By soaking Emmet
It’s that time of year again. That time when you don’t have to chip the newspaper from the ice on the front lawn.
Before we all turned into very old fogies, the third week in May always meant it was time for another manly trip with the Upside Down Canoe Club. From this vantage point, it is hard to remember that we routinely crashed through the rapids on the St. John, Allagash, Seboeis and St. Croix Rivers.
From this vantage point, it is a wonder that no one died.
We certainly tried.
It seems like every trip someone died the week before we went into the woods, usually on the river we were about to travel.
I think someone was trying to tell us something.
It was only after we did a chunk of the St. John River that I read the warning in the Maine Gazetteer. Do not do this river without a Maine Guide. Hah!
We always went in the third week of May because it was the slim window between ice-out and the advent of the killer black flies, which can destroy any trip.
There were plenty of warnings. On my first trip, we set out for Allagash Lake and could not find it. Honest to God. We drove around and around that lake but never found it. That was the trip when I discovered that an indoor “Donald Duck” sleeping bag will not cut it in the Maine woods, especially when there is a frost that destroyed half the state’s blueberry crop.
The next trip we decided to fly into Allagash Lake, figuring that the pilot knew where it was. The ice chunks were still floating in the lake when we landed. We had rented an aluminum canoe which had spent the winter on the shore. “Hope no one shot at it during the winter,” he said before he roared off and left us in the wilderness.
We checked it for bullet holes and set off down the stream to the lake. It was no more than 20 minutes later when the inevitable spill happened. It was cold, but it was not too deep. Onward.
We met a game warden when we finally got to Allagash Lake. He should have sent us back immediately. We had exactly one dry bag (which we had ridiculed) and the food was in (double) grocery bags. All he did was warn us that we would be the first one down Allagash stream and there could be plenty of “blowdown” or downed trees blocking the stream. It was so cold that we scooped ice out of the river to pack the coolers.
Another 20 minutes, another heavy rapid, another spill. Disaster. The Black Velvet was sacrificed to the river. We were frozen, wet and without firewater. Beer will simply not warm you up in the woods.
We conducted a salvage operation in the flood stage river, to no avail. It was a sign of things to come.
We lost our gear to every major river in the Maine North Woods. Boston Leo lost an entire (expensive) pan set to the St. John River. I believe he came the closest to death of anyone on those trips, but he unfortunately survived. He woke up just when I was sharpening my hunting knife.
I got even when I locked the doors and drove off, leaving him near a rampaging bear in Kokadjo.
Of all the disasters, my personal worst was on the mighty Seboeis, again at flood stage. I was alone in my Old Town when I passed Jefferson Phil and his pal, Ray sunk to the bottom of the river by the rapids. Naturally, I laughed.
It was no more than 10 minutes later when I approached the Seboeis Falls. I paddled in the fast-moving water to the shore. I bounced off the shore several times when I grabbed a tree in a death grip, the falls roaring in the background. I held on to the tree, but the canoe said “see you later.” I was pulled over backwards and slammed into the river. I even lost my glasses, let alone the canoe and all that gear.
When Jefferson Phil finally paddled up, he asked the obvious, “Where is your canoe?” Good question. I had no answer.
I was willing to write off all that gear, but Jefferson Phil portaged the falls and paddled downriver to find the canoe on the river bank. The canoe was battered, but unbowed. Ready for still more river trips.
I was not.
Future paddling trips will be confined to Megunticook Lake. On a good day.
Cartainly, there were delightful meals on the river banks, perfect day-long paddles through the Maine woods, nights and laughs and tales around the campfire.
But all I seem to remember now are the disasters. There were so many.