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A Canoeing Adventure with my Sons in the North Woods of Maine

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

The ambers still glowed bright against the thin wall of our tent. By now my two teen sons were fast asleep, completely spent from the nearly nine hours of paddling under the full gaze of the sun throughout the day. I unzipped the porthole and slipped out to take in the night. The milky way, that silver dragon that stretched across the night sky, was clearly visible in the mirrorous lake. “No mosquitoes? Strange.” I thought to myself as I stood on the shore of Eagle Lake. Earlier that evening, there had been a continuous hum, just inches from our bodies, from the zombie swarm of mosquitoes gathered just outside our tent. By now, however, they had returned to whatever hell our carbonous breaths had summoned them from. Their importunity had been replaced by the soul stirring cries of the Great Northern Divers. Their cries were answered by the other loons from across the great expanse of the lake. The coywolves also, finding the loon cry too irresistibly similar to their own, could not restrain themselves from joining in the symphony. I, too, should have been asleep, but tent makers lie. A three man tent is never a three man tent. Always a three hobbit tent. And the sun had kissed each of our bodies more than we should have allowed. My sons’ complexions are bettered by the French indian blood of their mother, coupled with a boy’s natural propensity to run about half naked all summer. My ever concealed scottish skin, however, continued to cook for hours after the sun had set. I’d pay for this oversight in the currency of blisters and pain in the weeks to come. We’d started our mini-expedition early. Launching our seventeen Old Town Canoe at 4:30am at our home on Long Lake in Saint David Maine. It had been a long day for me, but more so for my sons.

Caleb (sixteen) and Christian (thirteen) are mentally tough boys. They knew adventures with dad are never easy. But the tales they are able to tell are always worth the present discomfort. They both have already proven themselves as mushers, traveling the North Maine Woods by dog team in sub zero temperatures. They both had already competed in the 30 mile Can Am Crown Dogsled Race. This first day was a new test of the young men’s mettle. First Long Lake. Then Mud Lake. Then Cross Lake, Then Square Lake. They rowed hard for almost two hours on each lake, so I forced them to stop and enjoy the ride through the thoroughfares that connected each lake to the next. The fourth lake, Square Lake, was the most grueling of the day. This was on account that we had already rowed for six hours, the sun was at its highest and hottest, and we could not easily find the outlet as we had with the other lakes. There was much debate as to where the outlet would be and how best, according to the map, to traverse the lake in such a way as to bring us to the outlet. I wanted to hug the north shore until we reached Abraham Point and then cut across to the outlet. The boys felt we would get there faster by cutting across the lake, making a straight line toward where the outlet should be. Since there was no wind or wave, I felt there would be no harm in doing so. But as time passed we had no landmark with which to judge how far we had gone. We were all tired, and hot. The boys believed the outlet to be much closer and encouraged me to rudder our tiny ship toward the southern shore. I argued that the outlet was likely still further west, seeing what I believed to be Abraham Point a mile or so further. But in the end, our optimism won out and we went for the portion they felt sure would harbor our desire. This ended up costing us more time and exposing us for longer on the unforgiving lake surface. I count this as a failure on my part. But as I said, the hope that the boys were right, outweighed my reason. In the last and longest thoroughfare, Between Square and Eagle Lakes, we noted an approaching thunderstorm. While we debated whether or not to row through the coming torrent or to take shelter on the rivershore, nature made our decision for us. A rushing wind coming up from the south materialized from the calm and made keeping our canoe straight an impossibility. The angel of these waters made our decision for us. So we took shelter on the shore. Within a quarter hour the storm had passed and the winds abated.

“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, or whither it goeth: So is everyone that is born of the Spirit.” I quoted to my boys as we launched out again. We had hoped to spot some wildlife on our expedition, but we didn’t expect the trip to be the safari it turned out to be. In this first day alone we counted four moose, a muskrat, a martin, loons on every lake, several ospreys, a heron, a snowshoe hare, and more than a dozen bald eagles. Most of the eagles were still in their juvenile plumage. Few people realize that Bald Eagles do not have the characteristic white head and tail until they reach four or five years of age. Until then, they look like a dark brown golden eagle, with dark brown plumage throughout. And so they often get misidentified. I was glad to see so many juveniles. It speaks to their resurgence from the brink of extinction in our region.

My sons would not forgive me for writing about the eagles of our trip without mentioning that at one point, early in the day I had momentarily misjudged a seagull on the far end of a lake for a bald eagle. This my sons will never let me live down. Each subsequent time a duck, goose, humming bird, moose fly, or dragon fly flew by, I could expect to hear them say, “Look dad! A bald eagle!” “Yeah, yeah.” I’d take my lumps. “Funny boys. Funny boys.” The greatest wildlife encounter of the trip occurred on the south end of Mud Lake earlier in the first day. A young bull and cow moose, perhaps in their second summer, were grazing along the shore. My sons, with their keen eyes, spotted them while we were yet a long way off. We watched from a distance as they plunged into the water, to rid themselves of the flies, and then out onto the land again. I knew, from my experience as a hunter, that one who hunts from a canoe is at an advantage. The temperate and boreal species of North America have not evolved to expect danger from the water, but from the land. So I told the boys to stop rowing and allow me to move us closer and in a straight line towards them. As we did so, both the cow and the bull again waded out into the water some 20 yards from the shore to relieve themselves of the pestilence. We were now on a course to pass between them and within touching distance.

It quickly became apparent to me that the moose cared nothing for our approach, not even enough to watch us. Had I been alone, or with other men, I would have eased right up to them and reached out for a pat. But the father in me kicked in, and knowing my sons, before me in the canoe, would come to the bull before I would, I began to imagine worst case scenarios of a spooked moose passing through our canoe on his way back to the shore, capsizing our canoe and its contents and possibly injuring my sons in the process. Therefore, as we came within ten yards of the moose, and closing at a quick pace, I raised my oar over my head and proclaimed in a loud, low and steady voice, “OK moose! This has been fun! Thank you, but the party is over!” Even this boisterous action seemed to take the moose a few seconds to process. Finally the bull plunged across our path toward the shore. The cow, on the other hand, turned her gaze from us to the bull and back again, and decided to continue chewing her cud in the cool reprieve of the lake. This, and the Fish river rapids of the following day, proved to have been the highlights of the trip for the boys. It had been a full day of nearly 9 hours of rowing in ninety-four degree temperature. But another, equally challenging day awaited us on the morrow, so back into the tent I climbed to struggle against my boys for a spot to lay my lobster boiled body.

The second day of our trip started at 430am. Priorities are priorities. So, as the boys roused themselves, I cranked the stove under my french press. After my first cup of coffee was secured, I set about making oatmeal, while the boys set to breaking camp. Each with their various tasks to do, our canoe was loaded within ten minutes. While my sons enjoyed their oats in the traditional fashion, I showed them how I used to eat mine, during my time as a state forest ranger. “Allagash Oatmeal, I call it.” I said as I used coffee instead of water to make my oatmeal. “You get your coffee and your breakfast in every spoonful.” They each tried it and decided in turn that it was disgusting.

We launched out into a strong headwind and white capped, choppy water a little after 5 am. Eagle Lake is very long and would be a grueling undertaking in such conditions. With so few people in modern times, experiencing lake travel under human power, rather than under the power of “Mercury” I think it will be hard for some, who recreate on their motorboats, to understand the length and breadth of these great lakes. Eighteen miles (for that is the length of Eagle lake) is one thing under mechanical power. It is quite another when every foot of it must be gained by rowing. I didn’t want to speak it to the boys, but if conditions worked against us, we’d spend most of our day working up the lake alone, and would not reach our Fort Kent finish line at the confluence of the Fish and St. John rivers. We had studied the maps repeatedly together, however, and we knew that Eagle lake would only travel west for a few miles before curving north for the majority of it’s length. Our hopes were that, once we made it past the point, the wind and waves would be in our favor. These hopes were realized.

Now we had to turn our heavy canoe ( just the three of us weighed a combined 400 lbs before gear and provisions) on a “beam sea.” The most precarious point in lake canoe travel is when you must turn your canoe in a chopy lake. One must time the turn just right, and with as quick a turn as possible, knowing that even the best turn in such a burdened canoe will produce conditions where a wave hits the canoe broadside. This is what is referred to as a “beam sea” by sailors. That maneuver accomplished with no small excitement, we found ourselves moving up the long stretch of the Lake at speeds we hadn’t attained ever before in our canoe. Between our synchronized rowing, the wind at our backs, and the crests of the waves pushing our stern, we found ourselves surfing the white caps at their speed. It was at this time that I said, “The angel of these waters continues to be kind to us!” “Angel of these waters?” Caleb asked. I explained to them that all throughout ancient scriptures there is a continual implication that there is a strong connection between angels and bodies of water, and that perhaps certain angels have been given dominion over certain bodies of water. Caleb mused, “Perhaps this is what the Indians experienced? The angels of a particular forest or river?” “Native American Indians? Or India Indians?” I aksed. “Native American Indians.” Caleb clarified. “They believed in one Great Spirit, like we believe in one single God, but many lower spirits under the Great Spirit. So maybe those spirits were the angels and demons of their regions?” This type of conversation always makes this father proud.

From there our conversation drifted to the Malaseet Indians of the Wabinaki Confederacy that called the Saint John River and it’s contributaries home for ages before us. These natives were commonly called “The Saint John's Indians” in early historical literature. We spoke about how the introduction of and spread European diseases to this continent had wiped out an estimated 95% of the native population before most had even seen a “white man.” “It is very likely that each of the lakes and rivers we are traveling through, had healthy thriving villages. And they would travel to trade and celebrate together, using canoes and waterways, just as we are now.”

After what I remember to be nearly four hours laboring on Eagle, we reached the Fish River.

This was the first proper river of the expedition, and we were happy for the change. The fish river often has narrow shores, which forces the water into low grade rapids. This made the final leg of our trip quite exciting for the boys. While our state had been experiencing a dry season, there was still enough flow that we never had to walk our canoe through the rapids. My friend, pastor Josh Greene had canoed on The Allagash River just a few days prior and had warned that he had to walk their canoe almost half the distance of their travel. So in this too, we are grateful.

At long last we came to the “Fish River Falls.” This falls is a Godsend for the ecology of the lakes and waterways we had been traveling though. For the rivers and waters below the falls, and even further up the Saint John River, have been invaded by the non native bass and muskie, which in turn have decimated native species. Thanks to the falls, the native fisheries of the chain of lakes we had spent two days traveling on have remained a safe harbor for the indigenous Togue (lake trout) Landlocked Salmon, and Brook Trout.

Here, at these falls I was again at war within myself. The adventurer in me wanted to unload the cargo and shoot the falls. The father in me wanted to protect my sons and, of course, my new Old Town Canoe. Again, I determined that discretion is the better part of valor, and we made three trips of 200 yards or so, one way, around the falls with gear and, finally with the canoe itself.

Within a couple more hours of twisting fun rapids and boulders, we came into Fort Kent, at the confluence of the Fish River and the greater Saint John River.

Fort Kent is so named for the early 19th century fort, or “blockhouse” (as it is regionally called) that stands between the two rivers.

The Block House was built during the “bloodless Aroostook War.” That little known war between the United States and Canada over a border dispute, that never materialized. Actually, some blood was shed. The legend goes that a trigger happy American shot at what he thought was Canadian forces coming through the brush in the night. It turned out to be a milk cow. That is the extent of the death toll. Poor cow.

There are other, great regional stories about this war, but I will save those for another time.

What better place to end this Aroostook adventure than to pull our canoe out at this historic place, where my mother and daughter waited to congratulate us and shuttle us back into the Twenty-First Century.

We were exhausted. We were exhilarated. We were exalted.

Ill close this narrative by sharing one last detail. At the end of both days, I had each of my sons write a journal entry of the day into my journal. My plan was to use them for added perspective, when time would finally permit me to sit and write this.

I read over their entries a week later with great satisfaction.

Christian, at thirteen years old, wrote something I’d like to close with.

Christian said,

“I leave you with this: If you have a mission ahead of you, pursue it, knowing that you are able to complete it. No matter how tired you think you are. No matter how big the obstacles. You can do it. You can do it all. “

As a father, I could not have hoped to have read better words from my son concerning this expedition. He got it- What all this was really about.

So, for a moment I can rest within myself too, and reflect on my son’s words, and say within myself, “Good job, dad. You did it. Today you can feel like a good dad. If only for this moment you can say- Mission accomplished.”

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