Canoeing in the wilderness



Obvious typographical errors have been corrected in this text. For a complete list, please see the bottom of this document.

A Table of Contents has been added.



By Clifton Johnson


Boston and New York


The Indian Guide’s Evening Prayer (page 59)





The Riverside Press Cambridge



Published April 1916




The Indian Guide’s Evening PrayerFrontispiece
The Stage on the Road to Moosehead Lake8
Making a Camp in the Streamside Woodland52
The Red Squirrel78
Coming down the Rapids132
Shooting the Moose154
Carrying round the Falls180



Thoreau was born at Concord, Massachusetts, July 12, 1817, and at the time he made this wilderness canoe trip he was forty years old. The record of the journey is the latter half of his The Maine Woods, which is perhaps the finest idyl of the forest ever written. It is particularly charming in its blending of meditative and poetic fancies with the minute description of the voyager’s experiences.

The chief attraction that inspired Thoreau to make the trip was the primitiveness of the region. Here was a vast tract of almost virgin woodland, peopled only with a few loggers and pioneer farmers, Indians, and wild animals. No one could have been better fitted than Thoreau to enjoy such a region and to transmit his enjoyment of it to others. For though he was a person of culture and refinement,[viii] with a college education, and had for an intimate friend so rare a man as Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was half wild in many of his tastes and impatient of the restraints and artificiality of the ordinary social life of the towns and cities.

He liked especially the companionship of men who were in close contact with nature, and in this book we find him deeply interested in his Indian guide and lingering fondly over the man’s characteristics and casual remarks. The Indian retained many of his aboriginal instincts and ways, though his tribe was in most respects civilized. His home was in an Indian village on an island in the Penobscot River at Oldtown, a few miles above Bangor.

Thoreau was one of the world’s greatest nature writers, and as the years pass, his fame steadily increases. He was a careful and accurate observer, more at home in the fields and woods than in village and town, and with a gift of piquant originality in recording his impressions. The play of[ix] his imagination is keen and nimble, yet his fancy is so well balanced by his native common sense that it does not run away with him. There is never any doubt about his genuineness, or that what he states is free from bias and romantic exaggeration.

It is to be noted that he was no hunter. His inquisitiveness into the ways of the wild creatures carried with it no desire to shoot them, and to his mind the killing of game for mere sport was akin to butchery. The kindly and sympathetic spirit constantly manifest in his pages is very attractive, and the fellowship one gains with him through his written words is both delightful and wholesome. He stimulates not only a love for nature, but a love for simple ways of living, and for all that is sincere and unaffected in human life, wherever found.

In the present volume various details and digressions that are not of interest to most readers have been omitted, but except for such elimination Thoreau’s text has been[x] retained throughout. It is believed that nothing essential has been sacrificed, and that the narrative in this form will be found lively, informing, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Clifton Johnson.

      Hadley, Massachusetts.






I started on my third excursion to the Maine woods Monday, July 20, 1857, with one companion, arriving at Bangor the next day at noon. The succeeding morning, a relative of mine who is well acquainted with the Penobscot Indians took me in his wagon to Oldtown to assist me in obtaining an Indian for this expedition. We were ferried across to the Indian Island in a bateau. The ferryman’s boy had the key to it, but the father, who was a blacksmith, after a little hesitation, cut the chain with a cold chisel on the rock. He told me that the Indians were nearly all gone to the seaboard and to Massachusetts, partly on account of the small[4]pox, of which they are very much afraid, having broken out in Oldtown. The old chief Neptune, however, was there still.

The first man we saw on the island was an Indian named Joseph Polis, whom my relative addressed familiarly as “Joe.” He was dressing a deerskin in his yard. The skin was spread over a slanting log, and he was scraping it with a stick held by both hands. He was stoutly built, perhaps a little above the middle height, with a broad face, and, as others said, perfect Indian features and complexion. His house was a two-story white one with blinds, the best-looking that I noticed there, and as good as an average one on a New England village street. It was surrounded by a garden and fruit trees, single cornstalks standing thinly amid the beans. We asked him if he knew any good Indian who would like to go into the woods with us, that is, to the Allegash Lakes by way of Moosehead, and return by the East Branch of the Penobscot.

To which he answered out of that[5] strange remoteness in which the Indian ever dwells to the white man, “Me like to go myself; me want to get some moose”; and kept on scraping the skin.

The ferryman had told us that all the best Indians were gone except Polis, who was one of the aristocracy. He, to be sure, would be the best man we could have, but if he went at all would want a great price. Polis asked at first two dollars a day but agreed to go for a dollar and a half, and fifty cents a week for his canoe. He would come to Bangor with his canoe by the seven o’clock train that evening—we might depend on him. We thought ourselves lucky to secure the services of this man, who was known to be particularly steady and trustworthy.

I spent the afternoon with my companion, who had remained in Bangor, in preparing for our expedition, purchasing provisions, hard-bread,[1] pork, coffee,[6] sugar, etc., and some india-rubber clothing.

At evening the Indian arrived in the cars, and I led the way, while he followed me, three quarters of a mile to my friend’s house, with the canoe on his head. I did not know the exact route, but steered by the lay of the land, as I do in Boston. I tried to enter into conversation with him, but as he was puffing under the weight of his canoe, not having the usual apparatus for carrying it, but, above all, as he was an Indian, I might as well have been thumping on the bottom of his birch the while. In answer to the various observations that I made he only grunted vaguely from beneath his canoe once or twice, so that I knew he was there.

Early the next morning the stage called for us. My companion and I had each a large knapsack as full as it would hold, and we had two large rubber bags which held our provisions and utensils. As for the Indian, all the baggage he had, beside his axe[7] and gun, was a blanket, which he brought loose in his hand. However, he had laid in a store of tobacco and a new pipe for the excursion. The canoe was securely lashed diagonally across the top of the stage, with bits of carpet tucked under the edge to prevent its chafing. The driver appeared as much accustomed to carrying canoes in this way as bandboxes.

At the Bangor House we took in four men bound on a hunting excursion, one of the men going as cook. They had a dog, a middling-sized brindled cur, which ran by the side of the stage, his master showing his head and whistling from time to time. But after we had gone about three miles the dog was suddenly missing, and two of the party went back for him, while the stage, which was full of passengers, waited. At length one man came back, while the other kept on. This whole party of hunters declared their intention to stop till the dog was found, but the very obliging driver was ready to wait a spell longer.[8] He was evidently unwilling to lose so many passengers, who would have taken a private conveyance, or perhaps the other line of stages, the next day. Such progress did we make, with a journey of over sixty miles to be accomplished that day, and a rainstorm just setting in. We discussed the subject of dogs and their instincts till it was threadbare, while we waited there, and the scenery of the suburbs of Bangor is still distinctly impressed on my memory.

The Stage on the Road to Moosehead Lake

After full half an hour the man returned, leading the dog by a rope. He had overtaken him just as he was entering the Bangor House. He was then tied on the top of the stage, but, being wet and cold, several times in the course of the journey he jumped off, and I saw him dangling by his neck. This dog was depended on to stop bears. He had already stopped one somewhere in New Hampshire, and I can testify that he stopped a stage in Maine. This party of four probably paid nothing for the dog’s ride,[9] nor for his run, while our party of three paid two dollars—and were charged four—for the light canoe which lay still on the top.

The stage was crowded all the way. If you had looked inside you would have thought that we were prepared to run the gantlet of a band of robbers, for there were four or five guns on the front seat and one or two on the back one, each man holding his darling in his arms. It appeared that this party of hunters was going our way, but much farther. Their leader was a handsome man about thirty years old, of good height, but not apparently robust, of gentlemanly address and faultless toilet. He had a fair white complexion as if he had always lived in the shade, and an intellectual face, and with his quiet manners might have passed for a divinity student who had seen something of the world. I was surprised to find that he was probably the chief white hunter of Maine and was known all along the[10] road. I afterwards heard him spoken of as one who could endure a great deal of exposure and fatigue without showing the effect of it; and he could not only use guns, but make them, being himself a gunsmith. In the spring he had saved a stage-driver and two passengers from drowning in the backwater of the Piscataquis on this road, having swum ashore in the freezing water and made a raft and got them off—though the horses were drowned—at great risk to himself, while the only other man who could swim withdrew to the nearest house to prevent freezing. He knew our man, and remarked that we had a good Indian there, a good hunter; adding that he was said to be worth six thousand dollars. The Indian also knew him, and said to me, “The great hunter.”

The Indian sat on the front seat with a stolid expression of face as if barely awake to what was going on. Again I was struck by the peculiar vagueness of[11] his replies when addressed in the stage or at the taverns. He really never said anything on such occasions. He was merely stirred up like a wild beast, and passively muttered some insignificant response. His answer, in such cases, was vague as a puff of smoke, suggesting no responsibility, and if you considered it you would find that you had got nothing out of him. This was instead of the conventional palaver and smartness of the white man, and equally profitable. Most get no more than this out of the Indian, and pronounce him stolid accordingly. I was surprised to see what a foolish and impertinent style a Maine man, a passenger, used in addressing him, as if he were a child, which only made his eyes glisten a little. A tipsy Canadian asked him at a tavern, in a drawling tone, if he smoked, to which he answered with an indefinite “Yes.”

“Won’t you lend me your pipe a little while?” asked the other.

He replied, looking straight by the[12] man’s head, with a face singularly vacant to all neighboring interests, “Me got no pipe”; yet I had seen him put a new one, with a supply of tobacco, into his pocket that morning.

Our little canoe, so neat and strong, drew a favorable criticism from all the wiseacres among the tavern loungers along the road. By the roadside, close to the wheels, I noticed a splendid great purple fringed orchis which I would fain have stopped the stage to pluck, but as this had never been known to stop a bear, like the cur on the stage, the driver would probably have thought it a waste of time.

When we reached the lake, about half past eight in the evening, it was still steadily raining, and in that fresh, cool atmosphere the hylas were peeping and the toads ringing about the lake. It was as if the season had revolved backward two or three months, or I had arrived at the abode of perpetual spring.

We had expected to go upon the lake[13] at once, and, after paddling up two or three miles, to camp on one of its islands, but on account of the rain we decided to go to one of the taverns for the night.


[1] Hard-bread or ship-bread is a kind of hard biscuit commonly baked in large cakes and much used by sailors and soldiers.

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