Travels Without a Donkey

We stood on the shore of Moosehead Lake, where we were getting ready to make camp. “This feels like home,” Nick suddenly said. “Here’s where we stay a while.”

The lake is an endless jungle of islands and long peninsulas, deep bays and coves. The huge square rock they call Mt. Kineo seems at first to be a northern boundary, but north of it are miles more of those alluring silver arms and fingers of water, winding, weaving among the hills.

“We ought to have a canoe,” I said. “It would be marvellous to explore the shore and the little islands.”

Nick was staring out toward a peninsula that bristled with tall Norway pines, and a green island that stood in the mouth of the bay. “I don’t see why we can’t have one,” he answered quietly.

“Buy an old second-hand one, you mean?”

“Sure. We’ll go down to Greenville–only six miles or so. Got to have grub, anyhow, and we’ll hunt up canoes. And if we get one, we’ll paddle her back here to camp.”

“And sell her after we get through exploring?”

He thought a while, then dug a map of Maine out of a pack pocket, and studied it. “I wonder — You know, I think I’ve got an idea. Maybe the Kennebec River’s canoeable. I’ll find out. If it is, we’ll run down it to Indian Pond, and from there to The Forks.” He followed the course of the Kennebec with one forefinger.

“So the A. T. becomes a waterway,” I said.

“Sure. Give our legs a rest–use our arms for a change.”

*    *

Greenville was pretty depressing, just as any town is depressing after woods and hills, freedom and sunshine. But a couple of ice-cream cones fortified us; and we went to attend to the nautical business. A shrewd-looking old chap named Allen had canoes for sale. First he tackled us about a spick-and-span red-painted affair for forty-five dollars; but, seeing that we didn’t bite, he decided he had made a mistake. After thinking it over for a minute, he introduced us to the most marvellous canoe in the world.

She was a strong and heavy eighteen-foot Oldtown, battered and patched and scraped and dented. She had no bow seat. Seven of her ribs were broken, and a couple of planks besides–apparently the thwarts were all that kept her gunwales from buckling together. She had the look of a very battle-scarred veteran who should be carefully put away to rest. We eyed her doubtfully, as she lay drawn up on the sand.

“Do you think she’d stand for hobnailed boots?” Nick queried.

For answer, Allen, who was wearing heavy hobnailed boots, jumped violently into the canoe and walked heavily up and down her bottom. We held our breath in horror. We thought we understood about canoes. We had always been taught that they were delicate and must be treated with respect.

“How about all those broken ribs?” we tried.

The old chap burst into a scornful laugh. “I tell you,” he began, “round this country a guide that knows anything won’t think o’ takin’ a canoe down a river unless she has at least four or five broken ribs. That softens her up, gives her a good flexible bottom, don’t you see, and she don’t get hung up on the rocks. That’s why we shellac the bottoms o’ canoes round here, ‘stead o’ paintin’ ’em. If you have paint on your bottom and hit a rock, it’ll scrape through the paint and tear the canvas; but if you have shellac, she jest slides over, jest as nice… Yes, sirree, a flexible bottom’s what you want. And the canvas on this canoe is sound as if she was new. She won’t leak a drop.”

He went on in an amazing stream of patter, expounding what was to us a new philosophy of canoeing.

“She won’t leak, eh?”

“Not a drop,” he said.

It seemed very unlikely. But in the end we bought her and her trappings–two enormous paddles, vastly heavier than the spruce ones we were used to; a setting-pole at least fifteen feet long to help us down-river; and an old stool to serve as bow seat. We put aboard some supplies we had bought at the local grocery, and started off, by sea, for our campground on the beach.

The canoe behaved astoundingly. She gathered momentum slowly, but once it was gathered there was no stopping her. She forged through the water with an immense, powerful swing. We were used to light sixteen-footers. Already our arms were aching from the weight of these tremendous paddles; and then and there we decided that we had never known anything about canoeing.

“I feel more like a man than I’ve ever felt before,” said Nick from the stern. “She’s immense.”

At that moment a sporty motor-boat roared past. The people aboard her had to yell their conversation, and we distinctly heard someone say: “See that canoe? Well, those are the boys that are going down the Appalachian Trail.”

You feel like a man, do you?” I retorted to Nick.

Our arms ached and ached. “How many more of these long points do we have to go round?” I inquired. “And how are we going to recognize our own bay when we get to it?”

“I haven’t the remotest notion.”

“Well, I hope we don’t have to paddle two or three miles into every bay, to see if our camp is at the end of it, and then two or three miles out again, when it isn’t!”

“I’ll consult the map,” said Nick. We paused, in mid-sea, as it were, to compare hills and peninsulas with the brown contour lines of a topographic map. “I think it’s pretty amusing, myself,” he said. “Navigating homeward over unknown oceans. We ought to have a sextant. What do you suppose the compass variation is?” He was holding his compass in the palm of his hand, and lining up his chart with it…. “Plenty more long points,” he said finally. “Courage, child!”

We dug in our paddles again. The wind was coming up, and there were hard choppy waves, through which we forged solidly. All of a sudden Nick gave a curious sort of cry. I whirled about. With a horror-struck stare, he was watching the pack in the middle of the canoe. As I looked, too, I saw that it was quivering, from the canoe’s sharp impacts with the waves. And then, before our very eyes, that pack lifted–heaved upward a little, and settled back again.

“Wh-what … ?”

“It’s the ‘flexible bottom!'” Nick fairly shouted. “Don’t you see? She just lifts her belly and lets the waves slide under! It’s the darnedest thing I ever saw!”

“Is it dangerous?”

“I don’t know. Looks pretty bad. Wait and see.”

“What else can I do?” I asked, and dug in again. But the old girl herself appeared not the least bit perturbed. She slid on solidly, leaking never a drop; except for that lifting and settling of her bottom, every now and then, she seemed as stable as some flat-bottomed tub of a row-boat. We wondered if the whole thing was a nightmare.

*    *

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