Greg picked us up early in his “woods” Ford 150. Ted jumped in the back seat, the one usually occupied by Mali, Greg’s 13-year-old lab mix, who was home resting after an exhausting trip the day before. (I call her my rent-a-dog since she loves to sleep in front of my fireplace at camp.) Greg is a local friend and master of all trades, and Ted is my next-door neighbor and buddy from home, who first introduced me to Maine and life on the lake. Today was Wilderness Day as we’ve come to call it—our annual excursion deep in the woods, in search of the holy grail of Northern Maine fishing: native brook trout. It is one of those look-forward-to trips that kept me going during the pandemic quarantine. The habitat of the native trout are the marvelous “artificial” ponds created by dams along the stream, the handiwork of beavers–those clever, woodland architects whose purpose in building them is of course the very same as our own goal that day: a good catch. Their hard work corralled the trout into the ponds, it was finding the ponds that was the hard part for us.
We headed toward the woods on River Road, which curves west around the Baskehegan River through Danforth. At Bancroft, Greg made a short stop, backed up and turned right onto an old logging road. It didn’t look familiar but one logging trail off the highway looks a lot like the next one. The dirt road got narrower and rockier as we went along. Greg said to keep an eye out for some plastic ribbons that he had tied onto to branches along the route last year. No such luck. May as well have left a trail of crumbs. Moose had eaten their way back and forth on the trail all year and the ribbons were garnish. We continued bumping along. We were not lost but could have spent a lot of time searching for nothing. No one was saying anything when Greg suddenly stopped and put the car in park. “We’re here,” he said, matter-of-factly. We got out and looked around at the thick walls of pines. There was no path or obvious opening into the dense woods. Ted and I shook our heads. He was reluctant to question Greg, his friend of 50 years and who is the most native of us all. But Greg has led us to these ponds before and he seemed confident as he quickly doused himself in bug spray. I kept quiet and followed suit, putting extra spray on my bandanna and lucky straw fishing hat. I pulled up my Neoprenes and bent down stiffly to tie up my fishing boots, remembering every bump from the ride in. I broke down my three-weight rod and was finally ready to go.
Greg proceeded into the brambles, following his own inner compass that instead of pointing north points to fish. He has a kind of dead reckoning that naval navigators would envy. We went in after him. Weighed down by my waders through the thick brush I struggled to keep up. I put on my reading glasses as a barrier to the blinding leaves and twigs in my path and was constantly mindful of maintaining my balance. I had spent the winter exercising with an emphasis on balance. Today was surely the test. Downed logs and snow-felled branches littered the landscape. The earth became muckier as we traveled in deeper. “Look,” Greg said, pointing out some active bubbling in the mud. An underground spring. We were getting close. The springs fed the ponds we were looking for and served as trail markers on our course. A good sign but we still had a way to go. My boots were caked with mud and getting heavier by the minute. The sun was blanketed by the tree canopy overhead. I mostly looked down so as not to not trip on anything. I was the last of us three and noticed I was falling behind. Ted was able to keep up with Greg. What if I lost sight of them? I didn’t exactly blend into the environment—I would easily stand out if they had to come look for me. But what a way to pass the time until sunrise. Not so fast! A trickling steam unfolded like magic before me. The two ahead of me had already stopped and I caught up with them. Greg pulled out a beer from his pack, popped it open and took a sip. He was as relieved as we were to have avoided the humiliation of camping in the woods overnight because we were lost. His friends in Danforth would have lived off the joke for years.
The small, black stream led to the first beaver pond, and it was teeming with trout. There was plenty of room to back cast and I safely secured my position in the middle of the pond. The water was chest high, my waders tugged up to my shoulders. I could see the rugged structure left by the beavers clearly through the low-hanging branches and leaves. What a marvel of nature to see how the beaver constructs from branches and downed logs a dam some ten feet in height. I felt a little like an explorer stumbling upon ancient, crumbling ruins in the middle of a jungle. In that moment, the humble wooden dam was just as breathtaking. I hoped to catch a glimpse of one of these intrepid builders. Maybe next year.