day and we found a launch from a property belonging to LL Bean. We caught no fish but paddled into South Arm Brook for nearly a mile, and it was filled with wildlife. Geese, ducks, loons, gulls and song birds were everywhere calling and singing.
It was early in the morning when we got to the brook and smelts were returning to the lake. There were a lot of dead ones floating with flocks of gulls diving on them. It was like the mobs that follow lobster boats. We went upstream until there was not enough water to float any further, then drifted back down. We cast streamers in all the likely places but to no avail. Once back on the lake we trolled the area the smelts traveled with the same results. When we got back to the launch site we had a nice note from the LL Bean folks asking us not to use their facility again. When we got back to Town and Lake, Ron was there. Kate took us to Saddleback Pond for a hike to the outlet stream. We also walked into a set of cabins, originally a sporting camp, later sold to individuals in some sort of association. The pond was stunning with a mountain view.
Kate left after our hike, and Ron and I checked the boat launch at Oquossoc. There was no ice in sight, so we put in and motored over to the brook Kate and I explored in the morning. Finally, by trolling the smelt area, we were able to catch a few small Brook Trout. At dusk an eagle perched over us, waiting for his chance to catch one, and as we floated near he would take a different perch then fly back once we went by. Our intention was to stay after dark to fish during the smelt run, but being old guys, we got too tired.
As we came out from behind an island to head back, we discovered that ice had drifted back and filled the width of the lake blocking the route to the landing. The ice was pushed tight against the west shore, so we moved to the east side without finding any passage. At the east side there was no pressure on the ice, and we found a slight gap that gave us just enough room to paddle. The further we went the tighter it got, until we had to get out, break ice and push or drag against the shore.
It was a good thing the moon was out so at least, we could see. The passage was blocked by a cedar that leaned out over solid ice with not enough space to fit under. We thought about turning back but then our choice would be to tie to some private dock and walk out to the truck a couple of miles away. By breaking all the branches on the underside and forcing the canoe down as we pushed, we got through, and in another couple of hundred yards, we finally broke out into open water. Dinner was a little late that night.
Early the next morning we headed back to the Kennebago. It was a perfect Bluebird day and the river was at last, navigable. The float down to the lake was quick and the scenery breathtaking. I wanted to get into the lake to check small tributaries for smelts, but we came up against another obstacle. To get into the lake we had to motor against a strong current under a bridge. The bow of the canoe was too high to fit, but with our earlier experience, we tried it with Ron ducked down in the bow. It wasn’t quite enough so we drifted back down and added some rocks from shore. I ran the motor from a sitting position on the floor, and we both had to duck our heads but again we had success.
Upon entering the lake, we sat up and began enjoying the view to discover that a deer was witness to our efforts. It was standing on the causeway next to the bridge, obviously more interested than alarmed at our presence. The ice was still present halfway down the lake, but we were able to explore a couple of streams. In one I got a strike from a substantial fish but got caught by surprise and pulled back too quickly. That was our only strike and ice began menacing our return route, so we didn’t stay for long. This trip, even with few fish was one of my best adventures, and added a lot of new knowledge. If I am still here next spring, I will try it once more.
May is “Birding” month, and we have just had two very successful weekends. Ron Joseph led both with his usual enthusiasm, and the weather was mostly with us. The Cold Spring Ranch was full of swallows and snipe. Gabe Clark and his growing family tolerated our intrusion into their front yard with a warm welcome. We are grateful for the privilege of visiting this beautiful farm, and I don’t think there is another habitat that can match what we find there. One of the highlights of our birding efforts was a Cape May Warbler in the old apple tree at Claybrook Lodge.
Clyde MacNie was a deer hunter who came to Maine from Rhode Island in the late 60’s. He had some friends who owned a camp on the Back Road in Lexington Township. His first experiences hunting deer in Maine were from that camp. From the start, Clyde fell in love with our part of the Western Mountains of Maine. In Rhode Island he worked for the town of Narragansett as a tree trimmer. He was no stranger to hard work and spent many working days on the business end of a chain saw. It was hazardous work, often high up in a bucket truck, and he had many stories of close calls and suffered his share of serious injuries.
Coming to Maine was his favorite escape. In the 70’s he began staying at the Highland Lodge, and when we opened Claybrook, he was one of our early guests. He always came to hunt during the first week of the season and never missed a season. He always stayed in the same room in the lodge, so we named it Clyde’s room. Our daughter, Kate, has a birthday in the first week of November, and I don’t think she can remember a birthday without Clyde watching as she blew out the candles. He rarely shot a deer, but I believe his greatest joy was to wander through the hills checking out his favorite places each year. He could spend a whole day walking and sitting, simply soaking up all the sights and sounds of the woods. Clyde and I were kindred spirits in that way.
In later years Clyde began to have health problems that limited his ability to get around in the woods, but he came anyway, and was happy taking shorter walks or visiting with the many friends he made here. Finally, he could no longer hunt, but neither could he resist the urge to drive to Claybrook and stay with us. I took him with me wherever I happened to be going, and we shared quite a few adventures that way. Pat and I had never met his wife Margaret (though we had many phone conversations), and he wanted her to see this territory that he loved so much. For two seasons Margaret drove him up, and I would take the two of them in the big van all over the area. He was determined to show her all the places that he was so drawn to for so many years. She told me that she never understood what was so attractive about his hunting trips since he rarely was successful. Now finally it became clear to her. We were so glad to meet her and see that she was as lovely as she sounded on the phone all those years. Margaret got sick and was unable to continue but still Clyde came with his niece and nephew driving him here. He was unable to make it for the fall of 2017, but we talked on the phone, so he could get news of how the season went. This spring, Clyde MacNie left us for good. He was a humble, kind-hearted man, and for thirty years he was almost a part of our family. We loved Clyde dearly and he will always be part of us.
We are now well into June. The turtles have just begun to crawl to their gravel egg laying places and trout are moving into the streams. I competed with some great moose callers yesterday and got a second place behind the champion moose caller, Nilo Sillanpaa from New Vineyard. Nilo is a guide who owns Western Mountain Trading Post in Kingfield. He is truly a Maine woodsman and definitely a great moose caller.
That reminds me that we will be holding our “Moose Rut” weekend at Claybrook on October 5-7. If you are interested give us a call.
Greg and Pat