Blessing The Moose
Praying for good news, planning for bad. True stories from the chaplain of the Maine Warden Service.
The moose was sauntering down the side of the road rather than standing out in the middle of it, so I was lucky. Dark in color and lacking reflective retinas, moose are all but invisible in the darkness, and I hadn't seen the big female until I was far too close to brake. Not long afterward, I came upon a scene where an adolescent male moose had just been hit by a car.
The hood of a moving vehicle takes a moose's long legs right out from under it. The weighty body comes crashing through the windshield, and the result is often fatal, for the car's occupants as well as for the moose.
But this car's driver was lucky. Alive and uninjured, he stood by the side of the road, near where the moose lay, still moving. A stream of blood, glowing black in the starlight, had reached the edge of the asphalt.
"Sad," the driver said, pulling his jacket collar away from the nape of his neck to get at the chunks of auto glass that somehow had lodged there.
"You're sure you're all right?" I inquired. "Let me check your pupils. Any neck pain?"
"I'm fine. I'm just covered with glass. Shouldn't we do something about this poor guy? You know, shoot him or something?" He gave my Maine Warden Service uniform a sidelong glance. The Warden Service is responsible for, among other things, protecting wildlife in Maine, but I'm just its chaplain. I lack any weapon with which I might put an animal out of its misery.
The moose lifted its head and looked our way with soft dark eyes. Then its head went down and stayed down. I moved to touch the moose's vast rib cage. My hand found rough fur, no heartbeat.
"It's been taken care of," I said. "Thank God."
"Sad," the driver said again.
"It is sad. Poor thing," I agreed. With my hand on the moose, I paused for a moment. "I'm sorry." And to myself, I said, Dear Father, bless the beasts and singing birds, and guard with tenderness all things that have no words.
Next time someone asks me, "What does a Maine Warden Service chaplain do? Bless the moose?" I can say, "Yes."
The Maine Warden Service chaplain responds when calamities occur in the state's woods. I had been on my way home from a drowning accident when I happened upon the car-moose collision.
"It's a Saturday. Weather's fine, and the victim's local. There'll be a crowd," the lieutenant had predicted. He was right. As the Maine Warden Service seaplane approached the lake and began to descend out of the summer sky, I could see a cluster of people on shore and a dozen or so Crayola-colored kayaks circling the perimeter set by the wardens in their aluminum skiffs. Warden Pilot Dan Dufault had the plane's air conditioning set on high, but we were sweating nonetheless, and I was even more nauseated than I generally am when flying. The lake shone a cool and welcome blue.
The wardens in the skiffs turned their faces skyward at the sound of the descending plane. The surface of the lake jumped up and caught the pontoons, spat, foamed, then settled into a wake. The plane bobbed gently, adjusting to its new role of watercraft. As soon as safety and pride permitted, I pushed the door open and clambered out onto the pontoon.
Warden Terry Hughes, clad in a wetsuit, grinned at me from the welcoming skiff. "How was the flight?" he asked.
"I didn't puke," I said.
"Dan!" Terry shouted to the pilot. "You're losing your touch!"
Terry is convinced he has a profile for the most predictable drowning: "It'll be an 18- to 24-year-old male. Dark hair, a goatee, a pierced ear, and a big tattoo usually one of those Celtic knots across his shoulder blades."
"And drunk," I reminded him.
"Goes without saying," said Terry. "But not a bad swimmer, and he's generally in pretty good shape. Not a flabby guy, by any means. And he's from Massachusetts."
"Mainers don't drown?"
"Well, let me put it this way. If he's from some place other than Maine, he's from Massachusetts. Usually Billerica." I was laughing. "No, seriously!" Terry insisted. "I was out on Sebago yesterday, checking boaters for PFDs, and here's this whole crew going out in a rented Whaler with their Subway lunch and a case of beer. I pull up alongside, and who do I see, sitting in the stern with his arm around a girl, but Profile Man."
"Goatee and all?"
"Soul patch," Terry conceded a minor point. "I said Sir, for your own safety, I would recommend you wear your personal flotation device and not just leave it in the bottom of the boat.' Profile Man says, Dude, only wimps wear them things.' "
"So I tell him, Sir, I'd like to inform you that you fit a profile for the typical drowning victim. If you refuse to wear your life jacket, I respectfully request that you keep this small fluorescent buoy tethered to your ankle throughout the day. This will facilitate the dive team's attempts to locate your corpse when the inevitable happens.' "
"Did you really say all that?"
"No," admitted Terry sheepishly. "But I wanted to."
"Profile Man didn't drown, though, did he?"
"The weekend isn't over yet," Terry said darkly.
The dive boat moved slowly, back and forth. Beneath the surface, at the end of a long line, a planing board with a diver on it was skimming the lakebed. The board homemade, of plywood, with two handholds allows a diver to swim faster and with less effort than with fins alone. The diver casts his eyes from side to side, scanning for the sudden white shape of a drowned body. "How's the visibility?" I asked a warden as I came aboard.
"Not bad, not bad. And the witnesses gave a surprisingly good account of where he went down, considering they were all drunk. This won't take long." When the first pair of divers came up for air empty-handed, I hitched a ride to shore to meet the family.
It's August in Maine, the loveliest season in a lovely place. Folks come from all over the country just to rejoice in our mild summer air, wander our woodlands, refresh themselves in and on our shining waters. In any season, Maine is a paradise for healthy souls enamored of outdoor recreation.
Personally, I like to read. I like also to write and knit and perhaps have a little something yummy to eat now and then. In short, I like activities that do not require one to have well-developed quadriceps. Still, even if, prior to being called into service as a chaplain for Maine's wilderness cops, I was something of a couch potato, it wasn't because I was afraid of the great outdoors. I have no fear of spiders, will handle snakes without alarm; I can look over the edge of a cliff without nausea. As a kid, I routinely got myself lost in the woods near my parents' house and discovered all sorts of wonders a rock ledge good for climbing, a dry hillock where turtles laid and buried eggs, a cave that reeked of fox feces. I have always loved water.
One of my late father's favorite memories, in fact, was of the day a downpour swelled the little stream that ran past our house into a frothing torrent. From the living room window, chewing meditatively on his pipe, Dad watched me launch a large metal watering tub, purloined from a nearby horse paddock, into the white water. In my unlikely craft, I shot the rapids and was carried downstream before, inevitably and ignominiously, the tub overturned and sank. To this day, I remember the pressure of the heavy, silted water pouring over my head, and the beginnings of panic tightening my chest just before my face broke the surface. I hauled the tub out, lugged it home, and launched it again.
I wouldn't dream of letting any of my children do anything like this at least, not without a helmet, a personal flotation device, an EPIRB beacon, and intensive parental supervision. There I'd be, running along the shore with a throw-bag, a cellphone with 9-1-1 pre-dialed, and maybe a Navy corpsman. Just in case.
"He is a good swimmer," the victim's father said to me. His eyes were fixed on the dive boat and flicked to my face only briefly as I introduced myself: I am Kate Braestrup, chaplain to the Maine Warden Service. I'm so sorry this has happened. He was shirtless, his thin shoulders and the top of his pale belly already turning pink. "There's no way he'd drown."
"I'm so sorry," I said again. It was inadequate, of course, but I am accustomed to inadequacy and am not bothered by it, much. I had brought a bottle of Poland Spring water from the cooler on the dive boat.
"It's good to stay hydrated," I told him, unscrewing the cap. "It will help you keep strong." Shrugging, he took a sip but didn't take his eyes off the boat that moved back and forth, as if pacing between invisible walls, the divers' tow ropes visible as taut yellow lines angling down from the stern.
Statistically speaking, the deaths that Terry, the other divers, and I see in summer are not inevitable. I try to remind myself that recreational boating is survivable; people do it safely all the time. Even inexperienced, drugged, or drunken people do it, and most still manage not to run into anything or fall overboard.
The Warden Service is responsible for responding to and investigating freshwater boating mishaps no matter the outcome, but its chaplain is only called out when someone is dead. So I suppose it makes a certain amount of sense that, after six years of this work, I can't look at a canoe or kayak or Boston Whaler without thinking of drowning, any more than I can go for a hike without thinking about wilderness search and rescue, or see a jet ski without remembering what can happen when you bash one of those against a partially submerged rock. Despite the clear light and pine-scented air, my Maine summers hold darkness.
"You never know," I tell the grieving father gently. "Even a strong swimmer can hit his head as the boat is going over or take in a breath at the wrong moment. It happens that way sometimes."
"He was drunk," the father said, taking his eyes off the dive boat just long enough to glare at me with furious, pink-rimmed eyes. I nodded.
"That happens, too," I said.
"Goddamn it," said the father.
From underneath, the bottom of the dive boat would be an almost rectangular silvery interruption in the white shine of the water's surface; the black shapes of the divers plunging and departing would be accompanied by clouds of their own bubbles. But the young man would not be facing upward, toward this scene. The drowned nearly always come to rest facedown in the soft mud, their elbows bent, knees drawn up, toes pointed. It is a position akin to yoga's "child pose," to the attitude of Muslims in prayer, to the genuflections of Buddhists and penitent Christians. It is an attitude of surrender, one not without dignity, and a sad grace.
My husband says: "I see a motorcycle with sculptural lines and exhilarating speed; you see an accident waiting to happen. I see a lake and dream about windsurfing; you start planning for the recovery of a drowned body. I'm a Fantasizer, you're an Awfulizer."
It is a common complaint in law enforcement families. I experienced it myself when my first husband, Drew, a state trooper, was alive.
"That guy is a child molester," Drew would say darkly of the ordinary-looking man comparing brands of canned tuna in the grocery store. "And that one over there, by the frozen foods? He was indicted last week for conspiracy to distribute cocaine."
"Oh, for God's sake! Don't tell me these things." I would snap. "I like the illusion that I live in a safe world. "
Now, 11 years after Drew's death in a car accident, I know too much, too. Because the game wardens I work with are not primarily responsible for investigating child abuse or drug trafficking, I'm not particularly afraid of criminals, however. I know the bad guys are out there, but I maintain what is doubtless the most realistic as well as the most comfortable perspective: Crime happens in Maine, but it's relatively rare. Ordinary safeguards are sufficient.
"If you stay here, you will see the recovery," I told the father.
"I want to see."
"It will be a clumsy business. There's no elegant way to bring a body on board a boat."
"Please. I want to see," the father repeated, then added, as if it were relevant, "I'm an astronomer."
"You are welcome to do whatever you need to do. Will you want to be here when the body is brought ashore?"
"Yes," he said at once. Then he turned his head and looked at me with some uncertainty. "Is that all right?"
"It's perfectly all right."
The uncertainty began to teeter toward fear. "I want to be here. I want his mother to know that I was here, that I took care of. . . Oh, God."
I put my arm around his shoulder. He was just slightly shorter than I, a small man.
"I'm sorry," he said, and his voice was squeaky with tears.
"This is hard." I murmured. "This is as hard as it gets. You're doing well. I'm right here with you." A little while later, in answer to his query, I said: "He should look OK. He may be a little muddy. I will look first and help you prepare for what you will be seeing."
"And stay with me?"
"Yes," I said.
Every day, all over the state, thousands of people are happily splashing, swimming, and kayaking in and on Maine waters. They are hiking or hunting through forests, snowshoeing or skiing our white winter landscapes, or setting out onto the frozen surfaces of our lakes for some snowmobiling or ice fishing. At the end of the day, they come home happy. They tuck their children into bed. "Wasn't that fun?" they ask, and the children, still pink-cheeked from the fresh air, nod sleepily. Outdoor recreation casualties are rare, too.
Not rare enough today, though. The drowning victim's father had rented a camp on this lake, summer after summer, for a decade. The young man and his friends left the camp in the middle of the night, broke into a neighboring camp, drank the liquor they found there, and took the canoes out on the lake for a midnight paddle. One of the canoes overturned. Three young men went into the water. Two made it to shore.
The third came up from the lake bottom clasped around the chest by a neoprene-clad game warden. The father sagged against me. Supporting his weight, watching over his shaking shoulder, I saw Terry towing the body toward the dive boat, the others reaching down to the water. The body would be maneuvered as gently as possible over the gunwale. The white plastic body bag would already have been unfolded across the flat metal deck, ready to receive it.
"I was so afraid they wouldn't find him," the father was saying, his voice indistinct, his tears and my sweat mingling in the fabric of my black clerical shirt. "I was so afraid I wouldn't be able to take him home." He lifted his head, wiped his eyes with his hands.
Another warden would have already been in contact with the medical examiner. A local funeral parlor would be on its way to take charge of the body from here, but the closest town was at least an hour away. The young man's father would have time to see his boy and mourn him, there in the pine-scented air by the cool water under the blue sky.
While the father waited with a couple of game wardens a little way off, I would unzip the body bag. I would let the father know about the mud clumped in the pierced right ear and in the dark hair. I would tell him it was normal for the face to be ruddy and bruised-looking; "The blood settles after death," I would say. "It doesn't mean he was hurt." I wouldn't have to tell his father that he had a goatee. I would not describe the forest-green interlocking lines of a Celtic knot tattooed across the young man's shoulders.
"Reverend Worst-Case Scenario," my children call me. I am summoned to the scene when the worst has happened: The woodland wanderer has not returned; the ice skater has vanished, and there's a hole in the ice; the boy shouted "Watch this!" and dove into the water but never came to the surface. I don't want to create fear in my children. But I wouldn't be averse to instilling a little reasonable caution. Actually, make that a lot of caution, reasonable or otherwise.
While the dive boat was still out on the water, just about to turn in our direction and come ashore with the body, I asked the young man's father: "Where is home?"
"Cambridge," Terry would tell me later, conceding another minor point. "I didn't get a chance to warn him."
When my daughters, Ellie and Woolie, were 8 and 6, respectively, they got lost in the woods. Actually, they went for a walk in a forest with their older brothers, who got tired of their slower pace and left them behind on the trail. We were staying on a small wooded island, perhaps a mile long by half a mile wide, but it didn't occur to the boys that their little sisters might not share their grasp of the geography. From Ellie's and Woolie's point of view, they had been abandoned in a vast, dark wilderness. After a few panicked moments, it occurred to Ellie that if they found the shoreline, they might be able to circumambulate the island and thus eventually arrive at the beachside cabin that, because Mom could be found there, was home. So they struck off bravely through the scratchy scrub in the direction of surf sounds. When they reached the coast, they turned right and started walking. But then, clambering along the rough and stony shore, Ellie fell, cutting her knee badly.
Woolie made a quick analysis of their situation. Things looked bleak. So she did the only thing she could think of: She threw back her head and addressed herself to the empty sky. "Help!" she shrieked. "Help! We are lost in the forest, and my sister is bleeding!" Within minutes, a paramedic with a first-aid kit was at her side.
His name was Frank, he told me later, after he had bandaged Ellie's knee and led both children back to my doorstep. He was vacationing with his family in a cottage on the other side of the island and had been peacefully sunning himself when the summer breeze carried Woolie's cri de coeur to his trained ears.
Woolie seemed to take it as a matter of course that her prayers had been answered so promptly and appropriately, even in the midst of what to her was wilderness. I was flabbergasted. The night I blessed the moose, I was onmy way home from the drowning accident. "You know," I told my stepdaughter the next day, "you've really got to watch out for moose." She is 16 and eagerly anticipating driving on Maine's roads.
"Oh, I will," she assured me blithely.
"No. Really," I insisted. My husband shook his head and hugged me.
"You need a vacation," he said and took me to California.
We left the children behind. For five days, anyway, we would worry about no one but ourselves. There, on the other side of the continent, let strangers splash, swim and sail, hike the trails and shoot the rapids; whatever the outcome of their recreation, I would not be called.
It was a wonderful trip. My husband and I traveled the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Venice Beach. We went to art museums in San Francisco, communed with redwoods and Steller's jays in Big Sur, and laughingly admired elephant seals loafing in great, luxurious, flatulent heaps on the sands at Pismo.
Near Santa Barbara, I spotted a couple of familiar shapes in the water; phoca vitulina, or harbor seals. We have them along the coast of Maine, too. Their heads are round and sleek, and their eyes are brown, thoughtful, and almost human.
"Hello, you lovely creatures!" I said to them. They regarded me curiously for a moment, then sounded, their long backs gleaming as they slid easily beneath the surface. And there it was, triggered like the knee that kicks at the stroke of a rubber hammer: a reflex twinge of professional concern, a reflex stab of maternal fear.
I know full well that a harbor seal can stay beneath the water for 20 minutes if it wants to. Seals are seals! Water is home to them. Their world is reliable and responsive, just as my daughter's world responds reliably to her. I have yet to disabuse my three daughters or three sons of their self-confidence I've managed at least to restrain myself, or my husband has restrained me. Still, I do watch.
And so, though I haven't admitted this to my husband, I could not leave the beach nor take my eyes off the water until those round heads broke the surface and joined me again in the safe and welcoming air. Please, dear God, bless the beasts and singing birds, and guard with tenderness all things that have no words.
Kate Braestrup is the chaplain of the Maine Warden Service; this article is based on her experiences, though some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the people she serves. Her book, Here If You Need Me: A True Story, was published last month by Little, Brown and Company. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.