Setting out and taking in

This time, the fiddlehead fern foray was different. Instead of some people going with me, I went with some people, and for the first time in my long career as a guide de bois I paddled bow in the canoe. Because the river was low - dry spring - I found a number of fine rocks never before charted, and drew numerous comments on my skill from Betty, who sat amidships, and Dick, who endeavored at the stern to correct my misjudgments at the bow. It was a lovely Maine May morning, with ice in the birdbath and the robins chirping ''Chilly, ain't it?'' This is good. A coolish morning discourages the black flies, which have been numerous and friendly of late. We ''put in'' and planned to fiddlehead about six miles and then ''take out.''

The fiddleheads - the edible tips of the sprouting ostrich fern, used as a green - were of extra good quality but not far enough along. We got enough, but found a good many of the crowns still snug, to be better in a week or so. That's all right, because the important part of going for fiddleheads is to get away from the vileness of man and commune in the wilds. Our river winds in a forested valley, and although we are never far from a road we might as well be on the Allagash.

''Duck!'' I yelled at one bend, as I saw a merganser coming up river toward us. She was a foot or so above the water, tooling right along, and she discovered us just as I discovered her. She made the usual waterfowl detour, rising to treetop height, circling over the trees around us, and then returning to the river to keep on going as before. But this time she almost didn't make it. As she flew over the trees, a hawk appeared, and just as he was about to connect the merganser altered flight and was spared. The hawk pulled up, and then disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared, to await another chance.

We came upon some mallards - a drake and two hens. They were bottoms-up, feeding along the bank, and we came around a bend to come close enough to identify them before they flew. One little quack from his nibs did it, and the three birds were in flight and gone. Mallards don't care to nest too close to the water, and sometimes trek far up a hill to lay their eggs. Of all the wild ducks, only the mallard can be successfully domesticated and will be happy in a barnyard. That's why the mallard was used as decoy by duck hunters, until live decoys were outlawed. To my liking, the mallard drake is the prettiest bird we have. The male wood duck is similarly colored, but doesn't have the mallard's trim ''figger.''

We saw some beaver workings, and some slides. These are bank beavers, living along the river and not in a flowage behind a dam. We didn't see a beaver, but had the fun of hoping to startle one so he'd slide for us. The slide is a muddy chute-the-chute to aid in sluicing the beaver's cuttings into the water, but it becomes a quick retreat if the beaver needs one. If surprised at his lumbering, he just hits his slide and ker-swooshes a-splash into the drink. We saw one tree about a foot through at the stump, and after felling it the beaver had chewed off all the limbs and left the log. Good fireplace wood, all ready to twitch out.

After maybe three miles we sat on a jillpoke log and took our nooning. The day had warmed, but a breeze worked down the river and kept the flies off. There was a hatch of mayflies and a lunker of a trout was feeding on them over by the far bank. We heard his splash first and Dick opined it was a trout. Then we saw him rise. Afterward, farther down the river, we came upon an angler, and we told him he was fishing in the wrong place. ''If there's a wrong place, that's where you'll find me,'' he said.

While we watched the trout and ate our lunch, a military jet intruded. Otherwise, from nine to four, we were off in a far place. We took a vote and cut the arms budget by $50 billion. We weren't sure what a plane like that costs, but we knew the country has one too many, so we named a round sum to be sure.

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