Up ahead of me, legs hammering the road like pistons, antlers like tree branches raking the air, the morning sun shining off his burnished coat, his beard swinging back and forth with each toss of his head, and a rogue eye glancing back at me over his shoulder as he trots along the yellow line, Mr. Moose is on the loose, and he has no plans to share the road with me, or to let me drive by. Could it be that he’s waiting for me to turn on my signal light before he lets me pass?
One of the most common questions directed at me since I moved to the northern peninsula is, “Seen ‘ere moose today?” It’s not a hard question for me to answer; I just don’t see why it matters how many moose are out there, and I don’t understand the Newfoundlander’s fascination with an animal that can pester the wits out of people by trotting up the center of the road and defying drivers to pass. Perhaps it has everything to do with something I heard someone say not long ago. “He’ll be a great one to get in the fall.” Is it possible that, when people are counting, they’re actually counting moose steaks rather than moose?
I’ve discovered that many Newfoundlanders take their moose sightings very seriously and that the whole tide of a conversation can be diverted in the blink of an eye by calmly stating, “I saw 87 moose today.” Guaranteed, Buddy saw at least a dozen more than that, even though he was one car-length behind me at the time.
So, when it comes to moose, I know people are counting, but the question that begs to be answered is, why are they counting, and why does it matter?
In the early 1960s, my dad drove a 1952 Chevy 4-door sedan, and every summer our family took a vacation across the prairies. Back then, the old car seemed as big as a boat; I know, because my parents, plus all six kids, a dog, and two cats fit nicely inside. My favourite spot in the old blue Chevy was up on the ledge by the back window, where I could lie for hours watching the dust clouds behind us and the clouds of grasshoppers in front. When boredom struck, as it occasionally did, one of us would ask, “How many more minutes till we get there?” And my dad would say, “There are 300 miles to go, and 26 telephone poles per mile. Just count the telephone poles and that should give you some idea of how long it will take.” Dad was just giving us something to divert our attention from the long hours that lay ahead because, other than the occasional sighting of a herd of antelope, there was very little to speculate about while crossing the prairies.
So, we counted telephone poles and became very good at it.
The way I see it, this moose-counting thing has got to be more fiction than fact. I’ve lived on the island three years, and I have yet to see the sheer numbers of moose that are supposed to be out there along the side of the road. I’ve traveled along the roads at dawn, at dusk, and times in between, and the most moose I’ve seen on any trip is a couple dozen. I’m beginning to think people claiming to see large numbers of moose are really counting legs instead of the number of animals, and really, who can blame them? One moose on a slippery road, propelling itself out of the way of an oncoming vehicle, legs flailing like chunks of wood falling off the back end of a truck, is sure to make a person think he or she is seeing more than one moose; I know; it happened to me. One second a collision was imminent, the next, Mr. Moose was gone in a mad flurry of hooves and legs and ugly snout, tearing off through the brush like a scalded cat.
So, when it comes to counting, here’s my advice (although I know no self-respecting Newfoundlander will ever heed it). Count telephone poles. I guarantee you’ll get the numbers right every time and, because telephone poles ‘stay where they’re to,’ you won’t have to share the road with them, or tell lies to outdo Buddy.
You can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t expect her to swallow all the ‘moose tales’ circulating in outport Newfoundland. At least, not yet.