Home Commentary The Way I See It: The River Wild

The Way I See It: The River Wild

Since I returned home from a 12-day wilderness adventure a few weeks ago, friends have been asking me to re-tell the story of my trip. They seem particularly intrigued by the somewhat harrowing details of an incident that occurred on day two of our river journey. In class-III whitewater one of the boats capsized, while one of my fellow adventurers clung to a rock in the middle of the churning, deafening Webster Stream.

A rescue ensued in which my dear friend did make it off the rock, bravely swimming to safety, only to have to get back IN the righted boat and then capsize a second time. She was whisked many yards down the churning “stream” — all the while clinging to the side of the canoe — only to be gently plopped on an island. And so our adventure in the rugged Maine wilderness truly began …

There were six women, three canoes, roughly 70 miles of paddling, about 10 portages and class-II and -III rapids. During our seven days on the water, we traversed three distinct land use areas: The Allagash Wilderness Waterway, Baxter State Park, and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

I should mention that this was a VERY experienced group with lots of technical whitewater and wilderness skills between us. I say ‘between us’ because yours truly had zero whitewater canoeing experience before this trip. Yes, zilch. On day two, when my dear and gentle friend Kirstie gave us a quick lesson on ‘the top three ways you can die while paddling whitewater,’ I knew we were in for it. Phrases like ‘foot entrapment’ and ‘strainer’ became part of my vocabulary. One of the many falls we portaged around was aptly named “The Hulling Machine.” Need I say more?

Over the course of seven marvelous and challenging days, we enjoyed stunning scenery and sang a lot of songs. We walked through dense boreal forests — over roots, rocks, and downed trees — portaging what we estimated to be roughly 600 to 700 pounds of gear in various types of footwear deemed appropriate for this type of thing: crocs, sandals, old sneakers, and neoprene booties. 

Some portages were three-quarters of a mile long with multiple trips to shuttle gear, including, oddly, three large cabbages! Turns out, cabbages are great to bring on canoe trips in warm weather because they stay crispy and crunchy the whole time. Although I am now a cabbage-in-the-wild convert, you might imagine why I was cursing the cabbages on the many grueling portages. And, cursing my awkward camp chair, pounds of potable water, and a variety of other equipment, including coolers, buckets, bailers, and water bottles. 

Having feet that are extremely prone to blisters, I quickly had to ditch my brand new fancy river crocs for neoprene booties and thereby felt like my feet were contained in little walking waterbeds. This might have been pretty cool (or even funny) if I wasn’t defenseless against an array of northern Maine’s finest biting insects. Sadly, one of these “waterbed booties” is now at the bottom of the East Branch of the Penobscot River.

Our trip started innocently enough with six friends coming together to spend quality time in a remote location. The hope was to see as few people as possible (we saw only one fisherman), connect deeply with nature, and reconnect with each other.

There are so many small stories woven into the larger container of this trip in the wilds of northern Maine. But more than stories were some deep teachings, offered graciously by the wild. Although I knew this wasn’t going to be a luxury vacation in wine country, I honestly had no idea how exhilarating and deeply rewarding it would be to be kicked out of my known, familiar comfort zone. 

Each day, we faced challenges and solved problems together, as a unified team. We scouted routes and rapids and tackled (what could be) life-or-death decisions. After doing a little “calculus of risk” for each stretch of the river, a decision was made about paddling or portaging. Once we committed to paddling, it was time to dig deep for courage, bravely push away from the shore, and listen carefully to my stern. I had to be willing to trust.

Departing our adventure on the last day I emerged changed, initiated and baptized by the ripples and rapids that I befriended on this transformative journey. I felt stronger and more capable. Hard things seemed easier. The wild river held me.

Acknowledgment: These lands and waterways have been inhabited by Indigenous people for centuries before loggers and white settlers ‘discovered’ these sacred places. I am grateful for access to the wilderness that was stolen and exploited for profit during colonization.