“WE HAD A GLORIOUS VIEW” —THE MAINE WOODS After camping at Birch Point on Grand Lake Matagamon, Mike Wilson readies for the day’s paddling. Wilson was the primary catalyst and organizer of the 325-mile expedition marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods, which collected Thoreau’s accounts of his three wilderness journeys to Maine in the mid-1800s. The Maine Woods was published in 1864, shortly after Thoreau’s death, and today is viewed as a classic portrayal of the North Woods’ landscape and people. As senior program director for the Northern Forest Center and its Maine Woods Discovery marketing offshoot (mainewoodsdiscovery.com), Wilson’s goal is to excite people about experiencing the North Woods. “This is the Alaska of the East—this is where you have the guided experience,” he says. “We want people to know that the woods hold the potential to change a life.” Of all the places Jarrod McCabe and Dom Casserly, the Little Outdoor Giants (L.O.G.) photo team, saw during their 16-day journey, Grand Lake Matagamon was, they said, the most beautiful place of all to paddle. Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants
In mid-May 2014, they came together on Indian Island, the heart of the Penobscot Nation. They were Thoreau scholars, Maine Guides, advocates of North Woods tourism, members of the Penobscot Nation, whose ancestors had guided Henry David Thoreau into the wilderness. The 325-mile journey would follow his 1857 trip with Penobscot guide Joe Polis into the fabled heart of the Maine wilderness: Moosehead Lake, across the Northeast Carry, into the West Branch of the Penobscot River, into Chesuncook Lake and Umbazooksus Stream, over the legendary Mud Pond Carry, into the Allagash waterways before spilling down Webster Stream into the East Branch of the Penobscot and a return to Indian Island on the first day of June.
The occasion was the 150th anniversary of the publication of Thoreau’s
The Maine Woods
—a literary milestone that few outside of the expedition’s organizers and Thoreau scholars had probably paid much attention to. But as a spur to arouse interest in one of the last great wild places in the East, it became a rallying point. So the media came—in little bursts and at times, as with CBS Sunday Morning, a big splash. There were daily Twitter feeds, and the Maine Woods Discovery site (
) let armchair travelers follow along without blackfly bites or aching shoulders.
But once the paddlers set off in a driving rain on windswept Moosehead Lake, the experience became what it has always been in the Maine woods: to take what comes, through all weather, over rugged terrain and fast rivers and wide lakes. All the while forming deep friendships with people who are depending on you as you’re depending on them. Soaking in the utter beauty and stillness, and eating food that lingers in memory because of where you were, beneath stars so bright they seemed to burn, and because you were truly hungry and you heard loons calling all around you.
When they finally paddled into Indian Island with faces burned and legs welted, to the sound of ceremonial drums and Native chants, everyone, but especially those who had paddled start to finish, calling themselves the “Thoreauic 8” (including photographers Jarrod McCabe and Dominic Casserly), knew that though they had followed the trail forged by Joe Polis and Thoreau, they no longer needed to. It was their trip now.
THE HERITAGE OF THE MAINE GUIDES On Thoreau’s 1853 foray to Maine to hunt moose, he was guided by Joseph Attean, a future Penobscot chief; on his final expedition to the Maine woods in 1857, he was guided by Joe Polis, a Penobscot Indian Polis received $1.50 a day plus 50 cents a week for his canoe. Thoreau was in awe that Polis carried only “his axe and gun … a blanket, a store of tobacco and a new pipe.” Of his wilderness skills, Polis told Thoreau, “great difference between me and white man …” Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants Polis would have respected the woodland skills of Kevin Slater, head guide for the Thoreau 150 expedition. Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants Polis would have respected the abilities of Matt Polstein, founder of New England Outdoor Center (NEOC). Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants And he would have respected Glen Horne of Coyote Ridge Guide Service and Outfitting, shown here holding the coffee he made each day. Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants Kevin Slater, owner with his wife, Polly Mahoney, of Mahoosuc Guide Service, made the wood-and-canvas canoes, the paddles, and the split-ash pack baskets, all by hand. In this shot, which the L.O.G. call “a gift,” Slater is doing an eddy turn on Grindstone Falls. Photographer Dom Casserly was in the bow while Jarrod McCabe perched on a rock downriver to capture Slater leaning deeply into the turn to swing the boat around in the eddy to face upriver. “When I looked at the photographs,” McCabe said, “I was amazed at how his facial expressions were always calm, focused, and unwavering.” Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants CAMPSITE BLESSINGS After hours in the elements, a classic campsite was a warm blessing, with never-ending steaming pots of coffee and potatoes and tea simmering over flames. Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants “We pulled into Thoreau Island on the Penobscot River and chose this point on the upriver side,” the L.O.G. wrote. “When we read Thoreau’s passages on this portion of the trip, we realized we were camped in the exact spot Thoreau himself had slept in 1857” Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants When a storm on Moosehead Lake buffeted the canoes on the first day of paddling, he pulled everyone ashore, cut tree limbs, and tied them to the canoes to make secure catamarans. The day before the rigorous Northeast Carry, he demonstrated the proper and safe way to transport an 80- to 100-pound canoe. Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants Steaming pots simmered over the open flames of the campfire. Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants Guide Matt Polstein, NEOC founder and head dinner cook on the trip, uses an overturned canoe as a table to chop onions as he chats with Shannon Leroy of the Appalachian Mountain Club. “Eating great meals in the wilderness was such a large part of the enjoyment of the trip,” the L.O.G. wrote. “This is what makes a Maine guided trip so worth the money—guides who know how to cook in the wild.” Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants Camp was a time, too, for reading, writing, and reflection. Here, Stan Tag reads The Maine Woods on a bluff at Seboomook Point, overlooking Moosehead’s northern end. Tag, a literature professor and a scholar of the 19th-century Maine North Woods, was one of the Thoreauic 8—the only scholar to go start to finish. When he returned home to Washington State, he dreamed “of moving through water. In my dream I am coming down the river into Indian Island.” Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants JOE POLIS’S LEGACY Thoreau 150 began on Indian Island, north of Bangor, where Joe Polis’s home still stands and where more than 500 members of the Penobscot Nation live today. A group of Penobscots joined the trip at various points. Before leaving for Moosehead waters, tribal historian James Francis led a walk through Native land beside the Penobscot River. “The river is the heart of our culture,” he said. “The water that surrounds us flows from Katahdin and ties us to our landscape. From water comes life.” Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants The eagle is sacred to the tribe, and the feather Jason Pardilla holds, looking out to Chesuncook Lake was carried throughout the journey only by Penobscots. Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants Jennifer Neptune is a celebrated split-ash basket maker and bead artist. “When you study the works from the past,” she told a reporter, “you feel as though you are learning from your ancestors.” Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants Chris Sockalexis is a tribal archaeologist; on the second night he demonstrated how his ancestors made arrowheads from nearby Mount Kineo flint. Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants Chris (“Charlie Brown”) Francis carries a wanigan filled with heavy supplies. A master moose caller and hunter, Charlie Brown could have fed everyone from the forest, Mike Wilson said. “We could not have done this trip,” he noted, “without the Penobscot Nation.” Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants A PHYSICAL JOURNEY For the men and women who joined Thoreau 150, their perspective of the subject of the trip changed: from Thoreau the essayist/philosopher to Thoreau the physically rugged woodsman. The nearly two-mile Mud Pond Carry, an ancient route connecting waterways, tested everyone’s endurance. “We sank a foot deep in water and mud at every step, and sometimes up to our knees,” Thoreau wrote. Kevin Slater shows that time hasn’t altered anything, trudging along with one of his handmade ash pack baskets on his back. “He never moved quickly,” the L.O.G. wrote, “but he always knew his next move.” Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants Chris (“Charlie Brown”) Francis and Kevin Slater rest briefly along the Mud Pond Carry. “The forest felt absolutely ancient,” the L.O.G. wrote. The carry began at 3:00 p.m. Dom and Jarrod didn’t finish their fourth trip with supplies until after 9:00 p.m. They pitched no tents; everyone simply unrolled bedding and sank to the soft ground. Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants Forest entanglements made canoe carries a cooperative necessity. The wood-and-canvas canoes had been swapped for the more rugged Old Town Trippers. In 1857 Joe Polis would have mostly been on his own, emptying the canoe and lifting it over obstacles. Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants Guide Glen Horne (stern) and Penobscot guide James Francis paddle through one of many rapids along the route. Wrote the L.O.G., “We started out fearful, inexperienced on rapids … But through time, patient teaching, and experience, we learned how to stop, scout, read the water, pick our line, paddle, eddy turn, and all sorts of other new river skills. We even had a rescue, and it went textbook.” Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants A PLACE TO CHANGE A LIFE Mike Wilson stands above Grand Falls Pitch on the East Branch of the Penobscot, one of many breathtaking sights along the journey. With less than a week to go, he could let himself relax a bit. He’d held in a lot of tension, knowing how much could go wrong and how people were waiting to join at different sites nearly every day. “We arrived and set up camp at perfect timing to be able to experience sunset over the Grand Falls,” the L.O.G. wrote. “You could stand here and feel the spray on your face, and having not seen the sun very much, it was a special moment.” Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants SPECIAL MOMENTS FOR THE LITTLE OUTDOOR GIANTS Each night Jarrod and Dom recorded their impressions of the day, including drawings and memorable snatches of conversation, in a leather-bound notebook (above left) that would have made Thoreau proud. From their many hundreds of photos, taken from dawn to dark, we asked them which held memories they would show their own grandchildren years from now. Here is what they chose Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants Serenity: “On the East Branch of the cool, blue Penobscot River it felt very much as I imagined the river would be.” Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants Twilight: “This is Chris Sockalexis drumming us in to Birch Point on the far eastern end of Grand Lake Matagamon. We started this 9-mile stretch as the sun was setting. We paddled for the next 3 hours in utter enchantment (and exhaustion), weaving between pine-covered islands, glassy still water reflecting the blues and purples of the sky as the twilight came on. We heard Chris drumming and singing; the sound carried for miles. We arrived in the last moments of light and enjoyed a feast of moose stew and fresh fiddleheads. This was one of our favorite hours of the whole trip. And then we fell asleep to the sound of loons calling to each other all night long. Truly magical!” Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants Drinking water: “This is our filtered drinking water taken from Mud Pond. This water was what we drank and cooked with for the day. The mud clogged our filters and greatly slowed down our water filtering. We drank literally all the water on the trip from the rivers, from the lakes. We were truly a part of the landscape on the trip.” Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants Salamander: “Dom found this yellow-spotted salamander coldly floating in the very middle of Moosehead Lake on day 2, about one mile offshore. We warmed him back to life and dropped him off on the western shore. Perhaps he was frozen in the ice over the winter, or perhaps he was blown out into the lake during a storm. Finding critters like him made the trip more memorable for us.” Photo Credit : Little Outdoor Giants Photographs of the Thoreau Journey through Maine Thoreau Journey Photographs | Moosehead Lake Thoreau Journey Photographs | Mud Pond Carry Thoreau Journey Photographs | Camping Life Thoreau Journey Photographs | The End of the Journey