|Lobster Lake - 1999|
Two gun shots moments apart. We are paddling from our campsite, in thick fog and rain and I wonder how anyone could be hunting in this weather. We can barely discern the outline of the trees on the near side of the shore we are heading for; I can't imagine spotting a moose, shooting it and being confident that only that moose was in my sights.
We frequently camp in places that require crossing open lakes to begin our journey home. Usually it's no problem, but always it could be. If the weather brings high winds in the morning, we know we'll have to delay our departure. Our canoes on lakes are as stable as toy boats on park ponds. No waves, no problem, but winds and waves, well, forget it. And this year we are even more susceptible to the vagaries of the wind gods because we are paddling three canoes with five people.
We all did our best to entice a sixth person to replace our old friend Bill Lewis who let his school teaching commitments take precedence over our yearly trip to Maine. We asked Bob who had just freed his weekends from work but needed to spend the time with family; Bill's brother John, who had a Yale reunion to attend, Dan's friend, Jack, who wanted to go but just couldn't and on and on. It's tough to get six adults to shed life's responsibilities for the same week and this year the best we could do was five.
I volunteered to paddle the last canoe, an almost forty year old fiberglass beast used by Mark Q when he was a boy. Alone filled over the gunwales with gear. To add some measure of stability and hope of keeping up with the group, I am tethered to Adam and Dan's aluminum canoe. Mark Q and Mark S usually lead the way. This awkward setup in fact works but poorly. Most years I enjoy working the bow of the boat, with Adam in the stern. I'd paddle and paddle hard, feeling satisfied with the resulting workout. This year, tethered to the canoe in front if I don't use a j-stroke, I swing from side to side pulling the lead canoe with me. If I paddle on both sides, I soak my gear and exhaust myself in the process.
But what worries me the most is how little control I have when the waves kick up. The day before we had paddled around Big Island, directly across from our campsite. We began in moderate winds but were mostly protected by the lee. On the backside Mark Q and I paddled into a stiff chop and for the first time I found myself really worried about my friends ahead of me. Once we had circumnavigated the island (and after Adam's encounter with the lake bottom) we faced directly into a wind that made this small body of water feel like the ocean. White caps and waves squashed any thought of our returning on time.
With all this in mind we begin our last day's crossing and are very happy to find ourselves in relatively calm water, but thick fog with rain that turns to heavy wet snow.I start with new deerskin gloves that in moments reach their own dew point. I switch to my insulated gloves and am surprised at how quickly my numb hands warm. Still they aren't water proof, but I figure we'll be out in under two hours, so no problem. Even though our trips are usually mid October, we have only once before paddled in snow. And this morning we are all stunned by the monochromatic beauty. Snow, fog, darker water, trees and earth. From my trailing canoe, the bright colors in the two canoes ahead of me stand out against this almost opaque backdrop.
I don't want it to end. Tired and wet by now, I know how unusual this panorama is; five days of sun, rain, clouds, fall colors, black nights with brilliant stars, Northern Lights and now this. What a punctuation mark. We ignore the sound of gunfire.
Almost to the landing where our trucks wait and far behind the two Marks, Adam, Dan and I stop to rest and listen. We know we are safe, we are on our way home, another year's trip has ended and strikingly so.
Paddling again we reach our take out where the two Marks are already loading the jeep. We move to do the same when we hear the sound of a motor boat. I turn and see five people dressed in camouflage and orange in a small flat-bottomed boat. Silent. A scene made almost mystical by the color against the black water and white . I notice the antlers. At first sight they just make no sense. Trailing the boat and tied by a long rope, antlers with maybe boat cushions or cardboard or something to protect and keep them afloat. I'm reminded of poor families in New Hampshire, yards strewn with litter.
My thoughts return to the airport in Fairbanks a month ago. Diane Matthew and I were waiting to check our bags and in front of us was a wiry man in his mid forties and next to his luggage was a four and a half foot wide rack of moose antlers, still covered in velvet, revealing recent life. He was saying good-bye to his friends, fellow hunters, and I thought of my upcoming trip with my friends. They shook hands, wanted to but couldn't hug. We had earlier in this trip encountered moose, impressed by the lean elegance of a cow and her calf. Here at our feet was what was left of a full grown male.
We are the outsiders. Few people in this area of Maine understand that we're just campers, just hikers, just swimmers, consumers of the sights. And we're always alone with our collective thoughts, little to bring us back to the reality that this is where other people "buy" their food. I look harder to understand this mystery of the floating antlers. Underneath the water and almost the same color is the body of the moose. My stomach knots, I see it but I don't fully comprehend. I don't want to, I'm too unprepared, and there is too little contrast to keep death at a safe distance.