Canoeing in the wilderness

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When we awoke we found a heavy dew on our blankets. I lay awake very early and listened to the clear, shrill ah, te te, te te, te of the white-throated sparrow, repeated at short intervals, without the least variation, for half an hour, as if it could not enough express its happiness.

We did some more washing in the lake this morning, and, with our clothes hung about on the dead trees and rocks, the shore looked like washing-day at home. The Indian, taking the hint, borrowed the soap, and, walking into the lake, washed his only cotton shirt on his person, then put on his pants and let it dry on him.

I observed that he wore a cotton shirt, originally white, a greenish flannel one[101] over it, but no waistcoat, flannel drawers, and strong linen or duck pants, which also had been white, blue woolen stockings, cowhide boots, and a Kossuth hat.[3] He carried no change of clothing, but, putting on a stout, thick jacket, which he laid aside in the canoe, and seizing a full-sized axe, his gun and ammunition, and a blanket, which would do for a sail or knapsack, if wanted, and strapping on his belt, which contained a large sheath-knife, he walked off at once, ready to be gone all summer. This looked very independent—a few simple and effective tools, and no rubber clothing. He was always the first ready to start in the morning. Instead of carrying a large bundle of his own extra clothing, etc., he brought back the greatcoats of moose tied up in his blanket. I found that his outfit was the result of a long experience, and in the main hardly to be improved on, unless by washing and an[102] extra shirt. Wanting a button here, he walked off to a place where some Indians had recently encamped, and searched for one, but I believe in vain.

Having softened our stiffened boots and shoes with the pork fat, the usual disposition of what was left at breakfast, we crossed the lake, steering in a diagonal direction northeastly about four miles to the outlet. The Indian name, Apmoojenegamook, means lake that is crossed, because the usual course lies across and not along it. We did not intend to go far down the Allegash, but merely to get a view of the lakes which are its source, and then return this way to the East Branch of the Penobscot.

After reaching the middle of the lake, we found the waves pretty high, and the Indian warned my companion, who was nodding, that he must not allow himself to fall asleep in the canoe lest he should upset us; adding, that when Indians want to sleep in a canoe, they lie down straight[103] on the bottom. But in this crowded one that was impossible. However, he said that he would nudge him if he saw him nodding.

A belt of dead trees stood all around the lake, some far out in the water, with others prostrate behind them, and they made the shore, for the most part, almost inaccessible. This is the effect of the dam at the outlet. Thus the natural sandy or rocky shore, with its green fringe, was concealed and destroyed. We coasted westward along the north side, searching for the outlet, about quarter of a mile distant from this savage-looking shore, on which the waves were breaking violently, knowing that it might easily be concealed amid this rubbish, or by the overlapping of the shore. It is remarkable how little these important gates to a lake are blazoned. There is no triumphal arch over the modest inlet or outlet, but at some undistinguished point it trickles in or out through the uninterrupted forest, almost as through a sponge.[104]

We reached the outlet in about an hour, and carried over the dam there, which is quite a solid structure, and about one quarter of a mile farther there was a second dam. The result of this particular damming about Chamberlain Lake is that the headwaters of the St. John are made to flow by Bangor. They have thus dammed all the larger lakes, raising their broad surfaces many feet, thus turning the forces of Nature against herself, that they might float their spoils out of the country. They rapidly run out of these immense forests all the finer and more accessible pine timber, and then leave the bears to watch the decaying dams, not clearing nor cultivating the land, nor making roads, nor building houses, but leaving it a wilderness, as they found it. In many parts only these dams remain, like deserted beaver dams. Think how much land they have flowed without asking Nature’s leave.

The wilderness experiences a sudden rise of all her streams and lakes. She feels ten[105] thousand vermin gnawing at the base of her noblest trees. Many combining drag them off, jarring over the roots of the survivors, and tumble them into the nearest stream, till, the fairest having fallen, they scamper off to ransack some new wilderness, and all is still again. It is as when a migrating army of mice girdles a forest of pines. The chopper fells trees from the same motive that the mouse gnaws them—to get his living. You tell me that he has a more interesting family than the mouse. That is as it happens. He speaks of a “berth” of timber, a good place for him to get into, just as a worm might.

When the chopper would praise a pine he will commonly tell you that the one he cut was so big that a yoke of oxen stood on its stump; as if that were what the pine had grown for, to become the footstool of oxen. In my mind’s eye I can see these unwieldy tame deer, with a yoke binding them together, the brazen-tipped horns betraying their servitude, taking their[106] stand on the stump of each giant pine in succession throughout this whole forest, and chewing their cud there, until it is nothing but an ox-pasture, and run out at that. As if it were good for the oxen, and some medicinal quality ascended into their nostrils. Or is their elevated position intended merely as a symbol of the fact that the pastoral comes next in order to the sylvan or hunter life?

The character of the logger’s admiration is betrayed by his very mode of expressing it. If he told all that was in his mind, he would say, “It was so big that I cut it down, and then a yoke of oxen could stand on its stump.” He admires the log, the carcass or corpse, more than the tree. Why, my dear sir, the tree might have stood on its own stump, and a great deal more comfortably and firmly than a yoke of oxen can, if you had not cut it down.

The Anglo-American can indeed cut down and grub up all this waving forest, and make a stump speech on its ruins, but[107] he cannot converse with the spirit of the tree he fells, he cannot read the poetry and mythology which retire as he advances. He ignorantly erases mythological tablets in order to print his handbills and town-meeting warrants on them. Before he has learned his a b c in the beautiful but mystic lore of the wilderness he cuts it down, puts up a “deestrict” schoolhouse, and introduces Webster’s spelling-book.

Below the last dam, the river being swift and shallow, we two walked about half a mile to lighten the canoe. I made it a rule to carry my knapsack when I walked, and also to keep it tied to a crossbar when in the canoe, that it might be found with the canoe if we should upset.

I heard the dog-day locust here, a sound which I had associated only with more open, if not settled countries.

We were now fairly on the Allegash River. After perhaps two miles of river we entered Heron Lake, scaring up forty or fifty young sheldrakes, at the entrance,[108] which ran over the water with great rapidity, as usual in a long line.

This lake, judging from the map, is about ten miles long. We had entered it on the southwest side, and saw a dark mountain northeast over the lake which the Indian said was called Peaked Mountain, and used by explorers to look for timber from. The shores were in the same ragged and unsightly condition, encumbered with dead timber, both fallen and standing, as in the last lake, owing to the dam on the Allegash below. Some low points or islands were almost drowned.

I saw something white a mile off on the water, which turned out to be a great gull on a rock, which the Indian would have been glad to kill and eat. But it flew away long before we were near; and also a flock of summer ducks that were about the rock with it. I asking him about herons, since this was Heron Lake, he said that he found the blue heron’s nests in the hard-wood trees.[109]

Rounding a point, we stood across a bay toward a large island three or four miles down the lake. We met with shadflies midway, about a mile from the shore, and they evidently fly over the whole lake. On Moosehead I had seen a large devil’s-needle half a mile from the shore, coming from the middle of the lake, where it was three or four miles wide at least. It had probably crossed.

We landed on the southeast side of the island, which was rather elevated, and densely wooded, with a rocky shore, in season for an early dinner. Somebody had camped there not long before and left the frame on which they stretched a moose-hide. The Indian proceeded at once to cut a canoe birch, slanted it up against another tree on the shore, tying it with a withe, and lay down to sleep in its shade. We made this island the limit of our excursion in this direction.

The next dam was about fifteen miles farther north down the Allegash. We had[110] been told in Bangor of a man who lived alone, a sort of hermit, at that dam, to take care of it, who spent his time tossing a bullet from one hand to the other, for want of employment. This sort of tit-for-tat intercourse between his two hands, bandying to and fro a leaden subject, seems to have been his symbol for society.

There was another island visible toward the north end of the lake, with an elevated clearing on it; but we learned afterward that it was not inhabited, had only been used as a pasture for cattle which summered in these woods. This unnaturally smooth-shaven, squarish spot, in the midst of the otherwise uninterrupted forest, only reminded us how uninhabited the country was. You would sooner expect to meet a bear than an ox in such a clearing. At any rate, it must have been a surprise to the bears when they came across it. Such, seen far or near, you know at once to be man’s work, for Nature never does it. In order to let in the light to the earth he clears off[111] the forest on the hillsides and plains, and sprinkles fine grass seed like an enchanter, and so carpets the earth with a firm sward.

Polis had evidently more curiosity respecting the few settlers in those woods than we. If nothing was said, he took it for granted that we wanted to go straight to the next log hut. Having observed that we came by the log huts at Chesuncook, and the blind Canadian’s at the Mud Pond carry, without stopping to communicate with the inhabitants, he took occasion now to suggest that the usual way was, when you came near a house, to go to it, and tell the inhabitants what you had seen or heard, and then they told you what they had seen; but we laughed and said that we had had enough of houses for the present, and had come here partly to avoid them.

In the meanwhile, the wind, increasing, blew down the Indian’s birch and created such a sea that we found ourselves prisoners on the island, the nearest shore[112] being perhaps a mile distant, and we took the canoe out to prevent its drifting away. We did not know but we should be compelled to spend the rest of the day and the night there. At any rate, the Indian went to sleep again, my companion busied himself drying his plants, and I rambled along the shore westward, which was quite stony, and obstructed with fallen bleached or drifted trees for four or five rods in width.

Our Indian said that he was a doctor, and could tell me some medicinal use for every plant I could show him. I immediately tried him. He said that the inner bark of the aspen was good for sore eyes; and so with various other plants, proving himself as good as his word. According to his account, he had acquired such knowledge in his youth from a wise old Indian with whom he associated, and he lamented that the present generation of Indians “had lost a great deal.”

He said that the caribou was a “very great runner,” that there were none about[113] this lake now, though there used to be many, and, pointing to the belt of dead trees caused by the dams, he added: “No likum stump. When he sees that he scared.”

Pointing southeasterly over the lake and distant forest, he observed, “Me go Oldtown in three days.”

I asked how he would get over the swamps and fallen trees. “Oh,” said he, “in winter all covered, go anywhere on snowshoes, right across lakes.”

What a wilderness walk for a man to take alone! None of your half-mile swamps, none of your mile-wide woods merely, as on the skirts of our towns, without hotels, only a dark mountain or a lake for guide-board and station, over ground much of it impassable in summer!

Here was traveling of the old heroic kind over the unaltered face of nature. From the Allegash River, across great Apmoojenegamook, he takes his way under the bear-haunted slopes of Katahdin to[114] Pamadumcook and Millinocket’s inland seas, and so to the forks of the Nicketow, ever pushing the boughs of the fir and spruce aside, with his load of furs, contending day and night, night and day, with the shaggy demon vegetation, traveling through the mossy graveyard of trees. Or he could go by “that rough tooth of the sea” Kineo, great source of arrows and of spears to the ancients, when weapons of stone were used. Seeing and hearing moose, caribou, bears, porcupines, lynxes, wolves, and panthers. Places where he might live and die and never hear of the United States—never hear of America.

There is a lumberer’s road called the Eagle Lake Road from the Seboois to the east side of this lake. It may seem strange that any road through such a wilderness should be passable, even in winter, but at that season, wherever lumbering operations are actively carried on, teams are continually passing on the single track, and it becomes as smooth almost as a railway. I[115] am told that in the Aroostook country the sleds are required by law to be of one width, four feet, and sleighs must be altered to fit the track, so that one runner may go in one rut and the other follow the horse. Yet it is very bad turning out.

We had for some time seen a thunder-shower coming up from the west over the woods of the island, and heard the muttering of the thunder, though we were in doubt whether it would reach us; but now the darkness rapidly increasing, and a fresh breeze rustling the forest, we hastily put up the plants which we had been drying, and with one consent made a rush for the tent material and set about pitching it. A place was selected and stakes and pins cut in the shortest possible time, and we were pinning it down lest it should be blown away, when the storm suddenly burst over us.

As we lay huddled together under the tent, which leaked considerably about the sides, with our baggage at our feet, we listened to some of the grandest thunder[116] which I ever heard—rapid peals, round and plump, bang, bang, bang, in succession, like artillery from some fortress in the sky; and the lightning was proportionally brilliant. The Indian said, “It must be good powder.” All for the benefit of the moose and us, echoing far over the concealed lakes. I thought it must be a place which the thunder loved, where the lightning practiced to keep its hand in, and it would do no harm to shatter a few pines.

Looking out, I perceived that the violent shower falling on the lake had almost instantaneously flattened the waves, and, it clearing off, we resolved to start immediately, before the wind raised them again.

Getting outside, I said that I saw clouds still in the southwest, and heard thunder there. We embarked, nevertheless, and paddled rapidly back toward the dams.

At the outlet of Chamberlain Lake we were overtaken by another gusty rainstorm, which compelled us to take shelter,[117] the Indian under his canoe on the bank, and we under the edge of the dam. However, we were more scared than wet. From my covert I could see the Indian peeping out from beneath his canoe to see what had become of the rain. When we had taken our respective places thus once or twice, the rain not coming down in earnest, we commenced rambling about the neighborhood, for the wind had by this time raised such waves on the lake that we could not stir, and we feared that we should be obliged to camp there. We got an early supper on the dam and tried for fish, while waiting for the tumult to subside. The fishes were not only few, but small and worthless.

At length, just before sunset, we set out again. It was a wild evening when we coasted up the north side of this Apmoojenegamook Lake. One thunder-storm was just over, and the waves which it had raised still running with violence, and another storm was now seen coming up in[118] the southwest, far over the lake; but it might be worse in the morning, and we wished to get as far as possible on our way while we might.

It blew hard against the shore, which was as dreary and harborless as you can conceive. For half a dozen rods in width it was a perfect maze of submerged trees, all dead and bare and bleaching, some standing half their original height, others prostrate, and criss-across, above or beneath the surface, and mingled with them were loose trees and limbs and stumps, beating about. We could not have landed if we would, without the greatest danger of being swamped; so blow as it might, we must depend on coasting. It was twilight, too, and that stormy cloud was advancing rapidly in our rear. It was a pleasant excitement, yet we were glad to reach, at length, the cleared shore of the Chamberlain Farm.

We landed on a low and thinly wooded point, and while my companions were[119] pitching the tent, I ran up to the house to get some sugar, our six pounds being gone. It was no wonder they were, for Polis had a sweet tooth. He would first fill his dipper nearly a third full of sugar, and then add the coffee to it. Here was a clearing extending back from the lake to a hilltop, with some dark-colored log buildings and a storehouse in it, and half a dozen men standing in front of the principal hut, greedy for news. Among them was the man who tended the dam on the Allegash and tossed the bullet. He, having charge of the dams, and learning that we were going to Webster Stream the next day, told me that some of their men, who were haying at Telos Lake, had shut the dam at the canal there in order to catch trout, and if we wanted more water to take us through the canal we might raise the gate.

They were unwilling to spare more than four pounds of brown sugar,—unlocking the storehouse to get it,—since they only[120] kept a little for such cases as this, and they charged twenty cents a pound for it, which certainly it was worth to get it up there.

When I returned to the shore it was quite dark, but we had a rousing fire to warm and dry us by, and a snug apartment behind it. The Indian went up to the house to inquire after a brother who had been absent hunting a year or two, and while another shower was beginning, I groped about cutting spruce and arbor-vitæ twigs for a bed. I preferred the arbor-vitæ on account of its fragrance, and spread it particularly thick about the shoulders. It is remarkable with what pure satisfaction the traveler in those woods will reach his camping-ground on the eve of a tempestuous night like this, as if he had got to his inn, and, rolling himself in his blanket, stretch himself on his six-feet-by-two bed of dripping fir twigs, with a thin sheet of cotton for roof, snug as a meadow mouse in its nest. In[121]variably our best nights were those when it rained, for then we were not troubled with mosquitoes.

You soon come to disregard rain on such excursions, at least in the summer, it is so easy to dry yourself, supposing a dry change of clothing is not to be had. You can much sooner dry you by such a fire as you can make in the woods than in anybody’s kitchen, the fireplace is so much larger, and wood so much more abundant. A shed-shaped tent will catch and reflect the heat, and you may be drying while you are sleeping.

Some who have leaky roofs in the towns may have been kept awake, but we were soon lulled asleep by a steady, soaking rain, which lasted all night.


[3] A soft felt hat of the kind worn by the Hungarian patriot, Kossuth, on his visit to this country in 1851-52.

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