Drawn to Maine by Thoreau - and kayaking

A three-day journey offers the chance to see the state as the nature

It's the kind of story that becomes part of family lore: The time you were kayaking on a lake in Maine and got a bit too close to a moose.

Such a story might begin with what brought you to Maine in the first place. In my case it wasn't the wildlife, or even the kayaking - it was Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau? In Maine?

As a Midwesterner living in Boston, I was familiar with Thoreau's muse, Walden Pond, a half an hour away in his birthplace of Concord, Mass. What I didn't realize was that he also opined about Maine, specifically about a place that in recent years has become my favorite camping spot.

Moosehead Lake is the largest in the state. One look at the morning sun reflected off its water - and a whiff of the blanket of evergreens surrounding it - and I was sold.

Thoreau had a similar if more poetic reaction. From a nearby mountain, he saw the lake and said it sat in Maine like "a gleaming silver platter at the end of the table."

Kayaking and canoeing are common here, and many outfitters offer trips for an afternoon or several days. The one that caught my eye was a three-day excursion tracing the path Thoreau canoed in 1857. It was the last of three trips he took to this state, chronicled in "The Maine Woods," published in 1864 two years after his death.

The Birches Resort in Rockwood promised that the summer trip for intermediate kayakers would include sites Thoreau saw on his trip, and nightly readings from his journal. It delivered on one of these.

On each of his Maine trips, Thoreau hired a native American to lead him. My journey was guided by two sturdy sons of Maine named Gil Maxwell and Travis Barton, friendly college students who could probably survive in the wilds with little more than a pocket knife.

They won big points for teaching me how to skip stones (something no one else had ever been able to do), but when it came to learning about Thoreau, despite what was advertised, they left me to reading their borrowed copy of "The Maine Woods."

Originally, Henry David and his party took only two days to go from one end of the lake to the other. Our guides realized that a 30-mile-plus trip might be too much for recreational kayakers, and offered me (a novice) and the only other traveler - a teacher named Beth Welch from Rochester, N.Y. - the abbreviated version.

Kayaking is a good way to experience a vast wilderness like this one. You can get into places you couldn't otherwise, and you really feel like a part of the environment - from the unforgettable stillness of a secluded cove to the white caps caused by wind. Bill Murphy, who's in charge of kayaking and other outdoor activities at the Birches, explains it by saying, "With canoeing, you're on top the water. With kayaking, you're in it."

Thoreau liked the sound of being on the water: "It was inspiriting to hear the regular dip of the paddles, as if they were our fins or flippers."

No matter where we were - paddling along the coast, sitting around the campfire - Travis and Gil were constantly pointing out animals: deer and ducks, Canada geese, bald eagles, loons, a peregrine falcon, an osprey with a newly caught fish.

In coves, we often saw wildlife, including moose. Thoreau called them "God's own horses." I called them elusive, as I hadn't seen one in two previous visits to the lake. That was rectified on this trip. In one cove, Travis urged Beth and me to get closer to a young bull, but when we did, the moose decided he'd had enough and almost ran right out of the woods to tell us so personally.

After that, the closest we got to anything four-legged was a dog at our campsite. We spent two nights at the base of Mt. Kineo, a mountain in the lake's midsection where Thoreau and his party also camped. Unlike Thoreau's guide, mine did not gather fir twigs for me to sleep on when we arrived (thank goodness), but they did help set up the tents provided by the resort.

And they did their Maine forebears proud with their ability to find firewood, start and keep a fire going, and cook an abundance of food. One night we had lobster, a staple in this state, but not something Thoreau would have dined on. While in Maine, he stuck to fish and a dish I'm grateful to have no more knowledge of than its name: Moose lips.

When the propane and wood the resort ferried over ran out on the second night, our guides' inbred fire-making skills took over. "This is more like the camping I'm used to," Gil told us. "I'm not used to having wood delivered to me."

We kayaked a total of about 17 miles the first and third days of the trip (we would have gone farther, but high winds cut short the trip on the last day). In the middle we gave our arms a rest and worked our legs by hiking Mt. Kineo. In Thoreau's time, it was said the lake got its name from this mountain, shaped like a moose's head. He, too, climbed to the top. Several paths go up it. The Bridle Path is the easiest, but doesn't go along the coast. The Indian Path is much steeper, but offers stunning views of he lake. We chose to go up the Indian and down the Bridal.

At the top, an old fire tower offers a 360-degree view of the lake and surrounding area -a good complement to what you see at water-level.

Some say Thoreau was at his best in the Maine woods, where in his words he was "far from mankind and election day." As in his day, to get the most out of a journey, it's best to bring along a guide -preferably one who can navigate a lake and start a fire. And if he or she knows something about Thoreau, all the better.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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