Allagash Headwaters, Maine
|In the canoe next to mine, Maine Guide Alexandra Conover paddles solo, her yellow hand-carved paddle knifing through the water with effortless grace.|
Tonight, a steady rain slashes down through the tall pines. But before we have a chance to grab our raingear, Garrett rigs a spacious canopy of a rainfly, raising it high above our heads with the eleven-foot-long setting poles carried in each canoe. The result is a shelter we can stand under without hunching over, that keeps us dry, and that protects the fire from the rain. Though the drops are drumming heavily, the change in the weather causes no inconvenience, and we enjoy another of Alexandra's distinctive meals. Tonight's menu is chicken stir-fry, topped off with a blueberry pie that she whipped together and baked in the reflector oven while we chatted.
The rain slows, then stops. Rich beams of orange light illuminate the far shore. Garrett wonders aloud whether to take down the tarp."If I do," he moans, "it'll probably rain for a month!"
Over dinner, Alexandra tells us how she chose the life of a Maine Guide. Raised in the Boston suburb of Stow, she is the daughter of parents who urged her to follow her heart. At an early age she discovered the books of Ernest Thompson Seton, the nineteenth- century naturalist who wrote lyrically about the far north. From that time on, her path was set. "Those books put a wrinkle in the course of my life," she says. When she was eight years old, her teacher asked her to draw a picture of what she would do if she had a million dollars. "I drew myself sitting next to a birch-bark canoe pulled up on a beach," she says with a grin.
Garrett, too, dreamed of a wilderness life while growing up in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, though at first he was drawn to the Rocky Mountain West. But after a period studying wildlife biology and creative writing at the University of Montana, he transferred to the College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor, Maine, where Alexandra Brown was matriculating.
It seems inevitable that they should have met and that they should have found their mentor, Mick Fahey, the man who would exert the most profound influence upon their lives. In the fall of 1976, Alexandra heard that one of the last of the old-time Maine Guides was retired and living near Bar Harbor. One day she looked him up and introduced herself. The two became fast friends she wanted a teacher, he wanted to pass on his knowledge.
"Mick was my university," she says now.
Mick's father had been boss of the Penobscot River log drive, and each spring and summer young Fahey, whose real name was Francis, would go off with his father's crew to learn the ways of the woods. The river drivers, mostly Penobscots, took him under their wing. They affectionately called him"Mickey" and taught him to handle a canoe, axe, peavey, and pick pole. They brought him deep into the forest, showed him how to hunt and trap, to make snowshoes and pack baskets, to build bark canoes. In 1923, at the age of seventeen, Fahey became the youngest registered guide in Maine.
In the late seventies, Mick and his wife, Eunice, decided to retire to Chesuncook Village, a tiny settlement in the heart of the Maine Woods, without phones, electricity, or roads to the outside world. When they did, Alexandra and Garrett went along as apprentices. In Chesuncook, Mick taught them to use the crooked knife, to make moccasins, to paddle a canoe with the efficient north woods stroke, and to pole one up shallow rapids.
In 1980, Garrett and Alexandra married, passed their guide's test, and started North Woods Ways all of which brought a sense of fulfillment to the old guide, who passed away in 1984.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication