During the summer of 1846, Henry David Thoreau made the first of three trips from his home in Boston to the Maine woods. His goal was to experience the wilderness and the glorious Penobscot River and lake scenery and to climb Mt. Ktaadn (also spelled “Katahdin”), the second highest mountain in New England. Thoreau wrote the account of his adventure in “The Maine Woods,” which is now available as an ebook on the internet for free. I encourage everyone to find it and give it a read.
I know of what I speak, since earlier this year I was reading “The Maine Woods” for the first time. And, in what some might call a synchronistic moment, my friend David Thrasher called and said that he was headed to New England this summer to climb Mt. Katahdin in Maine and Marcy in upstate New York. As luck would have it, he asked if I wanted to go along. Of course I said yes, then immediately set about the task of convincing my wife, Sharon, that she wanted to go to upstate New York and Maine for vacation this summer. I was successful, and when July came around, we loaded up the red truck with two kayaks, a tandem bicycle, backpacks, hiking sticks, and boots and headed off for the great north woods.
In Thoreau’s time, just getting to the Katahdin region was an adventure. To get from Boston to Bangor, Thoreau traveled via a steamer and then rail. From Bangor he traveled by coach to Lincoln in Maine. The 45-mile trip took two days. Once in Lincoln, another 45 miles trek to Katahdin was in store. This leg of the trip was made by batteau (a flat-bottomed boat) and on foot. Sharon and I had it much easier. We just drove our air conditioned truck right into Millinocket, Maine, on modern highways. Then it was 16 miles on a secondary road to Baxter State Park and 7 more miles on well maintained dirt roads to the base of Katahdin. The whole trip could be made in 7 hours from Boston if necessary.
As mentioned earlier, a batteau, as far as I can tell, is a long, flat-bottomed boat, possibly similar to the jon boats that we use today for trout fishing on the White River except bigger. Thoreau described the batteau as a “light and shapely vessel calculated for rapid and rocky streams.” They were 20 to 30 feet long and 4 to 4 ½ feet wide and made of white pine. Later he gave his estimate of the weight of a batteau at 3 to 5 or 6 hundred pounds. They paddled and poled these boats up the Penobscot River, into its tributaries and across the many lakes of the region.
The thing that impressed me most about Thoreau’s trip was the condition that people must have been in during the era. Sharon and I tried paddling our kayaks up the river starting from Medway near East Millinocket, Maine. The guidebook said that from this put-in we could either paddle 2 miles upstream or 5 downstream. Since we had only one truck and no shuttle, upstream seemed the logical choice. The Penobscot is a wide and fast river. I nosed out into the current; it wasn’t white water, just fast flowing water. By paddling hard I could make some headway. Quickly I figured out that I had to eddy hop if I was going to get anyplace. In an hour, we managed to make about a half mile up river. Thoreau’s crew traveled miles up this river and its tributaries, even pushing up through rapids and waterfalls. When the river became impassable, Thoreau and his crew carried the boats upstream on primitive portage trails. We turned around and drifted back to the truck in 15 minutes.
As Thoreau and company worked their way upstream, the river gave way to a series of lakes and streams. Lakes in Maine are very different from Arkansas’ reservoirs. In the first place, they are natural lakes created by glacial action. Secondly, because they are natural lakes, the water surface elevation only fluctuates a few inches through the year. That allows the shoreline vegetation to become very well developed. In addition, being natural lakes, they are much rounder than our reservoirs, making them very wide in places. However even in Thoreau’s time, damming had enlarged some of these lakes. Thoreau’s crew paddled their batteau all the way across these large lakes taking turns paddling to maintain progress. We pushed our kayaks out into Millinocket Lake. Katahdin dominated the skyline just as it had for Thoreau. We hugged the leeward shoreline to avoid heavy waves.
It is hard to tell exactly what route Thoreau followed from Lincoln to Katahdin. Most of the lakes and streams that he mentioned cannot be found on today’s topographic maps. The names, or at least the spelling of the names, have changed over the years. I could find just enough similarity to know that his route was close to the road going from Millinocket to Baxter State Park today. Further upstream toward Katahdin, the lakes became smaller. Mainers refer to these lakes as ponds, even though some cover over a hundred acres. We drove into Baxter and launched our kayaks in Abol Pond. I believe Abol is very close to where Thoreau’s crew made their last camp before heading up the mountain.
Even though there was a road leading to the launch, Abol was basically a wilderness lake. All of its watershed is contained within the forested area of Baxter State Park. Other than two loons and several ducks, we were the only ones on the lake. Abol is a shallow pond. In places we paddled through wide swaths of Pickerelweed with its blue flowers sticking a foot and a half above the water. There were also yellow and white lilies. The shore was lined with Spruce, White Pine, Arbor vitae, Birch and Maple. Most of the shoreline had understory vegetation of bushes and ferns, except one hillside that was almost clear under the trees. The water was very clear. We paddled for a couple of hours. All was silent.
From Abol Thoreau went overland roughly 12 miles to Katahdin. Today those 12 miles are the northern end of the Appalachian Trail. Several times Thoreau described the inner forest as being “dark.” It was dark. The dense vegetation overhead kept sunshine out. The forest duff was a thick, three-dimensional matrix of moss, lichens, bunchberry and ferns. The dark green color seemed to absorb light. It was here that we fully encountered the nemesis of the north woods, the black fly. After a few hours of hiking, and swatting, Sharon and I headed back into Millinocket to rough it in our bed and breakfast.
The next morning, my friend David met me at the B & B and he and I headed out to climb Katahdin. We drove the 16 miles out to Baxter State Park. Then we waited in line for 30 minutes while the ranger checked everyone’s entry permit. I wonder what Mr. Thoreau would think of having to purchase a permit in advance to visit a wilderness? I won’t say much about the climb except that it was the hardest 10-mile hike that I have ever made and it was all on the Appalachian Trail. From the summit we could see hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and dozens of lakes. Much of it in as good or better health than it was during Thoreau’s visits. It was comforting to see so much wild land remaining in one place.
I came away from the trip to Katahdin with the deepest respect for how rugged our ancestors were. They worked and traveled this wild land with equipment that we would laugh at. Our little expedition with our high tech equipment and lightweight boats was nothing compared to their adventures. Nevertheless, there we were, two old geezers walking where Thoreau walked.