The Haunts of Wild Beasts by C. A. Stephens

IN crossing the forests which lie about that singular system of ponds and lakes that occupy the northern interior of the State of Maine, the tourist and hunter will often come upon well-beaten paths, running through the woods, trodden hard, as if by the passage of myriads of feet; and this in a region rarely, or never, entered by man. They are the paths of wild beasts—bears, lynxes, wildcats, the moose, and the carribou,—along which they pass from lake to lake, in pursuit of  their food, or upon hostile forays. When two lakes adjoin each other, with no more than a mile or half a mile of forest between them, there will nearly always be found, across the narrowest part of the isthmus, a path of this sort, more or less worn, according as the locality abounds with game, or the lakes with fish.

The bear standing on a rock outcrop


One of the widest and most used of these that I have ever seen, led from the bank of Moose River up to the low shores of Holeb Pond, in one of the not yet numbered townships near the Canada line—so near that the high, dingy summit of the “Hog’s Back” was plainly visible to the north-westward. Starting out from between two large boulders on the stream, which at this point is broken by rips, it runs crooking and turning amid clumps of hazel and alder, till lost to view in a wide flat, covered with “high bush” cranberries, but lost to sight only, however; for its tortuous course still continues beneath the thick shrubs, until at a distance of two hundred rods it emerges on the pond.

Happening to cross it a year ago last autumn, in company with Rod Nichols (my comrade on these tramps), the idea suggested itself that a good thing might perhaps be done by setting our traps along the path. For where there were so many passing feet, some of them might without doubt be entrapped.

Rod thought it was the “beat” of some bears, or “lucivees,” while I inclined to the opinion that otters or “fishers” had made it.

So we brought up our traps,—half a dozen small ones, which we used for sable and otter—from the dug-out (canoe) down on the stream, and during the following afternoon set them at different points in the path, between the border of the cranberry flat and the river. Then drawing our canoe up out of the water, we encamped on the stream about a mile below the path, and waited for the game.

Our stock of deer meat had got out. We had to content ourselves, both for supper and breakfast, the following morning, with a couple of hares—lean as usual. Who ever saw a fat hare?

Old hunters are always telling the young sportsman about the marvellous properties of shaving-soap made from hare’s tallow and cedar ashes. The flesh has about as much taste and nutrition in it as—so much paper pulp, for want of a better comparison to express its utter lack of flavor. But during the forenoon we managed to shoot four partridges. These we first parboiled in our camp kettle, then broiled on coals. They made us a comfortable dinner; and towards sunset we again paddled up the stream, to visit the traps.

Coming near where the path strikes out from the river, we drew up the dug-out, and followed in to the place where we had set the first trap. It was gone; but the grass about the spot was beaten down, and the bushes broken. And on looking around, we discovered a trail leading off through the weeds. Following this for ten or a dozen rods, we came to a large, rough stone; and near it lay the trap, shattered and bent, with the springs broken, and the jaws gaping and powerless. The stone, too, looked newly scratched, as if from heavy blows. The trap had evidently been beaten upon.

“Some large animal,” said I.

“Bear, probably,” said Rod. “They will frequently smash up a small trap to get it off their feet.”

Whatever it was, the creature had freed himself and gone. Rod picked up the broken trap, and we went back, and on to the next.

This one was just as we had placed it—not sprung. So we kept on to the third, which was sprung, but empty, with little clots of hair clinging to the teeth.  The hair looked like that of a sable; but he, too, had escaped.

The fourth was sprung and drawn out of the path. We crept cautiously up, and lo! we had a contemptible little musquash (muskrat)—skin not worth a shilling. He was busy as a bee gnawing at his leg. In a few minutes more he would have been at liberty—minus a foot. If left any length of time after being caught, they will frequently gnaw off the leg in the trap. For this reason, those who make a business of trapping them set their traps under water, well weighted. They will then drown in a few moments, and may thus be secured.

The last two traps were not sprung.

“A big thing this!” muttered Rod. “Had our labor for our pains. Too bad.”

We were near the edge of the cranberry flat; and just as Rod was bemoaning our poor luck, a slight crackling out in the thick cranberry bushes came to our ears.

“Hark!” whispered Rod; “something out there. The bear, perhaps.”

Standing on tiptoe, we peeped quietly over the tops of the bushes, now laden with the green cranberries. Off some seventeen or eighteen rods, something was slowly moving. We could see it plainly—something which, at first sight, looked like the roots of an old dry pine stump, a great mass of stubs and prongs.

“A moose!” exclaimed Rod, in an eager whisper. “A moose browsing the cranberries! Quick with your rifle! Together now!”

We both fired. The huge animal, fully nine feet in height beneath his antlers, bounded into the air at the reports, with a wild, hoarse cry, which I can compare to nothing I have ever heard for hideousness. In a frightful way it resembled the neigh of a horse, or, rather, the loud squeal of that animal when bitten or otherwise hurt—bounded up, then fell, floundering and wallowing amid the cranberries, uttering hideous moans.

As quickly as we could for the thick and tangled bushes, we made our way out towards the spot. The fearful struggles stilled as we drew near. Our aim, at so short a distance, had been thoroughly fatal. A great opening in the bushes had been smashed down, in the midst of which lay the moose, with its large nostrils dilated, gasping and quivering. But its great ox eyes were set, and rapidly glazing. The bushes were all besprinkled and drenched with blood. One bullet had struck and broken the skull into the brain; that was Rod’s. Mine had gone into the breast, striking the lungs,—probably, from the profuse bleeding.

“A pretty good shot!” exclaimed Rod, looking upon the slaughter from a purely business stand-point. “Moosehide is always worth something. So are those antlers. A noble set—aren’t they? All of four feet broad across the top. Pretty heavy to lug; we can put them in the canoe, though.”

“Then there’s the meat,” said I.

“That’s so,” cried Rod, smacking his lips. “No more rabbit’s broth for us at present. O, won’t we have some grand moose steaks! Do you hear that, old boy? How does that strike your fancy? Come, let’s skin him, and cut him up. I long to behold some of that surloin broiling! Rabbit meat, indeed!” and Rod whipped out his hunting-knife, and fell upon the carcass with the zeal of a hungry bald eagle.

In a few minutes we had stripped off the skin. Rod then wrenched off the antlers, cut out the muffle (the end of the nose), and also about a hundred weight of what he considered the choicest of the meat. The rest of it—nine or ten hundred pounds—we could only leave where it had fallen. It would be of no use to us, so far from the settled lands.

A tiger pauses to look around


 To carry our spoils down to our canoe, we had to make two trips; for the antlers alone were as much as one could take along at once. We had gone back after them and the hide.

“Too bad,” remarked Rod, “to leave all this flesh here to rot above ground.”

“I doubt if it be left to rot above ground,” said I. “There are too many hungry mouths about for that.”

“Right there,” said Rod; “and that makes me think we might use it to lure them, and to bait our traps with. Drag it out to the path, and set the traps round it.”

The idea seemed a good one. So we cut the remains of the carcass in two. Whole it was too heavy to be moved. Then, fastening some stout withes into them, we dragged the pieces, one after the other, out to the path, and left it at the place where the path entered the cranberry bushes. This done, we set the traps about it,—the remaining five,—and then went back to the canoe with the antlers and skin.

“Made a very fair thing of it, after all,” remarked Rod, as we floated with the current down to our camp. “Tell you what, old fellow, these steaks are not to be sneezed at. More than ordinary pot luck just at this time.”

It is needless to say that we fully satisfied our taste for venison that night, or that our breakfast next morning was merely a repetition of supper. Such things are to be expected in the wilderness. Suffice it to add, that we neither overate nor overslept, but were up betimes, and off to examine our traps considerably before sunrise. We did not go up in the canoe on the river, but walked along the bank through the woods.

“We may surprise a bear or a lynx at the carcass,” said Rod.

So, as we drew near the place where we had left it in the path the evening before, we made our way amid the brush with as little noise as possible. A small hollow, overrun with hackmatack, led up towards the spot. We crept along the bed of it, in order to approach unobserved. Pausing a moment to listen, the clank of a chain came faintly to our ears, then a growling, worrying noise, heard when two creatures, jealous of each other’s rights, eat from the same piece.

“Game!” whispered Rod.

Climbing quietly up the steep side, we peeped out from amid the green boughs. We had got up within nine or ten rods; but intervening bushes partially hid the carcass. Something was moving about it, however—something black. The trap chains were rattling. Then a big black head was raised, to growl; and as if in reply came a sharp snarl from some animal out of sight. The black creature darted forward; and a great uproar arose, growling, grappling, and spitting, at which there flew up a whole flock of crows, cawing and hawing; and the noise increasing, there sprang into the air, at a single flap, a great yellow bird, uttering a savage scream.

“An eagle!” whispered Rod; “and that black creature’s a bear, I guess. Can’t see him just plainly. Growls like one, though. Fighting with some other animal—isn’t he? Some sort of a cat, by the spitting.”

“Shall we fire on them?” said I.

“No; let ’em have it out,” said Rod. “One of them will be pretty sure to get chewed up, and the other won’t leave the carcass. Besides, the cat’s in the trap, I reckon, by the rattling.” For the jingling of the chain could still be heard over the howling they were making. But ere the fight had lasted many seconds, a suppressed screech, followed by a crunching sound, told ill for one or the other of the combatants. “The cat’s got his death hug,” muttered Rod.

 Presently the bear—a great, clumsy-looking fellow—came out into view, strutted along, scrubbing his feet on the grass, like a dog, and went back to the carcass. The eagle and the crows had come back to it. They flew before him.

“Keep your eye on the eagle,” whispered Rod. “I would like to get him. It isn’t a ‘white head.’ Never saw one like it.”

The great bird circled slowly several times, then stooped, almost touching the bear’s shaggy back with its hooked talons. At that the bear raised his ugly muzzle, all reeking from his feast, and growled menacingly. This was repeated several times, the bear warning him off at each stoop, and sometimes striking with his big paw. Finding the bear not inclined to divide with him, the eagle, with one mighty flap of his wings, rose up to the top of a tall hemlock standing near, and perched upon it. We could see the branches bend and sway beneath his weight.

“I’ll have him now,” muttered Rod, poking the muzzle of his rifle out through the boughs. “You take the bear. Ready! now!”

We blazed away. With a wild shriek the eagle came tumbling down through the hemlock. Rod ran out towards him, and I made up to the bear. Old Bruin was merely wounded—an ugly flesh wound; and not knowing whence it came, he had flown at the dead lynx,—for such it turned out to be,—and was giving him another hugging. Seeing me, he started up, to rectify his mistake, probably; but I had put in another charge, and instantly gave him a quietus. Just then Rod came up, dragging the eagle.

“Never saw one like it,” exclaimed he. “I mean to take it down to Greenville.”

After skinning the bear and the lynx, we gathered up the traps, and went down to our camp. Together with the spoils of the moose, we had now a full canoe load, and stowing them in, went down the river that afternoon. Two days after, we arrived at Greenville, at the foot of Moosehead Lake. There we fell in with a party of tourists—from Boston, I believe. They pronounced Rod’s “big bird” to be a golden eagle.