Group Canoe Trip on the Allagash River Renews Maine Writer’s Faith in Humanity

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We have been through a lot in recent years. Doubts abound about the status of our humanity towards one another.

I had doubts, so I went to the Allagash River. There, my worries flew in the company of strangers with each stroke of the paddle.

The Allagash was once a dream. Then it was before me: a dream reality of green goodness, the water in all its splendor – rapids, eddies, white caps blown by the wind rolling through the lakes – all in the midst of erratic rocks, flora and wildlife. The boats – six of them – carried people who traveled together but individually in search of something personal in the wilderness of it all.

For five days, we covered 60 miles in a canoe. Twelve people from all walks of life paddled together on this northeast-flowing river. The calm between strangers is loudly palpable at first. Then the moment takes over. Water beckons, instructions are given, supplies are loaded, and work begins.

The muscles found me like a stranger, pushing me over and over with every attempt at a movement I made. My knees bruised by the first punches thrown by the river; I finally acquiesced in his power. The repetitive nature of the day finally became heartwarming. Loading, paddling, unloading, setting up camp, preparing meals and then spending the night are the daily trips along the river. The monotony of a trip embraced because we were at the mercy of nature and your success depends on the success of the group. We were now dependent on each other.

As the forests embraced us, the flow of water continually tested our skills and nerves. Although the moose ignored us, we have still seen plenty of wilderness in a waterway protected by the state of Maine since 1966, being the first time that a waterway has been protected by a state – to be preserved for always. The Allagash is a vast wild gem.

From Churchill Dam to Allagash Falls, we made our way, canoe after canoe. Separated but together, always together. At every bend in the river, a wrapped gift was waiting to be opened. Bald eagles, blue herons and kingfishers have constantly challenged our sense of photography. Spruce trees, pines and birches waved to us amid ancient American elms saying “not today” to the disease. Mergansers and Common Loon were our steadfast wingers on the trip, while clownish Canadian jays stole snacks from us. And always under the water of the rocks of time urged us on with their grace.

We didn’t see anything artificial except a bridge or two for logging trucks to cross. A unique symbiotic relationship at work, loggers and nature coexist along the Allagash. Endless dirt roads with craters force drivers exiting vehicles to check for valuables that have fallen from pockets or brittle bones that may have broken. The Allagash is not an easy place to get to, and that’s a good thing.

We paddled a river that once saw native people in bark canoes take its course and called it home. Through deep and shallow water, yesterday’s loggers drove miles of timber. Thoreau paddled this waterway in 1857, his thoughts floundering over and over again. We too, all of us, have left our own thoughts behind. We left them at every turn, on the trail to a nearby fire tower, in the cooling water of the river as we swam, and in the casts of fishermen reliving childhood dreams of catching trout. .

The conversations weren’t about politics, religion, or the evils of society, but more about life experiences, travel, and the well-executed art of roasting a marshmallow in search of that perfect s’more. Most importantly, our conversation was about the moment, savoring every second. Neither of us thought about the next day, let alone the next minute. We were the minute, and for 12 people to do this at the same time, it’s special.

Yes, humanity is intact. For he was there, huddled around the campfire as we all shared an experience that lifted us to a higher place.

As the light from that final campfire faded to orange embers, our group was at peace with a journey that was soon to come to an end. And for many there that night, I’m sure, dreamed that this next trip could be danced while they slept.

This last day, I got up and watched each canoe sail toward shore. A light mist hung over each boat, halos lifted in view by the morning sun digging holes through the trees. Amid the sound of water, laughter and gravel now beneath our feet, we were baptized with hugs and handshakes, our hearts sewn together over a period of time that will now last a lifetime.

I left the renewed river in the company of friends. I’m sure Geoff, Anna, Lauren, Lani, Jake, Richard, Katie Beth, Olga, Dakota, Sarika, and Griffin all felt it too: an end and a beginning at a time.

Each of us came away with our own personal connection to the river and to each other. We also, collectively, left as one after sharing time and space in a shrine of kindness. It was a good trip, a necessary trip and one that I know will support us throughout our lives.

Anyone interested in exploring the Allagash Wilderness Waterway can find out more online at Canoe trips in Allagash.

RJ Heller, BDN Down East contributor

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, avid reader and award-winning book reviewer who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.

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