Travels Without a Donkey

Moosehead is a romantic lake. Because it is so very big, the summer camps are not obtrusive and can be escaped. The shores are beautifully wooded with fine old spruce, hemlock, and pine; and every once in a while a stretch of grayish sand made us yearn to stop and swim. At times we would hear a weird, quavering cry, dismal and lonely over the ripples–a big black and white loon diving and gliding along the shore. Sometimes two or three of them would converse mournfully. But the loons belonged there, and we were not surprised to see them. What did surprise me, on this big lake ninety miles from the sea, were flocks of seagulls, who sat around on top of the waves, plunged for fish, flew and shrieked overhead very realistically, and acted quite at home.

We explored. The canoe took us everywhere, steadily, solidly, unfalteringly. Some nights we did not even pitch our tent, but simply stretched out on a fir bed under the open sky. Every morning, when mist was rising from the lake and the early sun made it gleam faintly golden, we wriggled out of our sleeping-bags and plunged into that cold soft water. Every day at high noon we would pull up in a quiet place and stretch out naked in the sun. Life was a long continuous being out-of-doors–which was just as we wanted it to be.

We had fun making culinary experiments; and here at Moosehead Lake was inaugurated the never-ending quest for an ideal pancake. We tried all possible combinations and proportions of flour, graham flour, corn meal, oat meal, sugar, baking powder, powdered milk, and powdered egg. Every morning we had a different kind of pancake, and they were all interesting. Gradually we evolved something almost cake-like, which could be eaten with no embellishments, and would stay fluffy till noon, when we ate a stack of them cold, along with the berries we picked.

One night, as we were about to settle into our sleeping-bags, it seemed that the lake was too beautiful to abandon in an abyss of sleep. A magic sliding sheet of moonlight covered it. Islands and headlands were soft velvety black. The wind was gentle, and rather warm. It was a tropical night.

“What shall we do about it?” Nick questioned. “We can’t just — ” he yawned slightly–“go to bed, can we?”

“How about climbing Kineo? The lake would look heavenly from Kineo tonight.”

“That would be pretty romantic, I should think.”

We slid the canoe out. The water was a strange, magical substance–quickgold. We dipped our paddles into semi-solid golden pools, which shattered, rippled, and dripped off the blades. Somewhere, in the midst of all this enchantment, a loon wailed.

It was a rather long paddle from the island to the foot of Kineo, and we had done a fair day’s paddling already. By the time we had beached the canoe, and started out to find the trail up the mountain, we were yawning desperately, and our feet were incoherent–the white road swayed beneath them, and we were treading insubstantially upon air which misbehaved.

It was dark in the woods as we plodded up that trail. Now and then we stumbled or stepped into an unexpected hollow. We kept on yawning. The romance of the thing was pretty much lost upon us, and getting more lost every minute. We were ashamed of ourselves: it was such a grand night, and climbing Kineo by moonlight ought to be exciting… we tried to take a firm grip upon ourselves, but it was useless…. After a long time we came to a look-out place near the top. A confused version of a marvellous silver octopus of a lake spread out among black velvet hills… We sat down in the grass, and sighed. Then we leaned a little against each other. Slowly we sank into that moon-silvered grass, and instantly fell asleep.

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Dawn was breaking as we paddled back for breakfast to our un-slept-in camp on the island. Afterwards we started for the east outlet of the Kennebec. But we found this the wrong outlet. A guide at the dam told us this was a mighty tough river. Only real old-timers ever ran it; he himself had once run the four miles to Indian Pond in one wild quarter-hour. The river drops nearly a hundred feet in those four miles, he said. And as for the Kennebec below Indian Pond–oh, no one even attempted it. He was horrified at the very idea. Go to pieces just like–that! He snapped his fingers…. But we could get to Indian Pond all right by the west outlet, an altogether nicer-mannered little river, which took its time and used twelve or fifteen miles to get where this one got in four. In fact, on the west outlet there was only one place where we might have trouble–a corner called the Devil’s Elbow.

“So there,” said Nick, “go our pleasant hopes of canoeing all the way down to The Forks. Shall we sell the canoe here, or try for Indian Pond?”

“We can’t part with her yet,” I protested. “Why, we’re just getting used to her.”

“I had another idea,” Nick went on. “I think Indian Pond’s on a railroad; and it isn’t such a far cry from there to the Rangeley Lakes–five lakes in a string. We might ship the canoe to ourselves and pick her up at the Rangeleys, and explore them.”

“Sounds good. We might even be glad to see the old girl,” I said.

“But this business of running to Indian Pond has got me kind of worried,” he said. “I ought to warn you. I don’t know the first thing about river canoeing. I haven’t the remotest notion of how to handle this magnificent setting-pole.”

“Well, that old fellow said it was a quiet little river.”

“Mm–the Devil’s Elbow doesn’t sound any too nice.”

Of course in the end we set off for the west outlet, where we hove our belongings over a small dam, and had a wonderful feast of raspberries.

That guide was right: it was a nice quiet-looking river–hardly more than a big brook. We could see that it started with a swirl just below the dam, but immediately flattened out and became peaceful. I climbed aboard, and crouched low in the bow, and the next moment there was a hair-raising quiet plunge–a rapid descending glide–and we came into deadwater with a rush, hardly knowing what had happened. That was the beginning.

We paddled through long stretches of shallow deadwater, and we had begun to wonder whether the river would ever show another spark of life, when, coming around a bend, we found ourselves in a slight current, with the thick grasses on the bottom all straining downstream; and then we heard an ominous rumble a little way off, increasing to a roar. Then the gleam of white water, with black jagged rocks sticking through it, the river seething and hissing. It was impossible to tell which was rock and which masses of water eddying high. We tried to hesitate on the brink, but there was no hesitating–down it all went, pell-mell. We hit a big, round rock full on; and Nick in the stern saw to his horror and despair an enormous bulge traveling rapidly down the bottom of the canoe toward him–much faster than it can be written–making a frightful racket of scraping and tearing on the canvas. When it got to the middle of the canoe, he saw the pack lift up several inches and then settle down again. And then, almost under his very feet, he heard a plank smash, and saw four ribs snap, one after another–prrrttt!–only much louder–the splintered ends sticking right up in the air. This was obviously the end, he thought–no boat built could stand it. In a minute water would be spurting in the whole length of her gashed bottom. But to his amazement, she ran down healthily into the quieter water below the rapids, and she seemed sound and tight as ever. He kept on going through the forms of guiding her, although he didn’t believe in it.

“I guess Allen was right about the flexible bottom,” he said, and his voice quavered.

Again and again we lived through this performance of coming around a bend–the preliminary rumble, the frightful rush of water, our headlong mad descent, slamming against rocks with loud crackings and tearings and destruction. After four or five of these places, we began to have a notion of how to avoid some of the rocks. And when we came to what we immediately recognized as the Devil’s Elbow, where a mighty volume of water plunged down between two grim black jags, and went around a corner at the same time, Nick steered through faultlessly. However, at the next place we crashed some more. We were getting used to it by now, but we still didn’t understand what was holding the old bones together.

We thanked heaven for stretches of deadwater between these rapids. During them we could rest and think, and look at the deer, of which there were many. They peered at us out of undergrowth by the river’s edge, then galloped away with magnificent bounds. Once we came into a sort of pond with shallow, marshy shores, and here a big buck was swimming, browsing contentedly among water-lily pads, pulling them up by the roots. We stalked him, by sea, as quietly as we could; but when we were within fifty feet of him he decided he’d better get ashore, which he did in a hurry–then bounded off through the swamp, long-stemmed lily pads still dangling from his jaws.

Indian Pond was not so far away now. We were anxious to make camp and turn the canoe bottom-up to survey the damage. The river fell into that pond in a dickens of a hurry, and down we went so fast that a fleeting glimpse of a big sporting-camp on the shore was superimposed on a green island farther on. We struck out for that island as fast as weary arms would let us, took the packs out, and, lifting Old Bones tenderly, turned her upside down. She didn’t fall to pieces.

We bent eagerly over her. And again we could not believe our eyes. The shellac, by which old Allen set so much store, was scratched in many places. The canvas itself was laid bare in one spot the size of a postage stamp. Old Bones was complete, whole, unharmed. Better than ever, because of course, with seven or eight more broken ribs, her bottom was still more flexible.

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