Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Tuesday, September 15, 2015
After-thoughts of the Allagash
The usual scene
One of the most striking aspects of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, besides the sheer beauty of the river and the woods, is how time passed. There was very little intellectual content to our days. In the concentrating body work during the day of watching the water, scouting for rocks, gazing at trees and animals, loading and unloading; in the evening the multi-step processes of setting up tents, laying out sleeping pads and bags, unpacking utensils and food, cooking and cleaning; and in the morning packing up again, there was little or no time for the kind of thinking and worrying we usually are stuck in.
There was no re-arranging of the past, no thought of the past at all except the deepest of pasts, our own wild genetic roots so obvious everywhere we looked.
There was no analysis of the present – how am I feeling, am I happy or sad, is someone dissing me behind my back; it was all feeling, of cool water splashed by a canoe or dipped by a hand, of warm sun on bare legs, of the taste of bacon and eggs in the clean air. Even at night, in some hours of wakefulness, we looked for stars or clouds, not the read-out of an alarm clock; heard sounds of friend and possible foe, not helicopters or sirens; felt contentment in nature, not emotional redress of a day’s slights; smelled pine tar and river mud, not exhaust; touched the fabric of a tent and not the plastic of a bottle of antacids.
And there was no obsession of the future, except the studied and exciting prediction of rapids and shoals.
We thought, but hardly in the normal way. The coordination between mind and body was seamless. We were grounded, no flying allowed. The wide, wild river took care of that, its ripples and riffles and eddies and rapids demanding attention, its deep, slow parts offering strong rhythms of paddling, and the incredible northern forest in its riot of vegetation, thick and diverse and endlessly rewarding. One has no need of the stock market, Mideast politics, anything about presidential primary races, etc., etc., when rocks, hidden and seen, call to you constantly to miss them.
And anyway, the news when we returned was the same awfulness or awful sameness. I’m reminded of the section of Thoreau’s Walden, Chapter 2, in which he talks about the news.
“I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter - we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications? To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. Yet not a few are greedy after this gossip. There was such a rush, as I hear, the other day at one of the offices to learn the foreign news by the last arrival, that several large squares of plate glass belonging to the establishment were broken by the pressure - news which I seriously think a ready wit might write a twelve-month, or twelve years, beforehand with sufficient accuracy.”
This is not to say we completely neglected metered time. A few times a day someone would ask what time it was, and E, the keeper of the watch, would give no answer until everyone had guessed. We got quite accurate by the end. Of course, the exercise was quite unnecessary, more fun than anything else, for the sun and the rumblings of stomachs were really all we needed.
The other symbol of measurement, our map, we did use a lot. The normal human desire to know where one is, and what’s ahead, coupled with the need to plan for a campsite, made the map a well-used item.
Finally, we thought not at all about whether the Allagash represents wilderness or not. Lots of people apparently do, and write tendentiously, even meanly, to say that of course it isn’t wilderness, the river is only a beauty strip a few hundred yards wide, and runs through land owned by private timber companies besides, land which has been logged over at least twice, right down to the river banks. All that is true. There is really no place left on earth, except perhaps the ocean depths, that qualifies as wilderness. But the “realists” mean to imply, I guess, that somehow one’s appreciation of nature can only take place where humans have never disturbed the land, that somehow the very concept of wilderness in the 21st century destroys our ability to appreciate it, that somehow because it was once devastated, there should be no reason to preserve it. One article I saw, actually titled “Wilderness Values: How Thoreau Cursed the Allagash,” pits the snobbish through-trippers against the local day-trippers. How very puritanical. I take tremendous enjoyment and satisfaction in woods and rivers even in their restored state, perhaps because of their restored state, and there must be left a few places on earth to enjoy them in depth, at length.
Mother Earth is very forgiving, and regenerative. Humans are not, unless we put our minds and our money and our myths to work to help her. That’s my view of salvation.
Sunday, September 13, 2015
Day 5 – McKeen Brook to Allagash Village to Millinocket to Owls Head/Deer Isle
We got up at 6:00 to mist and fog and temperatures in the 40s, and were on the river by 8:00. Breakfast at last pled guilty, eschewing the last pound of bacon for simple pancakes, maple syrup, coffee, and juice.
McKeen Brook campsite in the morning
Visibility on the river was okay, perhaps 100 feet, and paddling through mist was a beautiful experience. The sun burned it off after about an hour and the day turned gorgeous again. Both 6-packs were still at their sites when we passed, but the NC crew quickly caught up and we beached at the river edge to let them pass – very professional they were in their uniforms of vests and hats, neat piles of gear, nice canoes, and clearly skilled. As for the Rochester 6-pack, we didn’t see them again.
Spring Bank Rapids were the fastest yet, but also fairly short and we got through with only a couple of minor bumps.
The Waterway ends shortly after the rapids, and the last few miles of river to Allagash Village are privately owned. Houses started to appear, then pick-up trucks on a road, and then we saw our take-out spot, and suddenly and anti-climactically the trip was done at 12:30.
The end of the trip
Distance: about 12 miles
E/M’s truck had just been delivered and all that was left was unloading the canoes, the three-hour drive to the outfitters in Millinocket to pick up my car, and then E/M’s three-hour drive to Deer Isle, and my three-hour drive to Owls Head, where I arrived at 8:00.
Wildlife seen: Wanting to avoid the city of Bangor and the traffic of Route 1 as much as possible, I took some back roads off I-95 to Belfast. In Swanville, I saw some excellent examples of a species new to me, homo grillicus. On top of a one-story garage-like structure maybe 12 feet square, flat-roofed with no rails, set in splendid isolation from other structures and other species, sat a smoking barbeque grill, and 5 examples of the species, young, male, perched on dining room-style chairs around a table, eating dinner. I was too far away to see many details of plumage or diet, but they were magnificent in their studied insouciance.
Grand total for the week: about 60 miles of paddling (plus 12 hours in cars!)
Friday, September 11, 2015
Day 4 – Hosea B to campsite McKeen Brook
A chattering red squirrel provided a wake-up call and we were up at 6:00, and repeated the same wonderful breakfast. On the river at 7:45.
Just after breakfast I happened to look upstream and saw a moose crossing the river. She was a few hundred yards away, but still a wonderful sight.
Moose at Hosea B campsite
Steady paddling for several hours ensued. We’ve now figured out our best canoe positions, that is, I figured out my canoe position, having performed somewhat poorly in the single-person boat and at the stern of the double. The bow it was for me. No doubt with more practice, and general acclimation to the confounding confusion of left vs right, paddle vs direction movements, I would have figured it out, say in a week or two. After all the 26-year-olds, male and female respectively, did brilliantly in those positions, considering they had never been river-canoeing before.
Lunch at Michaud Farm
We saw three canoes up ahead, also 6 guys, and the Dance of the Six-Packs started in earnest. We stopped at the Michaud Farm ranger station for lunch and discovered on check-in that the pack ahead of us, which was leaving the station as we arrived, was from North Carolina and which, judging by the day of their first put-in, was very speedy. The pack behind us of course arrived at the station just as we were finishing lunch. One of the men, quite old, walked up to where we were sitting in the shade (it was a perfect day, by the way, just hot in the sun) and clearly wanted to tell their story. After the obligatory questions (where are you from, etc – they were from Rochester, NY), he said they had started out from Churchill Dam several days before, and in the difficult rapids just below the dam, crashed one of the canoes. It took hours to retrieve it in the fast water, and they had to go back for repairs (lots of duct tape), and were a day late on their schedule, thus accounting, perhaps, for their co-habitation at Croque Brook. They may have been too tired to get to the next site 6 miles away. We generated some sympathy.
After lunch, we paddled an hour to Allagash Falls through a beautiful stretch of what we guessed were silver maples. The sound of their leaves in the breeze rivaled the sound of the stream. The falls are not passable and the portage was a third of a mile. We each made three round-trips and I was beat. But the falls viewed from downstream were amazing: a forty-foot drop over several hundred yards resulting in a thick, twisting muscular braid of white water.
Allagash Falls from land
Allagash Falls from the water
We thought we had a deal with the Rochester six-pack that they would stay at the first site past the falls and we would stay at the second, McKeen Brook. But of course, who showed up about an hour after we unloaded at McKeen Brook? We couldn’t believe they would be so rude as to kick us out twice. But E was brilliant. She went down to the water as they were discussing what to do (they said they missed the first site, and actually we didn’t see it either), and said the other cell at this site is really small and really close to ours, do you really want to stay here, all in the nicest possible way. It worked. They moved on; we rejoiced.
McKeen Brook campsite
As I said, I was beat from the portage, and E/M let me have a magnificent hour in the hammock when they cooked dinner (still and always guilt-free with hot dogs, beans, and carrots).
Serving dinner at McKeen Brook
We stayed up very late night staring at the fire – 8:30 to bed!
Distance: about 20 miles
Wildlife: lots of eagles, geese flying north (!), plus beaver
Next: day 5