THE leaves rustled, crisp and deep, scattering as we shuffled through them. We were on a short section of the Appalachian Trail that connects the Gulf Hagas trail to a logging road leading out to the old Katahdin Iron Works. My husband had gone the long way around and would meet us on the road with the car. We were tired, comfortably weary. We had spent the day searching out Gulf Hagas, a wild abyss often called the ``Grand Canyon of the East.'' Lying just northeast of Brownville Junction, approachable only by trail, it remains one of the quiet splendors typical of Maine.
Late October had relaxed into uncharacteristic gentleness, and its warmth settled around us. I felt serene. My daughter, bobbing beside me, chattered pleasantly, incessantly. My son, riding piggyback, shifted his weight and I rearranged my pack to keep it from swinging free. We knew the trail would not be long.
Our map had shown a rivulet crossing the path. I had pictured flat stones casually arranged as steps across a quiet stream. The path descended gently to open out along a flattened valley, then stopped abruptly at the water's edge. This was not a stream. It was a quick-flowing expanse, the force that had dug the 250-foot gorge in the hills above. There were no flat stones, only the ripples and backwaters of the frigid rapids stretching before us. To turn back would upset the plan. We would have to cross. I could carry the kids, one at a time.
Barefoot and with pant legs hitched to my knees, I splashed and slipped unsteadily forward, with my son clutching me in frantic silence. I very soon understood a deeper meaning to the words ``bone chilling.'' I stopped to reconsider, but by then one bank was as far as the other. With the rapid water shifting each step into a stumble, we approached the deeper water of the far shore. I gladly waded through to deposit my load in the safety of the grassy bank. ``Don't be frightened. I'll be right back - you can watch me all the way.'' I was afraid that lingering might encourage fear. ``OK, Mama,'' he said, naively brave. He is only 2.
Two more trips through the icy waters brought it down almost to a routine. Finally regrouped, with feet snugly cushioned in dry shoes, we felt elated. The trail ahead was well marked, inviting us forward. We walked happily confident until a bend in the trail brought us into a swampy tangle of roots and stumps mired among tall grass. I headed us uphill slightly away from the path, but the swamp was too wide to escape. We were soon struggling through heavy undergrowth and downed trees, with the mud sucking at our ankles. I looked for the blaze markers that would identify the path - white slashes of paint shoulder high in the trees. I saw markers everywhere - from high in the leafy canopy to root level, white patches of bark or lichen splotched on every tree trunk.
It was no longer a gentle autumn day. I angled us back toward the river, and a white marker, more distinct than the others, flashed into view. The relief of safety rested my fears and we followed the broad, comfortable path out of the river valley and finally to the road. We sat on a cold metal culvert and waited.
Seeing ahead the dusty approach of our car, I relaxed. Our plan had worked out. My husband pulled the car onto the shoulder and we clambered in. ``And did you have fun?'' The normality of his question gave a final punctuation to our adventure. ``Yes,'' we said, ``but our feet are cold.'' Satisfied with this detail, he backed the car around and we started for home.
The rough gravel was soon broken by the smooth boards of a bridge spanning a broad river valley. We were across it in an instant. The others didn't notice. I glanced quickly and almost missed seeing the river below. ``I know the stones in that river,'' a thrill shivered through my thoughts, ``and they are not flat.''