Canoe Maine

Backcountry Luxuries in the Penobsot River

We are driving through the sodden state of Maine. We are bouncing over muddy roads and jouncing through puddles. It's been pouring for hours. Long enough to make the piles of logs on the roadside look black. Long enough for the road to be braided with tiny streams.

Only the hardwoods remain irrepressible: Their yellow, red, orange and peach-colored leaves blaze from between the dark conifers, defying the permanently gray sky. They remind me how wonderfully extravagant a New England autumn can be, with its drunken colorful hillsides, its golden light that illuminates every detail, its cool, dry air that smells of apples and wood smoke and hints of frost. I rub a peephole on the cold, misty window. Yikes. If I tried to breathe outside today, I could drown.

We are heading toward the West Branch of the Penobscot River, where we will spend the next five days canoeing and slowly losing our body heat. We only met last night, hardly long enough to indulge in a little pre-trip whining. And from what I have learned from my companions so far, I doubt whether whining is even in their repertoire. Next to me is a client, Lee Kantar, a cheerful, handsome, wool clad veteran of the rivers and trails of New England, fresh from a summer teaching outdoor education in the Adirondacks. Then there are the leaders of this trip, Alexandra and Garrett Conover. They look unassuming enough in their jeans and wool shirts, but I know better. Last night, the Conovers gave a slide show on how they spent their winter: They snowshoed 350 exploratory miles over the frozen wastelands of northern Quebec, dragging 200-pound toboggans behind them, a feat that astounded even the native peoplewho prefer to ride snowmobiles.

They told stories of counting out raisins and cutting pieces of fruit leather into tiny strips."We started starving," they said brightly. I grabbed the bowl of GORP off the table and wolfed down nuts and chocolate. It was raining then, and it's raining now. Last night I snuggled under a pile of comforters in a bed and breakfast in town. Tonight—I shudder to think about it.

We stop and unload the canoes from the top of the van. One green, one red. We put them in the water, which is pocked and opaque under the rain. We throw in a few bags and baskets, don life jackets, and paddle off into the gray and tangled wild. Damp and uncomfortable, I prepare myself for whatever the day, and night, may bring.

The wooden bow of my canoe cuts through the gray chop, pointing toward a distant beach. We're on Lobster Lake, which is fringed with a riot of maples and backed by a cloud-covered mountain. It's a fantastic spectacle, if a tad Arctic-looking. Garrett is in the stern, steering and offering some advice on my stroke —rotate your body, not your arm, make the stroke short and quick. The Conovers are considered close to godly in Northeastern wilderness canoeing circles. Garrett wrote the book, literally, on the North Woods stroke. Alexandra makes the paddles they use. Their boats were made by Jerry Stelmok, a neighbor of theirs who is probably the most prolific producer of wood and canvas canoes in the country.

We slide over the lake to the abandoned, coarse-grained beach. Tottering on legs stiff with cold, we unpack the boats. Back among the trees, over a bright, wet litter of leaves, we unroll the tent. This is no meager nylon scrap, it's a grand, white pile of Egyptian cotton. When it's set up, you can easily stand in it. There's room for a sheet metal wood stove, which is quickly assembled and stoked with wood. We spread out our sleeping pads, sip tea, peel off a clothing layers, and chat with Alexandra as she prepares dinner. Small and strong, she peels potatoes as the interior temperature rises. Changing into my t-shirt, my skepticism starts to dissipate in our warm, dry shelter.

his was Conover lesson number one: There's no reason to make wilderness travel into a survival situation. Doing so is dangerous, unnecessarily adversarial, and hardly any fun. If you're traveling in an area that's overused, deforested or drought-stricken, forgo the wood fire. But in the Maine woods, where drought is obviously not a problem, where logging has been going on for nearly two centuries, and where blown down timber litters the forest floor so thickly that you can barely walk through it, why not make a fire? In fact, why employ an arsenal of miners and oil-drillers to make and fuel your portable stove? Why not set up a shelter and make it as comfortable as your own kitchen.?

According to the Conover philosophy, if you're traveling with a backpack, by all means dine on flaked broccoli and beef with freeze-dried cheese. But if you're traveling in a commodious and beautiful wood and canvas canoe, whose delicate cedar ribs open to embrace both passengers and baggage, then bring the raspberries and the potatoes, pile on the sausages and grapes, and don't forget the cans of evaporated milk for the coffee. I admit, I had to ask myself is this ecotravel? But the answer is yes. Having simple tools, knowing how to use them and taking only what one needs from a biologically rich area rings true to all environmentally-concerned campers.

It's basically the difference between traveling in the wilderness and living there, explain the Conovers. And there's more. Much of the Conovers' equipment—their boats, paddles and pack baskets—utilize the same designs that predominated here a century ago. This is because those designs work the best. The Conovers not only know how to make just about all the gear they use, they know how to fix it in the wild.

"Everything we do is designed to drive marketing people stark, raving mad," says Garrett, bearded and bespectacled, grinning at the thought.

But don't confuse their values with old-time quaintness. They do what works. The same critical thinking that embraces 100-year-old boat and paddle designs delights in contemporary innovations like vinyl rafting bags and Thermarests. Their paddling friend Bob Kimber may be the only person who has published a haiku dedicated to the self-inflating sleeping pads:

Thermarest, my love,
Flat as the sea
I float upon your foamy bosom.

It's hard not to notice, however, the total lack of polypropylene, capilene and other petroleum-dependent clothing on my tentmates. They are dyed-in-the-wool woolies, all looking very mannerly in shades of gray, blue and green. I utter a silent thank-you to the whim that made me leave my fluorescent-pink fleece hat at home. Later, while I'm outside, one of the candles falls onto my polypropylene shirt, melting one sleeve into a hard, plastic glob.

t's still raining in the morning, but it's a content and well-fed crew that leaves the beach, which is now bisected by a set of coyote tracks. The West Branch of the Penobscot is flat, clear and tinged with brown from the tannin of thousands of submerged logs. Like most of Maine's woods, this place was first logged in the mid-1800s, when the white pine was sought for ship masts in the British navy. They dragged the pines to the ice with oxen and sent them down river after the spring thaw.

Just about that time, Henry David Thoreau took three trips to Maine, including one on the same stretch of water we are traveling now"What is most striking about the Maine wilderness is the continuousness of the forest, with fewer open intervals or glades than you had imagined," he wrote. "Except the few burned-out lands, the narrow intervals on the rivers, the bare tops of the high mountains and the lakes and streams, the forest is uninterrupted. It is even more grim and wild than you had anticipated."

Today, Maine is overwhelmingly forested. But the woods are scragglier than in Thoreau's time, which has much to do with the fact that huge swaths are regularly mowed down to make paper. About 100 yards from the river's edge is one of the clearcuts that dominate the immediate area past the river bank, growing a tangle of saplings, hardwoods and softwoods. Broad-leaf herbicides are often dropped on saplings in the Northeast to kill the hard woods. Spruce and fir will eventually be cut by giant scissoring machines, operated around the clock by employees of the Georgia Pacific Company, which owns 10 percent of the state of Maine.

Everywhere there is evidence of logging. Huge, rusted chains with hooks hang from the trees. Until the 1970s, they were used to bolt the logs together to float them across the lakes.

We camp our second night at the Hay Islands&31511;little grass lozenges where, decades ago, forage was grown for the horses who skidded the logs from forest to river. It's a lovely spot, the shaggy islands glowing golden and green under thinning clouds By sunset, the clouds have broken into white ribs over china blue. The first rays of sun we've seen for two days hit the banks of green grass and spruce across the river. Then, the palest rainbow reflected in the still river forms a ribbon of color around the glowing green wall of forest. After the unrelenting grayness, it's a scene of such warmth and delicacy I am stunned.

So Maine has opened up and let us in. That we had to wait, I think, is no surprise. New England doesn't smile indiscriminately on every visitor. This is, after all, the cradle of Yankee reserve, endurance, industriousness and parsimony. There are meteorological reasons that the Puritanism didn't spring out of, say, San Diego. Likewise, I think weather plays a part in the fact that the New Englanders I know don't labor under the illusion that you can get something for nothing.

The Conovers, who are drawn to the north as unhesitatingly as a pair of compass needles, take this a step farther. They emanate a rare combination of satisfaction and commitment. They love the huge dark forests and glittering rivers, the ornery weather, the lack of people, the long portages, the campfires. They have taken clients down this stretch of river for more than a decade. They will run it for decades more, at least. Despite their stature as masters of traveling in the north woods, they are happy to keep their business small. They take perhaps 100 people to the wilds every year, they almost always work together, and they have no plans to expand either the territory they visit or the number of people they take.

"What I like about Willimantic and Labrador is they're overlooked," says Alexandra, who, like Garrett, grew up in Massachusetts before moving to Maine to attend college."They're the places you pass on the way to glamorous places like Cape Cod and Baffin Island. They're not easy places to love. They're not dramatic places you can take in with just a couple of your sensesyou have to work to get involved. It's hiddenthat's ityou have to look for it."

And they love the looking. Alexandra wanders, transfixed, down beaches she's seen dozens, maybe hundreds of times before. Paddling through what I consider an indiscernible mess of choppy waves one day, Garrett says, "The wind is changing. The big waves are coming from the southeast and the little waveletes on top are from the northeast."

Other northern phenomena are obvious even to first-time visitors. Take, for instance, the moose during mating season. They are crashing in the woods around us, moaning with ardor, playing the game of love with a lack of guile that's almost embarrassing in an animal the size of a horse trailer.

We sit on the riverside, watching a young bull moose on the bank, far downstream. He walks to the shore, plunges in without a moment's hesitation, and swims straight for the other side, summoned by a pheromone on the breeze. Later, while we're paddling across Chesuncook Lake, we hear a moose cow give a descending, dying, bagpipe groan of pure sex. Then she does a good imitation of a backhoe moving through the forest, in case anything within a few square miles needs help locating her. Then she cries again, a bit of tuba in it this time, and a grunt at the end."Let's get out of here," says a wide-eyed Garrett in mock terror. He wheels the canoe and paddles quickly away from the shore, the woolen ball on his Labradoran hat swinging behind him.

Garrett may be a canoeing maestro, but he is also prone to fits of the giggles. Later, on the beach, he tells us about the rafters who run the tricky rapids in Ripogenus Gorge downstream: "We watch them from shorethey're wearing their fluorescent clothes, and we sit there eating our barkeating lunch," he says, shaking with laughter. "We're these gloomy, invisible creatures lurking along the river banks." Once, a fact-checker from National Geographic called him to verify if he was, indeed, a character.

Chesuncook Lake is 20 miles long, a huge, blue eye in the middle of the forest. On its open water under the clear autumn sky, we can see forever. We have a full-on view of Mt Katahdin, the highest mountain in the state and the northern terminus of the Appalachian trail. Katahdin and much of the land around it is protected as Baxter State Park, created by Percival Baxter, who was governor of Maine during the 1920s. He gradually bought 200,000 acres and entrusted it to the people of Maine.

We camp on the gray, pebbly beach, sitting outside to watch a huge orange moon the shape of a guitar pick rise over the distant forest. Inside, we read aloud to each other until Alexandra calls us back onto thebeach.

Dancing around the edge of the lake are the northern lights; like headlights through a rainstorm, like vertical search lights and then like a shower of misty white electric dust.

That night, the stove is so hot it glows red. I wake up with my face scrunched against the tent wall.

This is our last day, I think gloomily, paddling toward the take-out. Alexandra tells me how years ago she used to play the accordion and sing on this lake, steering an outboard-powered canoe by leaning her body. The wind is getting brisker; the bad weather is moving back in to prevent the inhabitants of Maine from becoming too indulgent. God knows where I'll be in 10 years, I think. God knows where my friends and family will be. It is some comfort that at least two people I know will be doing what they love.

I'll know where they'll be.

Lisa Jones is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast living in Colorado.For More Information, Contact The Following Outfitters:

Approach Adventure Travel-NE
P.O. Box 34
Westford, VT 05494
802 879-8851

North Woods Ways
Rte. 2, Box 159A
Willimantic, Guilford, ME 04443 (207)

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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