“We struck it lucky,” Ray said, echoing my thoughts. This July night had it all: a half-moon shimmering over misty water, steady breezes to keep bugs away, laughing loons, and plenty of good, witty company.
It was our final night on the West Branch of the Penobscot River, which runs through upper Maine northwest of Bangor. We had spent four days paddling in the wake of America’s first great naturalist writer, Henry David Thoreau, and his Penobscot Indian guides. Our journey was a small part of the recently inaugurated Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail, a network of paddling and hiking routes through what was then–and still is–New England’s largest expanse of wilderness. The 200-mile path forms a rough circle from Bangor to the northern border of Baxter State Park.
Thoreau journeyed to northern Maine several times in the mid 1800s, traveling with friends and relatives, river men, and Native American guides. He talked and wrote often of the “numerous forest-clad islands, extending beyond our sight both north and south, and the boundless forest undulating away from its shores on every side, as densely packed as a rye-field, and enveloping nameless mountains in succession.”
Though the forests are no longer uninterrupted, most of Thoreau’s descriptions hold true. This has to be one of the few places in New England where you can read an account of a place written 150 years ago and know exactly where you are.
The series of essays, lectures, and magazine stories that resulted from Thoreau’s travels in Maine were collected in The Maine
Woods, published posthumously in 1864. It would take nearly 150 years before Thoreau’s routes would be stitched together into the Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail by a nonprofit called Maine Woods Forever, which is dedicated to protecting the legacy of the largest officially uninhabited area in the Lower 48–some 10 million acres of rivers, lakes, ponds, hills, and mountains.
Our 30-mile paddle would take us from Hannibal’s Crossing, just downstream of Moosehead Lake on the West Branch Penobscot, to Umbazooksus Lake. Our group of 11 included Maine outdoor educators Ray and Nancy Reitze and photographer Bridget Besaw. And I had brought along my son Charlie in celebration of his fifth birthday. The trip would be Charlie’s first deep exploration of the northern wilderness.
The upper West Branch is an intimate, narrow path of river cradled by thick forests. Thoreau descended this section twice, in 1853 and 1857.
We paddled past Thoreau Island (called Warren Island in Henry’s day), where the author camped. We glided by a stream he fished, and another he ascended in hopes of sighting a moose. Thoreau was interested, more than anything, in seeing moose, which looked, to him, like “great frightened rabbits, with their long ears and half-inquisitive half-frightened looks.” He searched many of the West Branch’s tributaries, such as Moosehorn Stream, usually returning to the main waterway frustrated. But within an hour of launching we had caught sight of a moose cow splashing in the river.
We paddled to the beats of chattering kingfishers, rasping mergansers, and tail-slapping beavers, whose dams held back ponds at river’s edge, a forested backdrop speckled with red and yellow flowers.
A few puffs of cumuli added character to an otherwise seamless sky, reflecting off the water. It seemed unlikely, as we glided down the river, that a more brilliant day had ever stretched across the bow of a canoe.