Remembering to Look Up: A Journey on the Allagash River

When my friend, Jo Radner, who took all these photos (OK, not the one of her below!), mentioned that she was going on a week long canoeing/camping journey on the Allagash River in N. Maine, I said “We are losing nature too quickly.  I want to know it better. I’ll go with you.”  What was I thinking?  My father used to preach: ‘The last Jew who went out into nature was Moses, to collect the Ten Commandments, and that was under duress.’  My childhood understanding of a wildlife preserve was a parking lot without the yellow lines. That was not the understanding I wanted my son to have and was hell bent on making sure that my he knew this wonderful world that supports human and all other life. Every summer, when he was growing up, I swapped a week at an Appalachian Mountain Club lodge for storytelling programs and the kid and I climbed mountains and went hiking.  Nearer home, we spent time at the local bird sanctuary and canoed on the nearby Ipswich River.  That was over 25 years ago and never came close to wilderness camping.

Now, we all, by our later years, have some skill sets that are better developed than others.  Jo, a recovering academic, who’d been a full time faculty member at American University for her

Shlepping Stuff in the midst/mist! (Peter Wells/photo)

working life and I, a storyteller who specializes in historic tales and ironic expressions of daily life, were slightly under-skilled in wilderness survival. The first night, after carrying hundreds of pounds of ‘stuff’ from our canoes up a sharp cliff to a secluded camp ground, collecting fire wood, pitching the communal tarps over the 12 foot
poles that we had carried and creating a dry area for eating and cooking, we got a lesson inhow to put up the tent that Mahoosuc Guide Service supplied.*   Did I mention that it was raining the entire time?   By the time we got all the flappy noses of the tent connections in all the correct, very tiny, very tight little pockets and all the extra tarps assembled, the rain now thundering down, we could barley climb into the thin, temporary structure that would protect us from bears, moose, mosquitoes, and the ever present, torrential downpours.  Still breathing hard from both the frustration and exertion, we took one look at each other and began to howl in laughter.  So profound was our emotional expression that others called out, asking if we were OK.  OK?  Were they crazy?  We were in way over our heads.  I didn’t share this thought with Jo, but took some solace in knowing that the professional guide would not let us die.  Not that she didn’t want to, but disappearing clients look really bad on your YELP review.

To be perfectly honest, Jo, who did a good deal of her growing up at her grandfathers Maine camp was much better prepared than I.  She knew how to chop wood, canoe and kayak, walk across frozen lakes (hopefully we would not need this skill in early September), and identify a million fern, flora, and fauna.  My learning curve pretty much started at zero. I was piggy (aka Lord of the Flies),  and knowing that you are the weak link in situations that provide essential safety and nurturance is a fast toboggan ride into self doubting Hell. How many times can you say “I’m sorry” when you have tripped over someone’s tent line for the 50th time, collected water logged wood for the fire, or used a completely inadequate knot (there are hundreds of

River in the Rain (P.Wells/Photo)

them) to tie essential items into the canoe? My boots were borrowed from a friend whose feet were wider than mine. They left me even less well balanced or able to climb, than my paltry abilities would have dictated.  My tears of shame warmed no one ones heart.  My self incriminations ‘I am so stupid and incompetent and not carrying my own weight,’ brought only rolling eyes and grimaces. Just get with it, was the message. God bless Jo, who kicked my butt, a number of times, out of the shame cycle and reminded me to look up.

The world is still beautiful. The morning fog would lift slowly as we set out each day, revealing river and rock, tree and earth, sky and bird, a world too profoundly stunning for words. One day, on the water, we were behind some geese, dipping into the river for food, picking unwanted critters from their feathers. With no obvious sign, they simultaneously levitated off the river, and in choreography that Bob Fosse would have envied (You can take the woman from Broadway, but you can’t take Broadway from the woman!), materialized into a perfect V facing southwest and disappeared into the soft rain.  An eagle observed us majestically from her perch, and the call of the loon pieced the early evening. All these things are only visible if you look up, out of your own shame. So I did.

It was not easy to appreciate the natural world. It had to be framed and culled because, despite my expectation that we would commune with mother earth/river, 90% of our time was spent paddling, surviving, and always looking straight ahead.  We were endlessly loading and unloading the canoes, shlepping heavy stuff up and down embankments, making camp, breaking camp, collecting dry wood, cutting up vegetables, eating, cleaning, getting more water from the river for washing…

While on the river, you do not enjoy the view.  You look for rocks and learn how to steer around them.   OK, on the other hand, rapids are wicked fun:

“Rock left at 10 [O’Clock), rock right at 1 (O’Clock), rock straight ahead and on right, Oh shit we’re almost on it, pull left left!”  But, as with hiking, you have to watch where you are going, looking straight ahead with a little peripheral awareness, or you are going down for the count.

On the first night (The 5 others were all wilderness people who spoke the same language.  I might as well have been in Sri Lanka!) I noted that the river seemed shallow and our guide corroborated, saying that there had been little rain this season.  “Isn’t low rivers one of the many results of climate warming?”  One of our number, a hunter and fisherman, interrupted and explaining “This had nothing to do with human activity and is simply the natural fluctuations of the planet.” No one chimed in. No one spoke about the extinction of nearly 1/2 of earth’s species due to human activity, the fact that their beloved moose, not one of which we saw, were being eaten alive by ticks who now winter over since it doesn’t get cold enough to kill them. The increasing draughts, floods, hurricanes, and fires now becoming common place on our quickly warming planet were never mentioned.  I thought, “Every one of these people deeply love our natural world and yet, none seemed to be climate activists. How could this be? They are all looking straight ahead at this journey, at this river, at these rocks.  They are not looking at the larger picture.Then I recalled interviewing entomologists while writing the story Bug Girl.  One of them was in charge of mosquito control for the state of Florida and had already seen zika making it’s way up here. None of those scientists either were vigorously involved in politics or active in the very climate organizations that use their studies.  They expressed to me that they find the facts and share them. That is their job.  Wilderness people take good care of the wilderness when they are out in it.  That is their job. In my small town of Marblehead, MA we have selectmen who see to the well being, care, and repair of our town.  When they were campaigning someone asked, in a public forum, how they saw their roles in addressing climate warming.  Most candidates responded that it was outside their purview.  They make sure the water, electric, road and sewer commissions are fully functioning.  That’s their job.

If we only do our jobs, looking straight ahead, we can see the roots to step over and rocks to negotiate around.  If we don’t look up, we miss the beauty, we miss the context of our lives, we miss an understanding of how we are destroying our home planet.  Learning to steer around the rocks and still appreciating the eagle, that’s the trick!

Photos by Jo Radner

*Yes, this was a professionally guided journey, with 3 other cohorts, a leader and 2 assistants! It took them all to keep us alive!

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