Beaver Pond

August 2020

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.

A Perfect Day

August 2020

The threat of a tropical storm was all over the internet. Everyone at Wheatons was talking about it and whether it would migrate north. We were in the projected path, but today, in our little corner of the world, the sun was shining brightly and not even a wisp of gray cloud would darken the day. Andy, my friend and local fishing guide, was rested from working only a few days during the past few weeks due to the pandemic trashing the tourist business at Wheatons. At dinner last night there were only three tables with diners, all spaciously separated. Patrick greeted us with his usual cheeriness. His wife, Sandy, was a bit more serious than usual but met me and Patti with a smile and warm welcome. I missed the hugs but not this year. So this morning Andy was ready for us having put the Old Grand canoe in the water earlier at Spednick. He knows I cannot get to Wheatons before 9:00am. He said he had saved the best fishing for us and he wasn’t exaggerating. The group of pods was not far from our landing. It was almost like the bass were waiting for our return. One of my first casts brought to the surface a 3 1⁄2 lb. beauty who ran me down to the backing like a large trout. This was a first for me. It was a glorious day. Lovely Patti beside me, a blue sky and Andy at the bow. And the fish were taking with an intensity I have never experienced before. Tomorrow is a trip into the wilderness with Ted, my next-door neighbor and friend who introduced me life on the lake in Danforth, Maine. We are going back woods off the grid to fish for native brook trout. Another splendid day in the offing. Good folks and sheltered water. The storm will have to wait.

Island in the Lake

August 2020

The day was overcast but still warm for September. I was in shorts and a well-worn wool plaid shirt–one of my standbys from fishing trips past. Andy, my friend and local guide, was waiting anxiously beside his trailer when I pulled up. “Forecast is calling for a bit of rain,” he said. We looked skyward, concluding the threat was low and we would go ahead. I proceeded to pack my fishing bag and rod in the canoe. We were off in minutes, over the dirt trail out of Wheaton’s and onto the main road, headed to Spednic Lake for a day of bass fishing. Our talk in the truck was on the three W’s: work and women– his and mine–and the weather. A few raindrops on the windshield were not going to stop us. On arrival, the routine was the same: backing the trailer down to the water and then dropping the canoe in with a small splash. Comfortable as always in the re-fashioned car seats, we took off for our favorite fall fishing spot. An osprey passed overhead, circling high. This graceful hawk can occasionally be heard making a sharp cry when it flies close to the water; I have spotted its nesting platform when exploring further east, on the Canadian side of the lake.

Andy has a 15-horsepower motor on his canoe, so the ride was the usual languid pace. I dropped my hand in the water to feel the gentle rush through my fingers as we cruised along. Despite the overcast skies and some heavy-looking clouds on the horizon, the sun was steadily breaking through. Any lingering concerns about the weather were displaced by the anticipation for a great fishing day and the overwhelming beauty of the wilderness we were passing through. Andy knows the lake well and could navigate it with his eyes closed. We arrived at our destination, and it was time to fish. My rod was ready, my trusty streamer tied. I start casting and BANG got a hit. We did our customary, congratulatory high fives and for the next couple of hours caught and released the equivalent of a small school of bass. It was about that time Andy mentioned the weather was turning. I hadn’t looked up from the water for the last couple of hours. I removed my fishing glasses and sat down to observe the sky. It was cloudy and getting dark. Andy was looking serious and not fishy-happy. “What’s happening?” I asked. He told me to stay seated and hold on. Well that little outboard motor had some push to it. We took off with the bow of the canoe tilting upward, moving full throttle through the water. The cold rain came down suddenly and in sheets, hitting me in the face like sleet. Andy was saying something but between the roar of the motor and the pounding rain I couldn’t make it out. We were soaked in a matter of seconds. My legs were quaking from the cold as I tried to shield my face in my bandanna.

After a few minutes that felt like an eternity, we were close to shore. Not the shore we set out from, however. What now I thought? Andy hopped out into the shallows to pull the canoe–with me in it–to land. We were on an island. A remote, deeply forested and apparently uninhabited island. I got out and headed for the shelter of the trees at the edge of the shore. Andy pulled up the canoe and started unloading the lunch gear: fire starter, wood, food, utensils. He threw a rolled-up canvas toward me. “Put this on,” he said. I opened it and realized it was an old fisherman’s jumpsuit. Judging from the smell of it, it was still wet when it was rolled up and stored in Andy’s cellar. There was at least a decade’s worth of mildew on it and I couldn’t have been happier to put it on. It was an effective shield against the relentless rain. Andy’s guide skills shine in these situations. He knew exactly where we were and ordered me to follow him. We gathered up the lunch gear and headed deeper into the woods. I trusted Andy but not my own eyes when I saw what was before me in the middle of a clearing: an old, small, abandoned cabin.

The cabin was built on large log posts and the entire exterior was covered in pine from the island. Incredibly, it seemed some recent carpentry work had been done to shore up the foundation. Andy headed over and waved me to the porch. The screenless screen door led to an interior carpeted with moss. It had clearly not been occupied for years–there were no furnishings or even a kitchen, just a great room lined with empty shelves and a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace—though there was evidence of some recent four-legged visitors. There was one bedroom. Andy ran back to secure his canoe and left me alone with instructions to start a fire in the stone hearth. There were some piles of sawdust and leftover kindling. Andy was able to coax a few small flames which began to flicker and build, creating some warmth and light in the dank room. I shed my smelly jumpsuit, sneezed about a dozen times from the mildew, and then sat down cross-legged on the mossy floor in front of the fire to warm up. Andy got back from tying up the canoe and brought the coffee pot back with lake water. “We may be here overnight, “he said. My first concern was that we didn’t have provisions for dinner or sleeping bags. We could survive until the next day without food, I was much less enthusiastic spending the night on the cold, wet floor. I questioned whether we should ration our limited food supply. Andy shrugged. He is a man of few words. He doesn’t predict or assume. When the fish don’t take, he says, enigmatically, “It must be something.” The heavy rain continued. We were both hungry. So we threw caution to the wind and enjoyed our full, “stream-side” lunch prepared by the kitchen staff at Wheatons: grilled chicken, boiled potatoes and onions, blueberry pie and fresh coffee made with lake water. Afterward, we rested in quiet contemplation against a crusted, splintered wall of the cabin, as the rain beat steadily down on the tin roof. I prodded Andy to tell me what he knew about the history of the cabin. The man of few words opened up.

Back in the day it was the vacation home of a former professor from the University of Maine. He had grown up in and around Forest City, left to go to college, and fell in love with a fellow student who became his wife. He went on to become a professor at the University and lived the academic life — teaching during the school year and summering at the cabin on the island. Upon retirement, he and his wife spent more time at the cabin and extended their stay from first ice melt to first snowstorm. There was no electricity or running water, no bathroom–just an outhouse which had deteriorated and fallen over. The overgrown gardens reflected a past happier time. The professor lost his wife to cancer after 65 years and he retired permanently to the cabin. The empty shelves in the great room were once filled with his books. The professor, as he was known to the locals, became more reclusive as the years went on. By the time he was in his 80s he seldom traveled to shore for supplies. He survived due to the good will of a young man he met by chance at the local General Store on shore on Route 1 near Forrest City. The young fellow was a local and a student at the University Maine. He worked as a fishing guide at Wheatons Lodge and knew of the professor who had achieved something of a semi-legendary status among the locals. They struck up a friendship. Thereafter, every summer when the young man returned home, he would visit the professor on the island with provisions. Eventually the professor stopped coming over to the mainland and his only source of supplies was this young man, who made arrangements for regular deliveries during the fall and winter months. The professor lived into his 90’s alone but for the memories of his beloved wife, his books and the friendship of this young man, who went on to become a professor himself at the University of Maine in large part owing to the influence of his elderly friend. When the professor died, about three years ago, he left his island and his books to the young man, who has slowly been restoring the cabin as a vacation place of his own. I gazed at the empty shelves and imagined them teeming with books, a blazing fire in the hearth, a fur rug and some well-worn overstuffed furniture. It would have been a real sanctuary, as it was for us that day.

Epilogue: the rain finally stopped, and we made it back to the mainland before dark.