Of Moose and Men

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Phuh! It was a strange sound, a sudden burst, like a whale emptying its blowhole, following an equally unusual, almost bovine noise: long, deep and guttural, haunting too, like the distant rumble of thunder.

“A male moose,” explained Ronnie Ward, who’d produced this unexpected and remarkable impression. Ronnie is one of the Mi’kmaq, the First Nations people of Maritime Canada, and the moose – a noble if ungainly creature – has for centuries been a crucial part of his ancestors’ lives. Moose skins were used for clothing; bones and antlers for medicine and tools; its dark meat for sustenance. And the sound of the moose was evidently Ronnie’s party piece for visitors to the Metepenagiag Heritage Park where he works – a place that brings to life the culture and history of his forefathers.

These ancient Indian lands were named Nova Scotia and New Brunswick by the European settlers: provinces that are small by Canadian standards, but appear boundless and unpopulated to my British eyes. Long straight highways are fringed with forests thick with pine and beech, while others pass through pretty villages like Wolfville in the Annapolis valley, an area reclaimed from the sea by the descendents of French settlers, the Acadians, for farmland.

In the eighteenth century, the British enacted a ruthless policy towards the Acadians across the provinces, forcefully deporting those who refused to pledge allegiance to the British Crown. Some were sent to other British North American colonies, others to France or Louisiana – where the word Acadian gradually became ‘cajun’.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s nineteenth-century poem Evangeline, a Tale of Acadie, about a woman and her lover who are separated by the Great Expulsion, is a set text in many North American schools, and it is possible today to follow the Evangeline Trail created by the local tourist authorities through the eponymous heroine’s Acadia.

Driving along the trail, I try to imagine the swathe of destruction as villages were torn down and communities driven out of their homes, but it’s hard to visualise such turmoil as the morning rainclouds begin to clear and sunlight brightens up the furrowed fields of this gently rolling and verdant valley. The only disputes nowadays are over a dollar or two at the yard sales on the road out of Wolfville, where neighbours wander over one another’s otherwise pristine lawns picking through cast-offs for bargains.

Beyond the town, the land reverts once more to fields of asparagus and orchards of apple trees, their branches speckled with pink blossom. Farms with bright red barns stand out against the open farmland, while the sky above is streaked with ripples of cloud like a crumpled duvet. Patches of violet lupins sway in the breeze as the silhouette of a bird swoops into the scene, an eagle hovering on the gentle thermals overhead, its eyes searching for carrion.

Lunch is at a local vineyard, where buttercups grow amid rows of vines that slope away towards a smudge of water on the horizon – the Bay of Fundy, a vast stretch of water between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, which splits at its end like a whale’s tale. An astonishing 100 billion tonnes of seawater flow in and out of here from the Atlantic each day. Its famous 50-foot tidal range has inspired the annual ‘Not Since Moses’ fun-run, at Five Islands in the Minas Basin of the bay, in which competitors run along the sea floor when the tide is out, scurrying to the finish before it comes back in.

The Mi’kmaq believed that these islands were created by Glooscap, the Native Indian god-like man who lived on the high bluffs of Cape Blomidon. A disrespectful beaver, the story goes, had built a large dam and flooded Glooscap’s garden. He threw giant handfuls of mud at the beaver and smashed the beaver’s dam, which allowed the water to pour in, thus creating the Bay of Fundy tides. Glooscap also taught the people about the constellations and stars, and how to hunt, fish and cultivate.

Driving into New Brunswick, I wonder what Glooscap would make of modern methods – husbands returned from their day’s labours in the offices of Fredericton to sit atop tractor mowers in baseball caps and plaid shirts, keeping their lawns immaculate with apparent ease. Others relax on swinging chairs in the shade of their porches, watching the world go by, or resting a moment before taking their children off to ice hockey or swimming practice.

Wooden bungalows, many freshly painted and so keeping up with the expectations and standards set by neighbours, line both sides of the highway. Once in a while there’s a whitewashed Evangelical church, a cemetery or a gas station. But beyond the road there’s little but trees. I begin to wonder where they go for a newspaper or a pint of milk. It’s so unpopulated, so wild. My overwhelming sense is of the size of this place.

I stay overnight on the wooded banks of the Miramichi river, from where the forest sprawls on to unfathomable realms. This land of green and blue continues virtually uninterrupted all the way to Canada’s frozen north. Ferns grow here too, their coiled ‘fiddle-heads’ gathered in springtime and cooked in butter and salt – a great accompaniment to the wonderful local salmon and washed down with Moosehead beer.

The Miramichi is famous for its superb salmon fishing, and I have a good long spell trying to land a suitably impressive specimen: but a few trout later, I decide to take the chance to find a bigger beast, and set out to find a moose.

As raindrops cast ripples in the river and mosquitoes buzz in the evening air, I head out in a four-wheel truck into the forest with Dion Carson, a guide at a nearby river lodge. He drives us carefully along the muddy tracks that run through densely packed fir trees, looking out from under his baseball cap for anything that might appear, suddenly, from among the trunks.

“If you hit a moose in your car, its legs would come up to the dashboard: its body would come through here,” he says, waving his hand from the windscreen to the back seat.

“I’m a woods person,” he tells me in his gentle drawl. “I love it here. It’s my life.”

We pass a few clearings and rivers dammed by beavers, one swimming on the surface in the pond. It circles the pond, head above the water, before returning to its lodge. And we move on, too, to a large clearing where a tranquil lake has formed. This is a good place to spot moose, as they often come here at dusk during the summer months to feed on waterweed and to drink the salty water, which their bodies need after the long winter.

The still waters reflect a blur of browns and greens from the encroaching forest at the lake’s edge as the evening light fades. Moss hangs like a wizard’s beard from the trunk of a pine, which I lean against while preparing to wait. Bullfrogs croak in the long grasses underfoot. And then I see them.

A few hundred metres out into still waters are eight or nine moose. Silent, stocky shapes, unaware of our presence. They wade into the water and feed, lifting their outsized noses every so often, their eyes watchful and their ears alert to sudden noise. But there is none, and they carry on as before.

It’s like stepping back in time and watching prehistoric beasts grazing, I think, as the trees swallow up the last traces of light and we return to camp.

“Pretty neat, eh?” says Dion. And he is absolutely right.

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