|The Way of the Poler
by Doug Doremus
Leaving from Portage, Maine, we used our portage carts to make it three miles to Little Machias Lake where the first clues of what was ahead of us lay. Once on the lake we battled a tremendous headwind in a chop filled body of water. Kneeling on the bottom of our boats we forged through the waves until we came to the mouth of the Little Machias River.
The Little Machias is a sweet winding, twisting little river depending on who you talked to of the duo. Poor Matt in his V-shaped hull kept hugging the rocks while myself with my flat-bottomed boat skimmed right over them making good time. My gluttony and gloating would soon end though and Matt would soon get into his element, poling.
Around four p.m. found us at the confluence of the Aroostook and Little Machias Rivers. For the next three days it would be an upstream and uphill battle to height of land. Just a short distance upstream awaited some new found friends and strangers. Our poles quickly replaced the paddle and we started our way to Ashland. The bottom of the river was strewn with beautifully rounded rocks that either held my pole in place or had it sliding every which way. Matt, the more experienced poler started making headway while I kept struggling in the current and against the riverbed. In a short time the wind picked up and true to the nature of Matt, for this a man who is a magnet for headwinds and rain, it was a headwind with some heft to it. This of course made it matters even worse for me. Yet, this is the way of the poler!
Forty-five minutes later the rocky beach of Ashland showed below the bridge where Jim Faye, his wife, and their dog waited for us. I pulled in huffing and puffing like a locomotive, sweat dripping down my face. From the log cabin came a group of older gentlemen waiting to meet these adventurers on their journey. Privately they were probably all thinking we were crazy as loons! It was a great welcoming and a good place to be for the night.
Dawn's light brought a heavy headwind and some good current. I was not overly enthused and told Matt so. It didn't matter for it is the way of a poler and there were miles to be made one way or the other. Loaded boats pushed off from the shore, crossed under the bridge and began the ascent up the Aroostook River. At first it wasn't too bad. A nice sandy bottom to push off with our twelve-foot aluminum poles and we made some headway but that would soon change back to those nice round, smooth rocks. The wind kept fluctuating but we still made some good time. At some point Mother Nature must have looked down at us and decided these two journeymen were being just a bit too bold and needed to be taught a lesson. Taking a deep breath she started blowing downstream into their faces.
From our vantage point we could see the wind come roaring down the river, riffling the water surface so we could actually anticipate when it would hit us and hit us it did. The bow of our boats would spin and twist while our poles bent in almost unnatural ways under the pressures. Our muscles strained to a painful point while swears of unborn nature tore into the air. The battle was constant and despite a long break on an island things didn't let up. Returning to the current and wind we made our way to a bridge and it was here that I finally called it quits. Another mile and half by water would bring us to the confluence of the St. Croix River but I had lost faith and determination for the day. I opted for, in a forceful way, a portage of about three miles into the town of Masardis. I was broken like a wild horse and the cowboy, only it was the river that tore me apart this day. We found perhaps the most hideous camping spot of the entire trip but as soon as that tent was up and dinner eaten I was in the sack and passed out. Truly one of my most miserable days ever on any river. Yet, this is the way of a poler!
Day two on this river found us in a humid air mass thick enough to cut. Within an hour we were both a soggy mess and decided to call it a day. I could have drank the river dry and still been dehydrated! Finding a nice site for our tents under some pines we passed the day eating copious amounts of food and napping. It was one of our few fluff days that we would have on this trip.
Day three found us up early and going strong. The lounging of the day before had panned out and we felt strong and confident again. The wind had decided to play havoc elsewhere for the time being and we began dancing our way up river. We played a game of eddy hopping and it proved to be a wonderfully delightful experience. Pushing our way upstream to a boulder we'd take turns hiding behind it and then would exit into the stream and begin a ferry to the next boulder ahead of us with almost little effort despite the one hundred plus pounds of gear we carried. It was exhilarating to plant your pole only a few times to make it to the next rock while gliding magically upriver. This is what poling is all about, getting it just right and becoming a part of the river from the bottom of the boat to the tip of your fingertips. It's becoming one with the water, the rocks, the currents. It is why we do it. Not all days are as blessed as this but when they happen it is what makes us keep coming back time and again.
Mile upon mile slipped under our boats as we did a foxtrot along eddy to eddy but sometime about mid-day ol' Mother Nature decided it was time to take another look at us. A deep breath, blow it out and the headwinds hit us once again as if she was saying that we needed to be taught a harsh lesson for we were to ignorant to learn the first time around. Taking heed of this we opted to make an early camp and let the wind have its way with the river. Yet, this is the way of the poler!
Early the next morning we pushed off once again against the current and waited for the headwind but it didn't come to our relief. Our destination was Oxbow Junction where we would hit the height of land and begin our transition to a new watershed. Making it to Oxbow around noon we ended up talking to Lester Junkins whom was curator for the entrance into the Great Maine Woods. Our goal was to get to Grand Lake Seboeis by way of portage cart and leg strength but it just wouldn't be. We ended up hiring the services of a Maine Guide to drive us into the lake, which turned out to be a blessing as the logging roads in had changed into a maze which we never would have ventured out of. All that would have been found would be two canoes on portage carts, some skeletal waste and leather shoes half chewed through.
In the end we struggled for four days poling our way against wind and water and we prevailed. We pushed our seventy plus pound boats, one hundred plus pounds of gear and our arses up the Aroostook River. It took the Maine Guide a fifteen-minute drive to pick us up, another fifteen to the putin. Yet, it didn't matter for in the long term this is way of the poler!
Dino runs the St. Croix in high water, and everybody gets wet. Hey, where's our car with all the dry gear?
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