- Newsletters 2016
- Staff Stories
- Summer 2016
Adventure on the Allagash
2016 Newsletter # 6
[This week’s communiqué comes from Director of Athletics Charlie Malcolm.]
Each summer I am asked to write a newsletter on Tecumseh Day. This year, our boys from Pemigewassett ran into a very deep, talented, and well coached Tecumseh camp and lost the day 5-14-1. The shining exception to the general order of the day was the Pemi tennis program, which won four of five contests. Under Chris Johnson’s masterful leadership, our tennis players consistently won tight contests with nerve and grit.
Tecumseh Day provides the community with a fascinating challenge and an annual philosophical conundrum. For a full week, we ramp up our preparation while at the same time we send kids out for hiking trips, exploring bogs, and keeping our general program moving forward. While camp gets on with business, many of our Seniors begin to sense that camp and their time as boys here are finite and they desperately want Tecumseh Day to be a crowning achievement of this journey. As I mentioned last year, they look for opportunities to lead the younger campers and search for the right message for a range of ages and levels of commitment to athletics.
At Pemi, the Senior division has several experiences that are coming-of age-opportunities able to create life-long lessons and memories. I am often struck by how many of the lessons and experiences garnered while pursuing athletics nonetheless apply to a plethora of settings. For example, I recently joined our 15s on the annual trip to the Allagash Wilderness in Maine. For well over twenty years, I have jealously watched the Pemi 15s leave for their adventure on the Allagash Waterway just outside Baxter State Park. The Allagash is considered the capstone experience for the Pemi trip program, but it was not available when I was in Senior 3 in 1980. In the 1990s, legendary trip counselor Reilly McCue led Pemi boys deep into the wilderness with Senior counselor Phil Burnett, and their stories and the joy the boys showed when returning home to Pemi only stoked my longing to come along for the trip.
As Athletic Director, I usually sneak out of camp for one trip a season. Last year, I went to Madison Hut and walked along the ridge of the Presidentials. It was a great experience until the long, steady march down tested this old timer. When openings remain for a given trip, I’m quick to tell the potential participants that I can only remember a handful of athletic contests from my time as a camper in the 1970s, but I can tell you in detail about my three-day trip to Osceola, my four-day through Zealand and Franconia Falls, and my many walks along the Franconia or Presidentials ranges.
Not unlike our 15s, as I step into my fifties, I can feel the jaws of time gnawing away at some of my trip dreams. I won’t use the word “Bucket List” for I don’t want it to sound like I just want to check off some list without genuinely appreciating the experience. Nor do I want to make this sound like a midlife crisis blog; this trip is clearly a “coming of age” opportunity for the boys willing to embrace the Allagash’s power” it was also a “coming of age” for me, but for a different reason.
I was at breakfast when Ken Moore and Tom Reed made me the offer for the Allagash; they needed a van driver to navigate the seven-hour drive and knew I would jump at the opportunity. With an extremely light athletic schedule during “changeover” week, it was an ideal opportunity to send me along with the Pemi 15s to the Allagash. After a few days with the boys working on my C and J strokes, I declared myself ready for the sojourn; however, I did wonder if I was up for the challenge. I’m fairly sure several of the boys were having similar feelings as they struggled to master some of the critical canoeing skills.
On Monday morning, the vans left Pemi at 6 AM and we headed down Route 25 to Portland, Maine, then headed north on route 95 to Millinocket. You can’t help but notice the challenges small businesses face in the seasonal tourist industry when you’re passing along this route on an annual basis. After a long drive north along Route 95, we arrive at Millinocket, an old mill town and the gateway to Baxter State Park and the Allagash Wilderness. Over the last ten years two of the largest mills in town closed as digital media’s declining demand for paper hit this aging town fairly hard. Signs along the main street captured a debate over whether to make Baxter State Park a National Park. Many of the young people have left town to find work from Bangor to Boston. Those that remained found a community wrestling with limited employment opportunities and the opiate scourge that shakes many of our rural and declining urban areas.
We arrived at Katahdin Outfitters just as a storm was rolling in and we quickly loaded the trailers and vans with our gear. The boys worked together unloading our U-Haul Trailer and selected their paddles and life vests that were soon wrapped in a big blue tarp. The outfitter vans left Millinocket and within ten minutes we were out of cell reception and heading down logging roads, deep into the wilderness. Our driver Paul has been hauling Pemi into the wilderness for the last twenty years and quickly asked for an update on Reilly McCue. I let him know that Reilly was running an incredible fishing and hunting guiding service out of the North Shore of Boston. Paul shared a story about how he “accidently” hit a few partridges on the road and Reilly jumped out of the van and quickly de-feathered and zip -ocked the meat for the first meal of the journey. Ten jaw-dropping Pemi boys had watched with a range of emotions as Reilly made quick work of the game.
As we drove deep into the back woods, Paul shared with me the process of timbering the region, and some of the local struggles living in this far-flung locale. I asked how climate change was affecting the Allagash region and he provided three examples. The moose population was significantly down because tics have been moving further north and emaciating the moose. He had never seen turkey vultures in this region before, and bass were now populating trout-only lakes. While we talked, the boys watched the pine trees rush by and a raven carry away an unlucky red squirrel. Deer scampered, and the dust from the dry roads churned as the vans surged deeper and deeper into the wilderness.
After two hours, we arrived at Chamberlain Lake and began to unload the canoes and gear as dark clouds to our south inspired a touch of adrenaline to get the boys moving. Chamberlain is named after the famous Civil War colonel of the 20th Maine that fought gallantly at Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg. We stopped briefly for a group photo, and I wondered how these twenty boys would respond to the Call of the Wilderness. Would they come together as a group and return to Pemi changed by the experience?
Fortunately, the storm that hugged the southern horizon moved away and the boys arrived at the Boy Scout campsite with plenty of daylight to set-up their tents and begin the process of preparing dinner. Harry Morris, counselor of Senior 3 and former trip counselor, prepared each group’s supplies, from tents to meals, all while running his cabin and meeting the demands of camp in the waning days of the first half. Anyone who has worked at Pemi knows that these points of transition are fairly time- and energy-consuming, so well done, Harry! As we went to bed Monday night, a nearly full moon began to rise somewhere just to the northeast of Mount Katahdin. At the time we had no idea how important this moon would be to our coming adventure.
At 5 AM on Tuesday, I awoke to the first light of the day and thus began the ritual of the coffee. Unlike my Seniors, I tend to wake at the crack of dawn when camping in the backcountry. The process involves sliding out of your tent as quietly as possible, trying not to wake your tent mate, grabbing a pot and walking down to the lake for water. The birds harken your arrival and a family of loons across the bay peer with mild interest at the stranger on the shore. With the water in the pot, you light the Coleman Stove, boil the water, slowly pour the water through a coffee filter, relishing the smell of the ground beans and the quietness of being the first one awake. For about twenty minutes it is just the birds, the gentle sun, the sound of soft waves, the fresh chill in the air, and the hot coffee warming your hands and soul.
It wasn’t long before I was joined by Jackson Reed, and Senior counselors Harry and Zacc Dwan. Over coffee, we discussed and reviewed our plan for the day. When choosing to paddle the lake section of the Allagash, you are blessed with a diversity of landscapes and challenges. If the wind is calm and there are no storms to negotiate, the lake route is fairly ideal for paddlers of a range of abilities and provides a diversity of wildlife. If the wind howls, the trip leaders have some fascinating and challenging decisions to make. One of the down sides of battling weather concerns the first night we arrived was that we were unable to knock off a few miles of Lake Chamberlain before setting up our tents. These miles would soon pose a challenge for our respective teams of canoers.
After a hearty breakfast, the lads broke down their tents and loaded the canoes with their gear and twenty buckets of supplies. The weight was evenly distributed in the canoes and amongst the group. As we turned out of our sheltered campsite, we soon realized the wind was going to pose a significant challenge for the group. The first group hugged the south side of Lake Chamberlain while my group decided to cross the lake at the narrowest section and make our way along the northern shore. The wind barreling down the center of the lake made neither option particularly inviting. The first group only made it two of the eleven miles planned for the day when they realized progress was fairly futile in the winds that were now gusting close to 30 mph. My group crossed the lake at the narrowest point and began pulling their canoes along the rocky northern shoreline, a slow and arduous process testing balance and grit. Whenever a point jutted out and cut down the wind, the boys paddled to the next exposed shoreline. We were able to cover 4.5 miles in seven hours; however, by late afternoon it was clear we needed change our plans.
Jackson and I found a deserted Camp Nugent, a seasonal hunting cottage with a cove protected from the wind and a grassy lawn to take a nap and have dinner. We all settled down to wait out the wind, many boys choosing to succumb to a well-deserved nap as Jackson prepared a meal of pasta and tuna fish. By 8:30 PM, the wind began to significantly die down and both groups decided via radio to push forward to our original planned destination. With a clear night and a full moon just beginning to rise from the east as the sun set in the west, the boys felt refreshed and excited for the adventure. I have to admit, I was tired and sore and was wondering what I was doing on this trip. Some of the boys were feeling and sharing some of their concerns, but the mood of the group began to change. As the moon boldly rose from the backdrop of Mount Katahdin, we all felt our spirits rise and began to paddle with positive energy and a renewed sense of adventure.
Harry’s group crossed Lake Chamberlain and were soon on our tail as we made our way to the Lock Dam Campsite. The moonlight sparkled on the water and the white caps disappeared as the boys made up seven miles in two hours of paddling. There were some anxious moments as we hunted for the Lock Dam in the moonlight but we soon found our destination just as the wind began to pick up once again. It was an incredibly long first day for the boys as we pulled the boats ashore, set-up our tents, and fell fast asleep. Jackson set out a lamp to help guide the arrival of the second group and we were soon all together again.
Lock dam was built in 1841 to help control the flow of water into the Penobscot River in order to improve the transportation of timber down the river. The boys awoke at 7 AM and began the arduous process of repacking the canoes for our trip to Eagle Lake. There was a debate whether to rouse the boys earlier to beat potential wind, but the length of the previous day and the possibility of more moon-lit paddling made sleep our choice of action.
We were not certain what we would find once we left the sheltered region just below the dam, for the the next day’s journey on Eagle Lake had the potential to be even more exposed to wind. As we turned the corner and once again paddled west, the boys were met with dispiriting and relentless gale force winds that eventually forced both groups to find shelter. Fortunately, Thoreau Island serenely beckoned our boats and the boys, tired from the previous day’s challenges followed by another tough morning of paddling, were incredibly grateful to find a place to wait out the relentless wind. I imagine the politics and tension of the 1850s made the Maine Wilderness a special refuge for Thoreau in 1857. (Perhaps the politics of 2016 might make all of us also long for a Thoreau Island!)
While the boys napped, I went with Harry and a few boys to explore the island where Thoreau made his summer retreat of 1857. We had learned some lessons from the first day and were quite content waiting out the wind with the hope that it would eventually die down. The boys napped, played cards, went for a swim or joined me for explorations of the island. At our campsite table, the boys shared and discussed their favorite book from the previous school year.
Fortunately, the winds once again died down and we loaded the canoes as the evening moon began to rise. We paddled for close to eight miles, as the lake was incredibly calm. The moon rose blood-red to our northeast, and I began to notice the boys were paddling with cleaner strokes and in tighter formations, allowing the lead boat to create a wake and decrease the resistance. It took 48 hours of hard paddling, but a team was beginning to emerge and the pace of our progress dramatically increased with each stroke of the paddle. Our broader appreciation for the adventure had reached a tipping point.
With the moon as our guide, we arrived at Eagle Lake campsite at 11 PM. We had now covered over twenty-five miles, negotiating tough winds, personal doubt, and previous expectations about a Huck Finn-like paddle down the Allagash River. In the first two days, we all had to adjust our aspirations for the trip. Some of the boys had images of rapids and gentle paddles down the Allagash River with little awareness of wind and open lakes. The lake route of the journey was magnificent in its beauty, as we saw eagles, osprey, loons, and stunning views of Mount Katahdin, but the physical demands and the uncertainties of when the wind might ease up tested each member of the group.
With everyone paddling with a partner, trying conditions can create negative energy that undermines the group’s ability to paddle with economy and direction. Each boy has a choice of whether to provide encouragement and push a little harder, wallow in self-pity, or swing somewhere in between. I know as I paddled in the bow of the canoe I didn’t always agree with the line chosen by my partner in the stern or understand how difficult it was to both paddle and steer when the wind relentlessly struck the canoe at various angles. I didn’t fully appreciate the challenge and success my partner Jackson was having keeping a consistent line until we switched seats and I realized that the wind easily defeated the counterbalancing C or J stroke. As a trip leader and coach, I found it interesting to watch each canoe crew work through a range of emotions. By the end of the second day of hard paddling, it was clear that the boys were stronger and beginning to embrace a broader appreciation for their journey. I also appreciated the care Harry Morris had taken in choosing canoe partners for this trip.
At the Eagle Lake Camp site, the winds felt unusually calm when we awoke the next morning. I prepared chocolate pancakes for the boys, which were eaten with gusto and gratifying appreciation. We headed out toward a placid Churchill Lake with a few recommendations for fun and exploration from our good friend Reilly McCue. Our first stop was a bridge where the boys could jump into the water. Each boy launched into the cool waves, a fresh and exhilarating experience. After bridge jumping, we searched for Thoroughfare Brook, an ecosystem loaded with birds, brook trout, and moose.
At the entrance of the brook, we saw two moose, and Jackson identified dozens of birds. Kingfishers announced our arrival and escorted the canoes up the brook. I broke out my fishing rod and landed several brook trout that the boys later cooked and ate on Ritz crackers. The brook, shielded by wind, provided the boys a very different experience as we paddled deeper into the wilderness. The beauty was breathtaking, although I have to admit I was a little sad knowing our trip was nearly over.
After our adventure in the brook, the boys entered Churchill Lake with a stiff wind…at our backs, for once. Each canoe team desperately tried to build the most efficient sail from tent flies, raincoats, or tarps – with a wide range of success and failure. As we sped across Churchill, we soon saw the dam leading to the Allagash River, our final campsite and our launch site for our last stage of the adventure. We arrived at the campsite a day before the Ranger station was celebrating the Park’s 50th Anniversary. Rangers, past and present, and families with deep appreciation for the incredible beauty and transformational experience were flooding into the camp for the big celebration. A large pit filled with timber was set ablaze to build coals for the big baked bean cook-off the following morning.
The next morning, the boys carried their canoes to the launch of the Allagash Rapids. Jackson met with the team and reviewed the various strokes and maneuvers to successfully navigate the rapids. Each morning, the Allagash Ranger Station releases more water to lift the level of the river and create Class Two rapids. As the boys launch their canoes and point their bows down the river, they look for rocks and the “v’s” that emerge between two rocks, creating deeper, safer water. They quickly realize it is critical to keep paddling hard and hit uncertain water with speed. After each stretch of rapids, the boys wait for the trail canoe to join the group. In thirty minutes, the boys traveled a distance that had once taken us six hours in the wind. I couldn’t help but notice and appreciate my group’s cohesion and self-confidence. When the canoes reached our exit location, each boat waited and helped the next canoe out of the water.
Our return with Paul in the van took just under three hours to cover the nearly fifty miles of canoeing we covered in four days. We helped unload the gear and repacked the U-Haul for the long drive home to Lower Baker Pond. We consumed copious amounts of pizza while a television set on CNN dumped the latest tragedy in Munich. It was a little surreal to have been away from civilization for five straight days, seeing only a handful of people, yet we were quickly reminded of a complex world awaiting all of us. We asked the waitress to change the channel and we blissfully consumed the pizza and held onto the joys and innocence of our adventure.
~ Charlie Malcolm