A whatever-it-was, outside the tent

One summer in the 1950s, long before the Allagash River way in Maine became a national park, long before dams were restored that made it possible to control the water for the convenience of canoers and lumber companies, my husband, John, and I became captivated by what we had read of this river. We wanted to experience as much of it as we could in a summer month.

The usual method employed now, as then, would have had us trucked to some far-up point to be rushed madly back downstream by the currents and rapids. We wished to do it as the native Americans and early Europeans had when the river was the only practical route through the wilderness. Our dream was to pole, paddle, and drag the canoe upstream to earn the reward of a swifter, less-strenuous trip down.

And so we set out with paddles, camping gear, fishing rod, frying pan, reflector oven, and a sapling John had cut for a pole. Some days were full of gentle waters and sunshine. We loafed along, making progress without too much effort. Other days, the water roared at us so fast that paddling was completely ineffective.

The pole John came to wield skillfully would keep us going for a while. Then the current would be so strong that we had to get out and stumble over the wet stones on the river bottom, pushing or pulling the canoe as the situation required. Occasionally, we carried the canoe and its contents along the banks.

Much of this work was beyond my strength, so John did most of it himself. By midafternoon, when we stopped pushing upstream, he was often so tired that he could hardly eat. I still had the energy to set up our tent, blow up air mattresses, pick raspberries to supplement our dried foods and fresh-caught fish, and cook and clean up after a meal.

After one particularly hard day, we pulled into a pleasant glade with a small grassy meadow, slender white birch trees, even a tiny sandy beach. There was a path running from the thick woods through the glade to the shore.

John was asleep long before daylight faded. I tried to stay perfectly still so as not to disturb him. I could see through the screening that covered the front of the tent by lying on my stomach, propped up on my elbows.

A procession of creatures used the path from woods to water. A great antlered buck paused for a few moments on the shore before swimming to the other side. A big raccoon splashed its paws in the water. A mother skunk and her babies paraded by.

The big moose we had seen earlier in the river was still pulling up weeds with a sloshing sound, and I heard soft splashes intermingled with cracking noises. I surmised that muskrats were adding to the pile of freshwater clam shells we'd seen earlier as we pulled the canoe ashore.

By 9 o'clock or so, the long Northern day was overcome by dusk, then by darkness. Loons called, and two owls about 50 feet from each other held a dialogue. As the loons and owls quieted, there was a rush of hoofed (I suppose deer) feet along the path near our tent. The feet skidded to a halt; all turned about-face and rushed back. This game was repeated several times. Then it ceased.

By now, I was drifting off to sleep. I heard a whisper-soft shuffling. I held my breath. Could it be a bear? Had I put our food in a secure enough place?

Whatever it was, the creature ignored our food - mostly tin cans of biscuit mix and powdered milk. It moved to my side of the tent. I could not see it, but I could sense a very large shape - too round, too short-legged for a deer or moose, too big for a dog, even a Newfoundland.

The creature paced back and forth beside the tent. I tried to catch its scent. No, there was no doggy odor. Was I only imagining that it smelled like the trained bear with which I'd had a close encounter years before?

Whatever-it-was circled a few times, then lay down. There was only the tent wall between its body and mine. Whatever-it-was made a soft snoring noise. Clearly, it had no interest in harming me.

I drowsily tried to repeat the words of Isaiah 11:6-9. I began well enough, remembering that the wolf would dwell with the lamb, but I had to think harder to remember what it was about the bear. Oh, yes, the cow would feed with the bear.

Well, I thought, I am not a cow; so this is probably not a bear.

I FELL asleep feeling as comfortable with the creature leaning against my body, warming me, as I had felt as a child when our big cat would sleep with me.

The next morning, there was no massive shape outside the tent. I chuckled to myself about the dream I'd had. I crawled out onto the grass. Beside the tent, just where I'd felt whatever-it-was, was a large oval area of matted grass. A few shiny black hairs glinted in the sunlight.

And a little farther up the river, there were bear tracks on a muddy shore.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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