Sunday, December 1, 2013

Walking: Lake Onawa

    Lake Onawa will soon be a frozen expanse where snow devils dance and a wind-driven curtain of ice crystals is slowly drawn across the distant, deeply green shore of northern Maine:                                                                           
     "This is going to be fun," said Alexandra Conover, face covered by dark glasses and a neoprene mask. "You might want this," she added casually, offering me a scarf, as if protection at ten below, in a headwind with 25-mile-per-hour gusts, was optional. "You can't feel frostbite, you know. We have to watch each other, to make sure our faces aren't turning gray."
     She also wore a stylish wool cap, white wind gear over more wool, mittens and mukluks of smoked moose hide, and of course snowshoes, the bent, lacquered ash and rawhide bright in the clear winter sunlight. Her husband, Garrett, was similarly attired, and bearded, his glasses kept unfogged by goggles. He held an ax, with which he chopped at the ice, and said, "Six inches. All you need for support is four. Those damp spots out there are just overflow," water seeping up through the ice. "Nothing to worry about."
    Off we went. Snowshoeing requires a kind of subarctic Zen in which the unencumbered heels rise and the toes, in mukluks, tucked under leather thongs, rhythmically shuffle us, not toward nirvana but to the simple satisfaction of walking in one's own backyard. The Conovers are professional guides, an old and venerable profession in Maine, and they venture as far afield in their expeditions as Labrador, for up to two weeks, hauling supplies in a handmade toboggan in winter. But this day they were just rediscovering the 'hood.
    "You live in a place," Garrett shouted over the wind, "and don't do the things others will come miles to do. And then all of a sudden you change your routine, and go out in your own neck of the woods, and" - he gestures expansively - "it's great!"
    Think about snowshoeing too much and you will fall down. Ahead of us fox tracks punctuated the white infinity between us and Onawa's far end. Some of the old cabins around the lake were more than 100 years old and had the original peeled logs; all were shut tight for the season.
    A railroad trestle at the south end leapt from woods to woods, and Borestone Mountain rose above us, wild and knobby against a powder blue sky. Hemlocks and firs on the far side were slashed with birches like ghostly exclamation points, a classic 19th-century view. Although the Appalachian Trail winds close to the north end of Onawa, the famous trail's terminus wasn't far away, this scene remained determinately local.
                                         On the road to Onawa
    Old-time Maine: quiet, cold, daunting, invigorating, an iconic American setting that mostly Mainers have been enjoying for well over a century. Onawa's website, maintained by a local community association, provided some particulars about Onawa - for instance, the word is Chippewa,  for "awake" - but as for directions for getting here, well, the site is coy: "We won't tell."
     A booklet published in 1928 by the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad attempted to lure "sports" from the cities to pursue Onawa's "gamey fellow"- landlocked salmon - but this part of Piscataquis County today seemed content to conserve what it had. It's one of the poorest counties in the state, and for the most part, Garrett said, citizens made a living with small logging and other work, including guiding.
    The barn from which the Conovers launch their expeditions, winter and summer, contains canoes made 20 miles up the road. On their walls hang conventional snowshoes and those made by the Innu Indians up in Quebec, shorter and rounder for extra support in deep powder. There was a two-man saw, a hand ax in a leather scabbard, a broom made of branches, and a pointed board for stretching mink hides that was given to Alexandra by a local old-timer, without explanation.
    "I wondered," she says, "'Why me?' My mother had skinned minks for a living in the forties, and when I told him this, he said, "We know these things,' and walked off."
    The old ways prevailed here until World War II, "when people came out of the woods to work in factories. They didn't go back in again until the late sixties, reinventing the wheel," but it was a new generation learning the arts of warmth, wellness, and mobility without total reliance upon modern technology. "Now the land is up for sale by the timber companies, all part of multinationals. After 100 years of single ownership there are new roads into the wilderness, and everywhere the prospect of development."
    Our noses had grown icicles while, out on the ice, snow formed and re-formed in long, drifting windrows. It felt too cold for me to take out my digital camera, which appeared to have frozen shut anyway. Ahead of us lay the estuary where Long Pond Stream fed the lake, promising shelter. A set of coyote tracks led us up that frozen stream, straight as an arrow. "He was just here," said Garrett.           
                                               Fire woman
    We clambered through the alder thicket and stomped out a lunch spot with our snowshoes. Garrett gathered deadwood and Alexandra stripped shavings from it with her folding knife; soon flames were tentatively licking up. The sun felt good but the fire was even better. Although still below zero, we sat on our mittens, on the snowshoes, and drank tea out of old-fashioned enamel mugs that kept our hands warm.
    "The first day out," she said, of their longer trips, "people are scared, but by day three they're totally confident, working without gloves, eating 'Newfy steaks' - chunks of baloney favored in Newfoundland, roasted on skinned alder branches."Those outings weren't without excitement. Once they were snowshoeing in a three-day blizzard, in Quebec, with a party of five and had to resort to the compass to find their way. "We stayed in sight of each other at all times, then I felt a snowmobile track through my snowshoes, and we followed it."
    Our Newfy steaks were sizzling. "You want grease in cold weather," said Alexandra, but there was gorp too, and peanut butter on crackers, and chocolate squares, a moveable, zero-sum feast. Then we shoveled on the fire and packed up, and it felt cold again. "The first quarter mile of walking after lunch is the fastest of the day," said Garrett, "then the food kicks in, and you're warm once more."                                                
                                                     Garrett (left) and the other guy
    Now the wind was pushing us, whispering at the edges of our hoods. Alexandra told of the solar panel they once took along on their toboggan, to power a satellite phone. "I thought, 'Gosh, we're using 20th-century technology and, at the same time, wilderness gear and methods 10,000 years old.'"
    That experiment wasn't repeated. "People need to get outside, away from electronics. Looking out at this beautiful lake, you think how different this is from a television screen. Both are visual images, but this one you're involved in. You're taken out of yourself for a short time, and there's great restorative power in that."
    The sun passed behind Borestone Mountain. An otter had scouted the ice's edge ahead of us, scooting on his stomach, leaving one long skid mark in the snow, looking for access to the cold water and the mollusks he feeds on. He would find an opening eventually, even though the lake was locked up from shore to shore.
    I was grateful to get back to our launching point, under a numinous evening sky. Maybe this walk was not hard-core by Maine standards, but it was respectable. "We've had a little bit of everything today," said Garrett happily. "A real headwind, some overflow to think about, and a tailwind coming home."
                                                               Alexandra come spring 
To see my bio, click on:
To order my novel, Nose, click on:  
To order my book of travel essays go to:

No comments:

Post a Comment