I was awakened by the shaking of my bunk and the loud report of exploding ordnance just after 5am.
It took my mind a few seconds to recalibrate. I was not still in the Marines. I was not in a field exercise or a warzone. I was in a cabin, in the Maine wilderness. What force, and what sound then shook the cabin so much as to wake me from my death likedeathlike slumber?
I stumbled to the window and peered out. As the cloud of unconsciousness lifted it all became clear. Another storm had blown in. This one, far more severe than two nights prior. It would lay ten more inches of fresh snow by the time it was done. The snow had accumulated on the metal roof until it slid off in an avalanche of its own weight. That’s what had startled me.
“Higher level, bigger devils.” I said to myself. I believe that everyone who would shake themselves from slumber and do great things will encounter greater obstacles, trials and tribulations as they strive.
I had hoped this day overland from Chesuncook Lake to the north shore of Moosehead Lake, would offer some reprieve from the overflow of the flooded lakes. Instead, I would be contending with new, fresh, unpacked snow. This expedition was determined not to let me have a day of ease.
Thankfully, There was some good news. The two wheel dogs that had diarrhea in the beginning had reverted to solid stool a couple days back. And everyone was eating, so long as meat was on the menu.
Also, an outdoorsman had committed to driving a snowmobile up from Moosehead, through Seboomook to scout my trail. He said he’d meet me at the Chesuncook House at 7:30am to report his findings. I had only to wait for him, I thought, to at least have a single snowmobile track south to aid in damping down the fresh snow.
After filling the dogs again with fresh meat-thanks to David and Luisa- I walked down to the main house for coffee and to continue the great conversations I had the night before. 730 became 830. 830 became 9.
After discussing the map together for a while, I looked out the window and said,
“The storm probably slowed him down.” I suggested. “I should head out and hope I will meet up with him along the way”
David offered, “Tell you what. Ill head south down to the Golden Road and back. That way you wont have to completely break trail. Hopefully he will have passed through before you travel that 15 miles.”
“You don’t have to do that.” I half heartedly rebutted. But before I could offer my frail objections, David was donning his snowmobile gear. As he set out, I began harnessing the team.
I was just about to pull the quick release to shoot out with the team, when I heard a voice yelling over the screaming of the dogs.
“We sure got some snow last night huh?”
“Awesome, How was the trail?” I asked.
“Lots of snowdrifts on Lobster Lake.”
My heart sank. “Lobster Lake? You came up via Lobster?”
“Yeah, its the fastest route from Greenville to Chesuncook”
“Bill, I can’t go that way, remember? There’s too much dangerous snowmobile traffic on the east side. Nowhere for me to camp that route. I’m going to Seboomook tonight, remember? That’s where my supplies are. Thats where the videographer will expect me.”
No sooner had I said those words, then I realized I was being rude and ungrateful. This was not Bill’s problem. This was not Bill’s expedition. I had departed Fort Kent 6 days ago with no promises of scouts for much of my route. I had experienced such great hospitality on the way that it had made me soft. These aren’t race officials that owe me a good trail. These are good folks taking an interest in my expedition. And now it was time for me to put my expedition face on and soldier forward.
I thanked him profusely for coming up to check in with me and mined his knowledge of the region to best recognize when I’d need to break from his course up, to break west for Seboomook.
Bill reaffirmed what David had said earlier. A couple miles after the Golden road, the path would swing ninety degrees from southwest to southeast. There I would need to leave the sled tracks and cut trail over to the Seboomook Road.
“You’ll know you are at the proper turn because there will be an old abandoned logging camp before you.”
“How close before me? One hundred yards? Two hundred yards?”
“About that. You’ll see it.”
And with that I set out. There had been some discussion as to whether I should take the route Bill had taken into Chesuncook. But I opted to take the route David was cutting for me for two reasons. First, I knew he was coming back the same way and that I’d then have two tracks of pack. Secondly, I knew he’d be expecting to see me, and he might worry if he didn’t.
Within a couple miles of the Chesuncook House, Sawyer stopped on me. I was convinced at this point that it was not for exhaustion but for a lack of confidence in the deep snow. I was also becoming convinced that I was spoiling him to the sled. Sled rides are not a habit you want a sled dog to develop. But Sawyer is blind, I reminded myself. I hoped that he would make it up to the team, as he had the past couple evenings, when the temperature drops and the trails harden. He’s an honest dog. He can’t help that he cannot trust the ever altering terrain. He will help out when the trails improve. If the tails improve.
With nearly a foot of fresh snow on the ground, and one less dog pulling, and a dog’s weight added to the sled, it was to be another day of slow deliberate progression. But it occurred to me that the videographer was going to be at the intersection of the Golden Road in hopes of capturing some footage. I also remembered that he still had my ash basked sled in the back of his truck.
Jeremy expected me through the Golden road around noon. Because there is no cell phone coverage, there was no way for me to tell him that I’d left later than expected and that I was traveling slower than expected. I also knew that at some point he would have to rendezvous with Norm and Whitney of Seboomook Wilderness Camps, so that he could get a snowmobile ride in. Jeremy would not be able to wait for me indefinitely at the intersection of the Golden Road.
The thought of lightening our weight by 30 lbs by swapping sleds became my new motivation. I began to push the dogs hard, hoping to reach our predetermined meet up before he would have to leave to catch his ride into Seboomook.
We pushed hard. Very hard. And when we reached the Golden Road at long last, the tracks in the snow told the story. Jeremy had to abandon his vigil for me to make his meet up time with Norm.
We were exhausted. I was discouraged. The dogs had been at little more than a walking pace the entire morning in the fresh snow. When I rode the sled, the team slowed to a crawl. When I got off the sled, it moved just fast enough to make it impossible to keep up on foot.
I used the satellite phone to call my wife. I asked her to see if by some great miracle she could reach him, to have him return to our meeting point to swap sleds. I told her Id rest the dogs for an hour and feed them while I awaited a reply.
I put Sawyer back on the line and fed the dogs. They all laid down to nap in the warm midday sun. After what seemed like an eternity, Tammie called me back. Of course she could not reach him. There was no way out here.
I thanked her for the effort and ended the call. For the second moment in this expedition, I was unsure I would finish. And I was more than three quarters through.
It is in moments like this in my life where my Marine Corps mentality sees me through. When I joined the Marines, I was an overweight, piano playing, poetry writing, school choir singing kid. In boot camp I was nearly the lasin the bottom ten percent of every run or forced march during the first phase. When they notified me that they’d have to drop me back to a remedial platoon until I could reach the fitness goals, I begged.
“Please keep me in this platoon. This recruit will catch up.”
And I did. They didn’t drop me back. By the end of bootcamp I was in the top twenty percent of my battalion in physical fitness. And how I did that was by breaking trials down in my mind.
“I’m not sure if I can finish this five mile run. But I can run to the next street light without collapsing.”
“I'm not sure I can finish this twenty mile forced march under full combat load in black flag temperatures, but I know I can make it to the next street corner without throwing up.”
And by so doing, I conquered one trial after another.
Here too, in this expedition, I found myself saying on three particular days, “I’m not sure if we will finish this expedition, but I know we can do a few more miles.” And by and by, circumstances would turn in our favor.
Day six was no exception. I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to finish the day, and the expedition with the heavier expedition sled. I accepted that the dogs would travel at whatever pace I could get them to move at until, eventually we reached the night’s destination.
I changed my tone. “Alright guys! You ready! Let’s do this!”
I let out the southern call my great grandmother would make to get the hogs and the kids to come in from the fields, the call I make when we are flying down the trail and everything is going brilliantly. “OoooooWe!”
All the dogs responded by standing up and we took off at a slow but deliberate pace.
“Lord” I prayed allowed, “We will not get to Seboomook tonight if this team doesn't pick up its pace. PLease give strength and speed to my team.”
Within 10 minutes of uttering those words, something happened. It was like a switch had been flipped. Every dog perked up so that I figured they smelled wild game in the wind. But those burst rarely last more than a couple minutes. This spike in speed didnt waiver. A really cold wind came in at the same time from the northwest, immediately chilling my sweaty body. The temperature was dropping. Fast.
“Thank you Jesus!” I continued.
A few miles past the Golden Road I came to a ninety degree turn that changed my course from southwest to southeast. Was this the turn I was told about? No, there was no abandoned logging camp anywhere in sight, so I stayed with the path.
The trail started descending rapidly from there and the dogs picked up even more speed. We were cruising. In the wrong direction. But i didn't realize it yet.
Soon we came around a bend and I could see that we were descending into a valley with a Lake in it… to my right. I had studied the map enough to know that there should not be a lake on the right side of the trail at any point during my travels on this day. I checked my map. I checked my compass. It was Lobster Lake. I had missed the point where I should have left the trail.
Now we would have to turn around and go back up the ridge we’d been descending.
I'm not sure if the dogs understood, but I apologized to them anyway. Yes. By this stage of the expedition I was talking to my dogs just as I would people. “My fault guys and gals. Im sorry. My bad.”
Remarkably, even with the hill climbing the dogs maintained their imptoved speed.
I went back to that sharp turn. I could not see the markers I was told I would see, but there was no other point south of the Golden Road that fit the description, so I turned the dogs off trail and began breaking trail again.
It was nearly a quarter mile off trail before I saw the abandoned logging camp.
The abandoned logging camp was a ghost town, and reminded me of what mushing through the old abandoned mining camps in Alaska must be like. I wanted to park my team and explore. But there were still nearly 20 miles to go.
We joined the Seboomook Road, and it seemed to have been plowed at some point in the not too distant past. The snow was shallower, and the pack beneath was harder. Our fast paced continued unchecked. It is amazing the difference two hours made in my optimism and, I truly believe, in the optimism of my team.
Another seven miles or so, and I had a choice to make. Continue on toward Seboomook, or add two miles to my day by passing through Northeast Carry?
Northeast Carry is famous as the portage Henry David Thoreau made there from Moosehead Lake to the Penobscot River about one hundred and seventy years ago.
Thoreau was really the first to suggest that America set aside national parks for the citizens to enjoy, And he made that suggestion from the inspiration he received exploring these very same forests.
This makes it all the more regrettable that the Maine woods remains the largest unprotected contiguous forest. And the private ownership of now defunct logging companies like Great Northern, which preserved it as a working forest for so long, is now dissolved into ever fragmented unprotected bits. What the answer is to this, I do not know. National Forest? National Park? A hope that the good will of countless private owners will keep it as an undeveloped land that the public can access? Every solution comes with its own potpourri of pros and cons. I dont pretend to have the answers to this dialogue. But this dialogue must be had, before we lose this priceless landscape.
Id wanted to include Northeast Carry originally in my route. Accessing the north shore of Moosehead from here would have shaved 15 miles from my expedition and would have given me access to a country store that stays open there year round to cater to snowmobilers.
Ultimately three things prevented me from making it my destination for the sixth day. First, the owners of Raymond’s Country Store are well on in years, and do not use computers. This made it impossible for me to communicate and coordinate with them. Secondly, Id been told there was a deer wintering area at Northeast Carry, and I knew my dogs would get no sleep with such excitement bouncing around the conifers. And finally, The folks at Seboomook Wilderness Camps were so welcoming and accommodating, that accepting their hospitality seemed the best choice.
“Haw!” I yelled. I had to include Northeast Carry. Even if I was just to pass through.
In short order I was pulling my team up to Raymonds Country Store. And just as I'd heard, there were deer everywhere. The owner, Ed Raymond was feeding the deer out of a five gallon pale.
My dogs saw the deer and it became immediately apparent to me that I would not be able to leave my team unattended here to walk inside.
Ed saw me, but finished feeding the deer before he approached.
“Pretty Dogs.” He said casually.
“Hi Ed, I'm sure you don’t remember me but I used to be the Forest Ranger in these parts about ten years ago.”
“ I wouldn't remember myself ten years ago.” Ed replied.
By this time the dogs were hitting their harnesses to go after the deer. I knew I wouldnt be able to linger long.
“ I hear there's a trail from here to Seboomook Wilderness Camp” I asked.
“They Are closed for the winter”
“Yes sir but they opened the camp up for me.”
“Are you sure someone is gonna be there?” He asked.
“Well you need to go back up the way you came.” Ed, answered.
“I’d rather not backtrack. I was told there is a trail from here.”
Ed hesitated, “There is. But it goes through my deer yard.”
Ah, he was worried about my dogs chasing his pet deer.
“No worries. My dogs won't leave the trail to chase the deer.”
I was about seventy percent sure that was a true statement. But I didn’t let me uncertainty show.
“Ok then, go straight on.”
“Hike!” I commanded, and the dogs took off like a missile.
The deer exploded into every direction. The team loved it, but maintained their discipline and shot through the deer yard on the trail.
Shortly after leaving Northeast Carry darkness and the full moon, overtook us. The team loves to run at night, and our steady speed remained unchecked. The shadows of the mature trees of the Seboomook Land Preserve seemed other-worldly in the darkness. It seemed like a supernatural place.
And then it hit me, all at once. Those old emotions came crashing in. And I remembered.
See, I lived here in these woods a decade ago, for a year. I was the “Seboomook Ranger” for the Maine Forest Service. It was the best job of my life. But I was going through a divorce when I had this dream job and my family fell apart. In the solitude of this place, ten years ago, the darkness of depression pressed in on my soul until it almost extinguished it, and me.
So I left my dream job, in the hopes of moving home and restoring my family.
It ultimately didn't work, but I do not regret the decision. If there was any chance of rebuilding my family, it was a chance worth taking.
I hadn't been back here since then. Since I struggled with my demons in these woods.
At long last I arrived at Seboomook Wilderness Camp. Norm and Whitney came out to greet me. They had deer chili on the stove. I layed out the straw bedding and fed the dogs. And then I went in to finally meet my hosts in person. And what great hosts they were. I will share more on that tomorrow.
After everyone retired for the night. I stepped out into the subzero night to call my wife. Tammie and I have been married for two years. She had spent the day traveling from northern to central Maine in anticipation of my finish tomorrow. We spoke excitedly of seeing one another and of having finished this goal.
“Good night. See you tomorrow! Love you.”
When the call ended, I looked up at Orion in the vibrant night sky.
I thought about how fitting it was that my last night of the expedition would be spent here. To come back, not as I left. Defeated. But to return as an overcomer.
“Perhaps now” I said to myself, “when I think of this place, I will think of it with joy rather than sadness.
Seboomook, we are at peace.”
With that I turned to the cabin for my last night on the trail.
Please join me next time as I chronicle my last day of the expedition. If you are enjoying this, please consider partnering with us in erecting a statue to Togo by clicking on the link below. And thanks!