Melville, Herman once said, “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.” He wasn’t talking about the TV controller.
My vacation starts in a month, but of course I’ve been preparing for it now since March. Actually, that’s a late start for me. Two years ago I began preparing for my August vacation in October. Last year I started getting ready in January. I must be getting better at this. I’ve got it down to five months of preparation.
Why so long? Well, this will be our third trip into the Allagash in remote northwestern Maine. All the planning is a result of accessibility; as it’s one of those places you can’t get to from here (so to speak). But once there, you’ll never want to leave.
Henry David Thoreau said of the north Maine woods, “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is the earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”
If you ever have the chance, look into the eyes of the Allagash.
Sure you can drive up to Millinocket or Greenville and head into the woods, but unless you spend some time thinking through what you intend to do, and what you might face, you’ll only chip the tip of this wonderful and amazing iceberg.
I began to familiarize myself by reading about the Allagash. I started out with what I’ve found to be the best source on the waterway; Allagash, A journey through time on Maine’s legendary wilderness waterway, by Gil Gilpatrick. He also wrote The Allagash Guide, also worth a read before making the trip.
Lew Dietz penned The Allagash, the history of a wilderness river in Maine, which is another wonderful source on the history of the area. Today one of the foremost authors of things Allagash is Professor Dean Bennett, who wrote The Wilderness from Chamberlain Farm and Allagash, both full of history and information.
Then there were the few books written by those who spent their lives, or parts of their lives, as rangers living in this far off neck of the woods. Many wives penned books as they chronicled the seasons and life in the north. Campfires Rekindled, by George S. Kephart recalls his life in the backcountry as a forester. Dorothy Boone Kidney, who lived in the Allagash for 24 years, wrote a couple of books about her life in the woods of northwestern Maine. Wilderness Journal, Life Living, Contentment In the Allagash Woods of Maine and Away from It All. Both of these are windows on life in the north woods during the middle years of the last century.
Helen Hamlin wrote, Nine Mile Bridge, about her years in the woods near the Canadian border. Nine Mile Bridge was a place on the St. John River. The bridge is gone and so are the few buildings.
Annette Jackson, the wife of a ranger lived on Umsaskis Lake with her husband and children in the 1930’s. My Life in the Maine Woods is a window on another time that also chronicles the history and lore of the Allagash.
In 1882 Thomas Sedgwick Steele wrote Canoe and Camera, about his two hundred mile journey through the Maine woods. More recently David S. Cook came out with Above the Gravel Bar, a book that traces the Native American canoe routes in Maine.
A couple of people have made solo journeys along the waterway, which is roughly considered to be from Telos Lake to Allagash Village, about 100 miles. David Curran wrote Canoe Trip, Alone in the Maine Wilderness and Doug Leland penned Alone on the Allagash, both about their trip along the waterway.
Logging has been a constant in north woods history and two books that bring home the history of the industry best are Tall Trees, Tough Men and Spiked Boots, both by Robert E. Pike.
In spite of the logging that continues today, the Allagash area of northern Maine, in many areas, has changed little from the days when Henry David Thoreau paddled its waters and walked among the old-growth forests. To follow Thoreau’s paths (he made three trips) is not only a walk in the footsteps of history, but with a familiarity with his book The Maine Woods, a walk through time. J. Parker Huber has recently written The Wildest Country, Exploring Thoreau’s Maine, which offers a picture of the poet’s wanderings.
I’ve read them all, some twice. Now you get an idea why it takes so long in preparing to go. But, when I do travel the lakes, rivers, streams, mountains and trails of the Allagash, I have a strong respect for and understanding of the history, the people, nature and what this precious piece of near wilderness resource is today.
It can be argued, but some will claim that the Allagash is as close as man can come to wilderness in the eastern United States. There is probably not a place within the Maine north woods that hasn’t seen the footprint of man, native or European, but through continued efforts the Allagash area has been preserved. The landowners and the State of Maine have worked hard to ensure that the hands of man leave few fingerprints on this pristine wilderness. While it is still actively logged, the days of the river drives are gone. Today trucks haul the logs and many of them head north with their loads.
It is possible to visit, hike, camp and canoe the hundreds of miles of lakes and rivers and because of the remoteness; you’ll find few other people. Two years ago we went five days without crossing paths with another person. The woods are packed with wildlife and it’s quite conceivable to see more animals that people, which we usually do.
Common sense plays a big role in any trip into the woods. Two years ago we canoed for eight days, with everything we needed packed into the boat. Last year we spent two weeks canoeing and hiking around the lakes and streams and again carried everything we needed. This year we’ll go for three weeks, again carrying our supplies for the entire trip. It’s amazing what you don’t need.
The lack of other people can make it lonely or to some frightening. But, on the other hand, without other people around you can walk away from your tent and belongings, carrying only what you need, for days at a time and not worry about it still being there when you return. Certain arrangements have to be made to discourage marauders, particularly mice and there are also bears, raccoons, porcupines and the like that would find an empty campsite stocked with food a picnic.
The self-reliance and solitude are invigorating and for a 15-year old there are lessons he’ll find nowhere else. My son will be making his fifth trip into the woods this August (our third into the Allagash) and our last together for the foreseeable future. Next summer he’ll work and I’ll go it alone. The experiences we’ve had together can never be replaced and hopefully someday he’ll take his son on a trip into the north woods that pushes him both physically and mentally.
“I went to the woods to live deliberately,” Thoreau observed, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when it came time to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Maybe there’ll be a night under brilliantly star lit Allagash skies, when the deafening silence on the night is broken only by the loons that my son and his son will sit around a campfire and recall these days and relive the stories of the times we spent together.
The views and opinions in the Enterprise blogs are those of the author and are not neccessarily shared by Falmouth Publishing.