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the maine book-a memoir
Jim bought the canoe- an Old Town Tripper. I believe he came up with the idea to go to Maine, too, a great idea. It gave meaning to life- something to look forward to besides the day-to-day grind of grubbing for grades, wondering about where the next buzz was coming from, and the usually spectacularly unsuccessful personal get-together attempt with that cute freshman co-ed in history class. Let’s face it, school was a bitch.
Backcountry trips require a lot of planning and preparation and a certain degree of skill. We bought maps and guidebooks, made lists, purchased equipment, tied flies, and went canoeing every weekend. Hell yeah, it was rugged falling into those ice-cold rapids, but it was tremendously exciting and oh, so much fun!
Jim has graciously added his input to this story at several places below. He says, “We started canoeing on weekends with large groups of people. In fact many times we had more people than canoes. Everyone was up for taking a turn in a canoe making short runs to try to learn how to run rapids. Even when we went for a 3 or 4 day weekend there was always plenty of people up for a trip. But once we started to talk about one, two or three weeks there were no takers. I will always be grateful that we took those longer trips that now feel seem like they were both yesterday and a lifetime away.”
The Cortland Story
One of the major reasons why we went to Maine was for the great fishing we’d heard and read about. The Machias chain proved to be just what we expected. We took landlocked salmon, brook trout, smallmouth bass, and chain pickerel.
The St. John’s, however, was another story. Fishing hard for two weeks, I took six anemic brook trout and won five dollars from Jim with a nine incher. We witnessed on the St. John’s one of the heaviest mayfly hatches I ever expect to see. The far bank was barely visible through the flies, but not a fish rose anywhere. It was very disappointing. As a result, there are no fish pictures in this book.
Jim had purchased a combination spin/fly pack rod made by Cortland, specifically for the Machias trip, if I remember correctly. It was a nice little rod.
We would always put five bucks on the biggest fish of the trip. On the third day out I caught, and we ate, a landlocked salmon of about twenty inches, the first salmon I’d ever seen. I started giving Jim shit immediately, saying, “You may as well pay me the five bucks now. You’ll never catch a fish to match this one,” and similar statements. Jim did, however, catch a chain pickerel (his specialty)* from Third Lake that was exactly the same size as my salmon. I insisted that there was no way that a pickerel could be compared to a salmon so that I should still win.
Jim agreed that a salmon had a higher value, at least for anglers. But according to the established rules it was size that mattered, not species. A sucker could have won the money if it were the biggest fish. So we were tied.
I proceeded to catch a four pound smallmouth. The shit started to fly again. “Pay up, you’ll never match this one.” Jim had patience, I’ll give him that.
He never did equal that catch on that trip. But I never collected the fiver, either. Here’s the rest of the story.
We got out of the canoe on what proved to be the last day of the trip to scout a rapid. The blackflies were ferocious (I’ve never since seen their equal) and the rapid was pretty decent sized, too. There was a lot of adrenaline flowing. After scouting the rapid we were hurriedly getting back into the canoe when I stepped on the unsupported handle of the Cortland- CRACK! It broke off cleanly. I forfeited my fairly won winnings to help pay for the repairs to the rod. After all, I broke it.
The rod was repaired and it worked just fine. The following year Jim brought it to the St. John’s, where the fish unfortunately failed to give it much of a workout.
On the last day of the trip, we stopped to scout a rapid. On re-entering the canoe, Jim stepped on the unsupported mid-section of the rod. CRACK! No repairing that break! The rod was now so much trash.
On the spot I immediately decided to replace the rod with a fly-fishing outfit, which I finally did at Christmas. It took me that long to save the money. It was a hell of a nice outfit, too, a six-weight Fenwick rod with a matching Scientific Anglers line and a Medalist reel. I almost felt like keeping it myself (it was much better than any of my tackle at the time) but he did pay for the plane trip and all! It was a good feeling, giving him that rod. I hope you still use that thing, Jim!
Jim’s recollection differs from mine. He says, “From what I remember the final nail in the coffin for that rod was the trunk on my Buick. At the end of the Machias trip, we were packing the car to leave and I left the rod standing up against the car near the trunk. The cloud of black flies seem to build and we started to throw everything in the car as fast as we could. After three or four days of heavy flies at the end of the trip there was a bit of panic to try to finally get away from them. I think you closed the trunk and the rod was then in two pieces.”
*I showed Jim how to tie flies one time. He gave his first creation to me. Two years later I tied it on at Third Lake Machias and immediately lost it to a large pickerel.
A Ride With Divine
The first year we went to Maine we headed for the town of Springfield, where the put-in was for this particular trip. We were so up and excited, we drove over 100 miles past the exit we wanted and never realized it until we saw the sign for Baxter State Park. Oh, well!
Later I had to drive the car to the take-out and hitchhike back to where Jim was at the put-in. My last ride was from this incredibly ugly woman who reminded me very much of Divine. I realized there might have a problem when she asked me if I wanted a beer, then stopped to buy it. She started coming on to me, telling me how lonely she was away up there in Maine. She wanted me to poke her right then and there in the back seat of her Gremlin!
All I wanted from this chick was to be delivered to Jim. She graciously drove me about twelve miles down the dirt road that I was sure that I would have to walk, practically right up to the canoe. I thanked her and hopped out of the car and into the canoe. What happened to the Divine look-alike remains a mystery. Jim and I were off on our first big canoe adventure!
The following year the plan was different. It was a bold plan! Jim and I would drive to Fort Kent where we would hire a pilot and fly into Fifth St. John’s Pond. Originally I objected to this plan on financial grounds (I couldn’t afford it) but Jim said he’d pay, so the deed was done.
The pilot dropped us off at Fifth St. John’s Pond. When the plane flew off without us I was jubilant! As soon as we hit the shore I took off all my clothes and laid out to get a full body tan. Jimmy mumbled something about my being incredibly rude, but within five minutes he was buck naked too.
The Sounds of Maine
One of the sounds I associate with the north Maine woods is the drumming of ruffed grouse. A difficult sound to describe, it starts with low, slow beats which gradually accelerate and increase in pitch until they abruptly stop. We’d hear forty or fifty a day, but I’ve never seen the first grouse.
On the second day of our Machias trip we began hearing this unearthly sound, as if one of Hell’s demons was standing right next to us, laughing, mocking. Puzzled and more than slightly concerned, Jim’s first idea was that it was a coyote. We discarded this idea since we were on a small island in the middle of a large lake.
I noticed a duck-like bird diving in the lake and started thinking about an article I had recently read in New England Outdoors. It suddenly struck me that the sounds were coming from the bird, which was undoubtedly a loon.
We found that the loon was making one of its several calls, all of which are haunting, beautiful, wild sounds. One night on Third Lake Machias there were six loons around the lake at various locations, calling to each other. As their ghostly cries echoed around the lake, we realized that in spite of the bugs and the rain we were having the time of our lives. We were most fortunate indeed, to bear witness to the loon concerto.
Jim says. “I remember that night hearing all of the loons on the lake. It was like a natural version of Pink Floyd.”
Quite the Nasty Wake-Up
On our first trip on the Machias it was gray and rainy every day. We each had only two sets of clothes. They quickly became the wet set and the dry set. Every morning we’d have to get out of the nice, warm, dry set and get back into the cold, wet, and increasingly stinky wet set. No fun, especially when it was cold and still raining outside of the tent.
We quickly learned to make camp more comfortable by creatively using an army poncho as an awning. We could sit underneath the poncho as the campfire burned and not be rained on.
One camp on Lake Sysladobsis was particularly nice. We arranged the poncho over the front of the tent, with a couple of logs to sit on underneath. We could eat, and watch the fire, and enter the tent, all fairly protected from the weather. The middle of the poncho, where the opening was, was supported by a canoe paddle. The corners were tied to surrounding trees. Very neat, we thought. Clever.
At dark we retired to our increasingly damp and stinky sleeping bags. The ground may have been hard but we never had any trouble passing out after paddling in the weather most of the day. The sound of the rain on the sides of the tent makes it easy to fall asleep!
In the middle of the night someone with a warped sense of humor poured five gallons of cold water right on our heads! ARRRGGGGHHHHH!
Jim and I wake up swearing. It’s pitch black and we are wet. The tent is full of water! What the hell just happened? We’re groping for a flashlight, for towels. WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED???
We’re morons is what happened. We supported the middle of the poncho with a canoe paddle. Clever? Not so much.
Rain kept falling as we slept, puddling in the poncho. It got heavier and heavier as the rain kept coming. Finally the paddle slipped. Unfortunately, the opening in the poncho was right over the entrance to the tent, funneling all the water in the poncho right onto our heads. We could not have designed a better way to wake ourselves up than by dropping five gallons of cold water on our heads.
Quite the nasty wake-up.
Jim recalls, “While we were on the island that had the poncho bath, some of those mornings the bottom of our jeans were frozen when we first put them on. It would take a few hours before they warmed up enough to be just wet and cold.
“Also on this same trip prior to getting to campsite for the poncho bath, we spent 2 or 3 days stuck on a small island due to high winds and rain. It was exposed to the wind and there was no way to leave.
“When we finally left, there was a very scary moment where we almost capsized, sliding sideways down a big wave in the lake. We had no choice but to go where the wind took us. You filled a one gallon milk bottle with water and dragged it from the stern to keep the canoe straight in the wind. With no keel, out in the open in high winds was a bad option for our canoe, but we were going nuts being on that small island. Now as it turned out the wind blew us back in the direction we had come from, ending up on the island with that great camping spot. While it was still raining, we were able to make it more comfortable with the log to sit on and the poncho to keep the rain off us. Anything to be able to spend time outside of the tent.”
The Beaver Dam
When we were on the Machias River trip, all I kept hearing from Jim was, “I want to see a moose! I want to see a moose!” I kept hoping a moose would show up so I wouldn’t have to listen to him anymore.
Towards the end of the trip we spotted a beaver dam up above the bank. I thought, “TROUT,” so we stopped to investigate. Walking softly so as not to spook the fish, we gained the dam, then poked our heads through the trees to scan the water. Not a trout, but a magnificent cow moose greeted our eyes, not fifty yards away. Standing in the water up to her belly, she was feeding on water lilies. She must have heard (or more likely smelled) us, for she looked in our direction, then moved off into the dense woods.
Excited in the extreme, all thoughts of trout vanished from our minds. We decided to follow the moose! The woods were very thick with young spruce and balsam fir, but we found a game path and began trekking, hoping for a close encounter with the moose. It was at this point that it suddenly occurred to me that an encounter with a moose might be closer than we might like.
“Say, Jim,” I asked. “How would you like to come around a corner and see the moose bearing down on us from twenty feet away’?” He got my point right away and we reversed direction immediately. In our haste to escape we never did find out if there were any trout in that beaver pond.
Jim has this to add, “We were very lucky that we did not find that moose. It made me remember the the two moose we saw on the St Johnʼs trip. The first was the second day I think. The river was only 15 or 20 feet wide and maybe three or four feet deep. We came around a corner and there was a cow in the middle of the river. No way we could just slide by so we started to back paddle as fast as we could. We managed to stop and watched as she slowly worked her way down river a bit to exit on one of the animal trails.
“The second moose was very memorable because we were sitting in our camp up high off the river and watched as she worked her way across the river. At one point we thought it was our dinner that was attracting her. That night you made spaghetti with sauce and trout. It was one of the few cans we brought with us. Also one of the few trout caught. It was the best meal of the trip and possibly the day after the soup, so it tasted that much better due to hunger.”
What the Well Dressed Fisherman Will Wear
For some reason we had this idea that Maine was the end of the Earth and we wouldn’t see anyone else. This idea was completely and utterly shattered in the following manner.
We were camped where the St. John’s enters Baker Lake.
We hadn’t seen a soul for four or five days and there were no bugs so we were still running around naked. Jimmy was wading, working up the river, casting for trout. Suddenly, around the river bend, not fifteen feet away, came the bow of a canoe, occupied by a very attractive young lady. I imagine there was some degree of surprise on both sides.
Unfortunately, and as could be expected, the stern of the canoe quickly followed. It was occupied by a not-very-attractive (to Jim’s eye, at any rate) young man. Jim claims that he knelt in the water to cover certain body parts and said, “Hi! How ya doin’?”
When he returned to camp, after greeting three more boatloads of canoeists in the same inimitable fashion, his pants went back on. They stayed on for the remainder of the trip.
Jim recalls, “To put the whole naked thing in perspective, every prior trip to Maine had four things you could count on- rain, high winds, cold nights, and if the sun came out — swarms of Black Flies. Hell, I donʼt think I have ever seen flies as thick as during the end of the Machias trip. Now we show up to the trip of a lifetime, the St. Johnʼs, itʼs the same general time of year but we hit not warm, but hot weather. I think there was a short discussion about cutting jeans and shirts off, but sooner or later we thought the flies would come. So why not naked? We just had a plane fly us in and there was no one for miles — we thought.
“We were two days into the trip. We made camp on a nice sand beach right where the river flowed into one of the lakes. It would be a great place to fish and soft sand — what wasn’t to like? The tent was set up and I was fishing in the lake up to my knees in the water.
“To the right we saw the first canoe start to come into the lake. You were near the tent and dove in, but I was not so lucky. I decided that it would be easy to take a few more steps and just go in the water up to my waist. It would have been a good plan it they did not decide to come over to talk. And as you pointed out the two other canoes had to come over as well.”
We did something on the St. John’s trip which at the time we decided was pretty stupid, although I later discovered that many canoeists do the same thing. We didn’t pay North Maine Woods the fee they charge for traveling on their property.
North Maine Woods is an association of paper companies joined for the purpose of extorting money from canoeists using the river. Evidently they don’t make enough money by raping the wilderness with clear-cutting, so they have to screw the canoeists, too. Pardon my ranting. Anyhow, we didn’t pay.
One day while paddling we passed a man on the river bank who waved and yelled to us, “You got your camping permit?” Not wanting to lie (pure B.S.- I didn’t know what to say) I let Jim do the talking. “Yeah!” he yelled back.
“Where did you get it?”
“Baxter Lake!” replied Jim. The man didn’t ask to see it and we sure didn’t offer to show him. We just kept paddling, wondering when he was coming after us. After that we thought every float plane we saw was the law out looking for us. Kind of put a downer on the trip.
A few days later we came to a logging road bridge. After passing under it, we couldn’t help but notice the vehicle parked on the bank. It had a blue light on the roof. Next to it was a man in uniform, carrying a gun, who was motioning us to come over. We were shitting ourselves, but over we paddled.
The man was a game warden, and he wanted to see our fishing licenses. We were so relieved. Those we had! He made a notation on them, and then we chatted quite amiably for twenty or thirty minutes. He never mentioned those permits, and neither did we. He returned our licenses to us and off we paddled. No one else bothered us about anything for the remainder of the trip.
Jim says, “The other thing I remember about the St John trip was the customʼs officer that came down to check us out at the end of our trip. We were pretty worried he was going to ask for a permit, but as it turned out he just wanted to make sure we had not come over from Canada. We forgot that for the last few days one side of the river was the US and the other Canada.”
I found out when I returned to the St. John’s in 1980 that a lot of the float plane pilots encourage people not to buy the permits. They don’t like the NMW at all, either! There really isn’t anyone up there to check. Furthermore, we couldn’t have paid at Baker Lake if we wanted to. Suzie O. and I stopped at the pay station and the building was abandoned. We didn’t pay that time, either.
Make camp, break camp. Make camp, break camp. It quickly becomes a routine on a canoe trip. Layover days are luxuries, to be savored and appreciated. Most days are spent paddling.
A factor that Jim had trouble adjusting to on our trips was the food. I was a vegetarian of sorts, and we ate veggie on the trail. The problem wasn’t psychological, it was physiological. Poor Jim would wake up in the morning, and his lower intestine would be telling him in a tone that left no space for negotiation, “Go NOW, or else!”
He started taking shits in plain view. Naturally I objected to this. He claimed there was no way he could make it any farther before the Force took over his body. I resolved the conflict by photographing him in full squat from the comfort and convenience of my sleeping bag. He was quite PO’d at this, but I merely pointed out that had he simply walked into the woods there would have been no way for me to get that particular shot. It was the last time I ever saw his butt.
There was a meal I cooked one evening on the St. John’s. It was supposed to be soup but I added way too much bulgur wheat and it came out of the pot like a loaf. It looked and tasted like garbage and Jimmy flat out and very sensibly refused to even taste it. I was upset that I ruined the meal and his rejecting it even further damaged my ego. Truth is, I couldn’t eat it either. If we could find that same campsite on the St. John’s, that soup is probably still sitting there, like a fossil from some far-distant time.
Jim remembers that soup. He says, “What I remember about the soup is that it was towards the end of the trip and we wanted to supplement our food stocks. Unfortunately, while the weather was the best of any trip, the fishing was non-existent. To make the soup more interesting you added fiddle heads. I went along with this because it sounded like a good idea. I donʼt know if they were too big or the wrong type of fern, but they were very bitter. If a few were good, then adding more would be better. It was all the fiddle heads that made the soup inedible.”
We always got up early to beat the wind, to see more wildlife, to be out at a beautiful time of day, and so we could knock off shortly after noon. The fact that we went to sleep as soon as it got dark may have had something to do with it, too. Anyway, it paid off handsomely one magical morning.
We were on the river shortly after sunrise. Mist was rising off of the water, and the grouse were drumming, sounding like distant artillery. We simply sat in the canoe, motionless, listening and looking, soaking it all in, letting the river carry us.
Some movement up ahead on the bank caught my eye. A lovely young woman, dressed only in a man’s dress shirt, was at the river’s edge getting water. She never became aware of our presence until I murmured, “A woodland nymph … ”
Startled, she looked up, then smiled at us. She was so beautiful it hurt. I wanted to marry her then and there, I was so in love. But the river carried us inexorably onward, and the moment passed.
When Jim and I started our canoeing adventures, the only camera between us was a Konica Auto-S 35 mm. rangefinder type, equipped with a 50 mm. lens. The light meter didn’t work, so all exposures were set manually by educated guesswork. We missed some good shots from educated guessing wrong.
In 1979 I bought a Canon AE-1. When we were packing for out Machias River trip Suzie O. asked me, “Are you bringing your new camera?” I told her I wasn’t going to, since I didn’t want it to get ruined. She said, “What the hell did you buy it for?”
I brought that Canon on that trip. It rained almost every day, and the camera for the most part stayed in whatever I kept it in in those days. Ever since then, though, if I didn’t have a camera with me it was due to a weight issue, not fear of loss.
Thanks, Suzie. I needed that.
Changing of the Guard
This rock we all share hurtles through space around a smallish star. We call the amount of time it takes to make one complete cycle a “year”. It’s not a very long time.
Jim got his degree and spent lots of time looking for something called a “job”. The job he found was in California. He sold me the canoe for a great price, and moved away. We didn’t see each other again for a long time.
I needed a partner for my next canoe trip. I didn’t have a job yet.
My dearest and longest-tenured friend, Susan, went canoeing with me in Maine with me that year. Accompanying us were Charlie Saulnier and his girlfriend Michelle.
Our plan was to go down the Machias again, only starting at Grand Lake Stream this time, instead of at Springfield as Jim and I had. I knew most of the route, having been there before.
It wasn’t the same. Water levels change.
When Jim and I came to the connector between Wabassus Lake and third Machias we paddled a creek to a little dam, portaged around, and paddled into the Machias watershed. Easy.
When Susan and I got there it was almost dry, dead stumps sticking up out of the mud. I had to drag our canoe, and Charlie had to drag their canoe, through the mud.
It wasn’t too bad if you could stay on the roots. When you missed one you would sink up to your crotch. Nasty, hard work.
The girls didn’t have a cakewalk, either. The black flies were ferocious, incessant. Black flies are inherently evil anyway. They were particularly diabolical here.
Susan was wearing a head net. The bugs got inside of it.
When we got to our campsite and she took the head net off I was stunned. Twelve or fifteen bleeding welts pocked her face. Her beautiful face wasn’t looking so good, just then, with the blood dribbling down from lots of little holes.
It’s a wonder she ever did anything at all with me after that, but she did. I’m happy to report that she recovered completely.
The Guard Changes Again
Susan got a degree and spent some time looking for one of those job things. She found one in Brazil. She moved away and I didn’t see her for over a year.
I needed another canoeing partner. I didn’t have a job yet.
A phone call to Suzie O. solved my problem. She didn’t have a job either. She liked to paddle, and found my company acceptable.
Our first trip was on the Machias. We dragged all of our stuff almost a mile, from a logging road into 5th Machias Pond. We then drove her Beetle to the town of Machias, parking it next to the police station. On the way we stopped at the river crossing at Maine Route 9 to scout the Airline rapid. It looked do-able, although we would’t be there for over a week. Things change.
Then we hitchhiked back. Amazingly enough, we got a ride to the trailhead of the put-in. A-paddling we went.
Like Jim’s and my first trip on this system, it rained almost every day. The river was full of water and we made good time between the upper lakes, running every rapid we came to.
When the rain stopped the black flies were ferocious.
We got to Third Machias Lake on a misty morning. A light fog shrouded the lake, which looked especially lovely. We got the camera out and took some photos.
We spent a couple days there, then started down the meaty part of the river. We made it through Carrot Rip. although it was a good thing we had the spray deck. Then we got to the Airline.
The waves above the bridge were big, but we had scouted the rapid a week earlier. It had looked completely runnable. We were not prepared for the rapid below the bridge.
The waves were huge, terrifying.
We crash-landed on the bank, narrowly avoiding a catastrophe. I sized up the rapid and decided I wanted no part of it. We lined the boat along the bank, then climbed back in.
At the next rapid we did the same thing.
At the next rapid we did the same thing.
The river was over its banks now and every riffle we came to had eight and nine foot waves. We were making three, four, five carries a day, slow going, and running out of food. The water wasn’t too appealing to drink, either, looking more like chocolate milk.
We came to a logging road and hiked out, hitched down to Machias. We drove back and got our stuff, then headed home. Discretion, indeed.
The Last Trip
Nineteen eighty arrived. I was going to get a degree. I already had one of those job things lined up. Suzie O. picked me up in the Beetle and we drove to Fort Kent. We were flying into Fifth St. John’s Pond.
Things went smoothly- great weather, no bugs, well planned and outfitted. We came to a rapid where someone had crashed, found a paddle, a plastic Coors beer mug, and a trash bag full of stuff. We hoped it was something for the head, but it was full of fiddleheads. We ate them for days, until they started to rot.
I don’t think we took any pictures on that lovely, uneventful trip. We again had a heavy hatch of mayflies. I actually found a rising fish and caught it on a dry fly, a lovely little brook trout. I would like to think I released it, but I can no longer remember.
We finished our trip and drove home. Sadly, I have never paddled in Maine since then. Time to do so may be getting short for this reporter.