Down East 2013 ©
I look over and Bruce is carefully arranging the rocks so the opening of the firepit points exactly at Katahdin. He's moving the beach ball-size stones around like a Mayan architect designing a pyramid to catch the light just so. This is the sort of care Ranger White puts into preparations for the Katahdin 100 celebration, which takes over Katahdin Stream Campground every Labor Day. It's also why the Penobscots, who will begin arriving here this afternoon, hold him in such high regard.
Jodi and I put the little boulders down, Bruce moves them around until he's happy. The ring takes a baker's dozen of these rocks , and we get everything in place and then go for firewood. Because they weigh about fifty pounds apiece, and because it's become a tradition, Bruce has asked me to help him set up the ceremonial firepit ever since I was his partner at Katahdin Stream. Our supervisor, Jodi Browning, thought it would interesting to help out, so all three of us are driving around fetching sticks and stones. We construct the ring in the center of the day-use area at Katahdin Stream, while a few bored AT hikers, picnickers, and sightseers look on. To reach the fire, we have to drive out onto the acre of grass in the middle of the field that serves as the center of the campground, so it's very obvious to everyone walking by that something unusual is going on. After the ring is built, we stack the firewood neatly beside it in a large pile. Then I take off for my regularly scheduled duties.
The Katahdin 100 is a spiritual journey for members of the Penobscot Nation. Participants run and canoe the 100 miles from Indian Island in Old Town to the base of the peak they call “Greatest Mountain” to get in touch with their roots, a tradition founded by tribe leader Barry Dana in 1981. Some consider it a vision quest, others simply want to reconnect with their elders and their native ways. Many take two-days to complete the journey, others longer. Some do it as part of a relay team, others do the whole thing by themselves. When you consider the terrain – it's an upstream paddle on the Penobscot River and then an uphill run up Abol Hill, among many other challenges – it's a very impressive feat. As elder Butch Phillips notes in the Northwoods Sporting Journal, the trip would have taken their ancestors five or six days. With the help of support teams and modern boats and paddles, today's Penobscots complete it in two. This is the journey filmmaker Huey documented in the movie, Wilderness and Spirit.
It's hard not to notice someone running the park road up Abol Hill – cars often struggle to get up the notoriously long and corduroy incline – and campers always find it neat to watch the incoming Penobscots. But the event is even more compelling when the drums start. The pounding rhythms welcome those arriving, urging them onward. Sometimes you can hear them all the way over at my duty station at Daicey Pond, a haunting throbbing emanating out of the woods. When everyone has made it safely to camp, the Penobscots spend a night dancing, chanting, and renewing their spiritual tie to Katahdin, and it's a beautiful thing to hear.
I head down to Katahdin Stream for a late dinner, and I can hear the drumming and singing start. We listen for a while, and as we do I think about how in many ways Bruce and I are here for much the same reason the Penobscots are, connecting with family traditions. Bruce had an uncle who worked in the park that he frequently visited as a kid and he developed a deep bond for Katahdin way back when. My grandfather may have been an accountant in Massachusetts, but I started camping, hiking, and paddling with my parents when I was a boy, many years of which were spent at Baxter Park. And the appreciation for such things that I learned from them is no doubt why I'm sitting in this ranger station with a uniform on.
The Penobscot connection to the area, of course, is older and more profound, going back generations. For centuries this has been their spiritual home. They were the first people here, they named the peaks and rivers, they hunted and fished and made their lives in its woodlands.
We're just lucky we can participate in their celebration in our small way.
The drums pound late into the night.