A Moose of Measure On Mt. Katahdin

IT was in 1846 that our Henry David Thoreau left Concord and by steamboat and railroad came to Maine to climb Mount Katahdin, which at the time he spelled Ktaadn. Not too many venturesome folks had attempted this climb, the peak being New England's second tallest.

The Indians were leery of Katahdin, respectful of the spirit Pamola who lived there and resented intrusion. A half dozen or so, not more, white men had been to the top. Perhaps the Indian's superstition was meant to bolster his aversion to climbing, which means the Indian with his untutored mind was smarter than Thoreau.

I embraced this same superstition early in my days, when some friends persuaded me to climb Mount Abraham with them. Katahdin stands 5,267 feet, and Mount Abraham lacks just a couple of yards of that, and we struggled beyond the tree line and kept going to the top. Then somebody said, ``OOOOOOH! Isn't that lovely down there!'' I said yes, it is, and I'm going right down to enjoy it, and that's my only effort to climb anything.

Katahdin is impressive because it rises abruptly from the flatland, lacking a piedmont. It sits in Maine's Baxter State Park, on the northern end of the Appalachian Trail. Countless hikers have stood there like stout Thoreau and had visions to make them less forlorn. Not I. Although I'm in that country every summer, I shun Pamola. I've been completely around Katahdin many times.

I was rereading Thoreau's ``Maine Woods'' just last evening, up on his trail again and far from home, and came up short in the realization that Thoreau the erudite, if quirky, philosopher had carried an umbrella when he climbed Ktaadn to confront Pamola. You get it between the lines. On that trip, his companion had shot a moose. Thoreau, in his account, had been looking forward to seeing a moose, and now that one was available he viewed the animal both as a poet and as a scientist, although I'd suggest that neither was his trade. As a poet, he deplored the taking of the lordly beast, although his party did need food, but as a scientist he desired to set down the measurements of the creature. Lacking a yardstick, he cut a sapling and cut notches in it for the length, breadth, and spread of the moose's antlers. He was three axhandles between the shoulders. Thoreau's moose, was, however, converted to an umbrella when they next made camp. Later, when they came upon a yardstick, Thoreau reduced his umbrella to feet and inches. It makes sense, in a way.

I went back to peruse this passage again, and was dumbfounded that the man could so methodically preserve the dimensions of a moose, demonstrating the zeal of a true biological statistician, but neglect to give us any statistics about the size of the umbrella - the only umbrella, I do believe, ever to climb to the top of Mount Katahdin.

We can, with reason, accordingly presume that our hero was more of a philosopher than an analyst or statistician, and that this incident permits us to look askance on his numerous metaphysical opinions.

Likewise, we can meditate pleasantly on his carrying an umbrella while roughing the Maine woods. I recall that back in the early days of his mail-order merchandising, Mr. L. L. Bean got soaked to the skin while walking out from Second Roach Pond, and before he dried out he decided to offer his customers some weather gear that would be light enough to carry on the trail and sufficient to fend off a drenching no'theast ripper. His next catalog accordingly offered a rain suit that would protect from head to toe, and which folded inside a small waterproof pouch no larger than a man's handkerchief.

The item was embraced by many, but it had a fault. Once you got it from the pocket-sized pouch and unfolded it to fend off a shower, you found there was no way to fold it again and put it back in the pouch. The manufacturer alone knew how that was done. Try as one did, the thing would never return to its factory size. Customers would stuff the unfolded rain gear into a 100-pound grain sack and return it to Mr. Bean, who was stuck with his warranty of perfect satisfaction. He eliminated the item from his next catalog. Since then, the Bean product experts have found better ways to keep moisture away from all the Thoreaus, and it is not necessary today to carry an umbrella into the Maine woods.

Unless you want to measure a moose.

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