"sleddin' with bullwinkle"
report by Mike Woelflein
Moosehead Lake Maine Snowmobile Tour - sleddin’ with bullwinkle
Seek sightings of Maine’s creatures and critters on a snowmobile tour.
For many, the lure of snowmobiling is speed. The thought of dashing through forests, fields, and hills on a sled bursting with horsepower draws thousands of locals and tourists to the sport. Speed gets them outside on even the coldest days, and allows them to cover vast areas of Maine’s backcountry in a short period of time.
That’s wonderful, assuming the speed is a safe one. But snowmobiling can also be a way to convene with, and learn about, wildlife—if you’re traveling with an expert, and slowing down enough to sniff it out. That’s the philosophy behind the wildlife snowmobile tours run from the Cozy Moose, a shoreside retreat and outfitter in Greenville, at the southern tip of Moosehead Lake.
The full-day, guided tours focus on finding wildlife and signs of wildlife by learning about the species’ natural environment. “There’s all kinds of things to see, if you know where to look,” says Registered Maine Guide Mike Witham of Monson, a tour leader who knows where to find snowshoe hares, eagles, bobcats, owls, coyotes, and the one everyone wants to get a look at: moose. The goal is safe encounters, for both riders and the animals.
Witham takes guests over a series of trails, many outside of Maine’s Interconnected Trail System (ITS). Witham’s backcountry trails generally aren’t as well documented on maps, making them less crowded, which increases the chances for sightings.
“These are backcountry snowmobile trails, and you wouldn’t be able to find them [on your own],” says Witham, a guide since 1975. “And you wouldn’t be able to get back if you did. That’s the big thing.”
This winter, Witham is running the tours on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, in conjunction with the Cozy Moose, which offers cabins and suites as part of a package deal.
The Cozy Moose is a mom-and-pop operation, with Ron and Heather Davis as the lone full-time employees—though 11-year-old Trevor, who is trained in snowmobile safety, first aid, and CPR, is always around to help.
The Davises rent snowmobiles; those who take the wildlife tour do so on 2004 Ski-Doo 380 touring sleds, with room for one or two people and an extra-long track that assures a smooth ride. The machines also have a carrying rack that’s perfect for a camera bag.
“Everyone likes to ride new sleds,” Heather says. “And these sleds are a dream.”
The day begins with a pre-ride discussion of the riders’ skills and desires (as well as medical conditions), and outfitting. Novices then have a chance to practice on a supervised loop. Afterwards, Witham escorts the group—usually two to four people—to the ITS and the backcountry snowmobile trails.
“It’s about safety, and making people feel comfortable,” Davis says. “It’s a guided tour, and it’s their tour. It’s not about a fast, thrilling ride. And with all our rentals, guided or not, it’s not just, ‘Here’s the key and the map and go.’”
Speeds are generally in the 25 to 30 mph range for the tour, and the guide will customize the length of the day’s run to match the skill level of those on the tour. The ride usually starts off in the low-lying areas, with a search for moose—and discarded moose antlers. Find them, and they’re yours to keep. That’s a big goal for many riders, and Witham remembers a Pennsylvania family going home with seven sets last year.
There’s no money-back guarantee of a moose sighting, but Witham says there’s about a 50% chance. “I’ve seen six moose in 15 minutes, and I’ve seen an eagle swoop down, right on the trail, and pick up a rabbit. But you never know. I’ve seen a lot, and, usually, people will see a lot on this tour.”
Even without a wildlife sighting, the tour offers a chance to see Maine’s backcountry from a new perspective, farther from civilization than a lot of people get, especially in winter.
“We look for moose themselves, for where they bed down, for where they’ve been fighting to knock their horns off,” Witham says. “And we’ll stop at all these places and explain what the moose are up to. Then, as we ride, our guests see more of these places and understand them.”
Other potential highlights are coyotes, which often run on the trail and remain visible for long stretches. There are also some old trapper’s cabins, where Witham can fill you in on what it was like to live out in the woods in winter, decades ago.
Parts of the day are dedicated to reaching some high spots with spectacular views of the area and its birds. There’s a break for lunch, either at Witham’s own Spring Creek Cookhouse and Bar-B-Q Emporium in Monson, or at a restaurant in Greenville, usually along the lake.
The tour is an excellent way to start a snowmobiling vacation. “If people are coming up for a few days, spending a day with me will save them time on the other days, and make their ride more enjoyable,” Witham says. “I’ll tell them how to spot wildlife activity, and also how to get to the gas station, where to go have lunch. I’ll put them on the right trail.”
YOU need to know to visit The Cozy Moose.
When to go: While the schedule may be extended, the wildlife tour is offered Mondays through Wednesdays, beginning at 8:30 a.m. It depends on the winter, but the season is most predictable from January 10 to March 1. It can start as early as Christmas and run until early April. Snowfall reports and trail conditions are available at www.mooseheadcabins.com.
Costs: Statewide, snowmobile rentals are not cheap, generally running $150 to $225 per day. A big reason for rising rates is the cost of liability insurance, which has doubled in just one season for many outfitters. The wildlife tour is part of a lodging package at the Cozy Moose, which offers lakeside cabins and suites. It’s $915 for two people, with two nights of lodging, two snowmobiles, apparel, and a guide for one day. For non-guests, the rate of $1,025 covers four people, four snowmobiles and a one-day guided tour; or two people for two days of touring. Call for other packages and rates.
How to get there: From I-95, take Exit 39 (Newport, Dexter), and follow Rte. 7 north about 16 miles to Dexter. In Dexter, take a left on Rte. 23, heading toward Guilford, and go about 15 miles to the junction of Rte. 15. Take a right, and follow Rte. 15 all the way to Greenville, about 27 miles. Just before you come into town, you’ll pass a rest area on the right, and the Cozy Moose office will be about an eighth of a mile farther, on the left. Check in there, and the Davises will get you the rest of the way to the cabins (about six miles) or the trailhead. From the west, take U.S. 2 east to Skowhegan, then Rte. 150 north to Guilford, and then Rte 15 as above.
Where to stay/eat: The Greenville area is loaded with B&Bs, motels, and cabin rental outfits, many of which are open all winter. Numerous restaurants in Greenville also cater to snowmobilers, and offer parking just off the trail. Check out Snowmobile Maine’s Web site, www.mesnow.com, and click on “where to eat, sleep, rent a sled, etc.” about halfway down the home page. For a filling pre- or post-ride meal—if your guide doesn’t take you there—check out Spring Creek Cookhouse and Bar-B-Q Emporium in Monson, about 12 miles south of Greenville on Rte. 15. It’s owned by guide Mike Witham and his wife, Kim, who serve Texas-style barbecue in an atmosphere that could not be more snowmobile-friendly. It’s open Thursdays through Sundays.
Whom to call:The Cozy Moose in Greenville, at 207-695-0242 or 207-280-0407. Check www.mooseheadcabins.com, or e-mail the Davises at email@example.com. For guided tours, advanced reservations are required.
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All photographs courtesy Heather Davis