We had chosen the West Branch for its remoteness and because it is largely flat water with no portaging–a perfect pick for a five-year-old’s first multiday canoe trip. With the river running reasonably high, we could make good speed without working up a sweat, though Charlie quickly learned to enjoy challenging lily dippers with spirited calls to “throttle up!”
In Thoreau’s day, Pine Stream Falls was wild enough that he chose to get out and walk around it. Now, the whitewater is gone, thanks to Chesuncook Dam, completed in 1904, but a mile or so of Class I quickwater was enough to give little Charlie a thrill.
The waterway slowed and widened as we approached the convergence of the West Branch, Umbazooksus, and Caucomgomoc streams. The meadowy junction that had been called Chesuncook–”a place where many streams empty in”–is now Chesuncook Lake. Here, the river’s intimacy opens into a chaos of lakes, valleys, and mountains. Towering above it all is Mt. Katahdin, the 5,267-foot “cloud-factory” Thoreau tried to climb, unsuccessfully.
Pulling 12-foot-long sticks of ash from the canoe, we poled our way into the Caucomgomoc’s slow-flowing waters, past Thoreau’s camp of July 26, 1857. We continued up the inlet, past rocks still adorned with pins and rings that supported giant “boom chains” that once held back millions of logs waiting to float to sawmills downstream.
Even in 1857, Thoreau was disturbed by the battalions of loggers moving into the north woods, whacking down trees and building dams to bring up water levels so that logs could be floated to mills downriver. The men inundated forests, he wrote, “without asking Nature’s leave.”
As we approached the Canvas Dam campsite, sending a pair of mergansers into flight, the outside world seemed very far away. Above the shore, white pines swayed in the wind, backed by tremendous stretches of forest.
Thoreau chose to travel with Native Americans to deepen his understanding of this environment. On one trip, he made a pact with Penobscot guide Joe Polis–”Indian Joe”–that each would tell the other all he knew. Our journey’s leader, Ray, was also influenced by a Native American named Joe. In fact, he spent most of the first 18 years of his life under the tutelage of a Micmac elder he called Grandfather Joe, who taught him about wild edibles, hunting, and trapping.
As soon as we arrived at the Canvas Dam campsite, Ray displayed the skills he’d learned, combing the surroundings for sarsaparilla and chaga, also known as tinder mushroom, a birch-loving fungus whose burnt-charcoal appearance belies its mellow and flavorful taste. Soon, he returned with handfuls of both.
“And if anyone gets sick, I’ll boil up some pine needles,” Ray said. “A cup of pine-needle tea has more vitamin C than a cup of orange juice.”