Life in the Open Air/Chapter XV
- Chapter XV. Out of the Woods.
What could society do without women and children? Both we found at the first house, twenty miles from the second. The children buzzed about us; the mother milked for us one of Maine’s vanguard cows. She baked for us bread, fresh bread, — such bread! not staff of life, — life’s vaulting-pole. She gave us blueberries with cream of cream. Ah, what a change! We sat on chairs, at a table, and ate from plates. There was a table-cloth, a salt-cellar made of glass, of glass never seen at camps near Katahdin. There was a sugar-bowl, a milk-jug, and other paraphernalia of civilization, including — O memories of Joseph Bourgogne! — a dome of baked beans, with a crag of pork projecting from the apex. We partook decorously, with controlled elbows, endeavoring to appear as if we were accustomed to sit at tables and manage plates. The men, women, and children of Millinoket were hospitable and delighted to see strangers, and the men, like all American men in the summer before a Presidential election, wanted to talk politics. Katahdin’s last full-bodied appearance was here; it rises beyond a breadth of black forest, a bulkier mass, but not so symmetrical as from the southern points of view. We slept that night on a feather-bed, and took cold for want of air, beneath a roof.
By the time we had breakfasted, Cancut arrived with Birch on an ox-sledge. Here our well-beloved west branch of the Penobscot, called of yore Norimbagua, is married to the east branch, and of course by marriage loses his identity, by and by, changing from the wild, free, reckless rover of the forest to a tamish family-man style of river, useful to float rafts and turn mills. However, during the first moments of the honeymoon, the happy pair, Mr. Penobscot and Miss Milly Noket, now a unit under the marital name, are gay enough, and glide along bowery reaches and in among fair islands, with infinite endearments and smiles, making the world very sparkling and musical there. By and by they fall to romping, and, to avoid one of their turbulent frolics, Cancut landed us, as he supposed, on the mainland, to lighten the canoe. Just as he was sliding away down-stream, we discovered that he had left us upon an island in the midst of frantic, impassable rapids. “Stop, stop, John Gilpin!” and luckily he did stop, otherwise he would have gone on to tide-water, ever thinking that we were before him, while we, with our forest appetites, would have been glaring hungrily at each other, or perhaps drawing lots for a cannibal doom. Once again, as we were shooting a long rapid, a table-top rock caught us in mid-current. We were wrecked. It was critical. The waves swayed us perilously this way and that. Birch would be full of water, or overturned, in a moment. Small chance for a swimmer in such maelstroms! All this we saw, but had no time to shudder at. Aided by the urgent stream, we carefully and delicately — for a coarse movement would have been death — wormed our boat off the rock, and went fleeting through a labyrinth of new perils, onward, with a wild exhilaration, like galloping through prairie on fire. Of all the high distinctive national pleasures of America, chasing buffalo, stump-speaking, and the like, there is none so intense as shooting rapids in a birch. Whenever I recall our career down the Penobscot, a longing comes over me to repeat it.
We dropped down stream without further adventures. We passed the second house, the first village, and other villages, very white and wide-awake, melodiously named Nickertow, Pattagumpus, and Mattascunk. We spent the first night at Mattawamkeag. We were again elbowed at a tavern table, and compelled to struggle with real and not ideal pioneers for fried beefsteak and soggy doughboys. The last river day was tame, but not tiresome. We paddled stoutly by relays, stopping only once, at the neatest of farm-houses, to lunch on the most airy-substantial bread and baked apples and cream. It is surprising how confidential a traveller always is on the subject of his gastronomic delights. He will have the world know how he enjoyed his dinner, perhaps hoping that the world by sympathy will enjoy its own.
Late in the afternoon of our eighth day from Greenville, Moosehead Lake, we reached the end of birch-navigation, the great mill-dams of Indian Oldtown, near Bangor. Acres of great pine logs, marked three crosses and a dash, were floating here at the boom; we saw what Maine men supposed timber was made for. According to the view acted upon at Oldtown, Senaglecouna has been for a century or centuries training up its lordly pines, that gang-saws, worked by Penobscot, should shriek through their helpless cylinders, gnashing them into boards and chewing them into sawdust.
Poor Birch! how out of its element it looked, hoisted on a freight-car and travelling by rail to Bangor! There we said adieu to Birch and Cancut. Peace and plenteous provender be with him! Journeys make friends or foes; and we remember our fat guide, not as one who from time to time just did not drown us, but as the jolly comrade of eight days crowded with novelty and beauty, and fine, vigorous, manly life.