A Raft Epic in Every Childhood

EVERYONE needs to have had a raft. There must have been countless days when my boyhood gang gathered around Hurley's pond to throw planks together for raft voyages along its great gray-green greasy banks. Boys have an instinctual urge to mess around with things that float, with mud, and with sticks. Combining the three made adventures. We could be Ulysses, Captain Hook, fierce Vikings, swashbucklers. A boy with a stick is an emperor of imaginative possibilities.

Later on, when I read about Huck and Jim, I learned that a raft is a moment on the Big River when the bravest adventure occurs: a true connection with another human being. For instance, Jim comes alive to Huck as a person, not just a slave, when they share the raft.

A raft can be a collection of planks on the Mississippi, a moment of inspiration, or a yielding to a current that brings you to a new view of a person, place, or thing. Everyone needs to have had a raft, to have been a swashbuckler, to have been Huck, to have made a brave connection.

My best raft was one I shared with my wife, Lesley, on a summer hiking trip. It was made of wood and of imagination and of early marital bravery.

The summer we married, we spent a week-long honeymoon in late June swatting black flies on Moosehead Lake, then went to work at a camp in Maine. It was ``the summer of our canvas tent.'' Lesley, though not an experienced hiker, helped me lead the last wilderness trip of the summer: the two of us and a dozen 13- and 14-year-old boys on a hike from Mt. Katahdin down the Appalachian Trail for 10 days.

We found ourselves on a pond at the end which begged for a raft epic.

The trip started on a sunny August day when we hiked up the steep, rocky backside of the great Katahdin. We were treated to a rare view of the Atlantic from the summit, picked alpine cranberries and blueberries from the tundra-like ``lawns'' on the mountain's shoulders, and lolled blissfully on the crags above Chimney Pond. Crows and hawks soared on the silent updrafts of valley air. Our gang was forming.

There were bears and moose in Baxter Park, and we were on constant alert as we trod the paths beside forest and pond on our way southward along the trail. John McPhee calls the expectant moments when forest sojourners yearn to spot a moose as having ``the stillness of a moose intending to appear.''

A dozen teen-age boys are rarely still, but transfixed with the desire to see a moose, or the somewhat ambivalent wish to spot a bear, from a distance please, hushed them. Our moose eventually appeared, a cow that bolted across the trail and bobbed into the woods before we realized what we were seeing, not a sighting we could tell stories about - and that's an important ingredient of a trip the gang needed to call ``an exploit.''

We had wonderful days trekking beside clear lakes and cool, mossy streams, deep, dark pine woods and wild meadows, and eventually arrived on the shores of Chesuncook Pond, an hourglass-shaped lake a day's walk from our destination, Ripogenus Dam.

We had left the trail and bushwhacked through the forest and acres of raspberry-covered logging sites, bear country, in order to get to Chesuncook. Released from the rote walking of the trail, far from other hikers or campgrounds, our imaginations transposed the surroundings from Maine woods to magical forests and our purpose from a simple hike to a chivalric quest.

The bushwhacking, navigating by compass, by instinct, and by the view from an occasional tall tree, had whetted our appetite for daring, ripping good feats to tell the rest of camp. We knew we were experiencing the stuff of yarns. What a topping finale it would be to build a raft and sail across the narrows of the hourglass at Chesuncook Lake!

We pitched our tents in a pine grove on the bouldered shore and ate the last macaroni-and-cheese dinner. The sun lodged itself in the pines to the west and a loon warbled tales of Ulysses to Lesley and me and our swashbuckling gang.

Though we awoke to rain the next morning, we never thought of turning back and eschewed walking around. We wanted our ``exploit.''

The boys hauled long, slim pine logs out of the woods and began lashing a layer of ``deck'' to our buoyant sleeping bag pads. We planned to float our packs across on the raft by swimming behind it pushing. Why not get soaked in the process - all the more heroic!

The mission: to preserve dry clothes for the other side.

Swimming suits on, the packs secured to the logs, having added them one at a time to be sure the raft wouldn't sink beneath the weight, we selected our strongest swimmers for the ``engine.'' We stepped into the water. Then little Chip noticed the leeches.

``Swim for it, men!'' I shouted, and launched the raft out into the water. The Mirmadons hove into action, kicking furiously, beating for the far shore.

The battle cry went up: ``Ripogenus Dam!'' The Argonauts never had such gumption.

I drew my long sword, Lesley fitted an arrow to her bow. The leeches were lurking behind the trees and laurel bushes on the shore. Though they outnumbered us, they were no taller than a large moose and seemed tentative about venturing into the froth of our withdrawal; certainly the vigor of my sword strokes and Lesley's sure bead had them stymied.

A few warning shots over their head to convince them this was a standoff, and then Lesley and I slipped into the gentle waters of Chesuncook, dimpled by the warm August rain, and gracefully paddled to the far side. We had our exploit. We had had our raft.

Lesley and I have our own children now and they are getting to be rafting age. It's been a while since that Chesuncook raft, and it'll be good to light out for the territories again soon. There are a few boards lying by the pond down the road. They look pretty good for getting our gang started.

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