Travels Without a Donkey

The morning was clear and warm. We got up rather after dawn–“too late for gipsies; we must do better,” said Nick–built a fire, and cooked a large pot of corn meal mush with raisins, after which the trackless and mapless wilderness we felt ahead of us diminished a good deal in size and consequence. Who was afraid when the sun was so bright?

We struck the Millinocket Tote Road at Katahdin Stream, which came rollicking over rocks and sand-bars, whirling joyously in deep pools, sliding around green bends. It was too clear and cool to be resisted; off went packs and clothes, and in we plunged. Ripe cherries and raspberries overhung the stream. We feasted on them; we sat on a little sand island and observed the private lives of very small minnows and trout. Wonderful blazing dragonflies, all black velvet and gold plate, crackled by. We marveled at the verdure and luxuriance of this Maine countryside in the summer time. It was hard to reconcile with our first forebodings. Nothing difficult or even strenuous about this–standing knee-deep in a sparkling brook and eating berries on its banks!

After lunch we went at a good pace to York’s Camp. Katahdin loomed gray-green and forbidding across Daicey Pond. Along the Sourdnahunk River there was an old tote road, and the going was easy and peaceful through evergreen woods–a contrast to the mountain’s rocky trails. The big brook itself was entertaining, with swirling pot-holes, swift glides down smooth rocks, boiling rapids.

“What’s the matter with this?” I teased. “Bring on your swamps and mud-holes!”

“All very fine, my dear girl, but how are we going to get across the Penobscot?”

“Oh, we’ll worry about that when we get to it. Don’t cross bridges — ”

“That’s just it. There isn’t any bridge.”

“Well, is the problem imminent?”

It was. And what’s more, that wide river was going at a tremendous clip. Piles of dark water hurried along, breaking now and then into rapids, humping up in eddies. Much too deep to ford; much too swift to pole across on a raft. And no sign of humanity at all. And it was almost evening.

“No use,” I said. “We’ll only get headaches puzzling about it. Let’s make camp and go to sleep.”

The river rushed darksomely past our front door all night.

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And in the morning, when we peered out of our front door, there was the river.

“Looks desperate,” Nick said cheerfully. “But let’s have breakfast, anyway.”

A little path led along the river on the side of a steep bank. We brushed under low-drooping spruce and hemlock branches; and after half a mile or so came out into a clearing where several ruined gray buildings of an ancient lumber camp looked out desolately from raspberry bushes.

“Here’s where the old dam used to be, I guess,” Nick mumbled.

We heard noises now from one of the buildings, and found an old man building his breakfast fire in a rusty stove.

“Good morning!” we hailed.

He looked up sharply, and stared at us suspiciously for a few seconds. Then, slowly, his face relaxed and broke into a smile.

“Oh!” he exclaimed. “You folks wants t’ git ‘cross t’ river, mebbe?”

His understanding and perception seemed so remarkable that we merely nodded and said nothing. But the old fellow apparently thought it a fine joke. He chuckled gleefully and recited, in a high singsong: “I be t’ watchman of t’ old dam, I be. Dam’s out, but here I be–me ‘n’ my old boat–jest in case any folks wants t’ git ‘cross t’ river. Charge ’em for it–dollar ‘piece. Not that there’s many folks, mind you–but jest in case… and so you wants t’ git ‘cross t’ river–well, well!”

He chuckled again, and rubbed his hands together; then went on about getting breakfast as if we weren’t there, serene in his confidence that, since we couldn’t get across in any other way, we must necessarily wait for him. Only once he stopped in the middle of a cup of black tea, and asked, with friendly curiosity: “Where you folks start from anyways?”

We told him about Katahdin.

He shook his head with sage disdain. “Ah–Katahdin!” he repeated. Then, mumbling: “Awful pile o’ rocks.”

We filed down to the gravel beach where a battered old boat lay half full of water. After much straining we tipped her over; then put our packs in, and shoved off. The river was not so swift at this point. We rowed, Nick at one long oar, the old man at the other. Safe across, we gave him his two dollars.

“And if you folks ever wants t’ git back ‘cross t’ river,” he said solemnly, “here I be–jest in case… me ‘n’ my old boat. Jest sing out–here I be.”

“Will you give us back the two dollars if we come back across the river?” Nick could not help asking.

We spent the day tramping up the river to Ripogenus Dam; and the little road of which Roy had spoken was in fair shape, mostly. The woods were fresh and green and alive; and there were deer tracks in the mud. About sundown, when we were pretty weary, we pulled into Ripogenus; and the keeper of the dam let us sleep in a shack which, during the winter, served as schoolhouse for the four or five local children.

Next day, a friendly gravel-truck driver offered us a ride part of the way to that Moosehead Lake which had gleamed to us from so unattainably far away as we stood on Katahdin. This wasn’t sticking to the proposed route of the Appalachian Trail, but it seemed like a good idea. Our shoulders were pretty lame by now.

“Oh, they’ll toughen up all right in another day or so,” Nick assured me. “But in the mean time, let’s try a gravel truck.”

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