Friday, July 02, 2010

In Seach of Moosey Paradise: A Walk Along Portland's Inner-City Wildlife Corridors

The big news here in Portland yesterday was a young bull moose who had wandered into Deering Oaks Park, a formally-landscaped open space in the central city. Just like the opening credits of Northern Exposure, but with more spectators.

According to reports, the animal took a dip in the park's pond, where it attracted a small crowd of onlookers, as well as the city's police department and a state game warden, who were concerned about how it would cross I-295 on its way out of the city. One of my favorite details of the story is how they were going to shoot the animal with a tranquilizer, but the warden's gun jammed just when she got a clear shot. Apparently Portland's big-game armory has suffered from infrequent use.

It ended up taking the Forest Avenue underpass, crossing one of the city's busiest streets twice, then escaping through the University of Southern Maine campus. It was later spotted at Chevrus High School, located in an inner suburban neighborhood, before it made its way west through the woods in Evergreen Cemetery. The animal was reportedly exhausted, but unscathed.

This isn't the first time a young bull moose has appeared in downtown Portland. A few years ago, police shot one in the middle of the city's Munjoy Hill neighborhood - an even stranger place to see such a huge animal, since it lies at the end of a peninsula, cut off from the mainland by a freeway and the city's central business district. That was also early in the summer, a time of year when juvenile males tend to strike out on their own and take risks in pursuit of their own territory.

These moose that wander into the city obviously have no conception of where it was, just a sense of hope that, on the other side of this neighborhood, it might find a big-enough block of swampy woods with a small surplus of female moose. I'm reminded of how deer and other mammals came to populate islands far from and out of sight of the mainland, swimming for hours on a vague scent, with no way of knowing how much further land would be, or whether they might drown in the crossing. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, I'm impressed at this moose's sense of adventure - its willingness to take big risks to find a great new place.

This kind of exploration is hard to come by for anyone who actually lives in and knows the city. But the moose's path in and out of Portland seems to have gravitated towards the city's remaining blocks of undeveloped land and forested parks - and the places where a moose would feel most at home happen to be the kinds of places I most enjoy exploring myself.

Because there aren't any public reports of the moose before it was sighted in Deering Oaks Park, it's hard to tell how this particular moose got into the city, but I suspect that it either came in the way it left, through Evergreen Cemetery, or it ventured in along the banks of the Stroudwater and Fore Rivers. Here's a map:

Although Portland is on a peninsula, there are two large blocks of wildlands on its fringes that extend towards the central city. To the south, critters like deer and coyotes regularly migrate into the city along the Stroudwater River, which is surrounded by a large block of swampy, undeveloped woods, as well as several farms and golf courses. The Maine Turnpike, probably the biggest barrier for critters trying to get into the city (it's the red-dashed line running across the map above) flies over the Stroudwater on a wide bridge, which makes it easy for critters (and people - this is roughly the path of the Stroudwater Trail) to cross under the highway:

On the other side of the Turnpike, just north of the mouth of the Stroudwater, there's the Fore River Preserve, a former Maine Audubon property that occupies the headwaters of the Fore River along with acres of marsh and forested uplands. From the Preserve, a moose bound for the city could walk through the sparsely-populated neighborhood between the Fore River and the railroad tracks, cross under I-295 at the bridge, and then follow an abandoned railway into Deering Oaks, without seeing a human soul.

Alternatively, a critter could cross the Turnpike at one of two other Turnpike underpasses: one at Warren Avenue, a relatively rural-feeling road that cuts through an industrial area, and one where the Presumpscot River passes under the Turnpike in the city's northernmost reaches. From either of these options, a moose could cut through the thin patches of woods between houses in the city's low-density outer suburbs, before reaching the the Evergreen Cemetery. While the front of the Cemetery, along Stevens Avenue, is highly landscaped, and doesn't offer much cover for critters, the back of the Cemetery is a huge, wild forest that extends almost all the way to the Turnpike. Better still, right across Stevens Avenue from the Cemetery is Baxter Woods, a forested city park, which itself is just a skip across a busy road and railroad tracks to a smaller tract of woods around the new Ocean Avenue School. From there, its just a matter of trespassing through some inner-suburb backyards to get to the parklike University of Southern Maine campus, which is right across the freeway from Deering Oaks Park. The moose yesterday opted to take a detour to the north to visit Chevrus High School, but this roughly describes his escape route.

By coming into Portland, this moose has demonstrated to us an inner-city bushwhacking course through the wildest remaining areas of our city. While I've hiked portions of this itinerary before (such as the Stroudwater Trail, which I described here), I've never tried to do the whole thing in a day, as this moose did. But I think it would be fun to try.

1 comment:

Wm. A. Everitt said...

It was fun reading about this belatedly. The day this happened, Rose and I happened to be in Baxter State Park for the week and missed the "big news." As it turned out, we didn't see any moose up at the park. It's ironic we had a better chance to see a moose a few blocks from our urban home than when we were up in Baxter for 5 days.