Thursday, February 9, 2012

notes from maine

Directions to Andover, ME: 91N to ex 9. 93S to ex 40. Merge onto NH10. Left onto Rt 3N. Right on 115N. Right on 2E. Left on ME-5/Ellis River Road.


3 Sept

I expected this solo wilderness paddle to release floodgates of writing, but in fact I don't feel much compelled to write. I feel almost... ambivalent. It is lovely here. Not jaw-dropping or show-stopping, but still plenty pretty, sky the soft ombre of dusk: pink fading into orange into purple-blue. Darkly silhouetted shorelines, silver water reflecting the sky, a loon calling. My tent is perched on a soft carpet of pine needles on a wooded point that juts out into Richardson Lake. From inside it, I watch the water darken through a frame of hemlock boughs. It's all very nice. The weather is nice. I am warm and comfortable and relaxed.

I am also cynical, dissatisfied with the wild places of the east after spending time out west. This is supposed to be a “primitive wilderness tent site.” This 17-mile lake is supposed to be remote and untouched. But at this hour of the evening, a steady parade of motor boats zips back and forth across my little picture window. Across the channel, someone is building something. Earlier, he was hammering and drilling, now, he's calling his dog – “come, Molly! Molly, come!” – again and again. He might be a good mile away, but with the way sound carries over water, he could be sitting outside my tent. I turn on my headlamp with a great, self-important huff. I hope that once it gets completely dark everything will go still and quiet.

I don't know when I became such a wilderness snob, or why I feel the need to be somewhere free of motors or structures or other people. Why is it so dang hard to just find a place like that around here? I am getting frustrated. I want to be alone and not hear anything except the wind through the trees and the lake slapping against the rocks.

When I imagined my solo wilderness adventure, this was not the place I imagined. This is a place for happy summertime pleasures – Vacationland! – and it would be a great place to bring a group of friends. But it's not exactly what I had in mind for my solo trip. I wanted to go somewhere raw and wild that would challenge me.

Nonetheless, I feel confident, and confidence is what I need right now, with the rest of my life full of such uncertainty. The drive here was long: mostly backroads, low, heavy skies, interesting towns, windows down and music on, feeling pretty good about myself: 27 years old and doing ok. I've worked hard to nail down all these skills, to gain the self-assuredness to come out here alone on Labor Day weekend. If I'd have packed just a few more things in the car, I could have lived out of it for months. I daydream of loading it down with my bike, kayak, camping gear, books, maps and camera and driving away, away from my job and the stuff I own and all my obligations.

On the way here earlier today, I drove for three and a half hours before I realized I'd forgotten my sleeping bag. I'd been wanting a summer-weight bag anyway, but the one I bought at the tiny outdoor store that was thankfully only 5 miles off-route is probably not that one I would've picked out had I more than five choices. Then upon arriving at the lake I realized I forgot my paddle as well, and borrowed a heavy plastic one from Dottie, the woman at the South Arm office who issued my permits. I also had to borrow $3 from a stranger to pay for my “remote wilderness site:” cash only. Dottie and the stranger seemed to think I was nuts to be heading out paddling by myself. The weekend forecast called for thundershowers every day.

8:40 p.m. Sky a deep purple, almost black. I have never before in my life heard an entire chorus of loons, but I am hearing it now. Some are long and haunting, like train whistles in the fog. Others are chattering, loony, hysteric. One overlaps the other, layers of sound echoing over the still water, bouncing off the shores. Then at once they are all silent, and I notice there are bugs singing in the treetops and the air itself smells like a sharp, dank lake.

8:52 p.m. The loons are back. I think I can pick out six distinct voices, each coming from a different point in the half-circle of lake that hugs my little ridge. I sit upright and peer into the near-dark but can't see anything except the stars and the bright half-moon and its double, reflected on the water. Two halves of a moon – does that make it a full moon? Tomorrow I'm supposed to camp at Half Moon Cove. With the rainfly off my tent, I feel like I'm sleeping on a veranda in a lakeside cabin. I feel protected and yet exposed. I can feel the breeze. Summer is nearly over. 


4 Sept.

At 3 a.m., the sky was starry and clear. At 6 a.m., a thick fog has closed in my little piney point. I think about Alaska. Yesterday, when the motorboats paused and the only sound was my paddle dipping into the gray water, again and again, I thought of the rhythm of a canoe paddle in the ocean, of my canoe sliding through glassy coves alongside rock walls dripping with salt water and starfish. I thought of how often I've done that; and how much I miss it now, stuck driving to an office every day. The loons last night reminded me of camping on the Alaskan coast and falling asleep to the haunting sounds of whalesong reverberating through the ancient forest.

Maine is not dissimilar from Alaska, though of course it is not the same either. Instead of raven, it is crow talking in the big pine above me. When they fly off, I hear the beat of air beneath their wing feathers. The loons still call through the pea-soup air; occasionally there's the splash of a fish. I like the fog. It shuts me into my own permeable world; encloses me in an airy sphere that moves with me as I push across the water. Last night, I dream that half a canoe, sawed right down the middle, washed up on the beach and I took it out into roiling waves and whirlpools. I saw another canoe get sucked into a wave. My mom appeared and I wanted her to leave so I could prove things, but I was glad she was there and couldn't send her away.

9:39 a.m. The on-and-off drone of motors is back. It's not that I'm opposed to motors, but surely a human being needs to escape them once in a while.

I've never thought before about the significance of the term “human being.” BEING is in our very nomenclature. A being is not simply something that's alive. A plant is alive; it is not a being. Only animals. Being is somehow related to consciousness of experience. To be. I am you. Are. He is. Je suis, tu es, il est. And on and on. We are.

I do not have the words to explain why I need, on occasion, to go to a wild, unforgiving place where no one else is around. It is something inherent in me that, if suppressed for too long, causes me to forget who I am, to become cranky, unaware, overburdened. A pretty park won't do it. I need someplace raw and untamed, someplace that claws at me and leaves me to emerge wild-eyed and awed.

Is this something that everyone needs, only some people just don't know it? Or do some people simply love being around other people, all the time? I like to think that solitude is an inherent part of being human, but perhaps it is only a handful of us who are driven to seek out the lonely places of the world, the places where we can feel the weight of the sky pressing down on us, stripping us of our vanities, revealing our barest selves.

11:17 a.m. Utter perfection. Paddling in the sunshine with the wind at my back, exploring silent, calm coves, feet up, dragonflies landing on my knee. The further north along the lake I find myself, the quieter it gets. The motor boats are gone. Thank you, Vacationland.

In some places, rocks and boulders seem to have fallen down the steep slope of the forest, landing in a jumble at the water's edge. There are pocket beaches and sandy points around every turn. Elsewhere, the woods taper to meadows flecked with delicate waving flowers that stretch to the lake. I stop in a cove to float and lay on my back with my face to the sun and listen to the birds. To see what comes out when I stay still long enough.

12:26 p.m. The sandy beaches and fascinating coves and wetlands are never ending. I couldn't be paddling at a more relaxed pace or in a more content state of mind. This has become a very pleasant retreat indeed.

Lunch and yoga on yet another sandy point, picture perfect. Read an Edward Abbey piece with my crackers and fruit. “It ain't wilderness unless there's something out there bigger than you that can kill and eat you.” I know what he's getting at, but literally speaking, that makes any place wilderness. A storm can come up anywhere: wind is bigger than me. And if it killed me, the earth would surely eat my dead body right up.


2:17 p.m. Well this is crazy. I was paddling under an untouchable blue sky, dilly dallying along, and started hearing rumbles in the distance. Far away, muffled. The sky got darker, and then – bam, out of nowhere, what meteorologists would probably call a “severe thunderstorm” rolled in just as I was filling my water bottle at a stream. Fortunately, I wasn't far from a small island ringed with sandy beaches. I pulled up, grabbed stuff from my kayak and rushed to set up my tarp, made out of a parachute-like material, in a stand of low pines unlikely to be struck by lightning. There is a strong wind and nonstop thunder but the spitting rain seems to have stopped. My tarp is low, and from where I crouch under it I can see through the scratchy underbrush to the beach and the water, now a choppy gray. Hopefully this is just a passing storm and I can continue to Half Moon Cove this evening, although if I have to hunker down here I won't mind too tremendously. It's a beautiful spot, but there is someone else staying in a cabin on the other side of the island.

OH SHIT. All light was just sucked out of the sky. It's dark as a witch's pocket. Rain is pelting my tarp. Thunder is cracking super loud, making me literally jump. I like storms, but this is a little intense.

Ok, officially nervous now. Challenge of a solo trip accepted. OH MY GOD. Lightning touched down on the island. Can't see very far beyond my tarp. A moose spooked by the storm is probably going to come crashing through my impromptu camp at any second. The woods are VERY DARK. THIS IS TERRIFYING. So glad I pulled over immediately at first sign of storm, and so glad I packed my tarp. No metal rods on it.

5:34 p.m. The storm passed, and I emerged dazed from under my tarp and walked out to the beach, looking at the swiftly clearing sky and the lighting still crackling in the east. I looked around some more and decided to stay the night. But no sooner had I taken down my tarp and dried it out on a bush, moved all my stuff a few hundred yards down the beach to a more appealing spot and sat down on a wide swath of sand to read and smoke a joint but it started again. Same as before: unmarred blue sky and distant rumbles, then the black, deep clouds seeping out of the western mountains, thick and malevolent, with thunder lurking within. They're moving this way again. Goddamn it. Why did I have to complain that I wasn't challenged enough?

The storm holds off, and good thing, because it took me an hour to drag my tent off the exposed beach and to the edge of the woods and put the rain fly on and set up my tarp again. There's no good place to set it up here; had to settle for tying the high points to taller pines at the edge of the forest, and the low points to logs I dragged across the sand. It's about 15 feet from my tent, and feels less safe than my earlier spot.

6:21. The storm is still hanging threateningly in the distance. Just went over and said hi to my neighbors; they came in on a motor boat and are staying in a little cabin that was once part of a steamship that trolled up and down this lake. They were sitting in lawn chairs on the beach drinking beer. Had a nice chat. I haven't worn shoes since I got out of my car yesterday.

I feel like a moose could appear any minute. But you rarely see animals when you're looking for them. In Vermont, I tracked three moose all winter long through the snow, over a frozen beaver meadow crisscrossed with winding streams, choked with willow and alder; through a bog dotted with pine snags and dead timber. I'd heard that most of being a wildlife photographer is simply being still and waiting, so come spring, I set up a hunting blind on a hill above the beaver pond and got up at 5 a.m. and crept through the woods with my camera and a headlamp and sat still. Morning after morning, there was nothing. No moose. Then in the high desert in Idaho, in the last place in the world I'd expect to see a moose – I was on the lookout for rattlesnakes instead – a big bull came crashing out of the narrow band of cottonwoods and willows and scared me half to death.

It looks like the storm may have fizzled. The western mountaintops are visible again, the sky quiet but tie-dyed like a silk scarf in shades of gray. The lake is rough and whitecapped. Weather changes quickly here.

This part of the lake feels more wild, like you have to glance back over your shoulder into the woods once in a while to make sure nothing has snuck up on you. I like it, but it makes me slightly uneasy too. Uprooted trees are scattered along the shore, some gray and weather-beaten, others freshly decaying, bits of earth still clinging to the maze of fibers. You can tell the weather gets rough here. Nature has not been kind.

6:45 p.m. and getting chilly. The woods are thick, hard to penetrate, full of broken limbs and scratchy brush. This forest has become young again, unruly, keeping its secrets in the dark, wet understory. A cold, slow creek, rich in tannin, carves a path out of the forest, curls around the bog, cuts through the sandbar and joins the lake.

There is a tree here that catches my attention, a small dead spruce lying on a mossy shelf. It looks as if, when it was still standing, someone took a paint bucket full of white-gray, curling lichen and threw it at the tree, knocking it over and splattering the ground around it with lichen too.

It is soothing to walk unimpeded along a shore, mindlessly following that silver line where water meets land.

The light just turned suddenly so beautiful.Wisps and shreds of clouds hang low in the seamless spaces between mountains. 

There is a pile of scat on the beach that looks like nothing more so than a big ol' pile of horse manure, which it cannot possibly be. It's too big for a black bear. Must have come from a moose, but it looks like no moose poop I've ever seen. Sasquatch?

7:30 p.m. In my tent, in my sleeping bag. Lighting on three sides, but not here. Storm coming from the south this time. Haven't heard a single loon since the first storm. Crickets are at it now, though. Thunder getting closer.

I want to lay in my sleeping bag and read, but it's hard not to watch the sky. It's hard to tell what the storm is doing. Is it passing to the east or is it just taking a really long time to get here? That last thought is disconcerting. There's no counting the seconds between thunder and lighting; the lighting is all around, pulsating high in the clouds. The thunder seems to come from the south, steadily, bearing no connection to the constant flashes of lighting. It is like the sound of a distant army thundering toward battle. Figuring this storm out is like trying to predict the movements of a bear. No rain yet.

8:00. Oh fuck me. Here it comes. Goodbye, warm sleeping back. Goodbye, tent. Please don't become a lightning rod or fly away. Hello, crouching barefoot in the sand under my tarp as the dark sky gets even darker, the loud thunder gets even louder, the bright lighting sharper, closer. Please let this be the last storm of the night.

When I've said in the past that I like storms, I guess I like them from a front porch in the summertime, when the worst that will happen is the street will temporarily flood and the neighbors will set up lawn chairs along it and sit there with umbrellas watching cars struggle through or get stuck in the giant puddle. I do not so much like storms after dark in a rather wild place when I am crouched alone barefoot under a tarp. I feel confident that I've done what I can to prepare for this and am relatively safe, but then again, I'm also on an island in the middle of a big lake – a storm magnet. I don't have a whole lot of options but to wait it out.

Oh god. This is worse than the last one because it's dark. Read to distract yourself. Read about surfing in Hawaii.

8:20 p.m. Whew. That one passed fairly quickly, but I don't think this is over. There are patches of stars directly overhead, now, and I am standing with my mouth in an actual O watching the storm travel north. Lightning bolts that seem miles long shoot from the sky down to the earth, bright, shocking, awesome. I cannot help but gasp, suck in air, and occasionally exclaim, 'holy shit!' This is an amazing thing to witness.

HOLY SHIT IS RIGHT. Storm #3 rolling in close on the heels of #2. This one is the mother. This is the big one. I'm back under the tarp. Rain is pelting from all directions, wind howling. The lightning is continuous, the sky pulsing with light, the thunder deafening when it cracks like a deep gunshot directly overhead. I can feel it in my bones, like a loud bass. I can see the lightning bolts behind my eyelids when I close them. A bolt flashes down and strikes nearby; I close my eyes and see its neon double, again and again. I remember thunder storms in Hermit Island when Dad would make us sit in the truck, our faces pressed to the windows, rubber tires safely beneath us.

It hit right near me. My legs are shaking. My heart pounding. My mouth won't close. I am hugging my knees in a face-down fetal position.

How many storms before I make a dash across the island to knock on the door of the cabin? I keep thinking each will be the last, but they keep coming, and of course I can't run across the island in the middle of one.

There was just a lull, and now it's starting again. It's as if the storms are swirling around the lake and coming to rest every time they find this island. This is utterly terrifying. Having another human being here with my wouldn't make it any safer, but it would be comforting at least.


11:10 p.m. During a lull in the storm I walked cautiously to the cabin and was very warmly welcomed. The people thought I was absolutely insane for having withstood the last five storms alone under a tarp. I accepted two beers, which were amazing, and sat indoors, where it felt a hundred times safer, though the thought of a massive pine getting struck by lightning and falling through the roof was in the back of our minds. The people have been coming to this island for 30 years, and got married here. We talked for two hours while the storm continued to ebb and flow around us.

Blame it on the beers, but leaving the cabin and walking back to my tent, I slid on a rock and sliced the outside of my foot wide open. A 5-inch-long gash that bled all the way back to the tent. Busted out the first aid kit, tried to wipe the sand away, winced, swabbed it with alcohol wipes, slathered on neosporin, slapped on a nonstick bandage, wrapped in an ace bandage and lay on my back with my foot up in the air above my hear. I wonder if I need stitches. It is throbbing.

5 Sept

9:17 a.m. What a difference the daylight makes. Woke this morning to a steady drizzle and packed up a soggy camp: it reminded me of all the mornings I woke up in the rain in Alaska, and reminded me too that Alaska was full of this wet, sloppy misery and that I shouldn't curse my comfortable day job so often. Got on the water by 8 a.m. and remembered too that with misery comes reward. In this case: a calm, glasslike lake reflecting the dripping pines and not a soul or a boat in sight. Paddled four quick miles without hearing anything but birds, then pulled over to boil myself some water for tea and watch the loons, who have reappeared, dip their shining black heads under the lake.

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