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In Maine woods, moose are his calling

Guide Matt Tinker works his handmade birch-bark horn to attract the attention of rutting moose. Guide Matt Tinker works his handmade birch-bark horn to attract the attention of rutting moose. (Wessel Kok for the Boston Globe)
Email|Print| Text size + By Diane Daniel
Globe Correspondent / November 28, 2007

RANGELEY, Maine - We were quite the duo, Matt Tinker playing horn with me on string. Tinker's instrument was handmade from birch bark, while mine was a piece of wet rawhide dangling from a can. My husband, Wessel, waited with camera poised, while our friend Erik just waited.

In our heads, we repeated the Maine tourist's mantra: "Must see a moose. Must see a moose. Must see. . ." It was Tinker's job, as our master Maine guide, to make that happen. It was stressful for us all. Tinker, 34, had picked us up in his Jeep Cherokee for the 30-minute drive from Rangeley to lumber company land in the Dallas Plantation township. From there, we bounced along logging and ATV trails, driving deep into the woods. Tinker's eyes worked like lighthouse beacons, scanning the surroundings, ever on the lookout for the elusive beasts.

It was a warm afternoon in mid-September, and Tinker concluded that the rutting season had started that very day. How did he know? "I've been starting to find velvet," he said. Moose antlers are deciduous and grow back every year. As they do they are covered with fuzzy brown "velvet." The covering is actually skin rich with blood vessels that supply minerals to connective tissue, which turns into bone. After the new antlers are formed, usually by late August, the velvet is shed, signaling the beginning of mating season.

"When the blood dries up, it's like a scab and itches," Tinker said. "So the moose scratches it on tree trunks to get it off." He later pointed out a tree with a spot rubbed smooth by a moose seeking relief.

Our instruments came into play after we had walked through thick woods to Tinker's hideout behind a canopy of limbs and leaves. We were at his blind, perfect for late-day photography.

The moose clearly liked hanging out here. All kinds of fresh tracks were imprinted in the boggy, grassy area. Tinker led us to a wallow, a small pit that a male scratches in the ground, urinates into, and then rolls around in to cover himself with pheromones to attract females.

When we weren't making moose noises, we were sitting and waiting statue-like on camp chairs, enjoying the waft of cedar from the surrounding forest.

"You can talk to moose year-round," whispered Tinker. "You can say, 'Hi, what's going on?' " He demonstrated with a 'thwup, thwup' through his horn. "But now is the time to say, 'Where are you?' meaning 'It's time.' "

Tinker let out a long, plaintive wail through the horn, a mix of vocal cords and instrumentation that I could not accomplish.

My part was much simpler, running my fingers tightly down the rawhide, which also created a kind of mournful sound the one time I managed to do it correctly.

Tinker may have felt he was leading the band for the Titanic, as this was his third day of bad luck.

"I see moose 95 percent of the time, but the last two times out I didn't see them," he said, shaking his head. "It's my biggest dry spell in two years."

After an hour at the blind with no visitors, we reluctantly decided to call it quits.

I had seen dozens of moose in Maine and beyond, so I was taking it in stride. But Wessel had seen only one, and Erik, though he had come to his family's lakeside lodge in Rangeley almost every summer since he was young, had seen only a few. They were crestfallen. As for Tinker, he felt he had let us down.

As we headed back to the highway, we spotted something in the dirt road and pulled over. "Wow, this is the best piece of velvet I've ever seen!" Tinker shouted, holding up an almost complete piece of fuzz and scab that was both fascinating and repulsive. "We've seen velvet, scat, tracks, rubs, but where are the moose?"

We drove out, everyone silent, still repeating the Maine mantra despite our tumbling odds, when Erik's screams pierced our ears. "Oh my God. Look!"

And there he was: a bull moose crossing the road. As the creature hurried into the woods, Tinker stuck his head out the window and made a plaintive "It's time" cry. The moose stopped in his tracks and stared at us. He started to leave again. Tinker enticed him to stay. This continued until the moose had had enough.

With that, our ragtag moose-calling duo disbanded. A reunion tour is not out of the question.

Contact Diane Daniel at diane@bydianedaniel.com.

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