Reading the River: An Allagash Tale
Experiencing the waterway once paddled by Thoreau, a poet in residence finds new ways of reading the Allagash.
There is a story hidden in the water, a long tale that can surface if you trust. It will be as if waves are words, as if from its fluid body, a current comes, speaking in tongues, telling you things. A shallow thought at first, or a calm notion. And you know the message. You hear its tale in the orange hours of morning, all during the harsh light of noon, into the soft dusk and prolonged darkness afterward. You listen; it senses you listen and so reveals its deepest mysteries. And what I say now is of all rivers, but especially with this river, the Allagash. It has its own language which I began reading, soon as the canoe plunged in.
* * *
To know the harsher reality of something, you must be willing to arrive at its untamed center. And reaching this natural river is no different. The way in, is the Golden Road. Interesting to name it that, a road that is golden. Certainly, it is not the gold we first envision; rather, this is a four-hour drive across dry earth, a road of dips and bumps, of parched ground the wheels stir up, into giant puffs of dust. The Golden Road… which is the very path that loggers use. And you see them, they come at you in their trucks, with long trunks of trees piled high and wide, bearing an enormous load they bulge, they sway from side to side unable to stop. After they pass, you are caught in their yellow clouds. That is the first lesson in getting to know a river this wild. It will not readily present itself. You must first prove your willingness to connect. Be on its terms. You must take the long Golden Road to this river well-hidden.
Our entry is a place called Churchill Dam. Although, when we reach the dam, we avoid the rapids and have the ranger drive us in his truck, two miles north, through some thick brush, with the canoe on the hood of the truck, parting the bowed branches of leaves. He drops us at Harrow Brook instead, where we unload our gear and strap our packs to the thwarts. We do not take much, Phil and I. We do not have much with us. We each filled a small pack with clothes, a third with canned goods and some utensils, not much, and one of those very small can openers that looks like half a can opener and hardly works, the kind in which you spend thirty minutes trying to pry open a tin can of peas. We have a miniature cooler with a few perishables - bacon and a carton of eggs. We take two 1 liter bottles of water and tablets for sterilizing the lake water, as refills. We tie the sleeping bags and tent to the gunnels. Phil secures an axe to the stern and that is for chopping wood, but as we have forgotten the fire starter all we have is an old aspirin bottle with wooden matches, twenty or so.
The canoe enters the tepid water; the paddles stroke its dark, long-looking body while the sun, high over us, begins moving on. We are in. It will be five days, sixty-five miles of reading the river, before reaching the end of its epic tale, before the last wave of the Allagash curls around us and closes like a book. It will be sixty-five miles of riding this river, learning from its reflecting surface … how a river's likeness, is as my own. That we take different forms, is the only distinction… We are both creatures, of fluid thoughts, of feelings, navigating ourselves over the curved earth.
Our start is a narrow stretch of swift waters with giant rocks, prehistoric-looking, like petrified backs of dinosaurs, set here and there in the riverbed, some poking above the surface but many deep enough to create a deceptive sheen. One learns quickly to avoid the glossy surfaces of water, because that is where the rocks hide. A sheen, a hidden rock, a crevice beyond the stone - like a dip in the water - and then the current converges after the dip, into a rushing V. The challenge of a canoeist, I soon learn, is to paddle close to the side of the rock, as one would pass a car, and then slide back into the lane, riding the V of swift current. Our method of rock spotting is to use a clock as warning signals. Not a real clock, for we have no watch. We want the sun and moon for our sense of time. The clock method is a quick way to alert… Eleven o'clock rock! One o'clock rock! we say often, each day, and still we hit a good few.
Dodging these unseen rocks, or sleepers, as Phil calls them, creates the biggest challenge, especially when we enter a stretch of fast winding water with white flipping waves. Here, the sleepers are mystifying, as the water is frothy and brown-tinted, which camouflages them well.
Like the body of water with its hidden rocks, while paddling I think of the parts of me I do not show. The hardships, the private hurts, even sacred moments of joy submerge for a reason. I think how the river in me deepens them down. Down, and they exist beneath the surface of skin. They become the old stone stories, whose words are never meant for air. Perhaps, as with shallow waterways, over time, a few are revealed. They move upward toward light and are given expression. But mostly, they are not seen, and as unseen, they are preserved. Their very power is contained because they cannot be recognized. These stones of the self, the deep self. I see myself in the river. Its stones are like my own hardened stories. This is what the river teaches.
The river, the river is also openly kind. It takes to us, in small and soft places. It carries us along without our needing to paddle. We glide upon its clear open face and it ferries us past scented spruce and oak, brings us into Chisholm Brook where moose stand knee high in the rivulet, foraging on water plants, and we continue as such, into late afternoon, until the brook changes, like an unfolding plot it widens and becomes Umsaskis Lake, a body of water that turns suddenly wild, with the promise of our first camp in the far distance, on the opposite shore.
We rest on an embankment, squinting across the lake to where the campsite is barely visible on the other side of Umsaskis. We drink from our liter bottles. We munch on dried apricots and nuts. Then we push off crossing the rough waters, to the site. Where the lake widens, the waves strengthen, and the west wind is so strong, the waves peak and lean forward, straining to tip us, waves coming and coming at us, the tallest more than a foot high. I am in the bow where the canoe is most challenged, and as the front of the canoe raises high and drops, I am raised and dropped as well. Phil yells across the winds to get down on my knees in the bottom of the canoe and paddle from that position, but my limbs are locked. So I try instead, to center my body on the caned seat. I find, if I press my knees against the sides of the canoe, they help to steady it. Even so, the water, it is coming at me, and we have a mile to go, and I keep gripping the paddle, stroking hard as I can. Get down! I can hear Phil shouting over the winds and I fall to my knees then, paddling across the long lake to the other side where we collapse on its pebbly shore.
Umsaskis … the word sounds ancient, feels Native American. I am thinking now of the first people, their wisdoms, the forgotten ways, and how, this is what Umsaskis resurfaced. Umsaskis, a wild lake. Umsaskis, who reminds me that in the face of danger, the wisest do not take on the challenge of matching its force. And then I imagine it like that, with people. I imagine all the forces of the world that behave like wild water, all the rhythms of Umsaskis at work in human life. Umsaskis, whose waves are like doors being opened to an ancient learning. That despite the inklings of the body to meet its anger with anger, to ride out that current is to simply allow. To do nothing more than be fluid in the face of danger… And this is the lesson.
The Ledges, as the campsite is called, reminds me of Wales, of Dylan Thomas's Wales, the ledges where he stood and the poems came to him, where he looked out from his own windy cliff, at the roiling sea. We set up camp and a hare is hopping around and it lifts my spirits. We sit on a calm rock at sunset and then shortly after, retire into the tent. Thoughts of the beasts begin, certain ones, the kind that are large and four-legged and nocturnal. I imagine them stomping into our camp at night, an eight hundred pound moose, or a black bear flinging our food pack, but when I wake in the middle-night, all is extremely still, even the wind has stopped, the brisk wind. Not even a soft breeze. Even Umsaskis is noiseless… River, even you sleep, I say, and close my eyes.
We rise before dawn, with the earth mildly wet, a dew glistening on our belongings. Soon, we have a campfire breakfast, which Phil cooks, before we set off to read the river again, set off in the pink tinted water of pre-dawn.
I love to ride the still waters before the sun comes, before the mists lift. I love the mysterious gift of fog. How it relieves me from the memorized way of seeing the world. How, in the haze that blocks the flat distances, all you can see is in front of you, which is the pure story of water - the simple truth that the Earth and its waters can never be owned. Though people divide it, though they work for it, have died for it, and even the animals have territories, the river and the land know nothing of these boundaries. The gift of the mist is to blur separation. The fluid world of water rinses me clean of Man's way and I understand the way of the river - it will always include me, but can never be mine.
We glide while the first sign of sun burns off the mist, while the earth is at peace. Only the moose are up, and the earliest birds, the singers. The insects seem still asleep. The canoe breaks through the last dream a river is having, as if, to dip a paddle into its still body, is to tap it alive. I love the tiny swirl from a paddle's stroke, the sound of it. I love when the embankments are groggy, and the waters come lapping against them and this is my favorite time…
Another mile and there are other sightings of moose, one or two wading about, knee-deep, munching on water grasses. They look up at you and watch before returning to the river's greens. I must admit my fear of them and insist upon a wide berth. We paddle across calm water - which merges into Long Lake, where we beach ourselves at a buggy camp. Originally, we were to stay at Lost Popple, but as the camp is so insect infested, and as it seems only about eleven in the morning, according the angling of sun, we set off, soon passing a loon with a baby on her back. Overhead we hear sounds, we hear a flying loon with its long trilling noise, and the flickers we hear, and the magical calls of the raven. I see their bodies turn iridescent, in their tilt in the wind, in the light of the sun.
I like that we do not live by the clock yet are able to read the sun's hours, to rest in a shadow it provides, where the image of a spruce replicates itself on the river, to lunch in its shadow, eating nuts and dried fruits, almond butter on bread.
We paddle toward open waters, this time to an area of flowers, the place of the lotus, sewn to the fabric of the river. Strange how lotus have their beginnings in the mucky river bottoms, and spend their life stretching toward light. And it came to me then, that these white blossoms are the mind of the river, areas of higher consciousness, enlightened spots. In man, perhaps the mind of man takes place in the brain, though I have often thought it could flow as our souls flow throughout our bodies, an invisible form moving throughout us, everywhere at once. In reading this river, I would say the mind of it, manifests itself as the lotus. And as we wade among these stitched areas of flowers, we also see each white blossom is stained with black dots. A lotus will always have black bugs, Phil says. And I understand, symbolically, how even the purest forms have imperfections.
The place of the lotus commands silence, like the automatic hush of a library, one has a knowing that it is not proper to speak. In these sacred areas, it is fitting to pause on the water, or to make small whirlpools with your paddle. It is like this: to say nothing, to go nowhere, is to understand great things.
Ther`se Halscheid lives in New Jersey and has served as the poet in residence for Acadia National Park.
- By: Therese Halscheid