Life in the Open Air/Chapter VIII
- Chapter VIII. Penobscot.
It was now five o’clock of an August evening. Our work-day was properly done. But we were to camp somewhere, “anywhere out of the world” of railroads. The Penobscot glimmered winningly. Our birch looked wistful for its own element. Why not marry shallop to stream? Why not yield to the enticement of this current, fleet and clear, and gain a few beautiful miles before nightfall? All the world was before us where to choose our bivouac. We dismounted our birch from the truck, and laid its lightness upon the stream. Then we became stevedores, stowing cargo. Sheets of birch-bark served for dunnage. Cancut, in flamboyant shirt, ballasted the after-part of the craft. For the present, I, in flamboyant shirt, paddled in the bow, while Iglesias, similarly glowing, sat à la Turque midships among the traps. Then, with a longing sniff at the caldron of Soggysampcook, we launched upon the Penobscot.
Upon no sweeter stream was voyager ever launched than this of our summer-evening sail. There was no worse haste in its more speed; it went fleetly lingering along its leafy dell. Its current, unripplingly smooth, but dimpled ever, and wrinkled with the whirls that mark an underflow deep and shady, bore on our bark. The banks were low and gently wooded. No Northern forest, rude and gloomy with pines, stood stiffly and unsympathizingly watching the graceful water, but cheerful groves and delicate coppices opened in vistas where level sunlight streamed, and barred the river with light, between belts of lightsome shadow. We felt no breeze, but knew of one, keeping pace with us, by a tremor in the birches as it shook them. On we drifted, mile after mile, languidly over sweet calms. One would seize his paddle, and make our canoe quiver for a few spasmodic moments. But it seemed needless and impertinent to toil, when noiselessly and without any show of energy the water was bearing us on, over rich reflections of illumined cloud and blue sky, and shadows of feathery birches, bearing us on so quietly that our passage did not shatter any fair image, but only drew it out upon the tremors of the water.
So, placid and beautiful as an interview of first love, went on our first meeting with this Northern river. But water, the feminine element, is so mobile and impressible that it must protect itself by much that seems caprice and fickleness. We might be sure that the Penobscot would not always flow so gently, nor all the way from forests to the sea conduct our bark without one shiver of panic, where rapids broke noisy and foaming over rocks that showed their grinding teeth at us.
Sunset now streamed after us down the river. The arbor-vitæ along the banks marked tracery more delicate than any ever wrought by deftest craftsman in western window of an antique fane. Brighter and richer than any tints that ever poured through painted oriel flowed the glories of sunset. Dear, pensive glooms of nightfall drooped from the zenith slowly down, narrowing twilight to a belt of dying flame. We were aware of the ever fresh surprise of starlight: the young stars were born again.
Sweet is the charm of starlit sailing where no danger is. And in days when the Munki Mannakens were foes of the pale-face, one might dash down rapids by night in the hurry of escape. Now the danger was before, not pursuing. We must camp before we were hurried into the first “rips” of the stream, and before night made bush-ranging and camp-duties difficult.
But these beautiful thickets of birch and alder along the bank, how to get through them? We must spy out an entrance. Spots lovely and damp, circles of ferny grass beneath elms offered themselves. At last, as to patience always, appeared the place of wisest choice. A little stream, the Ragmuff, entered the Penobscot. “Why Ragmuff?” thought we, insulted. Just below its mouth two spruces were propylæa to a little glade, our very spot. We landed. Some hunters had once been there. A skeleton lodge and frame of poles for drying moose-hides remained.
Like skilful campaigners, we at once distributed ourselves over our work. Cancut wielded the axe; I the match-box; Iglesias the batterie de cuisine. Ragmuff drifted one troutling and sundry chubby chub down to nip our hooks. We re-roofed our camp with its old covering of hemlock-bark, spreading over a light tent-cover we had provided. The last glow of twilight dulled away; monitory mists hid the stars.
Iglesias, as chef, with his two marmitons, had, meanwhile, been preparing supper. It was dark when he, the colorist, saw that fire with delicate touches of its fine brushes had painted all our viands to perfection. Then, with the same fire stirred to illumination, and dashing masterly glows upon landscape and figures, the trio partook of the supper and named It sublime.
Here follows the carte of the Restaurant Ragmuff, — woodland fare, a banquet simple, but elegant:—
- Truite. Meunier.
- Porc frit au naturel.
- Côtelettes d’Elan.
- Tetrao Canadensis.
- Hard-Tack. Fromage.
- Ragmuff blanc. Penobscot monsseux.
- Thé. Chocolat de Bogotá.
- Petit verre de Cognac.
At that time I had a temporary quarrel with the frantic nineteenth century’s best friend, tobacco, — and Iglesias, being totally at peace with himself and the world, never needs anodynes. Cancut, therefore, was the only cloud-blower.
We two solaced ourselves with scorning civilization from our vantage-ground. We were beyond fences, away from the clash of town-clocks, the clink of town-dollars, the hiss of town-scandals. As soon as one is fairly in camp and has begun to eat with his fingers, he is free. He and truth are at the bottom of a well, — a hollow, fire-lighted cylinder of forest. While the manly man of the woods is breathing Nature like an Amreeta draught, is it anything less than the summum bonum?
“Yet some call American life dull.”
“Ay, to dullards!” ejaculated Iglesias.
Moose were said to haunt these regions. Toward midnight our would-be moose-hunter paddled about up and down, seeking them and finding not. The waters were too high. Lily-pads were drowned. There were no moose looming duskily in the shallows, to be done to death at their banquet. They were up in the pathless woods, browsing on leaves and deappetizing with bitter bark. Starlight paddling over reflected stars was enchanting, but somniferous. We gave up our vain quest and glided softly home, — already we called it home, — toward the faint embers of our fire. Then all slept, as only woodmen sleep, save when for moments Cancut’s trumpet-tones sounded alarums, and we others awoke to punch and batter the snorer into silence.
In due time, bird and cricket whistled and chirped the reveille. We sprang from our lair. We dipped in the river and let its gentle friction polish us more luxuriously than ever did any hair-gloved polisher of an Oriental bath. Our joints crackled for themselves as we beat the current. From bath like this comes no unmanly kief, no sensuous, slumberous, dreamy indifference, but a nervous, intent, keen, joyous activity. A day of deeds is before us, and we would be doing.
When we issue from the Penobscot, from our baptism into a new life, we need no valet for elaborate toilet. Attire is simple, when the woods are the tiring-room.
When we had taken off the water and put on our clothes, we simultaneously thought of breakfast. Like a circle of wolves around the bones of a banquet, the embers of our fire were watching each other over the ashes; we had but to knock their heads together and fiery fighting began. The skirmish of the brands boiled our coffee and fried our pork, and we embarked and shoved off. A thin blue smoke, floating upward, for an hour or two, marked our bivouac; soon this had gone out, and the banks and braes of Ragmuff were lonely as if never a biped had trodden them. Nature drops back to solitude as easily as man to peace; — how little this fair globe would miss mankind!
The Penobscot was all asteam with morning mist. It was blinding the sun with a matinal oblation of incense. A crew of the profane should not interfere with such act of worship. Sacrilege is perilous, whoever be the God. We were instantly punished for irreverence. The first “rips” came up-stream under cover of the mist, and took us by surprise. As we were paddling along gently, we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a boiling rapid. Gnashing rocks, with cruel foam upon their lips, sprang out of the obscure, eager to tear us. Great jaws of ugly blackness snapped about us, as if we were introduced into a coterie of crocodiles. Symplegades clanged together behind; mighty gulfs, below seducing bends of smooth water, awaited us before. We were in for it. We spun, whizzed, dashed, leaped, “cavorted”; we did whatever a birch running the gantlet of whirlpools and breakers may do, except the fatal finality of a somerset. That we escaped, and only escaped. We had been only reckless, not audacious; and therefore peril, not punishment, befell us. The rocks smote our frail shallop; they did not crush it. Foam and spray dashed in our faces; solid fluid below the crest did not overwhelm us. There we were, presently, in water tumultuous, but not frantic. There we were, three men floating in a birch, not floundering in a maelstrom, — on the water, not under it, — sprinkled, not drowned, — and in a wild wonder how we got into it and how we got out of it.
Cancut’s paddle guided us through. Unwieldy he may have been in person, but he could wield his weapon well. And so, by luck and skill, we were not drowned in the magnificent uproar of the rapid. Success, that strange stirabout of Providence, accident, and courage, were ours. But when we came to the next cascading bit, though the mist had now lifted, we lightened the canoe by two men’s avoirdupois, that it might dance, and not blunder heavily, might seek the safe shallows, away from the dangerous bursts of mid-current, and choose passages where Cancut, with the setting-pole, could let it gently down. So Iglesias and I plunged through the labyrinthine woods, the stream along.
Not long after our little episode of buffeting, we shot out again upon smooth water, and soon, for it is never smooth but it is smoothest, upon a lake, Chesuncook.