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Willem Lange: Memories Stored as a Bulwark AgainstTime

T1, R11 WELS

(Unincorporated Township), Maine

About 19 miles north of Greenville, just after the road turned to gravel at the Kokadjo Restaurant and Bar and General Store, it occurred to me that if you don’t live in Maine and you want to get here, you’ve really got to want to be here.

No matter how you try to cut it, it’s still over eight hours and about 300 miles for us, and the last 20 miles or so are pretty hard on the truck’s shock absorbers and Mother’s back. Without precise directions — “18.0 miles Intersection with Jo Mary road. Turn LEFT. 18.8 miles Turn RIGHT. 22.0 miles Cross Nahmakanta Stream Bridge. The landing is 1.5 miles from here. The road gets a bit rough.” — I’m pretty sure I’d never have found the way. But eventually we rumbled down the road to the landing and found our friends Deb and Andy Williams waiting for us with a big Grand Lake freight canoe at the dock.

The shores of Fourth Debsconeag Lake (there are eight; toward the end, they’re called ponds) are unbroken spruce green, except for a couple of patches of bright color where old camp cabins perch on the edge of the water. The always daunting bulk of Mount Katahdin looms above the forest to the north, stirring old memories and exciting geriatric regrets. This time of year — and this afternoon, I’m sure — there are climbers up there just finishing the 2,000-mile trek from Georgia on the Appalachian Trail. I’d love to be up there with them, considering which trail down is least likely to prove lethal; but I’ll settle for just getting our gear from the camp dock over to our cabin.

Deb and Andy and Mother and I go back a few years. They live in Norwich, and for years managed the Hulbert Outdoor Center in Fairlee for the Ohana Foundation; but we first met in Toronto, at the annual Wilderness Paddlers’ Symposium, a gathering of mostly Canadians who spend chunks of their summer vacations paddling northern rivers and get together each midwinter to show slides and videos of their wide-ranging adventures. Deb and Andy, with a few other friends, have “done” the Koroc, a brawling, rapid river that flows west out of the Torngat Mountains of northern Labrador into the fearsome tides of Ungava Bay. And Andy was with the Geriatric Adventure Society’s Arctic Division when we reached our farthest north so far in canoes, 71º36’N on Victoria Island, north of mainland Canada.

I’ve noticed that we haven’t talked today about any of those epic northern trips. They seem ages ago now; they’re tucked away in memory, like invested principal that we don’t intend ever to touch, but a bulwark against whatever may happen as the years and debility advance. Speaking of them would quickly descend into elegy, which we don’t need in this beautiful present setting.

Our cabin is called Indian, after a former occupant, a native American woman married to a Maine logger who was usually off in the lumber woods during the winter. To keep herself busy, and express her artistic impulses, she cut birch bark into hundreds of five-inch squares and fastened them to the walls like tiles. The ceiling, too, is covered, and decorated with stars made by pasting together different-shaded pieces of bark, outside- and inside-out. She even sheathed one of the purlins with bark. The whole has been varnished, and glows a warm brown. I can’t help but reflect that, if she were here today, none of this would be done; the camp buildings now have Wi-Fi.

The north woods of Maine are vast: a quilt of unincorporated or unorganized townships owned by the state, timber and paper companies, and, increasingly, conservation-minded organizations like the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Nature Conservancy. To the unpracticed eye, the forest seems primeval, but only 100 years ago most of it was logged off clean. Railroads, steamboats and rivers moved people, supplies and timber between the logging jobs and the mills in towns built near water power. Only rarely here am I aware of trees older, even, than I. But thanks to an increasing awareness of the forest’s value as a recreational resource, more and more land is being protected. Solar panels and wind generators obviate the need for power lines, and it can’t be too much longer before the camps’ backup generators will be powered by something other than propane. Meantime, the trees are growing back to a maturity unseen now for generations.

Debsconeag is a native American word meaning portage or carrying-place. I can’t imagine it was ever spoken enthusiastically during the days these ponds got their name. I was going to take a hike today, on the paths connecting the ponds, or up onto the high cliffs just behind the camp; but we awoke to a gray northeast wind and a promise of rain. Now, as with a few other guests we chat in the dining room of the main camp over coffee and bannock, a steady rain pelts the windows in the north wall. But there’s no point in being restive, especially in such good company.

The Chewonki Foundation, which owns this camp, is located in Wiscasset, Maine, and runs dozens of outdoor education programs for families and people of all ages. It bought the lease to this property some years ago as an extension of that mission. It’s a base camp for a summer trips-intensive canoeing and hiking program. A dozen canoes rest on racks along the shore, and several neat new yurts back in the woods serve as lodging for the campers when they’re here. The kids are all back in school now, so the cabins are available for family getaways.

Andy’s the caretaker between the summer program and the eventual draining of the water lines as the autumn frosts deepen. I envy him the cooling days and nights ahead, with the first snow cloaking the summit slopes of Katahdin. But tomorrow morning it’s back to the truck and the long road home for us. I’ve promised to take a smoother road through the woods this time.

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached at will.lange@comcast.net.