You couldn’t say we weren’t warned. The old caretaker—and, in winter, the sole inhabitant—of Chesuncook Village made it very clear. “Wait,” he said with a peculiarity that immediately earned him the handle, Stephen King, bestowed upon him by my friend, Colin. “Why not have a root beer?”
Words by: Michael Luders
Photos by: John Olsen & Colin O’Neill
One might have thought his admonishment was motivated by loneliness—we were almost certainly the only souls around for miles, but clearly he was serious. We sipped our root beers, made from scratch by the old man and delicious, and contemplated what lay before us.
We had already canoed two days down the Penobscot River, deep into the last recognized wilderness area in the east, what H.P. Lovecraft, in one of his horror tales, called, “the wildest, deepest, and least explored forest belt in Maine.” It spills into Chesuncook Lake, across which, three miles away, was camp. This is normally an easy paddle, even for a single-manned canoe. But, this morning the winds had whipped up mightily, turning the lake into a sea, two-foot rollers, capped in white, roiling the surface.
“Wait till it dies down, always does. Yep, always does,” he said. The frayed pennant tied to the pole above his shack lashed and snapped relentlessly, a woeful signal otherwise.
“What’s your hurry anyway?” It was the third time he asked and we knew he knew we would ignore him. But what was our hurry? It’s a good question and it’s one to be taken seriously in the wilderness. But, all too often, it isn’t—and sometimes with disastrous consequence.
Those who fly planes, and have experienced this phenomenon, know it. It’s called get-home-itis. At some time in their lives, most hunters, mountaineers, back-country adventurers and yes, pilots, will encounter a version of it, know it, and still proceed quite stupidly into obvious danger.
I supposed we just wanted to be on our way, fearful that the longer we lingered, the more difficult it would be to make camp by nightfall. And, I suppose there’s a certain invincibility that accompanies the urge to get home. Why else take the risk? But, I wonder if some other thing is at play here, some flaw in our will that shuts down any impulse to reason. You know what you are about to do may kill you, has killed others, and yet, you go ahead and do it.
Certainly when we pushed off from shore we felt confidant, but not so much so that we didn’t debate it for an hour, the three of us. Oddly, and here is the crux of get-home-itis, we all agreed it would be dangerous, foolishly so. We knew our canoes were already riding low in the water, laden as they were with gear and food for four days in the wilderness. We looked out at the waves and the wind and reckoned it would require supreme effort to keep the canoes heading into both and not capsize—gear, food lost, and men overboard in cold, cold water. I had already become mildly hypothermic the day before simply by paddling in the rain without proper clothing. The consequences of being in the water, in that gale, miles off-shore, would be far worse than that. And none of this was far from our minds. The best possible outcome in the event of failure was a joyride, driven helplessly to the windward shore, some twenty miles away—calamitous still.
Yet, ahead we went.
John Olsen was the strongest among us, and though we ought to have drawn straws, it was obvious he was the best men to power the one canoe alone. Colin O’Neill and I were to take the second canoe, paddling together. The idea was that the two of us would be better able to fend off the weather and stay close to John if he went overboard.
We pushed off, and were pushed back, several times before we were able to crest the breakers, and begin barely to make headway. Immediately we took in water. I could only imagine the effort required for John to not only make progress, but to keep upright. Suddenly, the opposite shore looked farther away, as if we put our binos up backwards.
By the time we made it a third of the way, we began to lose John as the wind veered him away from us. To turn and stay with him would put us also in peril; we had to keep our bow into the wind. Water continued to spill over the gunwales and the wind kicked us sideways; it was if we were under sail and paddling against it.
Two-thirds of the way and we couldn’t muster even shouts of encouragement. Every time our paddles cut air, instead of water, it cost us ground. I think back now, again wondering how John managed alone what the two of us in near exhaustion almost could not.
As we approached finally the lee side of shore, the trees cut the rake of the wind. We could now fill our starved lungs with gulps of air and no worry of blowing back into the lake.
When we bumped our canoes onto the sheets of stone that skirted the shore, ready to pile ashore broken and spent, the oddest thing happened. At that very moment, as if the gods suddenly realized they could mess with us no further, the winds collapsed—just like the old man said they would. The churning, boiling lake we had just crossed was now a mirror, reflecting back the sky in its glass.
In the end, we did everything right—opted for the proper egress, accounted for wind and current, took care packing the canoes, spreading the ballast smartly—everything, except one thing. We ignored the advice of the old man, sound advice, honed by years living in that god-forsaken winter village of one, making root beer and watching the weather and the water.
“Wait till the wind drops.
What’s your hurry anyway?”
I can still hear his voice today.