Paddling Through Time

Allagash River Headwaters, Maine

Paddles flash in the sunshine, ripping little swirls in the surface of Maine's Caucomgomoc Lake. Five elegant wood and canvas canoes glide swiftly across the water, through a perfect mirror-image of the sky. Ahead, a loon floats upon the placid surface. He turns, looks quizzically at the canoes stealing toward him. We are, admittedly, an unusual sight. There is nothing typical of the late twentieth century about our little flotilla — we are travelers from another era.

The loon watches a moment longer, then tilts his head back and laughs. It is the haunting laugh of a lunatic. Behind us, another loon answers, then another. Soon, the lake is ringing with the maniacal laughter of loons.

Beyond a line of green hills to the west, a forest stretches unbroken to the border with Quebec. Far to the south, across a watery maze of streams, bogs, and woods, is Moosehead Lake and the last town, Greenville, the traditional starting point for journeys into the Maine Woods. To the east, hidden beyond the horizon, rise the mile-high ramparts of Katahdin in Baxter State Park. And to the north, in the direction we are heading, the Maine Woods reach deep into the belly of Canada.

We are paddling the headwater lakes of the Allagash River, heart of Maine's fabled canoe country. At over ten million acres, the Maine Woods encompass a region some five times the size of Yellowstone National Park. And in all that area there isn't a single paved road. Largely owned by private timber companies, these woods and waters are the largest uninhabited region in the lower forty-eight states. Swinging my paddle, gazing down the lake at miles of undisturbed shoreline, Henry David Thoreau's words come to mind:"What a place to live," he said, "what a place to die and be buried in!" Thoreau passed through here twice in the mid-1800s. Unskilled in the ways of the wilderness, Thoreau hired experienced woodsmen to lead him through the forest. His guide on the 1853 trip was Joe Aitteon, and on the 1857 journey, Joe Polis. Both men were Penobscots from Indian Island near Old Town, Maine. Thoreau later crafted his journals from those trips into the book he called The Maine Woods.

The current view from a canoe is remarkably unchanged since Thoreau's day, and to find your way here it is still advisable to hire the right guides. Were Henry here with us, I suspect he would cast an appraising glance at our guides and tersely nod his approval.

In the canoe next to mine, Maine Guide Alexandra Conover is paddling solo, her yellow hand- carved paddle knifing through the water with effortless grace. She paddles like a Penobscot, using short strokes, slicing the blade back underwater on the recovery. Alexandra is a slender young woman, lean and hard, with auburn tresses spilling down to her shoulders from under a broad-brimmed hat. Wearing the traditional garb of the Maine guide — red-checked shirt, beige khakis, and dark-tanned L.L. Bean boots — she powers the loaded boat while keeping up a cheerful banter. Despite her slim frame, I know she can toss that canoe on her shoulders and trot down a portage trail as quickly as an unsuspecting client can offer to lend a hand.

Garrett Conover, also a Maine Guide, is in the stern of the canoe ahead. He has a full dark beard and wears steel-rimmed glasses. A head taller than his wife, dressed in a similar outfit, he too has the lean hard muscles that come from paddling, poling, and portaging loaded canoes along wilderness waterways day after day, year after year. When Garrett and Alexandra Conover go off to the Maine Woods, they leave the triumphs of late twentieth-century camping technology behind. Instead of modern, freeze-dried camp fare, they bring whole foods and bake bread daily in a reflector oven set close by a fire. They pack food and equipment in handmade wanigan boxes and pack baskets. They make leather tumplines to carry gear and canoes over portage trails. They carve their paddles and setting poles using the old-time woodsman's favorite tool, the crooked knife — a single-handed draw knife found in bush camps throughout the north. Having spent the last twenty years studying the traditional wilderness skills refined by generations of Indians and guides, the Conovers have no peers among the contemporary guides registered by the state of Maine. Their unique service, North Woods Ways, is dedicated to the efficient and reliable methods developed by woodland travelers of earlier eras. Despite their relative youth — they are both in their early forties — they are practically living legends. Mention their names anywhere in canoe country — from Maine to Minnesota, from Labrador to Manitoba — and chances are good that experienced woodsmen will know of them.

Of course, the Conovers would scoff at such notions. Last night by the campfire Garrett expressed his modest desire to"someday move through the wilderness and across the seasons with as much skill as any four-year-old native kid."

There is an enduring mystique associated with the Maine Guide. He, and today she, is a direct descendent of the oldest American mythic figures — Leatherstocking, Daniel Boone, and a hundred other American archetypes. The Maine Guide must be expert at canoe and camp craft, first aid, route finding, and other wilderness skills. He must pass a written test, then convince a board of examiners of his qualifications in an oral examination. If the board senses a weakness in her knowledge or skills, they probe the sensitive spot until they are certain she will bring her clients back safely. If any doubt remains, they will fail her on the spot.

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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