Well friends, it’s been a while (note to self – get your finger out and post some stuff on here so you don’t have to keep doing these stupid catch-up posts). Last weekend I felt the first nip of autumn in the morning air. I could almost smell it. It seems seasons have come and gone since the last time I was here. Summer was dominated by stupidly hot weather and, as I lay in a small backpacking tent on a remote river, sweating in the humid night air, the hum of mosquitoes as loud as the air conditioner I wished I had with me, I dreamed of the cold. But the coming of autumn also sees the fine detail of the summer slip a little further towards back of my mind. I thought I should share some of it before it’s pigeon-holed away with all the other old crap.
My stupidly hot weather adventure began in mid June. I flew out to the USA to spend almost six weeks hanging out at the Jack Mountain Bushcraft field school in Northern Maine, courtesy of Tim Smith. Even though I’ve known Tim for quite a few years online and it’s over a year since I first met Tim in the flesh, I’m still blown away by the guy’s generosity, zero-BS approach to teaching and his great attitude to life in general. Each time I’ve visited I’ve met great people and learnt a lot. Some of these people have become firm friends. When I arrived in Presque Isle, the home of the prestigiously named Northern Maine Regional Airport and the nearest large town to Tim’s field school, I checked into the Northeastland Hotel for a night before travelling on to the field school.
The next morning I was pleasantly surprised to be picked up by Greg. Last year, Greg seemed to be at the epicentre of some kind of manmade disaster. He could usually be located by the trail of scattered, damp, often-bloodstained, outdoor gear. But I could sense that he’d changed. His crappy old Pontiac with the moose dent in the wing was filled with his entire life, about half of it stuffed into rucksacks and blue barrels, and his 20 foot Old Town Tripper XL was strapped to the roof. The waitress at the Northeastland’s diner came out to take a picture of the two beardy guys with a ridiculously big canoe on the roof of their car.
When she’d finished, I moved fishing rods, axes, cans of paint and various other odds and ends to make room in the passenger seat before we drove to Walmart where I bought a couple of week’s worth of beans, summer sausage and peanut butter, and Ben’s Trading Post for a fishing permit and some flies. It felt good to be back. We chatted over life since last June and plans for the future. Greg had been getting in some serious canoe miles and had just returned from running the Saint John, probably the most remote canoe trip east of the Mississippi. The next day he planned to drive up to Canada to solo the Bonaventure river.
My plan for the next few weeks was to catch up with Tim and the legendary Whisky Jack then make a few solo canoe trips, try to do some writing and fanny about with some stuff I just don’t get to do in the back yard. I got off to a good start with a few days of in-camp shenanigans, followed by a solo canoe trip in the North Maine Woods. I poled up Millinocket Stream to the beautiful Millimagassett Lake, where I spent a week on an island like a lazy, better fed and entirely voluntary version of Robinson Crusoe without the tattered trouser legs. The high water made the trip up there hard but the return journey was pretty quick and I even got to run the famous Devil’s Elbow between Millinocket Bridge and Libby’s Pool.
Rapids don’t get a name like this for nothing. The high water had washed out many of the rocks that often force you to line the canoe through here but it was really fast. Soloing this in a loaded 18ft boat is pretty much just a matter of lining her up and letting her go – no fancy white water paddle strokes – the boat won’t really respond quick enough even if you can reach across the centre of a big tripping boat to put in a cross bow stroke or whatever. Well not in my caveman style of canoeing anyhow! Other than a bit of mild cursing and a “sorry Tim” as another scuff was added to his canoe, I got through OK. The whole trip brought all the skills I’ve ever learned together in one huge filthy climax.
Over a couple of days the weather had been getting warmer and the mosquitoes had been driving me crazy. In the cool breeze of the lake they were not too bad but back along the river the air was thick with them. I spent the last night of the trip at a remote campsite only accessible from the river. The sky was a deep red with the gathering cloud. It was pretty as a picture but it was hell for a succulent human pincushion. It seemed like the weather was having it’s own filthy climax. The day after I returned to the field school, the heavens opened and didn’t close again for more than a week. The rain was proper Biblical style rain with some apocolyptic thunder and lightning thrown in now and then.
I spent the whole week cooped up in Tim’s guide shack in the woods sheltering from the torrential rain with Lloyd, who I hadn’t met before I arrived in Maine, which was fun, if slightly intense in the cramped environment. Fortunately we didn’t end up killing each other and things didn’t go all Brokeback Mountain. We just did what guys in that situation have done forever and spent all week talking shit, drinking coffee, watching the rain and eating a heap of food to stay sane and warm. One day we made a break for Dean’s Motor Lodge for cheeseburgers, coke and wi-fi. It seemed positively exotic and, trust me, it doesn’t usually. I guess cabin fever does that to you.
Even when the waters subsided the cabin fever continued. Northern Maine was gripped by a heat wave. For weeks the temperature was in the eighties and nineties with crazy humidity. In a place where the air is thick with mosquitoes, blackfly and deer flies all summer, the added bonus of sweating buckets every day started to push me over the edge. I wondered whether I’d done something to upset someone. Half the stuff I’d brought was either for rain or cold. Motivation dipped and cursing spiked, only being kept off the number one spot by sweating. I spent some time fishing but the heat had sent everything you might like to catch into deeper water. I suppose it was good practice though. I did a bit of canoeing and some general woods-related shenanigans.
There was an upside – I was so bored that it drove me to start writing again. All this time it was just me and Lloyd, my new beardy chum sporting his trademark Def Leppard t-shirt and aviators. A classic look for the woodsman I think. When Tim returned to the field school after a month away he joked “you two must be like an old married couple now”. In a funny way he wasn’t far from the truth. An intense few weeks.
The week I left Maine, Tim was hosting the annual Jack Mountain family bushcraft course. It’s a while since I’ve taught a bushcraft course, let alone a bunch of kids (and parents) all high on a heady mixture of fire, knives, axes, camping, whittling pointy sticks and having fun but when Tim asked if I’d like to teach a couple of sessions I couldn’t resist. It felt good to flex the old teaching muscles, bring something to the group and in a small way repay some of Tim’s hospitality. I was a bit rusty but the sessions went OK with a huge injection of energy from the kids. On a course like this, number one is safety, number two is FUN with a capital F-U-N. Where better for kids to learn about the natural world and their place in it?
I can still hear one little kid, Noah, spraying questions at me like a machine gun. He’ll make a great detective one day. Even making a sandwich he’d be there asking “what you doing?”, “what’s that?”, “why you putting peanut butter on it?”. It didn’t stop there. His interest was all-seeing – “what’s that?”, “a stick” I replied, “what you gonna do with it?”. Awesome. I really enjoyed myself and wished I could stay all week but it was time to bid farewell to Maine once more so I hopped on the wee Pen-Air flight (“in the event of an emergency use the seat cushion as a buoyancy aid” – er, yeah, right) to Boston to be consumed by modernity and feel slightly bewildered by it.
After dreaming of drizzle, I returned to good old drizzly England only to find it not very drizzly at all. In fact it seemed even hotter than the USA. Bugger. Three days later we drove off up the M6 to spend some time in Scotland. I was excited. If you can’t find a cool drizzle in Scotland, where can you find it? Unfortunately, in keeping with the increasingly freaky weather, it didn’t rain much at all. Early on there was just enough to make me splash out on a new waterproof jacket. Of course, once I’d bought that there was only about a day of rain in the next week and a half.
Of course there were plenty of Scotland’s legendary midges which ate me alive on several occasions. Never has the phrase ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ seemed so apt.