THOREAU'S MAINE WOODSBy: Little Outdoor Giants • littleoutdoorgiants.com
The 16-day trip we embarked on retracing Thoreau’s 1857 trip from his book The Maine Woods was one of epic proportions. Only 8 of us did the entire loop, but some 30+ others joined for segments including Penobscots, Thoreau scholars, and naturalists. We put in 4-days after ice-out on Moosehead and paddled our way along ancient canoe routes used by the Penobscots for generations all the way back to Indian Island, where we’d started.
"There it was, the State of Maine, which we had seen on the map, but not much like that, - immeasurable forest for the sun to shine on, that eastern stuff we hear of in Massachusetts. No clearing, no house. …Countless lakes, …and mountains, also, whose names, for the most part, are known only to the Indians." - Thoreau, 1846, Climbing Katahdin
DAY ONE: Greenville to Hardscrabble Point
We woke today at 4am, fully packed and ready to depart after weeks of planning, preparation, packing & pondering. We met at the Greenville docks, sorted our gear, had breakfast, was assigned canoes. Jarrod and I got a tan painted canvas sided 17 footer. It was cold and drizzly, not the most fun way to begin a 20 mile day, at 5am, in the rain, with the wind whipping the waves to white caps.
We began at the southern tip of Moosehead Lake and un-ceremeoniously, we were off. The day consisted of us all getting our “sea-legs” as the wind and the rain increased. We would paddle along shores of forested isle’s, tuck in behind coves to hide from the wind and after a particularly nerve-wracking open-water crossing, with high waves and deep troughs spilling the 52° Moosehead water across our laps, we pulled into a cove where our captain helped us cut down saplings to lash our boats together to create catamarans.
We then paddled, 2 abreast for the rest of the wet, wild day. We continued to hop from isle to isle making our way through the fog until eventually we spied Kineo Mt.! We paddled our seaworthy catamaran to, past, and around Mt. Kineo, where we pulled into camp (Hardscrabble Point), soaking and dripping wet from a long day of cold and damp paddling.
DAY TWO: Hardscrabble Point to Seboomook Point
Today was a relief after yesterday’s long, cold, hard, wet, grueling paddle. We woke to eggs and pork in the skillet, had a leisurely breakfast at camp and shoved off. We could at all times today see our destination across Moosehead Lake. We paddled leisurely, still lashed together, two abreast for safety. We had clouds and scattered sun for our paddle. Along the route I found a frozen yellow-spotted salamander, swimming/floating in the very middle of Moosehead Lake. We revived our frozen friend, brought him to the shore and released him under a fallen, mossy log. The break was short but sweet as we happened to stop at the world’s most perfect stone-skipping beach. Nothing but perfectly elliptical and flat stones for our pleasure.
The final 5 mile push to camp was easy enough with splendid views of Katadin off to our right in the distance. We made camp early and enjoyed a wonderful afternoon milling about, reading, cooking moose burgers, fly-fishing (but not catching).
We had some downtime and now I am relaxing luxuriously in a four-man tent, the rain pattering down around me, the spring peepers singing, and Thoreau’s “Maine Woods” calling me for my bedtime read…
DAY THREE: Seboomook Point to Thoreau's Isle
A breakfast consisting of an oversized pot stuffed with oats, a bag of bacon, another of brown sugar, and hot coffee filled us well for the Northeast Carry. Kevin, our fearless leader, offered orange juice to us jokingly saying he prefer no one get scurvy. He told us about how the Inuit ate raw seal liver as protection against it in the North. Breakfast ended when Kevin said “OK folks, we should start packin’ up. We got some miles to do.”
We set out from Seboomook and its glacial scraped shale for the epic Northeast Carry. A lone pine stood tall in a shallow almost entirely stripped but for a few unscathed branches. An aged tree tells such stories. I imagined the storms it has seen.
Dom and I pulled alongside Jayson and Stan as we meandered past the shallows. We kept a leisurely pace. At 10:50 we arrived at the northeast Carry’s end point – the west branch of the Penobscot. I, and I suspect most others, did not expect the harsh reality of the second carry trip, the wood canvas canoes. We lashed on the paddles, adjusted the tumplines, and carried the boats two miles to the river. We walked six miles before lunch.
After lunch on the bank of the Penobscot, we paddled out with fresh supplies and three new members - Yeshe, James and Mark.
Fireside in the evening Mike Wilson, our trips organizer, pushed the conversation. He discussed the land’s use in Maine and invited comments on the subject from all angles. I learned much and anticipate the education to continue daily on Maine’s North Woods. Thoreau’s mind changed from his first trip through here to his next. I wonder where mine will lie.
DAY FOUR: Thoreau’s Isle to Chesuncook (The Boom House)
We began today, magically at Thoreau’s Isle. I am the last to wake up each day and the last to grab breakfast. I don’t know how early our days begin, but I know it’s very early. I’m up with the sun and asleep by nightfall, back to the natural rhythm of life.
I’m used to camping, but not like this, every day Kevin and Glen set us up with shelters, meals, and fires. We’ve eaten like kings… burgers and steaks and pork chops and desserts and bacon and eggs. I could get used to the guided trips. We pack up camp after breakfast, load up the boats, tied down the gear and paddle off.
Our days are filled with paddling and rain, paddling and drizzle, paddling and fog. It's monotonous and exciting, miserably wet and shockingly alerting. I wiggle my toes in my shoes to warm them up. My feet and socks have been soaking wet for four days now. While we paddle my mind wanders, I think about Thoreau and his journey, I think about how our journeys are similar, I think about ideas I want to write in my journal tonight in my tent, most of these ideas get forgotten by the time I’m back here, in my tent, writing about the day. I feel my body while we paddle, it’s usually wet and cold. I’ve worn rain gear all day everyday. I feel my shoulders being sore, my fingertips cold and raw. I think about how easy my normal life is, where I can sit inside and watch the rain, or turn up the heat and I think about how reactionary I’ve become. Sitting in the canoe, propelling ourselves forward, being in the elements. Carrying all our gear, has been humbling and reminded me about myself and my life.
DAY FIVE: Chesuncook (The Boom House) to Mud Pond
We paddled along to our resupply and it was here that we swapped boats. We left the wood canvas canoes for plastic ones more suited to running rapids.
Just prior to arriving at the resupply Kevin had us all pull together on the water, the bows of our wood canoes boats nearly adjoining. He told us we were then at the center of a major hub. Around us were spokes on a wheel - the entrances into the areas major waterways. 4 major river drainages began at this point. It had been so for thousands of years.
With boats fare more suited to the rugged rapids ahead we headed up to Unbazooksus Stream. Umbazooksus means “much meadow stream” in Penobscot.
As we paddled I thought of James Francis’ reading in the morning in which Thoreau talks about Ansell Smith’s rugged life in the wilds of Maine in comparison to his brothers in the west. A winter here could easily break a pioneer in Thoreau’s Times.
On Umbazooksus Stream we came upon a bridge. Though low, from a distance we thought it could be paddled under. When Dom and I approached it, it became clear we were far from correct. Some said they’d paddled under it in previous years and that it was the rain we’d seen in recent days that made it impassable. The bridge was part of Longley Stream Road. We decided to portage the boats fully loaded with six men to a boat.
Here we came across Paul and Kathleen Fitzgibbons. A short chat left us with some helpful information on Mud Pond carry (not that any info would derail us) and found out that they hail from Leicester, MA. Not far from where Dominic and I lived.
“If you see Henry out there say hi to him”, Paul said. His glasses sliding down his nose as he waved us off, and as we paddled on, Kathleen appeared on a small spit of land to photograph us. “Your character’s going to be refined by the end of this trip”, she shouted. She’s right.
DAY SIX: Mud Pond to Webster Lake
Woke up without our tents on the shore of Mud Pond. We slept on the trail, all scattered among our gear and having just strung up our camp rain fly. We finished the Mud Pond carry last night at 9:30 pm after 12 miles of swampy, muddy trudging through the forest with all our canoes, food, gear and coolers.
Today was a long open series of paddles across lakes. Mud Pond itself was short, followed by a little brook to connect us to Chamberlain Lake. Chamberlain was beautiful, long and open with pines on the shores near us and an open field across on the North Shore. It was pointed out to be “Chamberlain Farm”. We continued along, hoping the winds would not pick up too much as we were headed into it.
Today I was switched by our lead guide Kevin. So now I was paddling the stern of the other guide, Glen’s boat. The paddling today was arduous. Across the lakes it’s long, hot and monotonous. While you’re paddling and bored and sore you try to remind yourself how lucky you are to be here, to be experiencing nature, to be away from all your normal life. But, unknowingly your brain slips into distraction on these long stretches, thinking about food, or projects long lost in your mind until, thankfully, nature reminds you to pay attention and rejoice in the tiny everyday miracles. Sometimes it’s an eagle flying over head, or a fish jumping out of the water just off your boat, or the sun, warming your back, reminding you summer is almost here. But today it was a glorious wall of water that made my day!
We were slowly paddling across Telos Lake, the sun was hot, the water was still and being able to see where we’re headed, toward the horizon made it seem like we were traveling nowhere, slowly. Without much warning a huge thunderhead formed on the horizon and raced toward us, we could see it was rain but it was upon us before I could even put on my jacket. The rain drops poured down upon us, cooling us instantly, soaking us entirely, and making the entire surface of Telos Lake alive with millions of plops of rain-water breaking through. It was a magical moment of relief, of excitement, of un-expected surprise and playfulness, and then, it was over. Just like that we watched the deluge, this wall of vertical water move westward and behind us. I managed to shoot a few frames during the downpour of Kevin paddling us through. We finished the day by paddling the rest of Telos Lake, portaging our heavy gear, “the anchors” around Telos cut and running some quick water to connect to Webster Lake. We got into camp very late afternoon and have just enough time to pitch camp, eat dinner, and sleep so soon.
DAY SEVEN: Webster Lake to Birch Point
As we put into Webster Stream following our last carry of the 7 miles that it spans, we came around a bend and before us were great mountains. The tightness of the stream and shelter of the trees left us with no sense of landscape for almost 11 hours. I believe it was “The Travellers” that we saw, but I am not certain. From the end of Webster Stream, for 7 miles. Glen and I paddled to Birch Point. Charlie Brown and Mike Wilson blasted ahead of the pack and gained at least a quarter mile on us over the duration. The lake was glassy and dusk was long. We passed beautifully rugged islands with twisted pines as we saw a light flash from the point. We could see where we were headed. Then, with our pack consisting of James/Carolann in one boat and Dom/Kevin in another we heard the faint thud of the drum. It was suddenly as if I hadn’t paddled all day.
I dug my paddle in hard at the bow creating a rush of water rather than quiet, smooth strokes. I could hear Chris singing to the thud of the drum. That last half mile was the fastest of them all. We dined on moose stew, fresh fiddleheads, coffee and blueberry cake. There was enough for seconds for everybody. Most of us didn’t set up tents and slept out on the point under the stars.
DAY EIGHT: Birch Point to Oxbox
Breakfast of pan-fried bagels (a staple it seems) eggs and bacon. Spirits were high and there was barely any dew in the morning with no rain fall for those that slept out. After a slow morning we left Birch Point for Grand Lake Dam where we resupplied. Kevin ran into old friends, Dominic and I swapped out batteries and film, Stan was given a new pair of bright white tennis shoes replacing the Keen’s he lost at Mud Pond Carry – not very welcomed given he’d been wearing Kevin’s mukluks around camp as his dry shoes for the last couple nights. While waiting at the canoe load in point for the East Branch Stan recommends I read “The Flow of the River” by Loren Eisely.
A short ways down the East Branch we enjoyed a picnic table lunch riverside at the Matagamon Wilderness Store. Dom and I got cokes. We had jerky and smoked herring with saltines for lunch. A few stayed at the store waiting for the arrival of some new paddlers – namely Bill Green, host of his own local Maine TV show “Bill Green’s Maine”. The rest of us paddled lazily down the East Branch toward Oxbow. Glen and I practiced eddy turns. I was grateful for the time to do so. Ferns unfurled along the riverbanks. We passed beaver yards. A light mist came and went, as did the sun. When camp was setup and we were slowly stirring around the fire I found a large piece of Chaga on a birch by the river. Beech crushed it with stones and we made tea. Matt talked about a book by Greg Marley on the medicinal uses of Maine mushrooms, specifically his interest in Chaga. Conversations turned to river levels and dams. The river was flowing at 110 CFS out of the Grand Lake Dam. Dom, Stan and I swam in the cold river.
DAY NINE: Oxbow to Grand Pitch
We reached Haskell Deadwater at 10:30am and carried Haskell Falls. There were talks of log running days and the men that once logged these woods as we ran lower Haskell Rock. Remember – Don’t grab the gunnalls. We then had a slow lunch with napping, writing, and walks to Pond Pitch Falls before carrying to what Kevin calls “Mud Logan”. Sticks and alders slapped my face as I carried through dense brush. The normal put-in has only room for one canoe – not very helpful for us when loading so many boats.
By 4:30 we were setup at camp and I bathed in an eddy upriver, my first cleansing of the trip. Thankfully cloudy skies and rain have kept me from sweating too much. I caught a garter snake near where Dom and I setup our tent. The camp was split in two – some kept a quiet camp away from the kitchen right where the boats landed and some kept camp by the kitchen, farther along the carry path around Grand-Pitch.
By 7:00pm we were eating a beef stir-fry dinner with mashed potatoes, asparagus and steaming cups of coffee and even mochas were made with hot cocoa mix. I paddled with Phil Savignano today, a veteran paddler, though it’s been a while for him. We held up well and made no mistakes that had us swimming, thankfully. We made more chaga tea. Kevin remarked to me that this was his favorite place on the river. Kevin read an old logging poem for us at dinner titled “The Knight of the Spike-Soled Boots” by Holman Day. It came from a collection called “Pine Tree Ballads”. We ate pineapple upside down cake for dessert. A reflector oven is a wonderful thing.
DAY TEN: Grand Pitch to Fisk Brook
We resupplied at Bowlin Camps and swapped some paddlers out. We were treated to iced tea, lemonade, coffee, cakes, cookies, fruit salad. We sat in the kitchen where I met Lucas St. Clair, a very important figure in the landscape here. A group of us sat on the screened in porch in rocking chairs and told stories. I ate home made jerky. I tried to photograph Tom Scala, owner of Bowlin Camps, with his white hair and beard, round mid-section with suspenders curving around the edges to hold up his pale blue jeans over his tucked in faded denim shirt, but he’d have none of it. He was remarkably friendly and I told him I respected his desire to not be photographed. He told me his grandmother always said to him that “fools names and fools faces often appear in public places.” Come 2:30pm I was still sitting on the porch at Bowlin, but we would leave soon.
Just after 3pm Kevin pulled up into a small eddy and we grouped up. He told us about an old salmon hatchery that sat along the river here on the East Branch. After 5-7 years the fish that had been released would return to spawn. He’d really like to see the hatchery back and some dams removed.
As I paddled along with my new stern-man, Lucas, we could hear thunder off in the distance. It was as though we were riding the edge of the storm – clear blue sky was off east and a ridge of dense cloud cover stretched west. As it began to rain I made some photographs of Lucas paddling with raindrops falling all around us. We soon pulled ashore as the storm blew in so we could wait out the lightning.
Here, out of the forest, came the game warden. He’d seen us somewhere along the way and was making sure we were getting off the river during the storm. Lucas and Polstein laughed and talked with him a while. Once gone, Lucas and Matt continued chatting by the river while thunder clouds broke open with streaks of white and dumped more rain. They’ve both got lots to say about the land here. We camped at “High Land Camp” (Fisk Brook) on river left and had new scholars doing readings by firelight. I remember a great talk with Stan about teaching as we sat eating dinner in small camp chairs facing the river. It was something about imaginary gardens with real frogs. The stars were out in force after dark.
DAY ELEVEN: Fisk Brook to Upper Whetstone
When I got in the river to load our boat this morning I noticed that I no longer noticed the cold. It didn’t happen today, I only noticed it today. I’ve never balked at its temperature (though ice out was only 4 days before we left Greenville) probably because I knew it not an option but for whatever reason the idea of that sat forward in my conscience today. I watched the blue haze of campfire smoke fill the trees as we put out this morning’s fire. I chopped down my first tree yesterday. It was an experience.
We moved into the Sebois in the morning and the giant silver maples became prominent. The area seemed more like a swampland, Lucas took the group to a small area where he often saw moose but we had no luck this morning. The moose have mostly evaded us the whole trip. We paddled up to a small beaver dam in a nook off the east branch and the landscape opened up a bit with small peaks dotting the horizon. Trout were jumping.
For lunch we landed at Lunksoos Camp. It was another lazy afternoon where the caretaker at camp offered coffee, hot beans and some other leftovers and we opened up the lunch cooler to make quite a spread. I sat inside for a moment – Stan was gently playing a guitar and the mood was relaxing as ever – only to soon realize that I wanted to be outside. I took my plate to a picnic table outside of the cabin. It was next to a field of dandelions and two axes stuck in chopping blocks. I laid on top of the table, closed my eyes and smelled the air.
We traveled farther down the East Branch and past Wassataquoik Stream. Here, where it meets the East Branch, is where Donn Fendler, a 12-year old boy, was found after being lost for 9 days in 1939 after a Katahdin trip. A book titled “Lost On a Mountain in Maine” tells the story. This spot was poignant for Stan and I took his photograph at the junction.
DAY TWELVE: Whetstone to Pine Grove
We’re headed just across the river, practically, to unload anchors and run the boats through Whetstone Falls. I heard Stan let out a “whoot” as he put on his cold wet socks. There have been many days that have been claimed as having the coldest morning. This is yet another. And for good reason.
By 10am we’re setting up for the run. We convene for a meeting on the bridge to go over everything. I ran twice – once with Beech and once with Polstein and Jenny Neptune where I was in the middle of the boat shooting. The photographs did not come out as well as I wanted. On the other side of the falls as we reload Kevin tells me of running the Grand Canyon on a two month trip in canoes and climbing the cliffs to see Anasazi Ruins. We pull over not far down the river from Whetstone and wait for everyone only to find out that Beech and Jason Lindsay, another photographer, have tipped their canoe with all his camera gear. We wait for them and eat lunch. I caught a turtle that was floating swiftly down the river.
We reached the re-supply at 2:45 where we loaded all the gear into vans and put float bags into the boats to run Grindstone Falls. For the first time on the trip there was not a cloud in the sky. We paddled a little farther downriver to the head of Grindstone, the roughest, largest, longest set of rapids on the entire trip. Kevin stood atop a picnic table pointing downriver as he talked about the setup and went over how he wanted to run it.
“There won’t be many obstructions, but you’re gonna see some of the biggest waves we’ve seen on this trip”
DAY THIRTEEN: Pine Grove to The Brown Islands
These last legs of the trip seem so different. We can hear the rush of freeways and even paddled under one. The days are hot and sunny contrasting with our gray and wet days behind us. We’ve got such a rhythm going, we’re all in sync. It’s wonderful.
The Brown Islands sit in the middle of the Penobscot River and are owned by the Penobscot tribe. We walked out boats through shallows and up to one of the larger of the set that was covered in ferns unfurled and draped in afternoon sunlight. Some fished and some foraged, collecting ground nuts to add to supper. It was a great place to lay camp and the stories of our past days on the trip were starting to surface. We told tales to the newcomers that joined our group - there were many that came on and off the trip - and it was like old friends catching up again. We certainly have made some life long friends on this trip.
DAY FOURTEEN: The Brown Islands to Sugar Island
Yet another glorious day filled with sun. The only downside - the bugs are out. A smattering of black flies have begun to appear and nibble on exposed skin. Something about the sun and the slowness of the Penobscot made me almost fall asleep while paddling today. I’ve become one with my canoe seat by this point.
Sugar Island is a cultural site for the Penobscots. It’s being revived currently. James Francis and Charlie Brown talked about going to camp here as young kids. They brought s’mores for this night and we all sat around roasting marshmallows over what would be our last evening fire together of this trip. We’re feeling the pull of real life after more than two weeks of paddling together, undoubtedly, but the pull of the river is as strong.
DAY FIFTEEN: Sugar Island to Indian Island
We rounded the bend and approached Indian Island on its’ eastern shore. Tribal members drummed and sang as we all landed our canoes to open arms. We all stood in the river for a photo, and we got a photograph of the “Thoreauic Eight” - the 8 group members that paddled the entire length of the trip. We had a small ceremony. We’re tired. Where to next?
THE EXPEDITION PARTY
“Why should not we...have our national reserves, where no villages need be destroyed, in which the bear and panther...may still exist, and not be 'civilized off the face of the earth,' -our forests... to hold and preserve the… lord of creation, not for idle sport or food, but for inspiration and our own true recreation? or shall we, like the villains, grab them all up, poaching on our own national domains?” - Thoreau, 1853, Reflecting on his trip