Rising early the next morning, I read a passage from Thoreau (how can you not?) that could describe our setting 150 years later: “Cold morning. Silk veils of mist rising from the lake. Mergansers swimming. Light strikes the mountain first, coloring its green slate-gray. Hills beneath are black. Sky beyond, pure azure. A cloud rests on the pinnacle’s west end, a white ribbon pausing on its passage in the wind.”
After breakfast (wood-smoky pancakes with local maple syrup), some of us leaped into the tannin-tinted water to wash the last cobwebs from our heads. Upriver, a big bull moose had the same idea; he splashed in the shallows on the opposite shore while, overhead, a lone eagle circled and dived for his breakfast. Then we made the short paddle to Langley Creek campsite, our last of the trip. From our vantage point a couple of miles across the lake, we could see Chesuncook Village, which Thoreau knew as Ansel Smith’s logging camp.
Accessible only by floatplane, boat, or four-mile hike, the “village”–just a cluster of camps and cottages–has a general store that’s famous for its homemade root beer. We had planned to make an after-supper run, but then the loons started calling.
It’s hard to find a lakeside campsite in these parts where you won’t hear at least one loon. Joe Polis told Thoreau that yodeling loons predict an approaching wind–and, sure enough, an offshore breeze began to build in late afternoon, postponing our side trip to the village.
Without taking its customary sunset break, the wind blew hard all night, and by morning it had worked the lake into a froth. With a headwind coming at us directly off Chesuncook Village, it would be almost impossible to paddle there in a canoe.
“Oh well,” Ray muttered. “Would you believe me if I said Chesuncook Village is more interesting to read about than to visit?”
But we still had to get to our take-out. Standing on the shore and studying the map, we soon worked out a plan. We would sneak along shore, hiding in the lee of several small islands, then make a crosswind dash for the entrance to Umbazooksus Lake.
Once we launched, the wind proved quite manageable, so we decided to quarter through the swells and into the middle of the lake. We caught a hard crosswind off Moose Pond, then curved around to put the wind at our backs. From there, we raced down the middle of the lake, tearing into the take-out at Umbazooksus Lake.
At the end of his “Chesuncook” essay, Thoreau arrived at an idea that was as yet unheard of in America: setting aside wild lands “not for idle sport or food, but for inspiration and our own true recreation.” Although the conservationist movement inspired by Thoreau has often been outflanked and outfought, it has managed to preserve for America many of its most valued treasures.
On our final night, we waited until Charlie was asleep before we talked of the bitter struggle in northern Maine between developers and loggers and environmentalists. Certainly, I hoped to pass along an ethic of environmental stewardship to my own children. But that would come later. For as environmental educator David Sobel has written, “Let’s first teach our children to love the outdoors, before we ask them to save it.”
Our campsite that night seemed like a good place for a life-long love of the wilderness to take root. Before turning in, I went for a final swim, then reclined against a warm rock, watching the half moon rise over the mountains. A low mist formed atop the lake, filtering the last of the orange light from the west. Finally, I joined my son in the tent and drifted into sleep with an extraordinary feeling of privilege, my mind rinsed by the sound of lapping water and wind in the trees.
“We’re paddling in heaven,” Ray had said earlier that day. “The world just doesn’t know it, though they’re looking for it every day.”