Autumn in the Maine Woods: Marten, Moose and Caribou Moss

Swooshing through the woods green ferns are buried beneath piles of yellow beech leaves, the air is alive with the deep rich pungent freshness of autumn. The ruffed grouse have already retreated to the tops of the trees and can be found budding, which is somewhat perplexing this early in the season, because the evidence is also obvious they have been feeding on beech nuts. The fall migrants have arrived in droves, snow buntings can be found easily along the roads, Canada Jays escort some visitors down the driveway, Pine and Evening Grosbeaks along with Crossbills and Waxwings are visiting our feeders. Flocks of Pine Siskins and Gold and Purple finches also descend, the  siskin’s call twisting upwards into the air and filling the camp yard with sound. A northern Shrike arrived at the edge of the camp yard a week ago, luckily for the smaller birds he moved on or has been stealthy in his pursuit of prey as has not been glimpsed since. One of our guests traveling along a road that follows the shore of Northern Moosehead Lake reported Horned Larks in the road, not timid or shy, they remained long enough for a positive identification.

This is my favorite time of year in the North woods, perhaps because most two legged creatures have abandoned it, or maybe because the air is cooler and with the leaves gone you can see forever into the trunks of trees like a forested ocean in the woods. Either way, this is the season for donning the orange and setting off on hikes to see what can be spotted. The choice to bring camera or gun is often fraught with regret because undoubtedly whichever one is chosen the other one shall be needed. The small mobile phone  camera does not do the forest dwellers justice, so most sightings sans camera are etched forever within my mind’s eye. A few evenings ago while hunkered down to sit I heard a soft rustling in the leaves behind me, having experienced this countless times before and thinking perhaps a mouse was about I slowly adjusted my gaze. Peeping out through a pile of leaves was a pure white weasel, his curious and beady eyes perplexed at what this large stinky creature hunched down in a hummock of firs and twisted limbs could be. He ran in amongst the deep earth tunnels and popped up again by my side, then up a branch he went seeing if perhaps an aerial view would provide more clarity. Finally his curiosity subsided and he slipped softly away, tunneling through leaves  several yards below me.  As the sun began its descent, a shrill blood piercing shriek was heard just before the low call of the Barred Owls “who cooks for you, who cooks for you.”  On a purely assumptive basis, I guessed from the shriek the meal “cooked”  by the owl that evening was a snowshoe hare. The woods echoed with the drums and calls of Pileated Woodpeckers. I am not sure what their densities are here, but they are certainly abundant across the township.

Earlier in the day we had hiked to the summit of Eagle Mountain. Following a ravine and a young forest up onto the side of the saddle we emerged into an open cut. This was filled with raspberry thickets and provided perhaps one of the best views back towards Moosehead I have seen. As I plopped down on a pile of old wood chips the sun warmly danced across the ridge, my eyes felt sleepy, and between the warm sun and the fresh air, I was convinced it was the perfect opportunity for a nap (being the mother of two young children I think my last nap was at least five years ago ). My hiking partner full of enthusiasm and also wearing long johns did not share my delight in the warmth of the sun and insisted we retreat back into the forest.  I took a few deep breaths and pointed out the view: Kineo lay before me, to the right I could see Boundary Bald, Moose, and perhaps Burnt Jacket or Sally. So many mountains remaining to explore. Regretfully I got up from this refreshing view and followed an old skidder trail to the summit. A “happy flagger” had been there before us,  we soon picked up the trail of ribbons and saw some old flagging dispersed across competing paths before us. Being a fan of the compass and basic navigational sense we bypassed  the flagging and picked up an old game trail following a worn down path avoiding treading on the dense moss to the summit, the moss beside the trail was thick and the forest itself was a eerily beautiful sight of spruce- fir, lichen was everywhere. Coveted “Caribou” moss created a lacy blanket on top of the rich green carpeted floor. All around me there was a feast for the eyes, countless species of lichen were evident, British soldiers, finger lichens, all different varieties. Positive evidence that the health of this ecosystem is very much intact. I wished for a field guide and more time to leisurely peruse the species I was witnessing. I looked up across the rocky summit and for a moment was caught in a scene from the movie Bambi, where the glorious stag, king of the forest, stands on the mountain top. This surely was where Lightfoot lived, I wondered if the movie creators had been here, so magical and other worldly were my surroundings it was hard not to be caught up in the inspirational beauty of the moment. Redpolls flitted through the trees above me while a few Pine Grosbeaks could be heard calling from the rocks below. We moved onward following the edge of the  dramatically dropping sheer cliffs, pausing for a while to hang our legs over the side and listen to the water roar through a stream at the bottom of a ravine before gradually turning around. We placed another stone on the cairn that was placed on the northern side at the peak of the summit by old camp guest Dick Manson and retreated back down the side following yet another old trail, old stumps from wood cut decades ago lining its sides.

Earlier in the summer a young guest had spotted a pine marten climbing up a tree in front of the Maine Lodge  cabin. Unfortunately it was a spruce tree, so pictures were not obtained easily from this encounter. Much to my surprise we were traveling through the woods this past weekend when I spotted a marten at eye level scaling a tree. We watched with delight as he raced up a limb and then stuck his head (and teeth) out in his adorable stare. He apparently found my husband more threatening as he growled as he grew closer, but relaxed and curled up on the limb when left alone with me. Peeking over the side of the tree branch his fuzzy face softened and I felt  a surge of anthropomorphic feelings I counsel myself against.  With Dana’s repeat appearance he decided to come down the tree (Dana was making kissing noises that did not sound unlike the chatter of a red squirrel… I suggested he might want to be wary with this technique, to which my husband returned a “You are crazy this marten won’t hurt me stare”)  the marten plunged downward and retrieved a closer look and then maneuvered himself up into the limbs and up the trunk of another tree. With each lope up the tree a fearsome little growl shook his body.  We were blessed with probably 20 minutes of viewing time. That evening I recounted the tale to my grandfather, telling him I had advised Dana what a special occurrence that was. Gramp (a retired warden with years of foot travel in the woods) agreed, and I told Dana he wasn’t apt to see something like that again. Someone likes to prove me a fool, because the very next day while walking in a different section of woods, Dana had another marten run quickly in front of his path and scamper away across the forest floor. Three close marten sightings in less than two months, we feel pretty lucky here. Seeing the marten and weasel roaming free and wild in the woods leaves only one resident animal left for me to spot within the wilds of the north woods – the elusive Canadian Lynx. I think we are positioned well for this to occur, we had a group report /document with photos a midday sighting to us last year nearby, so I am hopeful some day with a little luck and a lot of miles the same luck will find me.

Across the township flocks of Boreal chickadees are easily found, they seem to always elude my camera so I have enlisted Dana in the task as well. He reports he had a flock of 20 near him this morning, but as soon as he could focus the little sprites would flit away. So this will be the challenge this fall.

It has been a warm autumn, a few evenings ago, black flies and mosquitoes were about, along with swooping bats preying on them. I am always hopeful if they emerge in the fall that the population will be reduced for spring. Another guest brought to my attention the “Purple Fairies” that float through the trees around camp at this time of year, my guess is that they are a type of fungus gnat, but their iridescent bodies with white flecks catch the sunlight perfectly completing an image of lacy little purple fairies floating through the air. The girls have been entranced with them after being shown how easily they can be caught and allowed to alight on ones hand. We have also spent some time encouraging the chickadees to fly into one’s hand by the office door to grab seed from young hands. This long time camp tradition makes me happy to see coming full circle with my young girls.

On the pond the loons are still calling and various waterfowl and migrating ducks are in abundance. We had a black bear visit the edge of the shore near camp a few weeks ago.  I am told by biologists it is an early hibernation year so I suspect that was the last sighting we will have. One of my biggest delights this time of year is seeing “moose families” we have noticed they are warier and seem a little jumpier than years past with mothers teaching the young to bolt at the sound of a vehicle. Still slipping up the edge of a clearing or beside a pond one can watch from a distance and enjoy the interaction. Bulls have yet to congregate in groups, but soon the icons of the north woods will be seen together in awe inspiring groups. I still believe the third week of October and into November is absolutely the best time of year to see these majestic giants in full regalia.

Inside the cabin the cooler weather has led to revival of fresh homemade donuts on Sunday mornings. The girls delight in mixing and rolling and cutting, and Dad has become an expert at navigating hot oil and frying. So far the favorite is the pumpkin-cranberry with berries fresh from the edge of Spencer Pond. However, my great grandmothers old recipes are getting a workout as molasses, yeast, buttermilk, and chocolate have also been made.  Bringing a piece of the history from my roots at the Shirley farmstead to Spencer is an incredible delight and a joy to share with our visitors and guests. Now if I could only find the perfect piece of old “barn” rope to redo the swing with, things would truly be connected. We have also found the simplistic joy of spending evenings by the fire playing chess or cribbage, relaxing in the company of friends and unwinding from the hectic work day. It’s these simple moments  that define the joy of the life we find here.


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