One of my favorite memories from the Allagash. The Marine (aka Smitty) and I had several adventures there. Enjoy!
Not the best of friends, Mover and Max still had a lot in common. Mover was a west coast Black Labrador Retriever; Max was half lab and half hound. Mover was heavy set, powerful, and was focused on one thing: food. Max was athletic, agile, and was very determined. He was mostly determined to aggravate Mover. What did they have in common? Well they lived in the same household, begrudgingly mind you, but they were together many hours each day. Mover was my friend Smitty’s dog. They had hooked up while Smitty was in the Marine Corps and stationed at El Toro in California. Max was my long time buddy and also a partner in crime with my other dog Scruggs. Scruggs was a gentle Collie/Shepard that did not have an aggressive bone in his body. He was fine following Max’s dominant ways.
Max and Mover met each other when Smitty came home from the Marine Corps. I had an apartment in a small rural town, and Smitty would eventually become my roommate. Smitty and I were close friends from High School, along with our other close friend Jeff who was traveling in Europe at the time.
Max and Mover got off to a bad start when they first met each other. Mover was not in a particularly good mood as Smitty and he had just drove 3000 miles in a two seat Austin Healy sports car that blew a motor about 100 miles from home. To make matters worse, both of them were very hungry. It seems they hadn’t eaten since leaving California. Evidently Smitty had bought a giant bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken; forty pieces of finger lickin’ goodness that was intended to last for all of their 3 day, 3000 mile journey. Smitty’s plan was flawed, however. First, after buying the Kentucky Fried Chicken he had just enough money for gas to complete their cross country journey. Second, he left the chicken in the car while stopping at a rest stop to visit the men’s room. When he returned to the car there sat a very chubby Labrador licking his chops over a very empty bucket of chicken. That’s right, 40 pieces of chicken in less than five minutes, and not one bit of shame. Needless to say that was the beginning of a very quiet 3000 mile journey. Mover spent most of his time on the rest of this journey gazing out the window pretending not to hear the noise of a growling stomach attached to a very angry Marine. It is my understanding that there may have been some choice curse words uttered by that same Marine as the hunger began to set in on the third day of their epic adventure.
So, at the first encounter of Mover and Max, the perfect dog meeting dog environment may have not been present. I vaguely remember them circling each other like two Suma wrestlers about to engage in combat. Max envisioned Mover as an intruder. He already had his disciple, Scruggs, and it was apparent that Mover was not the same happy-go-lucky fellow that Scruggs was. Max made the first move of the first fight of many. On that day he caught Mover by surprise. On other days, for years to come, they would both vie for position of top dog.
Somehow the dogs survived their first several years of living with each other. We never left them alone together in the same room, fearing we would come back to a blood bath. As long as Smitty and I asserted our dominance peace could be kept.
In the summer of 1975 Smitty and I decided we needed a little adventure in our lives and headed up to the Allagash Wilderness Area in northwest Maine. The previous summer we had gone on a backpacking journey in a remote section of this wilderness area. As the result of some poor planning we nearly drowned hiking across a large flooded marsh in a 6 inch rain storm on our way back to our base camp. This time we decided to be a little smarter and travel by canoe along a meandering river known as the Moose River. The Moose River was connected to a large lake where there was a nice, wooded island where camping would be comfortable. This destination seemed idyllic at the time, and so with a canoe lashed to an old run down station wagon, our backpacks full of camping gear and food and stowed in the back of the wagon, we took off towards our destination. I almost forgot to mention that we also brought along Mover and Max. It seems our other roommates refused to take care of them for the week as they were not agreeable to each other during our previous year’s adventure. Mover and Max sat in the back seat of the wagon, an imaginary line dividing the seat into two distinct territories. Mover looked west as we traveled north, and Max looked east as we traveled north. The occasional growl back and forth was mandatory.
Other than the fact that the old station wagon overheated about forty times on the way to the Allagash and each overheating meant unlashing and unloading the canoe so we could open the hood, the trip north barely bears remembrance. It’s true that we were lost for quite some time on some unmarked logging roads, but with patience, and a good sense of direction we eventually found the Moose River. I neglected to mention that we were paddling up the Moose River against the current. When planning the trip it didn’t seem like a big deal, but then again we didn’t consider bad weather into the picture. It was about a 14 mile paddle to the lake, not a bad day’s paddle on a meandering stream with the current, but against the current, on second thought, it seemed downright stupid. Not too daunted we unloaded the canoe, tied in our gear, leaving room at either end for the dogs. We ordered the dogs into the canoe, but they just looked at us as if to say “I’m not getting into that thing!” Smitty looked at me, and I looked at him, and together we both said in unison “Fine, then swim up the Moose River!” and away we went. Mover and Max for the first time on this trip looked truly happy. They ran along the shoreline, jumping over logs, sometimes swimming in areas where the shoreline had vertical rock, and having no disagreements with each other while doing all of this.
Did I mention bad weather? About three minutes into our journey it began to drizzle. About five minutes into our journey it began to rain. After that there was a constant deluge for the next 13.75 miles. So with Smitty in the bow of the canoe and me in the stern we began paddling, ever so slowly, up the Moose River.
Rain does funny things to a river. Somehow it tends to make the water go higher, and the current go faster, and so our paddling became harder and harder. In our minds we had imagined a slow, easy trip up the river; the soft sound of paddles dipping into the river and beautiful sights that would be etched into our memories. Instead the trip was agonizing, paddles splashing into heavy currents, and the only sight to see was the waterfall of rain running off the brim of our caps and onto our ponchos as we struggled in the pouring rain.
It didn’t seem to bother Mover and Max as they glided up the stream corridor, actually enjoying each others company for the first time since meeting nearly three years before.
After about eight hours of battling the river we came to a portage and believe it or not carrying the canoe over rocks and ledge for the next three miles seemed like a treat. We were cold, tired, and discouraged. This was one heck of a way to be spending a vacation, but we were here nonetheless, and had to make the best of it. Mover and Max were tired, but were still getting along; a real surprise to both Smitty and myself.
Our portage enabled us to go around a long set of rapids and waterfalls. As we moved the canoe and our gear upstream we could get glimpses of the murky water crashing over the granite rocks into deep pools where white foam was quickly rushed downstream by the torrential currents. An hour or two later we had completed two trips; one to move the canoe, and the second to move our gear. Adding six miles of walking in the rain to this day seemed par for the course. Smitty made a comment that the dogs were no longer bounding about like two puppies after a nap. During our portage they stayed close by and stopped when we stopped sharing our energy bars like two old pros.
At the end of our portage we put the canoe back in the river. Fortunately the rain had subsided, at least for the time being. Once again we offered the dogs a ride, and once again they looked at us as if to say “You want me to ride in that thing?” Again we proceeded up the river, fighting the current, with the dogs running along the shore line.
After about a mile or two of paddling we encountered a large bull moose. He apparently did not want to yield the stream corridor to two unknown intruders. The dogs persuaded him otherwise. In their first act of unison Max and Mover charged the Bull Moose, one taking each side so as to direct him directly to the shore and up and over the bank. As this occurred I thought that they would continue the chase for quite some time and we might have to wait for them for quite a while, but they quickly returned. They both came back with the hair up on their backs, but not with aggression towards each other, but rather with an attitude towards their common enemy, the bull moose. Smitty and I actually cheered aloud! All four of us were now a team, all dependent on each other.
The remaining paddle was slow and brutal. We could not have been more tired. The drizzle remained a discouragement, but still, we knew the lake was not far off. The very last part of the journey within the channel of the Moose River was through a large, quiet marsh. The marsh was expansive. It covered acres and acres along the edge of the lake. The peat moss was turning red, a telltale sign that it was the end of summer. We were so focused on the marsh that we were not paying attention to the dogs. There they were swimming behind the canoe, probably for the last half a mile, both looking like they were on the end of their energy reserve. Smitty and I knew the feeling.
And there before us was the lake. It was intimidating. It was covered with one to two foot white caps, and overhead were some of the darkest clouds I had ever seen. It was about seven in the evening and there was not a lot of day left. We looked over the lake.
Smitty asked me “Where is the #88&## island?”
I looked across the lake, between the white caps, and over there, way over there, I could see a tiny dot with trees.
“Right there!” I said pointing across the lake.
Smitty squinted, and then I could see him focus on the island.
“That’s the island? Way over there?” he said.
At this point Smitty gave me his Marine Corps stare. I don’t know if you have any friends that have ever been in the Marines, but if you do, you know the stare.
“It’s the last leg of our journey” I said, a little sheepishly.
Smitty continued to give me the stare. I knew I’d better shut up.
We pulled the canoe over to a large hummock that was perched between the lake and the marsh. The dogs crawled ashore, exhausted.
And then the winds picked up, and those black, black clouds burst all at once. We could barely see at all. We could hardly hear each other talk, not that there was much talking going on.
Smitty looked at the dogs and said “Are you guys riding or swimming.” The dogs looked through the rain at the enlarging white caps on the lake, and both simultaneously hopped in the canoe, like they were following orders given by a stern Marine Corps veteran. We pushed the canoe into the lake, and promptly noticed that with both of us, our gear, and now two dogs we only had about 10 inches of freeboard between the top of the canoe and the waves in the lake.
Smitty looked at me and I looked at him. He shrugged, and said “Your decision Captain”, as I was in the stern of the boat, to which I pointed to the island and we pushed ahead into the agitated lake.
Truth be told, there were moments when I questioned my decision to push forward, but I really didn’t know what else to do. We were soaked, the temperature had dropped into the forties, and there was no place to camp on the edge of the lake given it was all marsh. We paddled ferociously, aiming our bow at a forty-five degree angle into the waves. The dogs lay flat on the bottom of the canoe. Once in a while Max would pop his head up, take a look at the raging lake and put his head back down and let out a long worried whine. With the wind in our face, and the waves beating against our bow we plowed forward slowly, very, very, slowly.
There is no question that we lost track of time, I have no idea how long it took us to cross the half mile of water to the island, but when we arrived the canoe was about half full of water, the dogs were about ready to jump ship. Judging by the water dripping off of Smitty’s nose he took the brunt of the pounding waves in the bow of the boat. There was never any danger of him jumping ship, he hates swimming. Probably why he joined the Marines and not the Navy.
As we dragged the boat up on the sandy beach I said, “There, we made it!” To which Smitty replied, “Lucky for you we made it Captain!”
I didn’t dare ask him what he meant about that.
Mover and Max bounded out of the canoe, taking time to shake the water out of their pelts before heading to the tree line.
As we were getting the gear unlashed from the canoe, and turning the canoe over I glanced at Smitty. His lips were blue and he was shaking like a leaf. He was moving slowly, and I knew that he had all the classic signs of hypothermia.
I have witnessed hypothermia at its worse, and know from experience that it is the north country adventurer’s worst enemy. I have seen it make grown make cry, and the toughest guys shudder uncontrollably. If it gets too far ahead of you the results could be tragic.
Sensing and emergency I yanked the tent out of the gear box. It was a small two man tent that was designed for backpacking. On this day it would be our shelter against the worse that the weather could throw at us. I looked over and saw Smitty trying to untie a knot. His numb hands were fumbling over the coarse manila rope, getting no where in untying the rope that was now a riddle.
It is amazing how focused one can become during a critical situation. I had the tent up, with a tarp over it in less than five minutes. Our sleeping bags were enclosed in plastic bags, deep within our ruck sacks, so they were completely dry. I laid the sleeping bags in the tent and told Smitty to go into the tent and take off his wet clothes. His teeth were chattering uncontrollably, and he had difficulty getting undressed and into the sleeping bag due to the hypothermia. I ordered the two dogs into the tent, and lastly crawled in myself after removing my wet clothes. As I crawled into the sleeping bag I realized I wasn’t too far behind Smitty in the hypothermia department.
And there we were, two men and two dogs, jammed into a pup tent that was barely large enough to house a woman with a large house cat. The tent was bulging at the seams, I am sure, but it was warm almost immediately. I fell to sleep to the sound of Smitty’s teeth chattering, and the dogs snoring. With the rain and wind pounding away at the tarp over the pup tent we slept away the next 10 hours.
Morning brought bright sunshine, and a brisk breeze. The tent was less like an igloo and more like a sauna. Smitty had completely recovered from his brush with hypothermia. Scouring for dry clothes in our soaked packs we managed to find enough outerwear to make ourselves comfortable. We started a large fire on the sandy beach and let it burn into coals while we went out foraging for food. Smitty caught a few white perch and I dug some fresh water mussles from the sandy shallows on the edge of the lake. We shared our breakfast with two very hungry dogs.
As Smitty and I sat on the beach watching the sun rise higher and higher in the eastern sky, Mover and Max were playing with each other along the edge of the shore. Their territorial battles left far behind them they were now just enjoying the moment. As did the Marine and I.
Originally written in September of 2008