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I FIRST SAW MARY ON THE HIGHWAY well before we reached the Allagash. I saw her near Millinocket, the old logging town on Maine Route 11. I noticed her truck first, a red Toyota, and I noticed the yellow kayak strapped on the bed. We both had New Hampshire plates. I also had a Toyota truck, green, and a yellow kayak strapped on top of a truck cap.
She pulled into an Exxon station. I passed slowly and watched to see her get out. But she fumbled with something on the seat next to her and I couldn’t see her face.
Her hair was the color of cord wood. She wore a red bandanna that sometimes waved with the wind.
THE ALLAGASH WATERWAY RUNS ninety-two miles northward from Chamberlain Lake to the St. John River on the border of Canada. It is surrounded by public and private lands, thousands and thousands of acres of pine and tamarack and hardwoods. To get to the starting point on Chamberlain Lake, you must pass Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin. Mount Katahdin is the beginning or end—depending on the direction you hike—of the Appalachian Trail.
The indigenous people did not climb Mount Katahdin until late in the nineteenth century. The world, they said, had been built by “a man from the clouds,” and he lived at the summit in snow.
I stopped for gasoline at the last service station before entering the Allagash preserve. The station catered to rafters and kayakers who ran the Penobscot, a wild, dangerous river that churned white water in spectacular rapids through steep cataracts. Three blue buses—with enormous white rafts tied to the tops—idled in the parking lot. A bunch of kids loitered around the door to the service station, all of them wet and soggy. It was a warm day for September in Maine, although the cold held just a little way off, somehow up in the branches of the trees, waiting to fall. The kids went barefoot mostly. A few ate ice cream cones.
I filled my tank. I felt good and unscheduled, but also a tiny bit nervous. Ninety-two miles through a wilderness by kayak. As Dean Hallowen said when I proposed my plan for a sabbatical from my teaching post at St. Paul’s School, a secondary prep school outside of Concord, New Hampshire, “That sounds like an undertaking.”
And it did.
But he had approved the plan, even contributing funds for a trip to Concord and Walden Pond to research Thoreau’s activities there. Now I planned to follow Thoreau’s path into the Allagash, a trip he had undertaken in 1857. Thoreau went no farther north in Maine than Eagle Lake, a still-water camp I hoped to reach my second night. I did not know what I hoped to gain by standing on the same land as Thoreau, but it seemed necessary for the paper I hoped to write about his adventures in Maine. I also thought—and Dean Hallowen concurred—that it would be a useful footnote in any future class I gave on transcendentalism.
Leaning against the flank of my truck, though, the entire project seemed hopelessly academic. Why bother researching a writer who had been researched to death? Did the world really need another appraisal of Thoreau? It seemed hideously theoretical. The river, by contrast, had become more real with each passing mile. Ninety-two miles, solo. Three enormous lakes, two portages, one Class IV rapids, cool nights, warm days. Not easy. Any time you went solo in the wilderness you risked a simple injury or mishap developing into something much larger. Dump my kayak, wet my matches, turn turtle, and what I had drawn up as a seven- or eight-day trip would turn into something more frightening and real. I had promised myself to be brave but cautious, intrepid but level-headed. Prudent and sober. Smart.
“Hurry gradually” was my motto. It had become a little buzz phrase I used with everyone when I described the parameters of my proposed trip.
Ninety-two miles alone on a river! marveled various people—men, women, fellow faculty members, family, friends—when they asked what I intended to do on my sabbatical. I can’t imagine, they said.
Hurry gradually, I answered.
That’s what I was thinking about when Mary’s truck cruised by. I saw it more clearly now. Red. Beaten. A yellow kayak with duct-tape patches. Obviously one of us did more camping and kayaking than the other. And it wasn’t me.
I nodded a little with my chin. Then I ducked as though I had to adjust the gas nozzle, trying to see into her cab. She drove past without braking, and I gained only a quick glimpse of her hair again.
A bumper sticker on her tailgate caught my eye.
A HEN IS ONLY AN EGG’S WAY OF MAKING ANOTHER EGG.
I BOUGHT THREE LOTTERY tickets for luck, a Diet Coke, two bags of Fritos, and stuffed as many packs of paper matches in my pocket as the checkout girl—a dark, Gothy-looking girl with a large stud in her right eyebrow—allowed. When I finished, I nodded to her. She had no interest in me. She watched a pair of boys her age who sat in the doorway, flicked their hair repeatedly, and talked in quiet voices. Dreamy boys, I’m sure she thought.
“Heading down the Allagash,” I said in one of those lame moments where we feel compelled to explain ourselves.
Or maybe I simply wanted human contact.
“Hmmmm,” she said, her eyes on the boys.
I left before I could embarrass myself further. I checked the kayak straps to make sure nothing had jiggled loose along the dirt roads, then climbed into the cab.
As I started the engine, I wondered if this hadn’t been a mistake. I also wondered what it would cost, psychically, to back out. I wasn’t afraid, exactly, but uneasy, a little out of my element. I turned on the radio and found an oldies’ station. I wanted someone to go with me, but it was a strange time of year. Most of the people I knew—teachers, primarily—had already returned to school. If they weren’t already in school, they had to prepare classes, get a new academic year under way. I had stepped out of cadence by having a sabbatical. Everything in my training pointed me toward school, the bells, the new classes, the fresh notebooks, the whistling radiators, but instead I was heading down a river I didn’t know. I kayaked confidently on flat water, but going down a river, through rapids, setting up camp—it made me edgy to think about it. What I needed at that moment was a buddy, a companion, someone to kick a foot up on the dash and pump his fist that we were heading into the wilderness.
Instead I listened to Marvin Gaye sing, “Let’s Get It On.”
But that didn’t make me feel better.
A MOOSE BROUGHT ME out of it. Driving along, eating the orange curls of corn chips from the bag I held between my legs, a moose appeared from the right side of the road. A black, dark mass. At first I thought I had somehow seen a stump walking freely through the scatter woods at the roadside. Then the moose turned and angled as if looking down the road the way I had to travel. A male. Enormous palmate antlers. A string of grass and mud dangled from his left antler. His shoulder came well above the top of the Toyota.
He didn’t move. He didn’t respond to me at all. He stood with his nostrils streaming two tubes of white air into the first evening chill, and his body blended into the woods behind him. If I had looked away at that moment, perhaps I could have let my eyes lose him in the forest. It seemed fantastical that a creature carrying a TV antenna on its head could maneuver through the puckerbrush of Northern Maine. I turned down the radio and braked. Then I slipped the truck into neutral and climbed out.
The bull moose could not have posed more perfectly. I had a moment when I thought, Oh, come on. The whole thing seemed a bit too much: crisp air, black moose, yellow maples, bright white breath. I felt no fear, despite knowing the rut had begun. The moose had no interest in me. As if to prove it, a female suddenly broke out of the woods perhaps a quarter mile away and crossed the road. She did not stop or look back, but the male, becoming vivid, suddenly trotted down the road. He ran with the classically awkward moosey gait, his bottom shanks throwing out with each step. He disappeared into the woods approximately where the female had disappeared. I heard him for a second clatter through the slag piles of brush at the roadside, then nothing.
Okay, I said as I climbed back in the truck. I turned on the heat a little higher. I looked for the moose when I passed their point of disappearance, but the woods had covered them.
YOU REQUIRE A PERMIT to run the Allagash.
I pulled over at four thirty to a small government building with a sign that said: Permits Here.
Mary’s truck took up the best spot. I parked behind it and a little off to the side.
I checked myself in the mirror. Quick smile, quick hair brush, quick glance at my jeans. I climbed out. The office appeared closed. I also realized that the temperature had dropped way off. What had been a warm day had changed in the course of an hour. I made a mental note to remember how fast the temperature sank once the sun went behind the pines. Travel early, camp early. Everything I had read about the Allagash had stated that as a basic survival law. If you left late in the morning, you risked facing the wind as it inevitably rose throughout the day. If you didn’t find a place to camp sufficiently early, then you risked missing a convenient spot and having to set up a tent and campsite at night. Learn to pace yourself, the books said. Think ahead.
I would also need a fire going, I realized. Every night.
I climbed the stairs to the office and pushed open the door. I looked for Mary, but instead a large, raspy woman with a bright yellow shirt stepped out of a back room at my appearance. I understood that the woman lived in the quarters beyond the front desk. Her daily commute averaged around ten feet. She wore a name tag identifying her as Ranger Joan. She wore a baseball hat, army green. The patch on the forehead crest said State of Maine.
“What movie did you want to see?” Ranger Joan asked.
She paused for effect. Then she laughed—a large, smoky laugh. A pinochle laugh.
I supposed I looked as dazed as I felt.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s just my way. A little joke. People show up here a little high-strung. I loosen them up.”
“Good to know,” I said, trying to recover.
“’Course we’re not showing movies here,” she said. “We’re holding a square dance!”
She laughed again, but this time she pushed some papers toward me.
“Okay, you’ll be wanting a permit, I guess,” she said. “Standard stuff we ask. We like to know when you go in, when you come out. Be sure to sign the logbook at each end so we can track you. You going all the way?”
“Yes,” I said. “I guess so.”
“Ninety-two miles,” she said. “Best time of year to do it. No bugs, no no-see-ums. Good crisp air and the water is still reasonably warm. You can still take a quick dip after a day of paddling. You picked the right time of year, I promise.”
“Thank you,” I said, as if I deserved congratulations.
“I suppose you know already that the moose are mating?” she asked. “We like people to know what’s ahead of them.”
“I’d read about it.”
“Just give them room, especially the males. They can get a little funny this time of year. Spring is worse with the mothers and babies. You don’t want a mother moose thinking you’re going to bother her little one.”
I looked up. Slowly she realized I couldn’t fill out the forms and have a conversation at the same time. She smiled. I smiled, too. Then she went up on her toes to see my truck. She nodded.
“From New Hampshire?” she said, happy to talk even if it did distract me.
“Well, you might want to think about camping here for the night. Once you enter the waterway, you have to camp by boat. In other words, you’d have to start tonight, even if it’s dark.”
“I thought I’d camp by my truck,” I said. “Once I arrive at the Chamberlain Lake landing.”
“Can’t,” Ranger Joan said. “Ranger in there is a man named Coop and he is a bug about the rules. He’ll push you right into the water to get you going. Rules are rules to Coop.”
“But if I camp here?” I asked, trying to move my pen on the form at the same time.
“No problem. You get a fresh, early start tomorrow. That’d be my advice. Sun will be down shortly.”
I looked out the window. Under a small group of pines, I saw a woman setting up a tent. She had backed the Toyota into position so she could unload it without difficulty. She had slipped into a red-checked mackinaw; she wore a Mad Bomber hat, the kind with fake rabbit fur earpieces that buckle under your chin.
“I’ll stay,” I said. “Is there a charge?”
“Ten dollars,” Ranger Joan said.
I paid for the permit and for the ten dollar camping fee. Ranger Joan stamped a few things, tore a piece of perforated paper off a long form, then folded it all and handed it to me.
“You should keep this with you,” she said, nodding at the forms. “If a ranger along the way asks to see your permit, that’s what you give him. This time of year, though, you won’t find many people on the waterway. The rangers are out patrolling deer season. The Chungamunga girls are out there somewhere, but that’s the only group that came through this way in the last day or so.”
“Chungamunga girls?” I asked, fitting the paper into my rear pocket.
“Oldest girls’ camping school in America. They run it every year, sometimes twice a year. They do it for school credit. Just girls, no boys. You don’t want boys and girls in the woods together if you’re a supervisor.”
“I guess not.”
“They take their time,” Ranger Joan said, pulling the pad of permits back to her. “Learn crafts as they go. Read history, natural science, mythology books, a little of everything. We schedule a few talks with naturalists and the like. Some of the girls have never been out of their backyards before. They get a little homesick and a little crazy before they finish, but it’s a great experience for them. They say it’s good luck for a lifetime if you run into the Chungamunga girls on the Allagash.”
“Well, then, I hope I run into them,” I said.
“You’d be surprised who’s been a Chungamunga girl. Presidents’ daughters, captains of industry. And so forth.”
I couldn’t help wondering if anyone used the term “captains of industry” anymore, but I nodded in any case. Ranger Joan walked around the counter and pointed to a camping spot near where the woman had set up camp.
“You can camp right by her,” Ranger Joan said. “Just pull your truck beside her. Johnny cut up some scrap pine and you’re welcome to burn some for a fire. It’s going to get downright nippy tonight.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“She’s a pretty little thing,” Ranger Joan said, jutting her chin at the campsite. “Her name is Mary Fury. Everyone around here loves Mary Fury.”
© 2010 Joseph Monninger