Updated: Mar 8, 2021
“Well that was embarrassing.” I said to my boys as they ran up onto the dyke to see if they could help. “Heavy.” I wrestled the sled back onto its runners and drove the icehook in the snowpack.
Earlier, it had taken the three of us to lift the loaded sled off the dog trailer. The sled, built by the legendary Maine musher Don Hibbs, was twice as heavy as my traditional sleds, and two inches narrower. But it was an unsinkable ship, an unbreakable sledge- perfect for what I was about to do.
And it was loaded to the gills. Two days supplies for my dogs and myself. Enough to get us to my next cache of two days supplies. Which would, in turn, furnish us to the next cache of supplies another two days down the trail. With this sled, and every conceivable setback accounted for, we were prepared for anything the North Maine Wilderness could throw at us.
In keeping with the tradition set in place by my heroes in the age of exploration, I christened the sled after the primary sponsor of the expedition- The Cynthia. Cyndi Robbins is the owner of Poland Spring Resort here in Maine- the same resort Leonhard Seppala relocated to in 1927, with Togo and the rest of his sled dogs. There in 1927, Elizabeth Ricker and Seppala found the original Poland Spring Seppala Kennels, my kennels namesake. Cyndi also sits on the board of the Preservation Society seeking to erect a monument in Togo’s honor. And she was present, standing below the dyke, with my wife, and the small group of gathered well wishers, to see me off.
For the send off, the plan was to ascend the dyke with the team, and halt them temporarily behind the “America’s First Mile Monument” for press photos before taking off. But the dogteam cared little for photo opps. They had been training all season. They were at peak form and ready to run. We ascended the dyke and turned left as Id wished, but the sled cut the corner and sank deep into the soft unpacked snow. When I tried to assist by paddling I sank to my waist and the sled overturned. “Anything hurt?” My son, Caleb asked. “Nothing but my pride.” I replied with a smirk. The team was screaming and slamming into their harnesses to go. With all my weight on the break and the icehook deployed, the team won a few inches against my efforts every second. So with a few final farewells I gave my consent to the team and we sailed off on our voyage on crystal white waves, westward towards the logging village of Allagash.
Our first several miles took me from Fort Kent and through the town of St. John. I was following the old railroad Heritage Trail and these were easy miles. The Saint John River lay frozen along our route to the north of us, serving as the border between America and Canada. Into the village of Saint Francis the trail departed the railroad bed and ascended south into the foothills of the northern forest even as the national border departed the Saint J ohn River and turned northward toward toward Escourt Station along the Saint Francis River. As legend has it, Daniel Webster was sent to negotiate a border between America and Canada with a british delegation, during the bloodless Aroostook War of the late 1830’s. As they traveled west, up the Saint John River, Webster got the british delegation drunk in the village of Saint Francis and turned the boats north up the Saint Francis River instead. In this way, he added significantly to the American lands acquired north of the Saint John River in the process. It was here in Saint Francis that I had my first equipment malfunction. I'd purchased a special type of harness for my wheel dogs. Being the closest to the sled, wheel dogs have more pressure on their hind quarters than other team dogs. These special harnesses had a wooden spacer in the rear of the dog to keep the harness from hugging the hips too closely. As I passed through Saint Francis, one of the screws that joins the wood to the harness fell out. The wood spacer dangled from the other side, slapping Zoe’s hind leg with every stride. I stopped the team, pulled out my leatherman and unscrewed the dangling wooden spacer. With this done, the harness now was excessively long on Zoe. I had extra harnesses and ganglines in my three caches of supplies. But I wouldnt reach the first cashe until the end of day two. Until then, this harness would have to suffice. Aside from not including an extra harness in the sled, I was made aware of my second mistake during the final hours of night travel. Frost, Olav, and Druid were forming ice balls in their paws. A few weeks prior, I had trimmed the hairs on my dogs paws to help prevent ice balls from forming. But I did not cut them short enough and they had grown back out a bit. Imagine running a marathon with rocks in your shoes, and you’d have a fair idea of what ice balls between the pads of the paws must feel like to the dogs. Sore feet were not something I could permit to develop on the first day of this trip. But I would not have scissors to cut them until I arrived in Allagash. There was only one thing to do. Every twenty minutes or so I had to stop, pull off my gloves and thaw each iceball out of each paw with my exposed fingers.
As the sun set and darkness rose, I had traveled almost 40 miles. I could see Chamberlain store, and the videographer truck off in the distance. My wife and children had driven out to Allagash for one last goodbye. I thought to mush over to let everyone know all was well but I was only four miles from my destination- as the crow flies. I knew they would be expecting me, but I decided to push on. I was not factoring what later learned was called the “Bermuta triangle of the Allagash” by local hunting guides. From Saint Francis, the trail did not proceed west to Allagash, but abruptly turned south, for six miles of so. I knew I was traveling toward Orion’s belt, but I also knew I hadnt missed any turns. Then the trail turned west for a few miles before coming to an intersection. At this divergence there were three possible directions but two signs. One sign directed me back to Fort Kent the way I’d come. One sign directed me toward Eagle lake to the Southwest. Then there was an unmarked trail. Thankfully I was able to followed Ursa Major up to Polaris. It was clear that the unmarked trail traveled north, towards Allagash. Shortly after making this turn, I saw two snowmobiles approaching. It was Wade Kelly and George Turner, the hunting guides out of Tyler Kelly Camps in Allagash. “How’s it going?” George Turner said. “Good. It’s much further than I expected.” I replied. “Yeah, 55 miles total.” Well that explains a lot.” Your wife is worried sick, so we told her we’d come out and check on you.” “Yeah, she does that. Im good. How much further? Five miles?” Yeah, five miles.” “Ok. Ill see everyone in about an hour” “Sounds good. Good to see you!” “Good to see you too! Lets look at the maps over breakfast in the mourning?” “Absolutely!”
Im not sure how cold it had gotten during these hours of night travel, but I had some indicators. The ice balls in the paws. The immediate freezing of the moisture in my breath to my beard. The murs radio battery dying within one minute when I turned it on to contact Allagash. All these indicators, suggested that it was already well below zero.
Descending the ridge into Allagash, the snowmobile trail joins the primary road for about a half mile, following the south side (or left side of the road) as I traveled west. The problem with this, is that I’ve trained my leaders to hug the right side of the trail, to avoid possible oncoming snowmobiles. This generally good practice became a significant issue as I crossed the Allagash River Bridge.
There, on the bridge, the shoulder snowmobile trail disappears and it is just road until you reach the other side. Druid and Frost, my leaders, determined that we should migrate to the right side of the road just as a large truck and trailer rounded the bend and made way for the narrow bridge.
I argued with my leaders for only a few moments before realizing I was setting them up for failure. For years I have drilled them on hugging the right side. Now, my sled was on the left side of the bridge. My leaders were on the right side, and my team was strung across the center. The truck and trailer had come on the bridge and its headlights struck our reflective equipment. “Hike! Hike!” I said, and gave the leaders their way. I pulled the sled with them to the right side of the bridge as quickly as I could. Crisis averted.
Since we were now running on the bare shoulder of the paved road, and I wanted to move as quickly as I could, I got off the sled and ran alongside. I remember thinking, “I cant wait till I’m away from roads and snowmobiles and submerging into the depths of the wilderness tomorrow.”
Soon a bonfire came into sight down a long driveway. It was 10PM and about minus ten degrees, So I thought there was a good chance anyone outside at this hour was looking for me.
“Who’s at that fire?” I yelled.
“Hey Dad!” Christian replied.
“Gee!” I commanded my team and soon the dogs and I were greeted with lavish affection.
We’d arrived at the famed Tyler Kelly Camps. Darlene Kelly had created a fire to light our way. Next to the fire they had placed a fine bottle of imported scotch.
My sons and I quickly set about unharnessing, feeding and bedding the dog team down. Then I took a moment to absorb the warmth and hospitality of the fire, giving a brief summary of the day to those present.
Inside the cabin Kelly Camps cook, Cheril Turner, had a feast awaiting me. Lobster Rolls and Moose Ball Pasta. I presumed the “moose balls” were actually composed of ground moose meat, but it was so good- and I was so hungry- that it wouldn’t have deterred me if it was the alternative.
It was nearly midnight when I slid into my sleeping bag. It had been a trying day. But this was my last night of town and road access. The last night I would see my family. “Tomorrow” I thought “will be the most mountainous and the most challenging of the expedition.”
Little did I know that every day hereafter would offer its own set of challenges and setbacks to equal or surpass the day before.
Join me here again next time as I share my day of travel from Allagash to Round Pond.
And please consider donating to the erection of the Togo monument at the State HOuse in Poland Spring Maine by clicking on the link below.