Canoeing in the wilderness

Page 9 of 10




I caught two or three large red chivin within twenty feet of the camp, which, added to the moose tongue that had been left in the kettle boiling over night, and to our other stores, made a sumptuous breakfast. The Indian made us some hemlock tea instead of coffee. This was tolerable, though he said it was not strong enough. It was interesting to see so simple a dish as a kettle of water with a handful of green hemlock sprigs in it boiling over the huge fire in the open air, the leaves fast losing their lively green color, and know that it was for our breakfast.

We were glad to embark once more and leave some of the mosquitoes behind. We found that we had camped about a mile above Hunt’s, which is the last house[176] for those who ascend Katahdin on this side. We had expected to ascend it from this point, but my companion was obliged to give up this on account of sore feet. The Indian, however, suggested that perhaps he might get a pair of moccasins at this place, and that he could walk very easily in them without hurting his feet, wearing several pairs of stockings, and he said beside that they were so porous that when you had taken in water it all drained out in a little while. We stopped to get some sugar, but found that the family had moved away, and the house was unoccupied, except temporarily by some men who were getting the hay. I noticed a seine here stretched on the bank, which probably had been used to catch salmon.

Just below this, on the west bank, we saw a moose-hide stretched, and with it a bearskin. The Indian said they belonged to Joe Aitteon,[5] but how he told I do not[177] know. He was probably hunting near and had left them for the day. Finding that we were going directly to Oldtown, he regretted that he had not taken more of the moose meat to his family, saying that in a short time, by drying it, he could have made it so light as to have brought away the greater part, leaving the bones. We once or twice inquired after the lip, which is a famous tidbit, but he said, “That go Oldtown for my old woman; don’t get it every day.”

Maples grew more and more numerous. It rained a little during the forenoon, and, as we expected a wetting, we stopped early and dined just above Whetstone Falls, about a dozen miles below Hunt’s. My companion, having lost his pipe, asked the Indian if he could make him one.

“Oh, yer,” said he, and in a minute rolled up one of birch bark, telling him to wet the bowl from time to time.

We carried round the falls. The distance was about three fourths of a mile.[178] When we had carried over one load, the Indian returned by the shore, and I by the path; and though I made no particular haste I was nevertheless surprised to find him at the other end as soon as I. It was remarkable how easily he got over the worst ground. He said to me, “I take canoe and you take the rest, suppose you can keep along with me?”

I thought he meant that while he ran down the rapids I should keep along the shore, and be ready to assist him from time to time, as I had done before; but as the walking would be very bad, I answered, “I suppose you will go too fast for me, but I will try.”

But I was to go by the path, he said. This I thought would not help the matter, I should have so far to go to get to the riverside when he wanted me. But neither was this what he meant. He was proposing a race over the carry, and asked me if I thought I could keep along with him by the same path, adding that I must[179] be pretty smart to do it. As his load, the canoe, would be much the heaviest and bulkiest, I thought that I ought to be able to do it, and said that I would try. So I proceeded to gather up the gun, axe, paddle, kettle, frying-pan, plates, dippers, carpets, etc., and while I was thus engaged he threw me his cowhide boots. “What, are these in the bargain?” I asked.

“Oh, yer,” said he; but before I could make a bundle of my load I saw him disappearing over a hill with the canoe on his head.

Hastily scraping the various articles together, I started on the run, and immediately went by him in the bushes, but I had no sooner left him out of sight in a rocky hollow than the greasy plates, dippers, etc., took to themselves wings, and while I was employed in gathering them up, he went by me; but, hastily pressing the sooty kettle to my side, I started once more, and, soon passing him again, I saw him no more on the carry. I do not men[180]tion this as anything of a feat, for it was but poor running on my part, and he was obliged to move with great caution for fear of breaking his canoe as well as his neck. When he made his appearance, puffing and panting like myself, in answer to my inquiries where he had been, he said, “Locks cut ’em feet,” and, laughing, added, “Oh, me love to play sometimes.”

He said that he and his companions when they came to carries several miles long used to try who would get over first; each perhaps with a canoe on his head. I bore the sign of the kettle on my brown linen sack for the rest of the voyage.

Carrying round the Falls

As we approached the mouth of the East Branch we passed two or three huts, the first sign of civilization after Hunt’s, though we saw no road as yet. We heard a cowbell, and even saw an infant held up to a small square window to see us pass. On entering the West Branch at Nicketow, Polis remarked that it was all smooth water hence to Oldtown, and he threw[181] away his pole which was cut on the Umbazookskus.

We camped about two miles below Nicketow, covering with fresh twigs the withered bed of a former traveler, and feeling that we were now in a settled country, especially when in the evening we heard an ox sneeze in its wild pasture across the river. Wherever you land along the frequented part of the river you have not far to go to find these sites of temporary inns, the withered bed of flattened twigs, the charred sticks, and perhaps the tent-poles. Not long since, similar beds were spread along the Connecticut, the Hudson, and the Delaware, and longer still ago, by the Thames and Seine, and they now help to make the soil where private and public gardens, mansions, and palaces are. We could not get fir twigs for our bed here, and the spruce was harsh in comparison, having more twig in proportion to its leaf, but we improved it somewhat with hemlock.[182]

After the regular supper we attempted to make a lily soup of the bulbs which I had brought along, for I wished to learn all I could before I got out of the woods. Following the Indian’s directions, I washed the bulbs carefully, minced some moose meat and some pork, salted and boiled all together, but we had not the patience to try the experiment fairly, for he said it must be boiled till the roots were completely softened so as to thicken the soup like flour; but though we left it on all night, we found it dried to the kettle in the morning and not yet boiled to a flour. Perhaps the roots were not ripe enough, for they commonly gather them in the fall. The Indian’s name for these bulbs was sheepnoc.

He prepared to camp as usual between his moose-hide and the fire, but it beginning to rain suddenly he took refuge under the tent with us, and gave us a song before falling asleep. It rained hard in the night and spoiled another box of matches for[183] us, which the Indian had left out, for he was very careless; but we had so much the better night for the rain, since it kept the mosquitoes down.

Sunday, a cloudy and unpromising morning. One of us observed to the Indian, “You did not stretch your moose-hide last night, did you, Mr. Polis?”

Whereat he replied in a tone of surprise, though perhaps not of ill humor: “What you ask me that question for? Suppose I stretch ’em, you see ’em. May be your way talking, may be all right, no Indian way.”

I had observed that he did not wish to answer the same question more than once, and was often silent when it was put again, as if he were moody. Not that he was incommunicative, for he frequently commenced a longwinded narrative of his own accord—repeated at length the tradition of some old battle, or some passage in the recent history of his tribe in which he had acted a prominent part, from time[184] to time drawing a long breath, and resuming the thread of his tale, with the true story-teller’s leisureliness. Especially after the day’s work was over, and he had put himself in posture for the night, he would be unexpectedly sociable, and we would fall asleep before he got through.

The Indian was quite sick this morning with the colic. I thought that he was the worse for the moose meat he had eaten.

We reached the Mattawamkeag at half past eight in the morning, in the midst of a drizzling rain, and, after buying some sugar, set out again.

The Indian growing much worse, we stopped in the north part of Lincoln to get some brandy for him, but, failing in this, an apothecary recommended Brandreth’s pills, which he refused to take because he was not acquainted with them. He said, “Me doctor—first study my case, find out what ail ’em—then I know what to take.”

We stopped at mid-forenoon on an[185] island and made him a dipper of tea. Here, too, we dined and did some washing and botanizing, while he lay on the bank. In the afternoon we went on a little farther. As a thunder-shower appeared to be coming up we stopped opposite a barn on the west bank. Here we were obliged to spend the rest of the day and night, on account of our patient, whose sickness did not abate. He lay groaning under his canoe on the bank, looking very woebegone. You would not have thought, if you had seen him lying about thus, that he was worth six thousand dollars and had been to Washington. It seemed to me that he made a greater ado about his sickness than a Yankee does, and was more alarmed about himself. We talked somewhat of leaving him with his people in Lincoln,—for that is one of their homes,—but he objected on account of the expense, saying, “Suppose me well in morning, you and I go Oldtown by noon.”[186]

As we were taking our tea at twilight, while he lay groaning under his canoe, he asked me to get him a dipper of water. Taking the dipper in one hand, he seized his powderhorn with the other, and, pouring into it a charge or two of powder, stirred it up with his finger, and drank it off. This was all he took to-day after breakfast beside his tea.

To save the trouble of pitching our tent, when we had secured our stores from wandering dogs, we camped in the solitary half-open barn near the bank, with the permission of the owner, lying on new-mown hay four feet deep. The fragrance of the hay, in which many ferns, etc., were mingled, was agreeable, though it was quite alive with grasshoppers which you could hear crawling through it. This served to graduate our approach to houses and feather beds. In the night some large bird, probably an owl, flitted through over our heads, and very early in the morning we were awakened by the twit[187]tering of swallows which had their nests there.

We started early before breakfast, the Indian being considerably better, and soon glided by Lincoln, and stopped to breakfast two or three miles below this town.

We frequently passed Indian islands with their small houses on them. The Penobscot Indians seem to be more social even than the whites. Ever and anon in the deepest wilderness of Maine you come to the log hut of a Yankee or Canada settler, but a Penobscot never takes up his residence in such a solitude. They are not even scattered about on their islands in the Penobscot, but gathered together on two or three, evidently for the sake of society. I saw one or two houses not now used by them, because, as our Indian said, they were too solitary.

From time to time we met Indians in their canoes going up river. Our man did not commonly approach them, but only exchanged a few words with them at a[188] distance. We took less notice of the scenery to-day, because we were in quite a settled country. The river became broad and sluggish, and we saw a blue heron winging its way slowly down the stream before us.

The Sunkhaze, a short dead stream, comes in from the east two miles above Oldtown. Asking the meaning of this name, the Indian said, “Suppose you are going down Penobscot, just like we, and you see a canoe come out of bank and go along before you, but you no see ’em stream. That is Sunkhaze.”

He had previously complimented me on my paddling, saying that I paddled “just like anybody,” giving me an Indian name which meant “great paddler.” When off this stream he said to me, who sat in the bows, “Me teach you paddle.”

So, turning toward the shore, he got out, came forward, and placed my hands as he wished. He placed one of them quite outside the boat, and the other parallel with[189] the first, grasping the paddle near the end, not over the flat extremity, and told me to slide it back and forth on the side of the canoe. This, I found, was a great improvement which I had not thought of, saving me the labor of lifting the paddle each time, and I wondered that he had not suggested it before. It is true, before our baggage was reduced we had been obliged to sit with our legs drawn up, and our knees above the side of the canoe, which would have prevented our paddling thus, or perhaps he was afraid of wearing out his canoe by constant friction on the side.

I told him that I had been accustomed to sit in the stern, and lift my paddle at each stroke, getting a pry on the side each time, and I still paddled partly as if in the stern. He then wanted to see me paddle in the stern. So, changing paddles, for he had the longer and better one, and turning end for end, he sitting flat on the bottom and I on the crossbar, he began to paddle very hard, trying to turn the canoe, look[190]ing over his shoulder and laughing, but, finding it in vain, he relaxed his efforts, though we still sped along a mile or two very swiftly. He said that he had no fault to find with my paddling in the stern, but I complained that he did not paddle according to his own directions in the bows.

As we drew near to Oldtown I asked Polis if he was not glad to get home again; but there was no relenting to his wildness, and he said, “It makes no difference to me where I am.” Such is the Indian’s pretense always.

We approached the Indian Island through the narrow strait called “Cook.” He said: “I ’xpect we take in some water there, river so high—never see it so high at this season. Very rough water there; swamp steamboat once. Don’t you paddle till I tell you. Then you paddle right along.”

It was a very short rapid. When we were in the midst of it he shouted, “Paddle!” and we shot through without taking[191] in a drop. Soon after the Indian houses came in sight. I could not at first tell my companion which of two or three large white ones was our guide’s. He said it was the one with blinds.

We landed opposite his door at about four in the afternoon, having come some forty miles this day. We stopped for an hour at his house. Mrs. P. wore a hat and had a silver brooch on her breast, but she was not introduced to us. The house was roomy and neat. A large new map of Oldtown and the Indian Island hung on the wall, and a clock opposite to it.

This was the last that I saw of Joe Polis. We took the last train, and reached Bangor that night.


The Riverside Press
U. S. A


[5] Joe Aitteon was Thoreau’s guide on the second of his three excursions into the Maine Woods. He was an Indian whose home was on the same island where Polis lived.

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