paddling the allegash




Maine Observer: Time travel on the Allagash waterway

A paddle trip takes us back, away from civilization into a half-million acres of northern Maine forest.

I’ve recently compared some pics of myself taken 50 years ago in a canoe on a Maine river to some taken just the other week in a similar setting. The canoe looks the same. The river and forest look the same. (OK, I look a tad older.)

I recently jumped at the chance to go paddle on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway with eight other Portland folks and two Registered Maine Guides: Tom Gerard and Portland Parks and Rec’s Pete Gerard.

I’m not making this up – it was very much like time travel. Not just because of those pictures, or the campfires, but also because I’ve just picked up a book written by Henry David Thoreau in 1847. In it I’ve been delighted to hear what he had to say about visiting Maine over 150 years ago.

It’s true that both he and I have had a chance to take part in time travel. Like him, I’ve had a chance to experience what can be felt and seen while visiting Maine’s northern forests, rivers and lakes. It almost seems like I narrowly avoided bumping into him on the way to the outhouse.

Positively transcendental, I would say. Or I could simply call it “time travel,” as the people in Maine Thing Quarterly called their traverse of the Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail. Thoreau thought these woods beyond time, exactly because of the natural, unfettered landscape: lakes, rivers, boulders and pine forests.

He also thought so because of his predilection to think of important things as transcendental. In the woods, for example, he experienced “the forest resounding at rare intervals with the note of the chickadee, the blue jay, and the woodpecker, the scream of … the eagle, the laugh of the loon, and the whistle of ducks along the solitary streams … in summer, swarming with myriads of black flies and mosquitoes, more formidable than wolves.” You see, the sounds and fears of insects are exactly alike over time.

Marcus Aurelius was thought to have said: “Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.” So the Allagash waterway was for me a living example of how time travel happens. The river is hauntingly the same over centuries, in part because, unlike most rivers, it flows backward (north) toward Canada. This river takes us backward in time, fully away from civilization, into a half-million acres of forest.

On the river, feeling the pulsing current along the thin walls of our canoes and seeing boulders coming at us like crocodiles, we really need to pay attention. As soon as we pass one, another comes in its place, as old Marcus Aurelius said. We can’t just give in and daydream. That would sink us. Maybe time travel happens moment to moment in the present. The Allagash and life itself demand it.

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