Allagash Headwaters, Maine

Forward Moose
canoe portage
A canoeist portages around the thunderous cataract of Allagash Falls.

So far we have enjoyed sun-soaked days and star-swept nights. Last night, after the dinner dishes were put back in the wanigan (an Algonquian word for the wooden box we use for storing camp wares), we skimmed for miles across Loon Lake in empty canoes as the setting sun turned the black waters to liquid gold. A madcap choir of coyotes serenaded us as the light left the northern sky and we returned to our camp beneath a tall stand of white pine, cedar, and fragrant balsam fir.

There are nine of us, counting our guides and their fifteen-year-old junior apprentice, Jeff DePasquale. We are exploring streams, lakes, and ponds far off the usual canoe routes. We are poking around in no great hurry, watching for moose, letting the woods and waters work their magic on us.

There comes a moment on a canoe trip when you cross a threshold and realize you could keep going like this forever. The feeling generally sets in on the second or third day, when your creaky muscles loosen, when eight or nine hours of deep slumber under the forest canopy restores you, and when temporal cares assume their proper size and fade into insignificance.

Here, on Caucomgomoc Lake heading toward Ciss Stream, we have crossed that threshold. Looking around at the other canoes, I see friends who were strangers forty- eight hours ago. Ahead, Judy and Ned Garner are gliding along in their newly restored 1916 E. M. White wood and canvas guide canoe. For them, this trip is the fulfillment of a dream. Close by are Barbara and Reed Anthony; they have traveled with the Conovers before, as has my canoeing partner, Glen Takata, who is on his ninth or tenth trip with Garrett and Alexandra.

We are an eclectic congregation, including a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, two university administrators, a chief financial officer, a computer software designer, and a hard-bitten journalist. With so many backgrounds and interests represented, our talk has been lively and enriching. We have retold epic tales of northern exploration, quoted Thoreau, discussed classic canoe trips in the Canadian North. Everyone brings something different to the campfire, but we all have one thing in common — a love of wilderness and a desire to learn the Conovers' special style of canoe tripping.

The Conovers' style runs counter to the contemporary grain. Eschewing synthetics, Garrett and Alexandra wear neither Gore-Tex —"Leak-Tex," as Garrett calls the self-proclaimed "miracle fiber" — nor polyester pile, both mainstays of the modern camper's wardrobe. Instead, they choose comfortable natural fibers such as cotton and wool. Absent from their fleet are the aluminum and plastic canoes of the major manufacturers. Instead, the Conovers use finely handcrafted wood and canvas canoes of a design used by Maine Guides over a century ago. With their gleaming varnished ribs, their sharp entry and exit lines, and their lively, responsive feel, these canoes are a joy to travel in. And they are tougher than they look, requiring only a little more awareness of sharp rocks and shallows than a modern canoe. But if we did break a rib, thwart, or gunwale, either Conover would carve a replacement from natural materials close at hand. The traveler with a wrecked synthetic canoe, on the other hand, would find himself afoot and possibly in serious trouble.

The Conovers' adherence to the old ways is neither a romantic attempt to bring back an earlier era, nor a desire to role-play in some sort of mobile living-history exhibit. "We're not old-timey for old-time's sake," says a grinning Garrett, who encourages questions regarding their methods. "Natives and guides developed these skills ten thousand years ago, and they're as useful as ever. The tools are functional, durable, and easily repaired. Put it this way: these methods have yet to be replaced."

Rather than a lesson in antiquity, what we seek from the Conovers is an alternative to what Garrett calls "the prepackaged, consumer-culture outdoor experience." What they offer their clients, he says, is "a viable alternative to the technology that provides a dangerous substitute for critical wilderness skills and that prevents people from developing an awareness of the environment they are traveling through." That's why we're here: to learn the ways of the wilderness that still work best.

The Conovers are studious about their traditional craft, but they are hardly severe schoolmasters, and the boat-to-boat conversations are filled with jokes and laughter. Garrett has a fine sense for the absurd, keeping us in stitches with his droll comments and wordplay, while Alexandra could easily take the stage as a professional raconteur. Her accents, gestures, and facial expressions bring a dozen north woods characters to life. We enter Ciss Stream, a meandering deadwater with no perceptible current, and our voices drop to a whisper. This is textbook moose country. Quietly we paddle past the limbs, trunks, and toppled root structures of ghostly dead trees lining both sides of the grassy meadow. The lifeless silver forms reach skyward, creating a spooky and entrancing scene. Called "dry-ki" (the words rhyme) by the loggers, a term short for "dry- killed," the trees were drowned when driving dams were built on Caucomgomoc over a century ago.

We have already seen three or four moose today and an equal number the day before, so we enter Ciss Stream full of anticipation. We aren't disappointed. Around the first bend we encounter a young bull feeding on lilies, reeds, and eel grass. He keeps chewing as he dully contemplates our intrusion, then lumbers off on his spindly legs through the meadow. Long after he disappears from sight we follow his progress by the enormous racket he makes smashing through the woods.

"Stealthy, isn't he?" Alexandra says with a grin.

Thoreau thought the moose a homely creature."The moose is singularly grotesque and awkward to look at," he complained. "Why should it stand so high at the shoulders? Why have so long a head? Why have no tail to speak of?. . . They made me think of great frightened rabbits, with their long ears and half-inquisitive, half-frightened looks. . ."

Around the next bend the scene is repeated, this time a magnificent bull with a full, broad rack. And on each of the next several bends we encounter moose — young bulls, cows, cows with fuzzy little calves. By now our conversation has picked up again; we spend less time watching. We are becoming jaded, the novelty of moose wearing off. "I'd like to see the next moose do something different, like a cartwheel or something," says young Jeff. No such luck. Around the next bend we come face-to-face with another cow chomping placidly in midstream.

"Why won't they leave us alone!" cries Glen in a mock plaintive voice. Our camp on Daggett Pond is exquisite. Upon our arrival, a bald eagle flaps away on great wing beats. Thick coniferous forest rings the pond, a rough circle a mile in diameter. A half dozen loons are out on the lake, the rippling V of their wakes reflecting in the late afternoon light. The birds chuckle among themselves, as if sharing a private joke. To the northwest we can see the rocky ridgeline that rises to the summit of Allagash Mountain.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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