Canoeing in the wilderness

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Having rapidly loaded the canoe, which the Indian always carefully attended to, that it might be well trimmed, and each having taken a look, as usual, to see that nothing was left, we set out again, descending the Caucomgomoc, and turning northeasterly up the Umbazookskus. This name, the Indian said, meant Much Meadow River. We found it now very wide on account of the rains. The space between the woods, chiefly bare meadow, was from fifty to two hundred rods in breadth.

In the water on the meadows grew sedges, wool-grass, the common blue flag abundantly, its flower just showing itself above the high water, as if it were a blue water-lily, and higher in the meadows a great many clumps of a peculiar narrow-[76]leaved willow. Here also grew the red osier, its large fruit now whitish.

It was unusual for the woods to be so distant from the shore, and there was quite an echo from them, but when I was shouting in order to awake it, the Indian reminded me that I should scare the moose, which he was looking out for, and which we all wanted to see.

Having paddled several miles up the Umbazookskus, it suddenly contracted to a mere brook, narrow and swift, the larches and other trees approaching the bank and leaving no open meadow. We landed to get a black spruce pole for pushing against the stream. The one selected was quite slender, cut about ten feet long, merely whittled to a point, and the bark shaved off.

While we were thus employed, two Indians in a canoe hove in sight round the bushes, coming down stream. Our Indian knew one of them, an old man, and fell into conversation with him. He belonged[77] at the foot of Moosehead. The other was of another tribe. They were returning from hunting. I asked the younger if they had seen any moose, to which he said “No”; but I, seeing the moose-hides sticking out from a great bundle made with their blankets in the middle of the canoe, added, “Only their hides.”

As he was a foreigner, he may have wished to deceive me, for it is against the law for white men and foreigners to kill moose in Maine at this season. But perhaps he need not have been alarmed, for the moose-wardens are not very particular. I heard of one who, being asked by a white man going into the woods what he would say if he killed a moose, answered, “If you bring me a quarter of it I guess you won’t be troubled.” His duty being, as he said, only to prevent the “indiscriminate” slaughter of them for their hides. I suppose that he would consider it an indiscriminate slaughter when a quarter was not reserved for himself.[78]

We continued along through the most extensive larch wood which I had seen—tall and slender trees with fantastic branches. You do not find straggling trees of this species here and there throughout the wood, but rather a little forest of them. The same is the case with the white and red pines and some other trees, greatly to the convenience of the lumberer. They are of a social habit, growing in “veins,” “clumps,” “groups,” or “communities,” as the explorers call them, distinguishing them far away, from the top of a hill or a tree, the white pines towering above the surrounding forest, or else they form extensive forests by themselves. I should have liked to come across a large community of pines which had never been invaded by the lumbering army.

The Red Squirrel

We saw some fresh moose-tracks along the shore. The stream was only from one and one half to three rods wide, quite winding, with occasional small islands, meadows, and some very swift and shallow places.[79] When we came to an island the Indian never hesitated which side to take, as if the current told him which was the shortest and deepest. It was lucky for us that the water was so high. We had to walk but once on this stream, carrying a part of the load, at a swift and shallow reach, while he got up with the canoe, not being obliged to take out, though he said it was very strong water. Once or twice we passed the red wreck of a bateau which had been stove some spring.

While making this portage I saw many splendid specimens of the great purple fringed orchis, three feet high. It is remarkable that such delicate flowers should here adorn these wilderness paths.

The Umbazookskus is called ten miles long. Having poled up the narrowest part some three or four miles, the next opening in the sky was over Umbazookskus Lake, which we suddenly entered about eleven o’clock in the forenoon. It stretches north-westerly four or five miles. We crossed[80] the southeast end to the carry into Mud Pond.

Hodge, who went through this way to the St. Lawrence in the service of the State, calls the portage here a mile and three quarters long. The Indian said this was the wettest carry in the State, and as the season was a very wet one we anticipated an unpleasant walk. As usual he made one large bundle of the pork-keg, cooking-utensils, and other loose traps, by tying them up in his blanket. We should be obliged to go over the carry twice, and our method was to carry one half part way, and then go back for the rest.

Our path ran close by the door of a log hut in a clearing at this end of the carry, which the Indian, who alone entered it, found to be occupied by a Canadian and his family, and that the man had been blind for a year. This was the first house above Chesuncook, and was built here, no doubt, because it was the route of the lumberers in the winter and spring.[81]

After a slight ascent from the lake through the springy soil of the Canadian’s clearing, we entered on a level and very wet and rocky path through the dense evergreen forest, a loosely paved gutter merely, where we went leaping from rock to rock and from side to side in the vain attempt to keep out of the water and mud. It was on this carry that the white hunter whom I met in the stage, as he told me, had shot two bears a few months before. They stood directly in the path and did not turn out for him. He said that at this season bears were found on the mountains and hillsides in search of berries and were apt to be saucy.

Here commences what was called, twenty years ago, the best timber land in the State. This very spot was described as “covered with the greatest abundance of pine,” but now this appeared to me, comparatively, an uncommon tree there—and yet you did not see where any more could have stood, amid the dense growth of cedar, fir, etc.[82]

The Indian with his canoe soon disappeared before us, but ere long he came back and told us to take a path which turned off westward, it being better walking, and, at my suggestion, he agreed to leave a bough in the regular carry at that place that we might not pass it by mistake. Thereafter, he said, we were to keep the main path, and he added, “You see ’em my tracks.”

But I had not much faith that we could distinguish his tracks, since others had passed over the carry within a few days. We turned off at the right place, but were soon confused by numerous logging-paths coming into the one we were on. However, we kept what we considered the main path, though it was a winding one, and in this, at long intervals, we distinguished a faint trace of a footstep. This, though comparatively unworn, was at first a better, or, at least, a dryer road than the regular carry which we had left. It led through an arbor-vitæ wilderness of the[83] grimmest character. The great fallen and rotting trees had been cut through and rolled aside, and their huge trunks abutted on the path on each side, while others still lay across it two or three feet high.

It was impossible for us to discern the Indian’s trail in the elastic moss, which, like a thick carpet, covered every rock and fallen tree, as well as the earth. Nevertheless, I did occasionally detect the track of a man, and I gave myself some credit for it. I carried my whole load at once, a heavy knapsack, and a large rubber bag containing our bread and a blanket, swung on a paddle, in all about sixty pounds; but my companion preferred to make two journeys by short stages while I waited for him. We could not be sure that we were not depositing our loads each time farther off from the true path.

As I sat waiting for my companion, he would seem to be gone a long time, and I had ample opportunity to make observations on the forest. I now first began to[84] be seriously molested by the black fly, a very small but perfectly formed fly of that color, about one tenth of an inch long, which I felt, and then saw, in swarms about me, as I sat by a wider and more than usually doubtful fork in this dark forest path. Remembering that I had a wash in my knapsack, prepared by a thoughtful hand in Bangor, I made haste to apply it to my face and hands, and was glad to find it effectual, as long as it was fresh, or for twenty minutes, not only against black flies, but all the insects that molested us. They would not alight on the part thus defended. It was composed of sweet oil and oil of turpentine, with a little oil of spearmint, and camphor. However, I finally concluded that the remedy was worse than the disease, it was so disagreeable and inconvenient to have your face and hands covered with such a mixture.

Three large slate-colored birds of the jay genus, the Canada jay, came flitting[85] silently and by degrees toward me, and hopped down the limbs inquisitively to within seven or eight feet. Fish hawks from the lake uttered their sharp whistling notes low over the top of the forest near me, as if they were anxious about a nest there.

After I had sat there some time I noticed at this fork in the path a tree which had been blazed, and the letters “Chamb. L.” written on it with red chalk. This I knew to mean Chamberlain Lake. So I concluded that on the whole we were on the right course.

My companion having returned with his bag, we set forward again. The walking rapidly grew worse and the path more indistinct, and at length we found ourselves in a more open and regular swamp made less passable than ordinary by the unusual wetness of the season. We sank a foot deep in water and mud at every step, and sometimes up to our knees. The trail was almost obliterated, being no more than a mus[86]quash leaves in similar places when he parts the floating sedge. In fact, it probably was a musquash trail in some places. We concluded that if Mud Pond was as muddy as the approach to it was wet, it certainly deserved its name. It would have been amusing to behold the dogged and deliberate pace at which we entered that swamp, without interchanging a word, as if determined to go through it, though it should come up to our necks. Having penetrated a considerable distance into this and found a tussock on which we could deposit our loads, though there was no place to sit, my companion went back for the rest of his pack.

After a long while my companion came back, and the Indian with him. We had taken the wrong road, and the Indian had lost us. He had gone back to the Canadian’s camp and asked him which way we had probably gone, since he could better understand the ways of white men, and he told him correctly that we had undoubt[87]edly taken the supply road to Chamberlain Lake. The Indian was greatly surprised that we should have taken what he called a “tow,” that is, tote, toting, or supply, road instead of a carry path,—that we had not followed his tracks,—said it was “strange,” and evidently thought little of our woodcraft.

Having held a consultation and eaten a mouthful of bread, we concluded that it would perhaps be nearer for us two now to keep on to Chamberlain Lake, omitting Mud Pond, than to go back and start anew for the last place, though the Indian had never been through this way and knew nothing about it. In the meanwhile he would go back and finish carrying over his canoe and bundle to Mud Pond, cross that, and go down its outlet and up Chamberlain Lake, and trust to meet us there before night. It was now a little after noon. He supposed that the water in which we stood had flowed back from Mud Pond, which could not be far off[88] eastward, but was unapproachable through the dense cedar swamp.

Keeping on, we were ere long agreeably disappointed by reaching firmer ground, and we crossed a ridge where the path was more distinct, but there was never any outlook over the forest. At one place I heard a very clear and piercing note from a small hawk as he dashed through the tree-tops over my head. We also saw and heard several times the red squirrel. This, according to the Indian, is the only squirrel found in those woods, except a very few striped ones. It must have a solitary time in that dark evergreen forest, where there is so little life, seventy-five miles from a road as we had come. I wondered how he could call any particular tree there his home, and yet he would run up the stem of one out of the myriads, as if it were an old road to him. I fancied that he must be glad to see us, though he did seem to chide us. One of those somber fir and spruce woods is not complete un[89]less you hear from out its cavernous mossy and twiggy recesses his fine alarum—his spruce voice, like the working of the sap through some crack in a tree. Such an impertinent fellow would occasionally try to alarm the wood about me.

“Oh,” said I, “I am well acquainted with your family. I know your cousins in Concord very well.” But my overtures were vain, for he would withdraw by his aerial turnpikes into a more distant cedar-top, and spring his rattle again.

We entered another swamp, at a necessarily slow pace, where the walking was worse than ever, not only on account of the water, but the fallen timber, which often obliterated the indistinct trail entirely. The fallen trees were so numerous that for long distances the route was through a succession of small yards, where we climbed over fences as high as our heads, down into water often up to our knees, and then over another fence into a second yard, and so on. In many places[90] the canoe would have run if it had not been for the fallen timber. Again it would be more open, but equally wet, too wet for trees to grow. It was a mossy swamp, which it required the long legs of a moose to traverse, and it is very likely that we scared some of them in our transit, though we saw none. It was ready to echo the growl of a bear, the howl of a wolf, or the scream of a panther; but when you get fairly into the middle of one of these grim forests you are surprised to find that the larger inhabitants are not at home commonly, but have left only a puny red squirrel to bark at you. Generally speaking, a howling wilderness does not howl; it is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling. I did, however, see one dead porcupine. Perhaps he had succumbed to the difficulties of the way. These bristly fellows are a very suitable small fruit of such unkempt wildernesses.

Making a logging-road in the Maine woods is called “swamping” it, and they[91] who do the work are called “swampers.” I now perceived the fitness of the term. This was the most perfectly swamped of all the roads I ever saw. Nature must have coöperated with art here. However, I suppose they would tell you that this name took its origin from the fact that the chief work of roadmakers in those woods is to make the swamps passable. We came to a stream where the bridge, which had been made of logs tied together with cedar bark, had been broken up, and we got over as we could. Such as it was, this ruined bridge was the chief evidence that we were on a path of any kind.

We then crossed another low rising ground, and I, who wore shoes, had an opportunity to wring out my stockings, but my companion, who used boots, had found that this was not a safe experiment for him, for he might not be able to get his wet boots on again. He went over the whole ground, or water, three times, for which reason our progress was very slow.[92] Beside that, the water softened our feet, and to some extent unfitted them for walking.

As I sat waiting for him it would naturally seem an unaccountable time that he was gone. Therefore, as I could see through the woods that the sun was getting low, and it was uncertain how far the lake might be, even if we were on the right course, and in what part of the world we should find ourselves at nightfall, I proposed that I should push through with what speed I could, leaving boughs to mark my path, and find the lake and the Indian, if possible, before night, and send the latter back to carry my companion’s bag.

Having gone about a mile I heard a noise like the note of an owl, which I soon discovered to be made by the Indian, and answering him, we soon came together. He had reached the lake after crossing Mud Pond and running some rapids below it, and had come up about a mile and[93] a half on our path. If he had not come back to meet us, we probably should not have found him that night, for the path branched once or twice before reaching this particular part of the lake. So he went back for my companion and his bag. Having waded through another stream, where the bridge of logs had been broken up and half floated away, we continued on through alternate mud and water to the shores of Apmoojenegamook Lake, which we reached in season for a late supper, instead of dining there, as we had expected, having gone without our dinner.

It was at least five miles by the way we had come, and as my companion had gone over most of it three times he had walked full a dozen miles. In the winter, when the water is frozen and the snow is four feet deep, it is no doubt a tolerable path to a footman. If you want an exact recipe for making such a road, take one part Mud Pond, and dilute it with equal parts of Umbazookskus and Apmoojenegamook;[94] then send a family of musquash through to locate it, look after the grades and culverts, and finish it to their minds, and let a hurricane follow to do the fencing.

We had come out on a point extending into Apmoojenegamook, or Chamberlain Lake, where there was a broad, gravelly, and rocky shore, encumbered with bleached logs and trees. We were rejoiced to see such dry things in that part of the world. But at first we did not attend to dryness so much as to mud and wetness. We all three walked into the lake up to our middle to wash our clothes.

This was another noble lake, twelve miles long; if you add Telos Lake, which, since the dam was built, has been connected with it by dead water, it will be twenty; and it is apparently from a mile and a half to two miles wide. We were about midway its length on the south side. We could see the only clearing in these parts, called the “Chamberlain Farm,” with two or three log buildings close to[95]gether, on the opposite shore, some two and a half miles distant. The smoke of our fire on the shore brought over two men in a canoe from the farm, that being a common signal agreed on when one wishes to cross. It took them about half an hour to come over, and they had their labor for their pains this time.

After putting on such dry clothes as we had, and hanging the others to dry on the pole which the Indian arranged over the fire, we ate our supper, and lay down on the pebbly shore with our feet to the fire without pitching our tent, making a thin bed of grass to cover the stones.

Here first I was molested by the little midge called the no-see-em, especially over the sand at the water’s edge, for it is a kind of sand-fly. You would not observe them but for their light-colored wings. They are said to get under your clothes and produce a feverish heat, which I suppose was what I felt that night.

Our insect foes in this excursion were,[96] first, mosquitoes, only troublesome at night, or when we sat still on shore by day; second, black flies (simulium molestum), which molested us more or less on the carries by day, and sometimes in narrower parts of the stream; third, moose-flies, stout brown flies much like a horsefly. They can bite smartly, according to Polis, but are easily avoided or killed. Fourth, the no-see-ems. Of all these, the mosquitoes are the only ones that troubled me seriously, but as I was provided with a wash and a veil, they have not made any deep impression.

The Indian would not use our wash to protect his face and hands, for fear that it would hurt his skin, nor had he any veil. He, therefore, suffered from insects throughout this journey more than either of us. He regularly tied up his face in his handkerchief, and buried it in his blanket, and he now finally lay down on the sand between us and the fire for the sake of the smoke, which he tried to make enter his blanket about his face, and for the same[97] purpose he lit his pipe and breathed the smoke into his blanket.

In the middle of the night we heard the voice of the loon, loud and distinct, from far over the lake. It is a very wild sound, quite in keeping with the place and the circumstances of the traveler, and very unlike the voice of a bird. I could lie awake for hours listening to it, it is so thrilling. When camping in such a wilderness as this, you are prepared to hear sounds from some of its inhabitants which will give voice to its wildness. Some idea of bears, wolves, or panthers runs in your head naturally, and when this note is first heard very far off at midnight, as you lie with your ear to the ground,—the forest being perfectly still about you, you take it for granted that it is the voice of a wolf or some other wild beast,—you conclude that it is a pack of wolves baying the moon, or, perchance, cantering after a moose. It was the unfailing and characteristic sound of those lakes.[98]

Some friends of mine, who two years ago went up the Caucomgomoc River, were serenaded by wolves while moose-hunting by moonlight. It was a sudden burst, as if a hundred demons had broke loose,—a startling sound enough, which, if any, would make your hair stand on end,—and all was still again. It lasted but a moment, and you’d have thought there were twenty of them, when probably there were only two or three. They heard it twice only, and they said that it gave expression to the wilderness which it lacked before. I heard of some men, who, while skinning a moose lately in those woods, were driven off from the carcass by a pack of wolves, which ate it up.

This of the loon—I do not mean its laugh, but its looning—is a long-drawn call, as it were, sometimes singularly human to my ear—hoo-hoo-ooooo, like the hallooing of a man on a very high key, having thrown his voice into his head. I have heard a sound exactly like it when[99] breathing heavily through my own nostrils, half awake at ten at night, suggesting my affinity to the loon; as if its language were but a dialect of my own, after all. Formerly, when lying awake at midnight in those woods, I had listened to hear some words or syllables of their language, but it chanced that I listened in vain until I heard the cry of the loon. I have heard it occasionally on the ponds of my native town, but there its wildness is not enhanced by the surrounding scenery.

I was awakened at midnight by some heavy, low-flying bird, probably a loon, flapping by close over my head along the shore. So, turning the other side of my half-clad body to the fire, I sought slumber again.

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