Travels Without a Donkey

The old canoe was full of grub. Nothing to worry about, then; nothing to do but paddle. When we came to a good place, we stopped and swam. It was a peaceful, swinging life, full of sunshine, without special adventure. It needed no adventure beyond itself.

Mooselookmeguntic narrowed and merged into Mollychunkamunk–a silver-gray lake when we came to it in late afternoon. And another island was ours that night–a very little island, just big enough for our tent, two spruces and a fir on a moss carpet, a fringe of rocks and a few blueberry bushes around the shore. It was not in the least mysterious, but very lovely in the lake’s silver solitude.

We awoke to look out into mist rising densely off the water. Brush sticking through that mist looked witch-like, black and bare in a soft white infinity. A faint splashing, and a string of brown ducks slid by, just outside our front door. They were the sole inhabitants of this white world. They quacked, twisting their necks from side to side. They sculled along gracefully, the water edged with silver at the base of their slender necks. Now and then the vigorous kick of a yellow foot would send a ripple over into the hollow of a smoothly feathered back–a big drop would glisten there silvery and ephemeral, and roll off like quicksilver. They trailed out into the mist, little brown ghosts.

The last of the blackberries for breakfast, on top of our oatmeal. And then we glided on, past more good green woods, with occasional big fish-hawks perched on overhanging branches; now and then a fish leaping–a flash of silver scaled in swift sunlight; a loon crying his heart-broken cry along marshy shores. We swam–arched elbows and the slip of silver past brown shoulders. A seagull gliding–a shaft of white light.

Came a dam–Lower Dam–we hoisted Bones out of water, and carried her tenderly, with aching arms–heavy old gal!– up one bank and down another and set her into Welookbanticook, the next lake. And glided on.

Another sleep, and, next day, another dam. This was a more extensive affair. Bones would somehow have to be transported three miles overland before she could be put into Umbagog, the last of the Rangeley chain. There were a few houses at this Middle Dam, and one of them was a sporting camp, a semi-stylish place, with deer’s antlers on the walls, and a shiny desk in one corner. Some fat old men sat in rockers on the porch. The proprietor was evoked. He was also old and fat; worse still, he was grumpy. He didn’t like us; he didn’t like the weather; he obviously hadn’t had a good breakfast. Five dollars his price, and he couldn’t be bothered talking about it, and the sooner we got out of there the better for everybody concerned.

We got out, and eventually struck a bargain with a jovial, rosy-cheeked guide who said he would take us over to Umbagog, bag, baggage, and canoe, for three dollars.

His auto was one of the old Stars. To this he hitched a wabbly trailer only half as long as the canoe, and to this he lashed half of Bones over and under and around, with yards of rope. They piled the luggage and me into the back seat; Nick got in front, and with many squeaks and creakings the caravan set out.

“How’s the road?” Nick inquired.

“Oh, it’s a dandy little road,” our guide told us proudly.

We pulled over a grassy bank, and were confronted by a gate. Nick hopped out and unfastened it, and it rolled smoothly open on a cart-wheel. We passed through on to what seemed a very fair specimen of a narrow country lane.

“Keep an eye on the canoe, won’t you?” Nick warned me.

I peered through the small back window. Bones seemed to be following us smoothly enough.

Nick was interested to know how the old fellow had got his Star in to Middle Dam. No roads went to it, as far as he knew. By barge from South Arm, a landing-place across the lake, seemed the most likely way.

“Oh, no! There’s a road.”

“Where is that?” Nick asked.

“Through the woods from over by the Magalloway.”

“What sort of a road is it?” Nick inquired.

“Wal, it’s good enough. I got my car in seven years ago. ‘Bout six miles, it is. Took four men and six horses to get me here; three-day job, it was.”

We went over a little bounce. I peeked back anxiously just as the trailer also hit the bounce. As the trailer went up, the stern half of the canoe, overhanging behind, sagged abruptly downward, only to spring up again as the trailer went down. Bones waggled both ends limply a minute, and then subsided.

“Say, Nick — ”

But he was lost in conversation. He was curious to know whether it was possible to run in a canoe the stretch of river between these two lakes. We had at first considered doing it.

“Wal, you might.” The old guide was frank to admit the possibility. “One party tried it three years ago. They smashed up–went all to pieces.”

This “dandy little road” we were on became narrower and ruttier, though I could see that it was a paved highway compared to the one through the woods from over by the Magalloway. Grass grew in the middle, and we scraped the brush on each side. I didn’t like the way Bones was reacting, as if she had neither ribs nor planks–which, of course, was not far from the truth. I noticed now that she was lashed so tight that the rope drew her sides together a little–there was a sort of pucker in each gunwale–and the back edge of the trailer made a ridge across her bottom, like a mole tunnel. She waved her free hind end up and down, bending in the middle of her back. I expected at any moment to see her snap clean in two.

“Nicky, listen — ”

We hit something in the road that must have been nearly the size of Katahdin. There was a back-breaking jar and crash; and car, trailer, canoe, and ourselves rode up in the air and down. My head hit the roof and I saw many stars. When I could see anything else, I looked back, fully expecting to see half a canoe on the trailer; but Bones was riding along at ease and whole, waggling from her middle, quite unperturbed. Such things were nothing to her. I know now that she was undefeatable, and bore a charmed life.

With horrible jarrings and crackings, we pulled up by the shore of Umbagog. The old guide unlashed Bones, and her gunwales resumed their normal curve. He and Nick lifted her down, and the mole-ridge in her bottom vanished. We put the packs in her, and the carton of grub, and our hobnailed boots.

“Got a good bow-man there?” the guide smiled.

“Sure have.”

“Thought it was the young brother, first.”

“Well, it is, in a way…. Here you are–thanks a lot.”

And we were gliding down along the east shore of Umbagog in mid-afternoon sunlight, as serenely as if Middle Dam had been only a wild interlude in a peaceful dream. Except for a slight headache…. There were birch trees in the dream. Their reflections were a sinuous tangle of shifting black and white shadows in silky water.

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