When it comes to outdoor sports, I’m no shrinking violet. I can hang with the Granola girls, although you won’t find me crawling through underbrush with a knife in my teeth, trapping and skinning my dinner to roast over a fire I lit by striking rocks together. I have my limits.
Recently I got to show off some of my naturalist skills on a family trip to the “camp” cabin on Lake Mooselookmeguntic in Northern Maine. We had rented canoes but the weather on the lake proved too windy. Eric suggested we haul them to a nearby tree-sheltered “stream,” which ran along the Appalachian Trail. Note: in Maine, we call rivers “streams,” lakes are “ponds,” and a blizzard is “a bit of snow.” Amputations are a “mere scratch.” (And, yes, Mainers are insane)
Eric mounted the canoes on our rental cars atop a bed of sheets and towels, and he rigged them to the hood and inside the windows with twine and bungee cords. Oh, Lord. Flashbacks to our honeymoon trip to Montana. “No problem, mon. We from de islands.”
The canoes and cars made it to the site unscathed. We lugged the canoes through the woods to the “stream” bank, where we were savaged by black flies and mosquitoes. Good thing I brought bug spray and this:
We launched our three canoes and seven humans down Bemis Stream. We soon encountered a mother loon nesting her eggs. One of our canoes got too close and the red-eyed creature attacked, but backed off as they backpaddled. Don’t mess with Mothers in Nature.
The stream was GORGEOUS, and we paddled up it reverently. It got more narrow as we went.
“It’s like we’re paddling to the Heart of Darkness,” Liz’s college-aged boyfriend said, forever endearing himself to his potential step-momma-in-law for his well-read intelligence.
We continued. We came to sections so shallow we had to ooch and paddle-push our way across. But we kept going. By this time, Mountain Man of the Caribbean Eric and I were well ahead of our children and their plus-one’s.
We came to a point where a fallen tree completely blocked the stream. But if we portaged the canoes to the side, we could get back in the clear water past the tree. I volunteered to forge ahead and see whether the effort was worth it, by checking out the stream around the bend and behind some large bushes. Eric followed me, just for fun.
I was immersed in cold water to the tops of my thighs when I heard a “grrrrrrrrrrrrrr” from behind the bush in front of us.
“Eric, what’s that?” I asked, not yet panicked.
“Nothing,” he said.
“No, it is definitely something. It sounds like it’s growling.”
“An airplane, then.”
The noise stopped. I resumed my forward slosh.
“Turn around and walk back to the canoe very slowly,” he said.
As if there was any other way to make it through thigh deep water, but I did my best to disobey his instruction anyway. We hopped back in the canoe and high-tailed it out of there. We met Liz and her boyfriend around the first bend.
“BEAR,” I said, and made a circling motion in the air to indicate they should turn around. Not surprisingly, they complied.
After about five minutes, my heart rate returned to normal, and I grew curious. Could we have mistaken the sound of a small rodent for a bear? If we went back, but stayed in the canoes, might we be able to verify our bear-encounter? Eric, it turned out, felt the same.
We left the rest of the group fly-fishing in the wider section of the river, and we forged back up the stream to a large sand bank just a few hundred yards shy of our possible-bear. We secured the canoe on the sand bar and started poking around. The smell of urine was intense, like a horse stable. Scat of various sizes, some quite large, spotted the sand. Our view of the forest was completely obscured by thick brush and small trees, and blueberries not yet ripe. Deer and moose hoofprints dug into the soft ground. Some were fresh, and others old enough to hold yesterday’s rainfall.
We walked to the edge of the sand closest to the growling.
“Look,” Eric said. He pointed at the ground.
A perfect and distressingly large bear print announced the presence of our black bear friends. The scat and urine suggested we were standing squarely within his or her “range” of territory. I wished we had a camera, but the only one we’d brought was on a canoe long since departed to go back to the car.
“That’s proof enough for me,” I said.
And, so, somewhat reluctantly, we retreated for the safety of the water, me with a new respect for what lay behind the dark wall of trees in the Maine forest.
Nothing my ass, honey. At least there were no frozen elk bobbing about this time. Grrrr.