This article was first published on Aug. 2, 2004 in the New Hampshire Union Leader.
WATERVILLE VALLEY – In the midst of the mountainside search for two Massachusetts teenagers missing earlier this month, a startling, if not preternatural, sound erupted from the dense forest off Tripoli Road.
It was an apocalyptic bellow that reached from the roadside and the toes of anyone near sound zero, all the way to the top of Mount Osceola, bursting forth every minute or so, spooking everyone hearing it for the first time.
“That’s the Bull Moose,” was the oft-repeated explanation given to the unnerved by Fish and Game officers coordinating the search for the teens.
It was not the wail of a demon beast, but rather a homespun contraption that had been in retirement for some years. Devised in the mid-1960s from what appears to be part of an old Jeep chassis, an industrial strength air horn, a Briggs and Stratton gas engine and a compressor, the Bull Moose had its heyday in a long ago time when hunters got lost in the deep thick woods of Pittsburg.
“In a rural, rolling terrain, it gives people a sense of direction,” said Fish and Game Lt. Doug Gralenski.
In the days before radios, cell phones and satellite technology, the Bull Moose came about as a necessity.
“It all started with the Berlin Fire Department – they’re the ones who instituted the bull horn on one of their fire trucks,” recalls Arthur Muise of Pittsburg, who retired as a conservation officer some 30 years ago.
That device, he said, was dubbed Big Bella and she worked off a fire truck generator, rolled out to call back lost hunters in the Berlin area in the 1960s.
It was a useful tool at the time, Muise said, but back then, the Fish and Game Department needed something more portable that officers could easily tow to what were then wild places in Pittsburg and Errol.
“John Roberts – he had Roberts Motors in Lancaster – was on the Fish and Game Commission at the time and he had a Canadian mechanic who made a smaller version of Big Bella,” Muise said.
The rolling air horn resided for the next few years at Muise’s home in the Groveton area, a central location to where it tended to be needed a few times each fall.
In those days, when the call went out that a hunter was lost, Muise towed the Bull Moose to where it needed to be, usually in Pittsburg. Back then, the top of the state lacked the network of logging roads and habitation it has now.
“We didn’t always want to put people in the woods, so we’d blow the horn and after we’d listen for a shot or two – hunters letting us know they’d heard it,” Muise said.
At that point, if it wasn’t the dead of night, an officer would undertake the tedious task of sounding the air horn. That meant waiting for the compressor to wind up and pulling a lever to bleed the pressure, making the bull horn spew.
In those days before radios were the way to communicate, searchers out in the woods would know that when the Bull Moose sounded three times in succession, the lost had been found and the search was over.
The Bull Moose is a rolling piece of history, in its own way. For a few years, stick figures were drawn on the compressor, signifying the people the horn helped sound out of the woods.
Sometimes, the people who came out of the woods weren’t necessarily the people for which the horn was intended.
“(Retired conservation officer) Carl Carlson had brought the horn out one night to Indian Stream for a lost hunter,” Muise recalled.
Indian Stream flows along the Quebec border and at daybreak, a man came across a field.
“He told him in broken English that he was following the sound of a sick moose all night long … only to find this thing on wheels,” he said with a chuckle.
Now and then, there was some controversy about bringing out the Bull Moose.
“There was a problem with children – they were afraid of it,” Muise said. “Other people complained that it kept them up all night.”
As Pittsburg grew and logging roads sprouted and technology advanced, the Bull Moose was used less and less. Veteran Fish and Game officers said earlier this month that it’s probably been eight or nine years since it was last brought out in search of a lost person.
But when the teens, who ended up spending nearly 36 hours lost on Mount Osceola, were still missing after their first night, the Bull Moose was brought out of retirement and was sounded throughout the day.
“They heard it all day and they tried to go toward it, but there was no path,” said Lt. Todd Bogardus, who headed that search. “It scared them at first – they didn’t know what it was.”
The Bull Moose has been returned to its retirement home at the Fish and Game office in Lancaster, where it sits next to Big Bella, who, in her dotage, needs some extensive work if she were to sound again.
“It was great in some situations,” Muise said. “But hunters are better equipped now.”