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Summer Nights

Summer Nights: Moosin’ in the North Country

  • Melinda Shaw, 6, of Brockton, Mass. gets to try on a moose hat and mitten at the start of the town of Gorham's moose tour on Wednesday night, August 14, 2013. The town of Gorham organizes moose tours from Memorial Day through the end of September. There has only been one evening this summer when a tour didn't spot any moose. Laurie Blake has been a driver for six years. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Melinda Shaw, 6, of Brockton, Mass. gets to try on a moose hat and mitten at the start of the town of Gorham's moose tour on Wednesday night, August 14, 2013. The town of Gorham organizes moose tours from Memorial Day through the end of September. There has only been one evening this summer when a tour didn't spot any moose. Laurie Blake has been a driver for six years.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Spectators that were riding the bus for the town of Gorham moose tours watch a cow moose in a wallow from the side of the road during the tour on Wednesday night, August 14, 2013. When a moose is spotted, if the conditions are safe, moose spotters are invited to step off the 14 passenger bus to take a close look. The town of Gorham organizes moose tours from Memorial Day through the end of September. There has only been one evening this summer when a tour didn't spot any moose. Laurie Blake has been a driver for six years. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Spectators that were riding the bus for the town of Gorham moose tours watch a cow moose in a wallow from the side of the road during the tour on Wednesday night, August 14, 2013. When a moose is spotted, if the conditions are safe, moose spotters are invited to step off the 14 passenger bus to take a close look. The town of Gorham organizes moose tours from Memorial Day through the end of September. There has only been one evening this summer when a tour didn't spot any moose. Laurie Blake has been a driver for six years.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Laurie Blake, of Berlin, peeks out while at a stop on the moose tour that she drives a bus for on Wednesday night, August 14, 2013. Blake has been a driver for six years. It started as a summer job but now she is a self described "moosaholic."<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Laurie Blake, of Berlin, peeks out while at a stop on the moose tour that she drives a bus for on Wednesday night, August 14, 2013. Blake has been a driver for six years. It started as a summer job but now she is a self described "moosaholic."

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • A cow moose stops in the headlights of the the bus carrying the town of Gorham moose tour passengers while traveling on Route 16 just past Milan on August 14, 2013. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    A cow moose stops in the headlights of the the bus carrying the town of Gorham moose tour passengers while traveling on Route 16 just past Milan on August 14, 2013.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • One of the spotlights fixed to the town of Gorham moose tour bus shines on a cow moose in the woods of the North Country on August 14, 2013. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    One of the spotlights fixed to the town of Gorham moose tour bus shines on a cow moose in the woods of the North Country on August 14, 2013.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Passengers load back into the bus while driver Laurie Black, right, scans through her iPad to show photos of moose she's spotted on her own moosin' journeys during a pit stop in Errol on the town of Gorham moose tour on Wednesday, August 14, 2013.  <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Passengers load back into the bus while driver Laurie Black, right, scans through her iPad to show photos of moose she's spotted on her own moosin' journeys during a pit stop in Errol on the town of Gorham moose tour on Wednesday, August 14, 2013.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Melinda Shaw, 6, of Brockton, Mass. gets to try on a moose hat and mitten at the start of the town of Gorham's moose tour on Wednesday night, August 14, 2013. The town of Gorham organizes moose tours from Memorial Day through the end of September. There has only been one evening this summer when a tour didn't spot any moose. Laurie Blake has been a driver for six years. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Spectators that were riding the bus for the town of Gorham moose tours watch a cow moose in a wallow from the side of the road during the tour on Wednesday night, August 14, 2013. When a moose is spotted, if the conditions are safe, moose spotters are invited to step off the 14 passenger bus to take a close look. The town of Gorham organizes moose tours from Memorial Day through the end of September. There has only been one evening this summer when a tour didn't spot any moose. Laurie Blake has been a driver for six years. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Laurie Blake, of Berlin, peeks out while at a stop on the moose tour that she drives a bus for on Wednesday night, August 14, 2013. Blake has been a driver for six years. It started as a summer job but now she is a self described "moosaholic."<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • A cow moose stops in the headlights of the the bus carrying the town of Gorham moose tour passengers while traveling on Route 16 just past Milan on August 14, 2013. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • One of the spotlights fixed to the town of Gorham moose tour bus shines on a cow moose in the woods of the North Country on August 14, 2013. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Passengers load back into the bus while driver Laurie Black, right, scans through her iPad to show photos of moose she's spotted on her own moosin' journeys during a pit stop in Errol on the town of Gorham moose tour on Wednesday, August 14, 2013.  <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

The bus creeps along Route 16 on the edge of the Androscoggin River at dusk, as the guide scans the area with a spotlight.

Someone sees movement. The bus stops.

“Right there,” says tour guide Laurie Blake. “Look. Right there. In front of us.”

The 14 passengers stand up to get a better look out the front windshield.

A female moose, or cow, just came out of the river and is crossing the road back into the woods.

She stops to stare at the bus. The tourists pull out their cameras.

“Oh my God!” someone squeals.

“Beautiful.”

“That thing is gorgeous.”

“Wow.”

After a thrilling moment, the moose walks into the woods, leaving behind muddy hoof tracks on the road.

Five or six evenings a week from Memorial Day through the end of September, the town of Gorham packs as many as 28 tourists into one or

two buses. The tour, sponsored by the town’s recreation department, leaves from the information booth on Main Street. There has only been one evening this summer when a tour didn’t spot any moose.

On Wednesday night, the guide was Laurie Blake, who has been driving the moose tour bus for six years.

Blake, 50, introduced herself as a “moosaholic” and described moosin’ as an addictive hobby.

It began as a summer job for Blake, who is also a school bus driver. But it was not long before she was moosin’ in her spare time, she told those aboard her bus.

“To me it’s like a hide-and-seek thrill thing,” she said. “Thrill of the hunt.”

Blake holds the record of the most moose spotted on one tour: 28. On Wednesday, she found four.

The first was near the start of the tour, in a wallow on the side of the road. The cow was large, but hidden behind trees and difficult to spot. Blake stopped the bus and let passengers quietly file out to catch a glimpse.

Moose are usually spotted near wallows, or areas the animals dig out with their hooves and return to drink. Many are near the road, because moose like the salt left by snowplows.

Blake wore moose earrings and a moose necklace. She told the tour group that she holds her necklace and says “moose prayers,” speaking to two former tour guides who have died of cancer.

“I hang on and I say, ‘C’mon Louise and c’mon Bruce, help me out,’ ” she said.

Cars and trucks zipped by on the other side of the road. The bus pulled over to let local traffic pass.

“Don’t these people know we’re moosin’ ?” Blake said, as she pulled off to shine her light into the middle of the woods.

With remote-controlled headlights, Blake was “looking for eyeballs.”

A moose’s eyes reflect light, but ordinary car headlights are too low to cause that reflection. That makes it dangerous to drive in the North Country.

The animals are 6 or 7 feet tall and weigh as much as 1,200 pounds. A collision can hurt the moose, the car and the people inside.

Blake does not hunt, but she has eaten moose meat once. She was moosin’ early one morning with her husband, and they came across a dying bull moose along the side of the road.

Because she found the moose, she could keep it. She stayed with the animal for an hour, until a Fish and Game officer could arrive and put the moose out of his misery.

“He must have been suffering, but not a sound came out of it,” she said. “Very sad to me.”

Blake called a truck mechanic to come get the moose and drive the body away on a trailer. They went to the butcher shop, but the one butcher who could deal with the moose was away on vacation. No hunters were around to help, so she gave it to a farmer in Milan. She eventually got a little bit of meat to try.

“The more I’m cooking it, the more I’m thinking, ‘Oh, no I ain’t going to eat this,’ ” she said.

But she did taste it – “and it was really good.”

The tour bus stopped for a break in front of three Porta-Potties in downtown Errol. The town has a few stores, but they were all closed.

Melissa Shaw of Brockton, Mass., went on Blake’s tour this week with her husband and daughter. They were spending their vacation in New Hampshire, where 6-year-old Melinda experienced “the middle of nowhere” for the first time, her mother said. Where they live, there’s always a fast food restaurant or a Cumberland Farms around the corner.

At the stop in Errol, Blake pulled out her iPad to display her moose photos.

Her favorite: A majestic bull with full antlers, standing the middle of the road in 2010. He caused “a moose jam” of stopped cars, she said.

She also has photos of moose covered with ticks.

New Hampshire’s moose population is declining, and state biologists blame it in part on the tick population. Climate change and shorter winters allow ticks and other parasites to thrive, according to biologists for the Fish and Game Department.

The state accepted a $695,000 federal grant this year to track moose with radio collars and study them for four years.

Moose tour guides don’t need a state report to know the population is shrinking. Blake’s job is getting harder.

She doesn’t understand why the state continues the moose hunt amid concerns about the moose population. She shared her thoughts on the tour bus: Couldn’t there be a more direct way to help the moose than tracking them with collars? Or a way to control the tick population?

“This is just my opinion,” she added.

The Gorham tours last a minimum of three hours, but usually go later. Tickets are $25 for adults, $15 for children ages 5-12 and $5 for children age 4 and younger.

Blake returned the group to Gorham at 11 p.m. on Wednesday. She takes passengers as far north as they are willing to go, explaining that it’s easier to spot moose as more come out later at night. Eventually, she turns around. She found two of the moose on Wednesday night in the dark woods on the ride back to Gorham, with the help of a spotlight.

The ride was full of facts about moose: the animals are good swimmers; they can hear sounds that are 1 or 2 miles away; a mother keeps her baby with her until just before she gives birth the following year.

Blake, a Massachusetts native who moved to Berlin 17 years ago, also shared stories about life in the North Country. She pointed out the old mills in Berlin and talked about the area’s trouble with unemployment. The new state and federal prisons were supposed to bring jobs. How much they actually helped is up for debate, she said, but the construction did change the path of the Gorham moose tours. The buses used to take tourists to an area called Success Loop off Route 16 in Berlin, but that’s where the prisons were built.

Now, Blake travels farther north in the tour bus. And she goes on her own, when she has the time and can afford the gas. Sometimes she takes her grandsons or her husband, a truck driver. Mornings are the best time to spot moose, so she wakes up early. The truckers on Route 16 recognize her car on the side of the road.

“And they’ll say to my husband, ‘Doesn’t your wife have anything better to do than to go out, moosin’, looking for those stupid swamp donkeys?’ . . . He says, ‘Look, she’s not hurting anybody.’ And he says, ‘I’d rather her be up there moosin’ than pulling her off a barstool somewhere.’ So they shut right up.”

(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or lmccrystal@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)

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