Sycamoreans Venture to Wilds of Maine

by Renee Dunham

Sycamore Islander, September 1999

A Northwoods Canoe Trip
by Renee Dunham

Wooden canoes on Chesuncook Lake leave in wake
sun-bleached bones of logs long beached,
some bound for - never reached -

Satin sheen of spruce and ash,
Northwoods paddles dip and arc in perfect synch
with back and forth of broad-brimmed hats,
heading out.

Thirst anticipating scoop of lake,
doubts defrayed by oh, how sweet
and guides who say it’s good, it’s clean,
we dip.

Moose horns rising from the water,
monster branches dripping algae. Cocky with
binoculars, I’m thrust against his snout
and beg my boat, now tiny boat, to guide me
through enormity.

Campsite cooking: Alexandra and Garrett (left)
prepare spaghetti with choice of sausage or clam
sauce. Ginger cake bakes in reflector oven.
Adirondack packbaskets, lined up in back,
carry food and equipment from canoes to dining
site. George Dunham (right) awaits hungrily.
This is a little embarrassing. I meant to describe a guided canoe trip that George and I took in central Maine. The accident poem above is what sometimes happens after a great experience. Not a lover of wooden canoes and not acquainted with the wilderness waters of Maine, we returned with enthusiasm for both. Alexandra and Garrett Conover were our guides, well-known for their knowledge of wooden canoes, the natural world of Maine and Labrador, the history of these regions, and the people wise in the basic skills needed to survive there.

We had a minimal packing list - essentially a set of clothes to wear and a dry set to keep, a warm layer, a swimsuit, AND NO INSECT REPELLENT! This last item was the scary part. We had no choice but to trust the Conovers’ assurance that the bug jackets provided were the best solution. Fortunately, the dry spell this year was sufficient to make protection unnecessary.

After three hours of driving on gravel logging roads, we put in at Chesuncook Lake. The canoes were loaded with waterproof sacks containing clothing, camping gear, and first aid. Add four Adirondack pack baskets made by Alexandra containing five days of food kept fresh without ice by clever packing. And finally, pack one wooden box contoured to the canoe bottom, called a “wannigan,” with cooking equipment. I mentioned in the poem that the water supply was below us. No filtration was used, but we knew a filter was handy for the jittery.

Poling the Horserace between lakes.
Paddling was difficult, so poling became
the better choice in this moving shallow water.
The paddles were beautiful to hold and use. They were of spruce and ash, light, and flat all the way up through the handle. This design enabled a paddle stroke - the Northwoods stroke - which demanded less effort than I have ever given to propel a canoe. The illusion of being able to go on forever, coupled with an endless, sweet-water supply created a timeless, expansive sense called contentment. We explored a floating bog which rocked when we bounced. We learned about the old logging runs, the tasks and the lives of the loggers. We swam in the lake and bounced down the shallow river rapids. We practiced poling up and down the Caucamgomoc River, learning that “Caucamgomoc,” when yelled, was just the swear word we needed when our clumsiness beached us on a rock. We ate; we filled voids we never suspected with Alexandra’s fire-baked bread and cakes, sausages and salads and sauces, dinners cooked in a 24” stainless steel frying pan called “Fred,” who was well-respected. We visited a village, population five, to which there was no road. We listened to the Conovers’ stories that gave rich texture to this experience.