Tarzan of the pines

As the noble exploits of man in the 20th century are recalled in passing, I shall add the adventures of Joe Knowles, which certainly will be ignored otherwise. "Tarzan of the Apes," by Edgar Rice Burroughs, was the current juvenile adventure hero. Tarzan of the British peerage was brought up by apes in the jungle, and there was some dispute as to whether a mere lad could survive in such a predicament, let alone prosper.

And one Monday morning the staff of the Boston Sunday Post was discussing topics for the next Sunday, and Tarzan was brought up. Could modern man brave the wilderness? One of the Post writers at that time, in 1913, was a young man from Maine, Roy Atkinson. He had grown up in the Rumford area and knew the north wilderness. He said Maine was full of men who could outdo Tarzan in any context.

So the editor said if young Roy could find a State-o'-Maine Tarzan, the story was scheduled. He was found right there in Boston Town, and was Joe Knowles, a native of Wilton whom Roy Atkinson knew well, and was now an artist in the Hub. He was ready and willing to be Roy's accomplice in the sensation that followed. Joe was versed in woods lore, had done some guiding as a lad, and he became the Great North American Tarzan of the Maine woods. Roy wrote his stories.

The series of Sunday articles was to run on and on into an international matter, and soon was much too big for the Boston Post alone. However, no other paper had any idea where Joe was, and couldn't print anything about Joe until it read what Roy wrote up.

Nobody but Roy and Joe knew where Joe took to the woods. Post photographers made a backlog of file photos, and then Roy and Joe wandered off together. It was somewhere in the Rangeley Lakes region. Joe had a bowstring and a knife, and his clothes. The string would be for the bow he would make with the knife, and he would step out of his clothes before he walked naked into the Maine wilderness. He and Roy shook hands, then Joe went into the puckerbrush to outdo Tarzan of the apes.

Only Roy knew the spot where Joe would leave his weekly report, written in berry juice with a porcupine quill on birch bark. As Roy had already written next Sunday's story, there was no hurry about returning to Boston, so he went to Attean Pond to fish for a couple of days. That's how the story began.

According to Joe's weekly dispatches, as related by Roy, Joe had no problems. After a couple of Sunday Post stories, the news services picked up Joe, and for European readers Joe was translated into French and German. Poor Tarzan was far outdistanced and never caught up. Tarzan was fiction, but Joe was alive and well somewhere in the vast Maine forests.

When Joe reported that he'd caught a bear, the blueberry-juice ink was hardly dry when a sigh of relief blew like a hurricane and the world was glad. Joe would be warm if he stayed for the winter. When the Post editors felt they had carried Joe long enough, Roy's story said Joe would shortly come out of the woods. (Roy told Joe the glad news.) Joe's emergence in October, after two months, was dramatic.

Nobody knew where Joe would return to civilization. He chose the tracks of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. These start, you might say, at Halifax or St. John, and pass out of Canada at Vanceboro, Maine. After that they pass through the wilderness corridors of Maine to reach the Canadian boundary on the west. They skirt Hathan Bog in Maine and Spider Lake in Quebec, and then follow the shore of Lac Mgantic down to the city of Lac Mgantic. This is the country Benedict Arnold traversed when he attacked Quebec City in 1775.

That is, Joe Knowles came out of the woods on the Canadian side, and Lac Mgantic is the source of the Chaudire River, which floated Arnold's men in their leaky bateaux down to the St. Lawrence River. Arnold was a dashing young officer of the Connecticut militia, a capable strategist, and a remarkable leader of soldiers, one of Washington's staff. He was also a hero to the French-speaking Canadians, as he might free them, too, from England. So this gave Roy Atkinson a chance to rehash the Arnold story, which he did.

As Joe Knowles came walking along the Canadian Pacific tracks, some 3,000 miles east of Vancouver, British Columbia, he came upon a small girl. You can't be brought up around Wilton without knowing some of what Mainers call Madawaska French, so Joe spoke to the lassie and as if he didn't know where he was he asked her where he was.

Then Roy Atkinson, who was waiting, appeared, and Joe Knowles was next morning's front-page story in just about every newspaper in the world. His arrival two days later by train at Boston's North Station turned out a crowd of thousands, and Joe wore his bearskin coat and his deerskin trousers. He didn't show a single black-fly bite, and he had gained 20 pounds.

Roy Atkinson wrote a book by Joe Knowles ("Alone in the Wilderness"), and for a month or so it outsold Tarzan's. Joe made lecture tours and remained a great American celebrity for years. He also boosted the circulation of the Boston Post by some 200,000 copies a day. And what he did was nothing any Mainer couldn't do, if Roy Atkinson had a mind to.

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