New Hampshire’s North Country feels like such a secret corner of the state that a “Welcome to New Hampshire” sign greets those leaving it.
Few locals I meet statewide have been to this narrow stub of woodlands, hills, and lakes wedged between the Maine, Vermont, and Quebec borders. Those who have tend to be avid fly-fishers or snowmobilers.
So I’m here to see what’s up. And to see the moose.
U.S. Route 3 north of Pittsburg, a town of nearly 900 on a scenic bend of the Connecticut River, is best known as Moose Alley. It twists past a series of lakes named after the river (First, Second, Third, and Fourth Connecticut Lakes) toward the Quebec border. I’ve heard it’s almost guaranteed to see moose along it. On my way into Pittsburg, I spot a cow moose prancing roadside.
It’s already late tonight though, and Pittsburg’s few shops are closed up. I stop at the Buck Rub Pub, a log cabin-style restaurant with poutine and pizzas. A couple guys in T-shirts at the bar are telling corny jokes for the room. I order a burger. And just as I start my first sip of a local beer, a waitress asks if I’m ready for another. I say “not yet,” but she brings one anyway. It’s that kind of place.
Molly, the waitress, is from nearby Rye, on the seashore, and is on summer break from college in Florida. To find the moose, she says, just drive north, “past the creepy house.”
She adds, “The moose are the second best animal, after whales. Because they just don’t care. They just sit there.”
I love moose too. They’re the largest deer, best recognized by the bull’s antlers, which weigh upwards of 30 pounds. I like their humorous, goatee-looking dewlaps that dangle below their chins. They look lumpy but can run 30 miles an hour and dive into lakes. Generally mum, moose tend to follow beavers, as they like noodling for aquatic “veggies” in the mucky waters beaver dams create. Otherwise they eat lots of twigs. For me, the moose is the bulldog of the wild. Just seeing one makes me feel happy.
The next morning I’m up too late for a moose crawl—best at dawn and dusk—so I opt for a canoe. My base, Lopstick Cabins (a lopstick is a trimmed tree used as a landmark by loggers) rents out canoes to take with you, but I stick with the broad lake that sprawls before my cabin window: First Connecticut Lake. Conditions are ideal. It’s quiet, the water’s gently rippled, and pointy hills sheathed in a jumble of green crowd the rocky shores.
In the afternoon, I take a leisurely drive. Dogs sit in passenger seats of oncoming truck cabs. Past the “creepy house” (Molly’s right; you can’t miss it) I turn onto a gravel road that leads 11 miles to Garfield Falls, a popular swimming place in summer. I then follow a splinter road with a marker reading “fire tower.” After five winding miles, it dead-ends at a short hiking trail that’s too muddy for my sneakers. I double back, then follow the Connecticut River and find a spot to wander down the bankside to watch fish jump. The sun is now dipping, so I amp up my moose search. I take the roads slower now, looking into clearings and the woods. Then back on Moose Alley, I pass two more lakes in my 20-minute ride to the Quebec border.
Alas, the moose aren’t biting today. But the next morning, the fish are.
The North Country is famed for its fly-fishing. I’ve only fly-fished once before—for a Digital Nomad story in Wyoming—so I’ve hired Bill Bernhardt, who has been a fly-fishing guide in the area for 14 years. We walk through soft moss through the woods to a riverbank spot and wade in, thigh deep. His thermometer reads 52°F (11°C) in the water, refreshing in my waders on a 75°F (24°C) day. It was snowing just a week earlier.
I cast a couple lines in and quickly get some tugs. “Hup, hup, hup!” Bernhardt yells out, eager to see something pulled out. Mostly it’s landlocked salmon, rainbow trout, and brook trout here, but Bernhardt tells me he read in Trout Unlimited that the first Atlantic salmon in generations are now spawning in the Connecticut River.
Soon my fishing line starts to bend in the rippling current.
“You got one! That’s a fish!” he yells. “See how he’s fighting, going upstream? Hold the rod up! Let him tire himself.”
I pull out the brookie after a few minutes. It’s longer than my hand; it’s a beautiful gray-green, freckled with red dots. As Bill helps net him, we see another fish pop out of his mouth! My catch was in the middle of a late breakfast when he seized my line. One meal’s not enough for this trout.
“That’s a good attitude! Good for him!” says Bernhardt, who could not be happier.
We release the fish and start talking about life in the North Country, then—inevitably—moose. He reminds me a moose hunt is more random than fly-fishing. There are miles and miles of wild forest here, and fewer moose come to the road anymore. Yes, winter ticks can be fatal to moose, but he promises the moose are out there. He says that last night a calf ran right out in front of him.
“It’s like picking the right line at the supermarket,” he says. “You got to get lucky.”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
At dusk, I’ll try my moose roulette again.
How to Do This Trip:
Fish: Several outfitters, including Lopstick Cabins, offer guided floating or wading trips. Lopstick's half-day wading trip is $175 including all gear.
Boat: Canoes can be rented from many places from around $45 a day. You can either take them to out-of-the-way lakes or ponds, or drift out from First Connecticut or Lake Francis (in Pittsburg).
Hike: Other than snowmobile/ATV trails, isolated hiking trails can get you to remote patches of woods and hills quickly. A good choice is the Moose Alley Trail, a 1.2-mile trail alongside the Connecticut River. You can access it off U.S. Route 3, a couple miles north of First Connecticut Lake.
Stay: There are several B&Bs and lodges around. I enjoyed Lopstick Cabins, with little stand-alone cabins with covered porches, kitchenettes, and views of First Connecticut Lake.