A Yankee Notebook

August 31, 2015


HYDE PARK, VT – During the month of August in 1971, our family – my wife, the three kids, and I – paddled the headwaters of the Allagash River and followed it to its mouth. Then we stashed our canoes and hiked across Baxter State Park. The baby, Martha, was only two and a half years old, but she did amazingly well, after first loudly protesting,, "No wanna canoon!” and even slept all the way through the famous Chase Rips. She turned out to be a fearless traveler. But even in her legless sleeper suit, she had to be tied to one of us during the night.

That was 44 years ago. A few months later, our life became more complicated, and we never had another chance to get away together for long enough to take another family trip.

Till now. And though this little overnight paddling and tenting trip is hardly even a shadow of that epic, I find it takes less than ever nowadays to evoke the pleasures of the past. It helps that a lot of the stuff that goes with us on a long trip – the almost-waterproof wanigan, tents, sleeping bags, stove, headlamps – also goes on short ones. The sight of the bright yellow heavy-duty plastic of the wanigan, with lots of important stuff in it, is comforting. It sits down low in the boat, lowering the center of gravity. And when that isn’t enough, it floats down the river colorfully.

Four of us are here together at Campsite #4 on the Green River Reservoir in northern Vermont. Virginia, our oldest, has flown east all the way from Olympia, Washington, to join the trip. She’s paddling an uncertain stern (it has been 44 years, after all), while Martha’s been toiling away in the bow of the sleek Prospector canoe clad in an anomalous flower-patterned rain parka. The videographer and I have been in my Adirondack guide boat, which normally leaps across the water like a gazelle, but with a load of tents, gear, and video equipment, has been rowing more like a pickup truck loaded with cement blocks or ceramic tiles.

Green River Reservoir State Park isn’t exactly the best-kept secret in Vermont; there were lots of people here, even on a Thursday, when we arrived. The put-in is about 80 yards down from the parking lot. The park has thoughtfully provided a few two-wheeled garden carts for ferrying gear up and down the hill, and they were pretty busy. But once the boats dispersed to the individual reserved campsites, we didn’t see them anymore – maybe a fire across the lake at night, or a boat fishing along a wooded shore, but that’s it. A very peaceful place.

The rangers couldn’t have been nicer. They chatted amiably, wished us well, and gave us a map marked with our campsite, a little over a mile away. We wandered around a bit looking for it, in a fairly brisk wind and a good chop, but finally spotted its number on a piece of shingle the size of a deck of cards right down by the water. We landed, unloaded, and pulled the boats up out of the reach of the waves. It was really hot – when hasn’t it been lately? – but we put up the tents, which, thanks to the westering sun, were instantly at least ten degrees warmer than the air outside. Virginia, who works at REI, is especially good at figuring out the intricacies of modern tent erection. I was pretty well along at figuring out the color-coded parts of my own L.L. Bean dome when she came over and helped me out. It’s quite gratifying to experience the competence of your grown children; I suppose the day may come when I won’t find it surprising, as well.

Steve Giordani, our doughty videographer, produced a small bottle of bourbon. We sipped and lounged in the wind on the sunny bank and put off supper till late. The girls were way ahead of me there, as well. I reached for my knife to cube the Spam for the mac-and-cheese, and found the job already done. After supper, the cooking pot somehow got invisibly washed.

I’d brought some dry, split firewood from home – ash, which’ll burn in almost any condition, and beech. As twilight deepened, we had a lovely fire and a nostalgic conversation about our last trip, so long ago. Mother filmed it with her old 8mm camera, and we still have those films to compare with the digital results of this one. Finally, after a few yawns, the ladies repaired to their little mountain tent and Steve and I to the yellow palace, which I call Major Domo.

It was still too hot to sleep well, so I lay on top of my sleeping bag. Luckily, there were no bugs to cover up for. Apparently it was too hot in the girls’ tent, too. Virginia moved down to the lake shore in the open, and Martha snuggled on an inflated pad under the upturned guide boat. Two loons called most of the night far out on the lake.

The ranger had predicted we’d be getting rain about three in the morning. Sure enough, after a few tentative showers, it began to patter on the tent at 3:18. By five, it was really pretty heavy, but let up long enough now and then to get outside, start the Coleman, and boil up some three-pound coffee (you boil the grounds and pound the pot three times on the ground to settle them) and lots of instant oatmeal. Martha came up with a small bottle of maple syrup, which made it perfect. As we breakfasted, a sort of nautical disaster floated past: a middle-aged couple, one of them in an empty kayak and the other in a heavily loaded canoe, looking for the takeout. We pointed across the lake toward it, but doubted they’d make it against the wind. They did, though. Tough cookies.

It’s only 8:30 now, and in spite of the rain – now that I think of it, maybe because of it – the tents are down and stowed, the boats are loaded, and we’re ready to cast off for the return journey. The whole trip will have consumed only about 24 hours of actual camping and paddling, but in many ways it’s been as lovely and revealing as that original one almost half a century ago.

Photo by Willem lange