I’m going to Maine in a few weeks and thinking of this reminded me of this story. A tale worth retelling, I think!
I looked through the cedar trees at the dark water interspersed with dead trees and mats of aquatic vegetation. The swamp before us was formidable. There would be no crossing this deep water habitat by jumping from hummock to hummock like the many we had crossed before on this adventure. Max, my Labrador/hound mix and I were on the fourth day of our big adventure and this was the first major obstacle.
This adventure had a real purpose. It was meant to form a new bond and reunite Max and myself. Max, Jeff, and I had been a real team during Max’s first two years of life. Jeff was in Europe, and I had travelled with Jeff for an extended time while Max stayed with a friend in our apartment. When I returned I immediately knew that my adventure, and Jeff’s continued absence, was very hard for Max. He was distant and seemed unattached. He had not formed a new bond with Norm the fellow who had taken care of Max. Quite simply I was heart broken when I first saw Max when I came back from Europe. I expected a joyful and lively greeting. It was quite the opposite. Max seemed listless. He shunned me and no longer had trust that I would be there for him. I had let him down.
At first I thought this new behavior was just temporary but within a week little had changed. When I took him to run in the woods Max was not his normal vibrant self. Our woodland adventures had always been his favorite pass time and although he would sniff about and investigate a few things here and there he lacked the vigor of a young, excited hound. I thought about this for a few days and realized that we needed a new adventure together to bond us, once again, as best buddies. At first I thought about a long hike on the Appalachian Trail but then I remembered our last attempt at this. The trail is not really a quiet place. There are dozens of hikers in many locations, and dogs are not welcomed by many. Next I remembered a trip I had once planned; an orienteering trip between two logging roads in western Maine. The two roads were about 50 miles apart and traversed deep woods where there would likely be no other people. The end of a journey was near a large logging camp not too far from a paved road and I guessed I could get a ride back to civilization and hitch hike with Max back to our car where we started this adventure.
Within a day Max and I were in my 1967 Dodge Coronet with our gear in the trunk. I had estimated we could cover about 10 miles a day in the worst conditions while in the Allagash. In theory that meant our little adventure would take four or five days. When you are only travelling for a few days you can pack fairly light. Still, between my gear, food, supplies, and Max’s kibble my back pack was fairly full. As we drove north on the freeway I could feel Max loosening up. Somehow he knew we were about to embark on an adventure. He appeared to be smiling as the wind pushed back his lips when stuck out his head of the car window travelling north at 70 miles per hour.
After a ten hour drive we arrived at our destination in Western Maine. It was easy to find the exact place where we would embark on our trip. There was a large stream crossing the logging road with a long bend in the river in the downstream direction. We parked the car on a dirt pull off that was just west of the wooden bridge. As I pulled our gear out of the trunk it occurred to me that this might be just a little crazy; just me and Max and fifty miles of deep woods. I didn’t think about this for too long; I didn’t want to put bad vibes on our wild excursion. We would camp that night and start on our journey the next morning.
I remember taking out the first USGS map at the edge of the road. With my compass in hand I oriented the map to magnetic north. I had a predetermined compass bearing to which my travels through the woods for the next few days would be oriented. I looked through the sights of the compass, picked out a destination in my view and began our journey.
The bush in Maine can be dense, especially in areas that might have been logged in the last ten years or so. Not only does this make foot travel difficult as you climb over tree tops and navigate around thick underbrush but siting the compass to your next view point is difficult. Orienteering is considered a sport by some. The idea is to follow a compass reading to your destination. When you come to an obstacle that can’t be traversed, say a cliff or wide river, you have to keep track of how you change your course to get around the obstacle and get back to your compass bearing after you breech your planned course. This is fairly easy when you are diverting around something narrow like a stream. You can pick an object on the other side that you are sure to recognize, travel either up or downstream until a good place to cross is found, and return to the object and get back on your intended course. This change of course is difficult when the oriented course is breeched by something that doesn’t give you the opportunity to identify an object that you can find your way back to. In this case the orienteer must keep track of how far he travels as he finds his way around the obstacle and get back to the approximate location in line with the predetermined trip course. This is not an easy task and so the experienced orienteer uses other features that are identified on the USGS map to help locate the approximate destination where the trip can resume on course. Not an exact science to say the least.
The first day was a breeze. Open forest, open sight lines, and relatively few obstacles. As we hiked along Max stayed fairly close, constantly checking in with me to be sure I was still around. There was much for Max to explore and he took advantage of the new territory and the many little adventures that could be found in each new animal track and animal trail. Max was thrilled to be here with me. As the day progressed I knew that this was the ticket to help Max and I readjust to one another. Max and I shared instant mashed potatoes that evening by an open campfire. His were mixed with kibble and mine were flavored with jerky and onion soup. When we turned in for the evening we slept under the stars. The bugs weren’t too bad on this August night and as I looked at the stars between the dark spruce branches above our resting place, Max curled up on my sleeping pad with his head on my stomach. No doubt we were both exhausted from our trek and a good night’s rest was more than welcomed.
The next two days were tedious and challenging. Map and compass work can be exasperating, especially when you are trying to be precise. At first I worried that my imprecise instruments could eventually put me way off course. But as time passed I realized I could verify my approximate position on the landscape by verifying landmarks around me that appeared on the USGS top maps. Streams, hills, valleys, large wetlands all appeared in the form of symbols on the maps. I knew where I was on the map by finding these features in the field, lessening my chances of being way off course at the other end of the journey. My confidence increased as I gained experience each day. Max mostly stayed nearby. Occasionally he would wander off especially when I was puzzling over the map. As I became more relaxed with the orienteering process Max and I were able to play and communicate more. Much of the time he stayed within ten yards of me as we trekked through the deep forest. On the third day we stopped for a while near a river and played “toss the stick”. Tossing a stick for Max was not satisfactory unless it was a small log; three to four feet long and three inches in diameter was perfect. I would catapult the log into the river where it would land with a very big splash. Max would wait for me to tell him to go, and then he would charge into the river chest first. I really don’t know how he had the strength to drag that huge stick around fifty or more times but he sure made it look easy.
That night we took some time to catch a few brilliantly colored brook trout. I’d land them with my portable reel and rod and Max would keep an eye on them as they flopped around on the rock. Later on Max watched intently while I cooked the trout on a stick over the fire. I could tell he was wondering if I would share our catch. As I pulled the trout off the stick I handed him one. He gently took it from me and placed it on the ground at my feet. Max watched me pulling the meat off the bones as I began to eat this delicacy. His approach was a bit different; he pretty much swallowed the trout in one gulp. Then he inspected the fire to see if there were more trout coming. There being none he wandered off to where I had laid out my sleeping bag and curled up for a good night’s rest.
I had to admit that this gigantic wetland was both unanticipated and very daunting. It was obvious from all of the sign that beavers had flooded what was already a really big wetland and made it into something akin to the Great Dismal Swamp. There would be no crossing this obstacle. Another route had to be found. I thought about going downstream to find the beaver dam and crossing there or just on the upstream side. Crossing a beaver dam can be very tricky, although going further upstream might work. I then considered going upstream and finding a place where either the river was narrow, or shallow enough to wade across. This seemed like the safer option at the moment so Max and I talked it over (after all we were partners in this adventure) and decided that the upstream option would be the safest option.
We actually counted our steps as we worked our way south along the edge of the water. We hopped over downed trees, crawled under fallen trees, and walked on the trunks of dead trees, many of which were toppled by a beaver colony. When I couldn’t count my steps I estimated how many it would have been just to make my measurement of distance relatively accurate. The idea would be to find a place to cross and travel the same distance in the opposite direction on the other side so that I would renew my westward journey from approximately the same travel line.
We had not gone far at all when Max took off after a cow moose. I was surprised she scattered so quickly given her great size. Max was happy to pursue the cow. I felt bad that we had disturbed her. I continued my little exploration south counting my steps as I wandered along. Max was not gone long. He returned in about ten minutes, red tongue hanging out of this mouth and panting like he had just crossed the Mojavi desert. We sat down so he could rest, but he was soon up and carousing about looking for more trouble. I kept hoping he wouldn’t find any.
About an hour and a half later we found an inlet to the large open water body. The topography was actually elevated relative to the back end of the pond and the stream channel was contained within a rocky ravine. As we crossed the slippery rocks I was careful to keep my balance. The water was moving quickly and I didn’t want to get my gear wet. Max waded across the cold waters without blinking and eye. The west side of the pond was not so flat and contained a fair bit of rough terrain. The good part was the trees toppled by the beaver had mostly fallen into the wetland so this part of the traveling was a bit easier. I kept track of my steps and when I reached the required number I went to the edge of he pond and looked east. The border of the wetland was covered with peat moss, already turning red having been bitten by an early frost. Seeing nothing familiar I just had to assume I was more or less directly across from the spot we had left. Max looked at the wetland and waded in to cool off. I knew we had only about ten miles to go to hit our logging road destination the next day.
On the fourth night we camped on high ground. The trees were sparse and we had a great view of the sky. I was hoping to see some northern lights, but that was not in the cards. After the campfire died down I laid out my ground pad and sleeping bag. Stretched out flat on my back I looked at the night sky above me. The Milky Way stretched across the black void illuminating the darkness. For some reason I focused on Orion’s Belt, a group of stars shaped like a kite. I was tired, content, and awe struck. I did not think about much, I just took it all in.
Max came over and lied down next to me putting his head on my chest. I rubbed him behind the ears and told him how wonderful he was. He kissed me on the face with a long wet lick of his tongue. The stars above seemed to brighten for a moment. I knew the bond was complete.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in July 2009.