From the Deadwaters of the Penobscot River to Middle Jo Mary Lake

I stood on a rock at the outlet of Lower Jo Mary Lake, watching Leah Grams and Chloe Williams wrestle with lining their canoe up the last section of the outlet stream. Three of our six boats were already safely secured behind me, and Leah and Chloe were almost there. So far it had been relatively easy, and they had obviously enjoyed the challenge of guiding their boat by hand against the current of the outlet stream that flowed from Lower Jo back into Pemadumcook Lake from where we had come.

But it seemed that Leah and Chloe were looking for more adventure than came with staying on the side of the stream and using the painters to guide the boat upstream. So, in the last section, they had waded out into the deeper water, where the current had grabbed their boat and turned it sideways. And there they stood, frozen in place, trying not to be swept downstream. With a mixture of excitement and uncertainty on each of their faces, Leah gripped the bow from the upstream side and Chloe held tight onto the stern from the downstream side. We called out instructions to them, which they could not hear due to the water rushing past them. After a few moments of uncertainty, they managed to overcome the force of the current and maneuver the boat back in line with it and then guide their boat into the shallow water and over to where their comrades and I waited.

As their faces relaxed in triumph, I looked past them to where James Jujaroen and Cecilia Pacillo were using their painters to maneuver their canoe upstream. James had hold of the bowline and leaned at an angle against the boat to hold it with his body weight. Just then, much to James’s surprise, Cecilia let go for a moment, and James toppled backwards into the stream. While keeping the canoe from slipping away, he pulled himself back up, flashing a big smile, and he and Cecilia moved the rest of the way up the stream without further incident.

Back in our canoes, we paddled a short way to a nearby island and pulled over to have lunch. Over more cheese, peanut butter and jelly, salami, carrots, and hummus than we would ever eat at school, the stories of each canoe’s journey upstream were enthusiastically told, some concurrently. Although they had all just made the exact same journey, each person related his or her unique perspective on what the experience had been like. They all agreed that it had been a highlight of the trip, and the two pairs that had had the most challenging journeys up the stream became the loudest proponents for going back down and doing it again.

Lining the canoes was just one part of my Outdoor Experience trip, on which Waynflete graduate Jason Chandler and I were fortunate enough to lead 10 high-spirited, fun-loving, and incredibly kind 11th grade students that journeyed from the deadwaters of the West Branch of the Penobscot down the river and across four lakes. We ran some light rapids. We portaged our canoes around the Debsconeag and Passamagamet Falls and paddled amidst gentle raindrops that literally danced over the otherwise still surface of the lake. We told stories and meditated by the lakeside at night, we camped on beaches and watched a remarkable lightning show way off in the distance that lasted nearly an hour. We explored deep into the ice caves above First Debsconeag Lake and afterwards jumped from the big boulders that line the lake into its refreshing water on a day that reached 85 degrees F.

We started the day of our canoe lining adventure by breaking camp, paddling the last few miles of the Penobscot River into Ambajejus Lake, and stopping off at the Ambajejus Boom House. There we had the pleasure of talking with Chuck Harris, who in the late 1960s had dropped out of art school to come north from Pennsylvania to work the log drives. When the river drives stopped in the early ‘70s, the workers all left except Chuck, who stayed and has lived in the foreman’s cabin ever since, dedicating his life to preserving the memory of the drives by turning the Ambajejus Boom House into a fascinating loggers’ museum and traveling the backwoods of Maine to paint as many of the old boom houses as he could reach. Chuck showed us around the museum and his cabin, and he even took out his guitar and played.

It turns out that there is nothing like a slide blues guitar riff in the morning to get you pumped up for the rest of the day. We left Chuck and the boom house behind and paddled 12 miles and crossed three lakes as the students sang songs from Les Mis and numerous other musicals. We arrived at our destination in the late afternoon. We had enjoyed a blazing campfire, eaten, and cleaned up before storms chased us into our tents. There, accompanied by the falling rain and howling wind, Cecilia told an unforgettable ghost story that was made even more haunting as we listened to her disembodied voice emanating from inside her tent.

You see, when we open the school year with outdoor experience trips, as we have for longer than anyone can seem to remember, we hope for beautiful views, adventurous exploration, the formation of new friendships, the deepening of existing connections, resiliency in the face of appropriate challenge, and a lot of fun. On this trip, all of that happened, and much more in our four days together. While our tents were wet on Friday morning, our spirits were un-dampened as we paddled across the last stretch of water to meet the bus that would take us home.

As we boarded the bus filled with ninth graders fresh off their own experiences at the Chewonki Wilderness Camp on Fourth Debsconeag Lake, we were treated to one last entertainment. With the gear stowed on the bus and most of the canoeists on board, Upper School Director Lowell Libby, who had been with the ninth grade, stooped over to pick up a single boot that had been left aside. When he asked whose it was, Jonas Maines, one boot on and one boot off, burst from the woods and regaled Lowell with a dramatic telling of a tale about being captured by ice cave bandits and his harrowing escape. As I watched Lowell laughing as he filmed Jonas telling his tale, I couldn’t think of a better way to have spent our first week of school.

See his next performance in The Franklin Theater as Reverend Hale in Waynflete’s production of Arthur Miller’s classic, The Crucible, which runs Thursday through Saturday, November 7, 8, and 9.