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Finding Thoreau in the North Maine Woods

by Jake McGinnis

Two days after the close of the Annual Gathering last summer, a small group of Thoreauvians set out in canoes on Lobster Stream, fifty-some miles by bumpy, unpaved, and largely ungraded road from Millinocket, Maine. For an hour, maybe two, we worked our way upstream. In the days to come, we’d be traveling a part of Henry David Thoreau’s 1853 and 1857 routes down the West Branch of the Penobscot, paddling from Lobster Stream to Chesuncook Lake. From there, we’d turn south toward Caribou and Ripogenus Lakes, leaving the routes of “Chesuncook” and “Allegash and the East Branch” behind us as we headed for our takeout. On the West Branch, I would fasten a map of our route on the outside of my pack, and all day I’d glance down at it to track our path against what I remembered of Thoreau’s two trips down this same stretch of river. I had come to Maine to sort out some ideas for a dissertation chapter on The Maine Woods, and I had high hopes for a kind of epiphany, a better sense of Thoreau’s travels there. On that first day on Lobster Stream, though, seated in the bow of a wood and canvas canoe steered by Maine Guide Polly Mahoney, I wasn’t thinking about my map at all, or even about Thoreau. Rather, I was looking up at the sky, my thoughts occupied by a dark gray cloud racing in from the north. Now uncomfortably far from the landing, we could hear thunder in the distance, and there was nowhere to go but further upstream.

Courtesy Henrik Otterberg

Lobster Stream is a slow, winding river, its grassy banks lined with alders and dotted by a few weathered beaver lodges. Passing this way in 1853, Thoreau ascended the stream with George Thatcher and Joe Attean for about a mile and a half in search of moose. He wrote that when the West Branch ran high, the water backed up nearly to Lobster Lake, making for easy paddling. They might have camped on the lake if they’d found fresh tracks, but finding only a freshly killed specimen, they turned back while still in the stream.1 Four years later in “Allegash and the East Branch,” a sudden thunderstorm came up as Thoreau again paddled by the mouth of Lobster Stream, and he and his companions had to duck for cover and make a hasty camp amidst the trees, a bit earlier than they might have otherwise. More than 150 years after those trips, it’s still an easy paddle, and you’re still liable to be “considerably molested by mosquitoes.”2 You’ll certainly have to keep an eye on the weather, too.

As we pressed on beyond the last curve of the stream and entered Lobster Lake, the wind became anxious and shifty. We turned south, hugging the shore of a shallow bay and casting glances up at the clouds. Looking back, Polly and I saw the five other canoes behind us, strung out like a line of young mergansers headed to roost. Ahead, we could see our campsite in the distance, a sandy beach on Ogden Point that promised stunning views of the coming sunset, with cozy little tent spots tucked in the cedars just off the shore. But behind us we could now hear the front end of the storm as it closed the distance—a dull roar of water hitting the leaves of birches and aspens just off the lake. We had little choice but to finish our race against the storm, but we of course knew that we’d already lost. Paddling in the rain isn’t really a problem, but with thunderheads building, we’d have to pull up our canoes just short of the campsite.

That’s the way of it when you travel in the backcountry: You’re constantly challenged to look around, take stock, and adapt to conditions on the ground. Looking back on it now, I’m not sure that I’ve ever been so close to Thoreau as in that moment.

In 2014, a larger group of scholars, guides, Maine tourism leaders, and members of the Penobscot Nation had paddled this same route. They were celebrating the 150th anniversary of Thoreau’s The Maine Woods, and would travel 325 miles, crossing Moosehead Lake and the North East Carry and then following the West Branch to Chesuncook Lake and Umbazooksus Stream. From there, they made the famous Mud Pond Carry, running up to Chamberlain and Eagle Lakes before taking Webster Stream to the East Branch of the Penobscot. Our trip was a kind of five- year follow-up, but much shorter, without the portages and with significantly less fanfare.3 And the Lobster Lake thunderstorm notwithstanding, we enjoyed significantly milder weather.

Departure on the Thoreau Society Penobscot River Tour, Orono, Maine, July 17, 2019. L-R, standing: Ron Hoag, James Francis, John Kucich, Jake McGinnis, Michael Berger, Chris Sockalexis, Jason Pardilla, Albin Otterberg, Huey. Front row: Chris “Charlie Brown” Francis, Polly Mahoney (with guide dog Dougette), Henrik Otterberg, Judy Wentzell.

Courtesy Jake McGinnis

Millinocket, where we began our journey, is just 300 miles from Concord, but it feels like a world apart. When I first read Walden and the Journal within earshot of the Fitchburg Railroad, I felt all the more engaged with Thoreau’s process and commitments as a writer. Reading The Maine Woods in a tent just off the West Branch of the Penobscot, though, I came to appreciate just how different these essays are from his other works, how often we find in them a Thoreau who is uncertain of what he sees, trying to keep up with a rush of new experiences and perspectives and names, often while literally lost in the woods. Here, he’s challenged to adapt his customs of sauntering and observing and reading, walking in the woods and fields, to a very thickly forested, “well watered” country, where watersheds diverge and come together in a virtual highway system of rivers and lakes and portages.4 Maine challenged Thoreau to be a different kind of traveller and a different kind of writer, and it got under his skin. When I travelled by canoe through those forests and down those rivers, the extent of that challenge became clearer, more central to my reading.

In “Allegash and the East Branch,” as Thoreau passes between Telos Lake and Webster Pond, he describes a canoeist’s reverie: “I remember once dreaming of pushing a canoe up the rivers of Maine, and that, when I had got so high that the channels were dry, I kept on through the ravines and gorges, nearly as well as before, by pushing a little harder, and now it seemed to me that my dream was partially realized.”5 When you travel by canoe in Maine, in other words, the waterways back home, even the hills between them, never look quite the same again, and this way of seeing the world gets into your very dreams. Travel along the West Branch today, more than 150 years later, and you still might come back with a different take on things. Maine still challenges us to travel differently, and the extent of that challenge continues to provoke and inspire.

 

Two days after our soaking on Lobster Lake, we’d slept in tents, pointed our canoes down a series of bouncy West Branch riffles, and eaten some of the finest camping fare anywhere. A few of us had sampled the angling and gone for a swim amidst the fishes, and we’d all seen a handful of moose, including one standing in the river up to its knobby knees and dipping its head to graze on underwater grasses as we passed close by. We’d passed Thoreau Island, where he and his party had camped in 1853, and drifted by the mouth of Pine Stream, where Thatcher got his moose. And shortly before lunch on the third day, fighting a growing headwind, we came around a corner in the river and looked out at Chesuncook Lake. Passing this spot in “Chesuncook,” Thoreau describes catching a glimpse of the mountains to the southeast, “like a cluster of blue fungi of rank growth, apparently twenty-five or thirty miles distant.”6 When he looked toward them that day, the summits were concealed by clouds. Returning in 1857, he found the nearer mountains visible, but the summit of Katahdin remained obscured by the clouds.

 

Courtesy Henrik Otterberg.

Turning south into Chesuncook Lake at the exact spot where Thoreau found Ansel Smith’s logging camp, a little village in the wilderness, we were offered a long, delicious view of the mountains, and that night we camped on a gravelly beach while the sky above Katahdin’s summit turned first rosy pink, then deep blue. We’d officially left Thoreau’s route behind, and there was the mountain, glowing in the last light of day without a cloud to be seen. After dinner and an hour of memorable fishing, I returned to my tent. A mosquito buzzed in my ear, and sleep evaded me. Several days later, a few of us would attempt to climb Katahdin, and we’d again be blessed with fine weather, making it up to the summit to take in the sweeping views that eluded Thoreau. My high point, though, my moment of contact, if you will, came in the tent that night on the edge of Chesuncook, The Maine Woods and the map spread open before me. I’d just left Thoreau’s route behind, but for the first time, I could see why he returned to Maine again and again, each time reassessing his previous experiences and coming a little closer to a true sense of the Maine Woods.

Courtesy Henrik Otterberg

Musing on the way that time passes while traveling, Thoreau writes that there’s rarely a moment to spare on a canoe trip, “hardly enough to examine a plant, before the night or drowsiness is upon you.”7 True enough, most times—but that night, I reread those essays with an attention that I’d not had before, and it’s stuck with me. Flashlight in hand and maps in front of me, I realized that in Thoreau’s Maine and still today, inspiration, like that first long look at the mountains across Chesuncook, follows challenge and adjustment. I never did have my epiphany, but maybe that wasn’t the point. Rather, I went to Maine, just as Thoreau did, to find a different way of seeing things at home.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to all of my companions for sharing this trip with me. In particular, I am grateful to Polly Mahoney, Jason Pardilla, and Chris Sockalexis, who welcomed us to the Maine North Woods in grand fashion. Thanks are also due to John Kucich for doing so much of the legwork to organize this memorable excursion.

Jake McGinnis fishing on Chesuncook Lake, with Mt. Katahdin in the background | Courtesy Chris Sockalexis

 

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In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

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