With dime size rain drops pounding on my brimmed hat, I slogged across this god forsaken wetland in chest deep water carrying a 50 pound pack on my back. The organic soil at my feet was way beyond saturated and yielded frequently and without notice to my weight, sometimes allowing one foot to sink up to my knee. The sudden drop caused by the sinking put my chin at the water’s surface raising great concern that the end to our journey was not going well.
Bringing up the rear was my partner in adventure, Steve Smith, better known as Smitty to almost all who know him. Smitty is an ex-marine that is as tough as they come. What he lacks in knowledge of adventuring in the wild he makes up for in toughness. If he had a middle name other than Carl it would be Gristle. Gristle so gnarly that even a black bear would spit it out.
Smitty was in considerable misery. At five feet seven inches he stood a full eight inches shorter than me. Not that this usually mattered, but in five feet of water he had to keep his head tilted up facing the sky, looking as if he were trying to keep his nose above the water like a snorkel. Smitty had one great advantage in traveling through this over flowing swamp. He was about 80 pounds lighter than me, and so, did not sink deeply into the organic soils with each step. His pack was much lighter too, not necessarily as the result of being a much smaller person, but because he stuck all of the heavy gear in my pack.
“You’re a much better pack mule than most,” he once declared.
“Better than most men?” I inquired.
“No better than most mules!” he replied. He would then laugh for about five minutes at the thought of his own humor.
But right now, we were in a real pickle. Up ahead we still had to forge a flowing stream channel that was at least another three feet deep. I was a strong swimmer. The Marine could swim about as well as a solid Navy anchor; an anchor that went straight to the bottom burying itself in mud.
As we approached the stream channel I let the Marine catch up.
“How do you want to handle this?” I asked.
“Handle what?” he said glaring at me like this was all my fault.
“Getting through the river channel!” I said pointing at the deep moving water in front of us.
“Oh that, I forgot about that! And here I was thinking that this wasn’t quite as bad as it could be, and now you’ve ruined my day!” he said with a big grin on his face.
I’d known Smitty for much of my life and this was a good sign. Things really weren’t going to well and he still had a sense of humor about him
“Well, do you have any ideas?” I said.
“Yep”, he replied, “Throw the bleepin’ packs over to that dry hummock over there and you go first. I’ll hang back and see how you do.”
He couldn’t resist a laugh at this suggestion.
Some weeks prior in early August 1974 Smitty and I were hanging around the kitchen of our country bungalow. We had lived there for about a year with three other friends. I was desperate to get away. I was having trouble with my girl friend and Smitty was decompressing from a short stint at the pickle factory. Smitty was always up for an adventure. Over a few beers we talked about going to the Allagash in Maine, a place I had frequented in the past. I loved the Allagash for its miles and miles of wild territory, the big, boreal forest, and the lack of human beings. Looking at our schedules, and realizing we didn’t have quite enough time for that journey we decided to settle on something a few hours closer, perhaps in northwest Maine near the Canadian border.
I went upstairs and randomly grabbed some old USGS Topographical maps that I had of Maine. The one on top was entitled “Jim Pond” and was near the Canadian Border in a fairly remote area north of Wilson Mills.
“There are a lot of places that we could drive to on this map, park our van, and then hike into,” I said looking at the map in my outstretched arms.
Smitty glared at the map. Looking over the entire two foot by three foot piece of paper like it was a military battle plan.
“Right there!” said Smitty.
“Right where?” I said.
“Jim Pond,” said Smitty.
“That’s the name of the map! “ I replied.
“No, that’s the name of the pond that the map is named after,” observed Smitty.
Sure enough, tucked in the lower right hand corner of the USGS Quad was Jim Pond. The Pond looked to be a mile and a half long, approachable by some old road on the west side, and only about 8 or 9 hours from our house.
“Jim Pond it is!” I declared.
Two weeks later we piled into my 1964 Ford Econoline Van. The van was a hippie van, well not quite a hippie van since it wasn’t a yellow Volkswagen micro-bus. It was almost a hippie van since it was bright yellow. A sun roof, in the shape of a Montezuma sun and cut into the ceiling of the van with a cutting torch and covered with yellow plexi-glass, was directly over the driver’s side. It looked cool, but had two major disadvantages. The sun was always beating in the drivers face, and the poorly sealed plexi-glass leaked like a sieve whenever it rained. The driver needed an umbrella inside the van to stay dry during inclement weather.
The van also had one other odd feature. Someone had broken off the shifting lever . It was a three speed on the column shifting mechanism. A piece of steel pipe was jammed into the hole where the shifting lever had been. It didn’t shift like it was supposed to. You had to know the secret shifting code, sort of a semaphore flag maneuver mixed with a swear word every now and then as you attempted to shift through the grinding gears. With a lot of practice you could actually learn to shift without grinding the gears, most of the time anyways.
The van ran OK. Not good, just OK. It was fine if you didn’t mind adjusting the rocker arms every 100 miles, otherwise it sounded like a very loud typewriter. Given that the motor of this Econoline was inside the vehicle between the two front two seats, the very loud typewriter noise could really get on your nerves.
Before we left Smitty removed the valve cover and carefully adjusted the rocker arms. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it would be sounding like a god-awful raging typewriter again in about 100 miles.
“Let’s hit the road, Captain, she’s ready to fly!” Smitty declared as he finished tightening the last bolt on the valve cover.
And off we went. We threw our packs in the back, mine a yellow outer frame pack I had used while hitch hiking around Europe. Smitty used an old U.S. Army ruck sack that used to belong to me. It seemed much more in place and appropriate with his Marine Corp persona. The truth was that the ruck sack was an old relic left over from World War II and was as uncomfortable now as it had been 30 years prior. It did the trick and that was all that counted.
The long drive north at 50 miles an hour, the top safe speed in the Econoline, was nearly worry free. Other than the very loud and never ending typewriter noise and an occasional drop on the voltage meter we were in good shape. I really didn’t pay too much attention to the voltage meter, and I didn’t relay the news to the Marine. No sense giving him useless information that would cause him concern, I reasoned.
As we crossed the Maine Border just north of Umbagog Lake, we decided to briefly visit an old friend in Rumford, Anthony Koliche. Anthony was the father of my girlfriend’s best friend. He was an old school Lithuanian that sold Real estate in the Rumford area and was quite friendly, in a very loud sort of way. Anthony was large. At first meeting you might even say intimidating. With time most grew to know him as the pussy cat that he really was. We visited with Anthony and his daughter, Suzanne, and told old stories as we partied the night away. When Anthony inquired what our plans were, we told him we were going to Jim Pond near the Canadian border for a six day camping trip.
Anthony looked beyond us and said, “Don’t go north!”
Smitty looked at me, and said to Anthony, “What do you mean don’t go North?”
“That’s all I have to say about that,” declared Anthony, “don’t go north!”
We had no idea what he was talking about, nor would he tell us. We went to bed dreaming of a week in the wilds ahead.
The next day we drove the rest of the way to Jim Pond. Smitty drove the Econoline in a northerly direction, grinding about ten pounds of metal off of the gears each time he shifted the gerry-rigged metal pipe shifting lever. After about an hour I saw him staring at the instrument panel. He looked concerned.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
“Yeah, the voltage meter keeps dropping!” he said.
“Don’t worry about it, that’s been going on since we left!” I replied.
“Going on since we left! Are you crazy? The last thing I want to do is get stuck in Timbuktu with no way of getting this heap running!” he said in an irritated tone.
“Don’t worry about it. Everything will be fine. It does that all the time.” I said staring out the right hand side window so as to not make eye contact with him.
There was silence. I glanced over. Smitty was looking straight ahead.
“It’s your ship, Captain, just throw me a life jacket when things get bad,” he said shaking his head.
With some effort we found the old access road that led to Jim Pond. The map indicated that their might have been an old camp down at the end of the road. The road was really more of a cart path. It was about three quarters of a mile long and very rutted and bumpy. A four wheel drive vehicle would have been much more suitable but the Econoline held her own. The narrow road was lined on both sides with tall red spruce, yellow birch, and hemlock. The cart path ended and there was no camp. We could see some old piers sticking out of the ground and assumed that was where the old camp used to be. The open area in the vicinity of the former camp showed some evidence of use. Old campfire remnants, a few discarded beer cans, and some wheel ruts where someone had been stuck.
Smitty stared at the wheel ruts.
“The good news is they seem to have gotten out,” he observed out loud.
I had other thoughts but I kept them to myself. I imagined the car buried deep in the mud below bogged down while spinning its wheels into oblivion.
Our plans were to hike around the northwest end of the lake to a place where the large wetland narrowed. There we could cross a fair size stream that was our only real impediment to getting to the other side.
The trip upstream to the narrows was longer than anticipated. The hiking was not too hard, save all the fallen trees we climbed over. Our legs were fresh and our spirits full of adventure. The forest was beautiful. Peat moss, turning red from early frost and lining the forest floor, stood in stark contrast to the tall, deep green conifers that dominated the area. The landscape on the forest floor was a pit and mound topography. Old earth hummocks, left behind by decaying root balls from overturned trees, could be seen far and wide. With such gorgeous scenery it was difficult to not be distracted.
After about three miles the wetland narrowed and we found a large log across the stream. We were able to cross the stream by holding onto the upright branches as we traversed the log. Our heavy packs tangled now and again in the upright branches, requiring a bit of creative gymnastics here and there, but we managed the crossing without incident. After crossing the stream we noticed another stream. It was about 300 yards to the south. It actually intersected the stream we had just crossed and created another barrier because of the large wetland that bordered the eastern side of the stream. Finding an alternative route was our best option. There was a large hill directly in front of us, some would call it a mountain. It was about 2500 feet high. We elected to walk to the north and west around the base of this mountain. On our USGS map it looked like a solo knob that did not connect to the other hills close by. So, off we went in a direction that was going the wrong way. We were hopeful that circling the base of the mountain would lead us to our destination without much problem.
After traveling for another hour and a half around the base of this very large hill we stopped. Smitty felt that we were going the wrong way. He reasoned there was no way that we could not have circled the mountain after all this time and that somewhere along the way we had made an error and were now going in the wrong direction. I rebutted that the USGS map showed the route were on and by circling around the base of the mountain we should eventually come to the top of the other stream. I went on to say that once we found the stream’s headwaters we could chase the east side of this rivulet down to the original stream and follow that back to Jim Pond. Smitty listened carefully but it just didn’t compute for him. After much discussion we agreed to split up. He would travel more to the west and I would continue in the direction we were heading. We would rendezvous in about an hour at our present location. When we returned we would sort through whatever we had discovered and figure out how to proceed. I went along my way and, sure enough, within 30 minutes I found the headwaters of the stream we were looking for. I went back to where we left our packs and sat down, leaning against my pack; my first rest of the day. I must have fallen asleep for a short time because when I woke up it was late in the afternoon. I guessed it had been about two hours from when we split up. Smitty had not yet returned. I reasoned that he must have thought he had a good clue as to where he wanted to go and had just traveled a little farther then expected and would soon be back. Another half hour passed and still no Marine, I decided to climb part way up the hill where I could give a good yell. Hopefully my voice would carry better from a slightly higher area. I found a nice rock ledge that faced in the direction Smitty had journeyed. I yelled several times but heard no response. I walked back down to the packs. Smitty had still not arrived. I walked back up to the ledge and yelled some more and there was still no response. Now I was getting worried. And then far in the distance I heard a voice yelling.
“Over hear!” I yelled as loud as I could.
Smitty responded again, and I knew he would be able to follow my voice.
Yelling back and forth to each other, Smitty arrived in about fifteen minutes.
“Got a little turned around and couldn’t quite figure out how to get back,” he said a little sheepishly.
“No worry,” I said, “We’re only about 30 minutes from the stream, and if we hustle we should be able to get to Jim Pond by dark.” And hustle we did. The Marine referred to our fast paced jaunt as a forced march. That’s marine Corp jargon for busting your fanny.
Slightly after dark we arrived at the pond and followed the shoreline in a southerly direction where we found a nice sandy beach. Conifers overhung much of the beach and would provide daytime shade to our small tent.
That night we pitched our tent, made a nice campfire, cooked potatoes in the coals, gazed at the stars, and turned in early. Sleeping was not a problem for either one of us.
The next day, the weather was beautiful. There was not a cloud in the bright blue sky and a cool breeze filled the air to keep the bugs at bay. The morning view of the pond showed the southern end covered with pickerel weed. There were also some small areas of pond lilies dotting the eastern shoreline. Smitty went fishing that morning and caught some nice brook trout in the stream we had traversed the day before. I foraged for some edible greens. We made perfect golden brown biscuits in the coals of a late afternoon fire using an old army mess kit. Life was good. I had not thought about my problems since leaving home.
Each of the next four days was equally delightful. Bright sunshine, cool water, a nice breeze, and the best company a man could have were present each day. A more perfect five days of weather could not have been planned. We talked about old times, our families, and the past. We fished, explored, and cooked some delicious meals utilizing primarily food from the landscape. We were just two guys enjoying the wilds.
As they old saying goes, “All good things must come to an end”. The sixth day which was our last day started with a drizzle. It rapidly changed to heavy rain, and then to a down-pour that just seemed never ending. The temperatures dropped from 60 degrees to 38 degrees and the rain felt much colder than that. The storm caught us by surprise. We broke camp in the deluge, so all our gear went into our packs wet. We looked at the stream that fed the pond. It was swelling with each passing moment. The high country to the north and west was shedding water like nobody’s business. The streams overflowed their banks into the surrounding wetlands.
Smitty said, “There’s no way were gonna get across that river upstream, Bill. The current has probably covered our log crossing and the raging flows are way too hard for us to navigate!”
I thought about this for only a moment and knew he was right. Our best shot would be to cross the wide wetland just upstream of the mouth of the stream. Here the waters would be moving a little slower. Staying put was not an option as everything we had was soaked. So off we headed to cross the broad, very inundated, wetland.
We tossed our packs, with great effort, over to the hummock that Smitty had picked out on the other side of the stream. I jumped into the fast moving current, swam as hard as I could, and felt for the opposite bank under the water with my feet when I thought I was out of the main stream channel. Once I had found solid footing under the chest deep water I turned to look at the Marine. Seeing I didn’t drown Smitty jumped into the deep water, immediately went under the water, popped up again briefly, and then didn’t reappear until he was near the submerged bank on the other side of the stream. Seeing him disappear was frightening. Seeing him reappear was joyous; it was also funny. Water dripping off the end of his nose he coughed and spit out some of the stream as he put his feet down on semi-solid footing.
“I’ve seen worse,” he said with some conviction.
As we stood by the hummock in chest deep water, fishing our packs off the dry island, Smitty said, “If I wanted to be a bleepin’ Seal I would have joined the Navy.”
We shared a laugh and moved on quickly. Being chest deep water in thirty eight degree weather makes a man mighty willing to move with speed.
Because we chose the short route across the swamp we were not far from the Econoline. Seeing the big yellow box parked on the side of the mud hole that used to be a cart path was, believe it or not, a sight for sore eyes. Within that van there was potential freedom from this deluge. A secure place where in a few minutes, with the engine running, we could warm ourselves by the Van’s heater!
We threw our gear into the van through the back doors. I climbed into the drivers seat, and wrestled the keys out from underneath the seat with my cold, numb fingers. Water dripped profusely on my head through the homemade sunroof, the sunroof that was ironically shaped like the sun. I put the keys in the ignition and turned the key. The motor turned slowly, and then the solenoid started clicking. I tried again with the same results. I remembered the dropping voltage meter and felt a sinking feeling in my chest.
I looked at Smitty. I could tell he was not impressed. Had he not warmed me about this?
If I had a life jacket, I’d throw it to you.” I said remembering his earlier statement.
Smitty cracked a grin through his chattering teeth. And for the moment, that was the end of that.
(Written for www.wildramblings.com in March of 2009)