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Powered by Thoreau

English professor travels Maine in footsteps of literary giant

“The first man we saw on the island was an Indian named Joseph Polis, whom my relative had known from a boy, and now addressed familiarly as "Joe." He was dressing a deerskin in his yard. … We asked him if he knew any good Indian who would like to go into the woods with us, that is, to the Allegash Lakes, by way of Moosehead, and return by the East Branch of the Penobscot, or vary from this as we pleased. To which he answered, out of that strange remoteness in which the Indian ever dwells to the white man, ‘Me like to go myself; me want to get some moose’; and kept on scraping the skin.”  - Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods

So began the journey of Henry David Thoreau and Penobscot Indian guide Joe Polis into the wilds of the Maine countryside in 1857.

Thoreau, an author and naturalist from the area around Concord, Massachusetts, traveled three times into the Maine wilderness before writing The Maine Woods in 1864, a collection of essays chronicling his adventures and observations.

Fast-forward 150 years and the effects of Thoreau’s journey remain profound and celebrated. In May 2014, English Professor John Kucich – another resident of the Concord area – retraced some of Thoreau’s route – by canoe and on foot.

Dr. Kucich participated in the Maine Woods Discovery program, a modern-day voyage of exploration and spirituality celebrating the 150th anniversary of The Maine Woods. Joining the tour were Thoreau scholars, historians, outdoors enthusiasts, journalists, members of the Penobscot Nation and others. They camped, canoed, portaged their canoes, read Thoreau and learned how civilization, nature and culture clashed and collaborated in the desolate reaches of the Maine woods.

Dr. Kucich, who lives in Maynard, already felt a connection to Thoreau, who wrote the transcendental Walden in 1854 about the eponymous pond, its environs and the pleasures of a simple life. 

“Living in the Concord area, I go to Walden Pond,” says Dr. Kucich, 48. “It's incredibly fun to read Thoreau's journals about a trip down the [nearby] Sudbury River and know the place he’s talking about and then compare notes and look at when he travels through my neck of the woods and compare notes to that ... It's both very eerily recognizable and very different to see his perspective on it from 150 years ago.”

Though Dr. Kucich had been to Maine before, he had never tackled a trip of this magnitude, referring to it as “self-consciously retracing a journey.” He participated during the last six days of the 16-day trip.

The entire 325-mile route begins at Moosehead Lake, heads north to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, traverses the northern end of Baxter State Park in the shadow of Mt. Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak, then turns south along the East Branch of the Penobscot River toward Millinocket before culminating at “Indian Island,” the heart of the Penobscot Reservation, several large tracts of forested land upstream from Old Town.

Dr. Kucich says he came away with a better understanding of how the landscape and waterways are interconnected.

“It's a territory where the rivers and lakes all kind of interconnect anyway,” Dr. Kucich said. “There's one point where the guide stops and said, ‘Look, if you go that way, you go down toward Moosehead Lake. This way takes you up to Canada. This way takes you back to Bangor.”

By 8:00, we had packed our gear, picked through the leftovers from breakfast left by a school group off on a whitewater rafting trip, and started shoving our stuff into dry bags. A case in the back of the truck sported a homemade sticker: “Powered by Thoreau.” … [We] threw our gear into a canoe and, after lunch, we pushed off into glowering sky. The river was smooth but quick below Bowlin, perhaps thirty feet across, and it took a moment to find our rhythm with paddles. Rain soon commenced, then thunder, and we took shelter in a stand of hemlock by the riverside for half an hour. A game warden happened by, and a pair of fishermen (a logging road hugged the shore). Then the skies cleared, and as we headed south, a double rainbow spread overhead. - From essay by Dr. Kucich

“It's a place you can go that's not far away from Boston, where you feel like you're in this completely other world where humans aren't absent, but they don't matter. They're not central. That's a really powerful experience to have, just to decenter ourselves from this landscape.”

Dr. Kucich, who’s worked at Bridgewater for 10 years, said he was struck by how the Maine woods differ from what Thoreau had imagined they would become. In his day, a thriving timber industry was gutting large stretches of forest, he said. Such is not the case now, as the timber industry is a shell of its former self.

“He really expected [the land] to be settled and turned into a place that looked like Concord and New England … and it really hasn't,” Dr. Kucich said. “The fact that it really has remained wilderness is a small miracle for American culture … far more impressive than his modest dreams for small parks here and there.”

What is most striking in the Maine wilderness is the continuousness of the forest, with fewer open intervals or glades than you had imagined. Except the few burnt-lands, the narrow intervals on the rivers, the bare tops of the high mountains, and the lakes and streams, the forest is uninterrupted. It is even more grim and wild than you had anticipated, a damp and intricate wilderness, in the spring everywhere wet and miry. The aspect of the country, indeed, is universally stern and savage, excepting the distant views of the forest from hills, and the lake prospects, which are mild and civilizing in a degree. The lakes are something which you are unprepared for; they lie up so high, exposed to the light, and the forest is diminished to a fine fringe on their edges, with here and there a blue mountain, like amethyst jewels set around some jewel of the first water, — so anterior, so superior, to all the changes that are to take place on their shores, even now civil and refined, and fair as they can ever be. - Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods

The group’s itinerary included daily canoe trips, often as long as 20 miles, navigating whitewater rapids, with occasional portages through long stretches of the landscape.

Though Dr. Kucich, the father of two boys, had camped before, he described this as a group endeavor unlike any he’d experienced. 

“It challenges how you see the world in a way that's really heartening” he said. “You're a team. You're trying to move through this journey together, so you're automatically going to cooperate to understand this landscape and work your way through it in a way that's going to be safe and engaging for all.”

Safety was paramount on his modern-day journey, with satellite phones, medical kits and guides well trained in first aid. That was unlike Thoreau’s experiences with the harshness of the Maine wilderness in the 19th century, traversing the landscape and rivers in flimsy birch bark canoes and “bateaus.”

“What struck me most is just how incredibly risky it was in Thoreau's day to travel. We're traveling through a lot of whitewater … People died in the river all the time in Thoreau's day, and he talks about this set of rapids and who died there, and this set of rapids and who died here.

“Thoreau lived closer to the possibility of death, and I think that lent to a certain kind of sharpness and a certain kind of bravery to that journey, like he was doing it really on a lark.”

A big part of Dr. Kucich’s group experience was sharing Thoreau’s writing in the context of the trip. They were led by trip organizer Mike Wilson, senior program director for the Northern Forest Center, and Penobscot Nation Tribal Historian James Francis and Jennifer Neptune, a descendant of one of the tribal elders.

“Mike Wilson was very adamant that we read from Thoreau every day,” says Kucich, “and so he'd ask different people … to jump in [and] read something from Thoreau that seemed to resonate with our experience that day, and then we'd just talk about it for a bit. We'd also trade passages back and forth.

“I was impressed by how widely shared interest in Thoreau is. Everyone on the trip knew Thoreau. They didn't all quote him chapter and verse, but he's a real touchstone.”

A mile downstream we had a last, best look at Katahdin looming behind us, still covered in snow, before we turned a corner and portaged around the dam on the right, and I found just how heavy the wooden canoes are. 100 pounds, anyway, to be hoisted, balanced, then walked over a mud patch, up a hill to a power line, then on a woods road for a long quarter mile down below the dam. I could only imagine the Mud Pond Carry, with shin-deep mud for over a mile. The spine below my neck felt the pressure of a canoe for a week. The rapids below the dam roared before spreading into quickwater; we lined the canoes through a channel, then paddled downstream. - From essay by Dr. Kucich

Though Dr. Kucich joined the trip after the most rigorous section of the journey, he had his share of canoe portaging, eventually ending up at Indian Island, an area in which he holds a scholarly interest. 

“An article I wrote a couple of years ago was really concerned with [Thoreau’s] relationship with the Penobscot Indians … how it was much more one of cultural diplomacy than it's often understood to be, where there's really reciprocity between what he is able to see and learn and what they're able to learn and teach him as well,” Dr. Kucich said. “The Penobscots were really gracious hosts for us and for Thoreau, I think. They were not just passive employees guiding him, but they were really initiating him into a landscape that was theirs. 

“He really said some very unattractive things about Indians, some very snide comments about some of the Indians he meets and occasionally about his guides themselves and the stories they told, but they were very patient … I think part of it was them letting the landscape work on Thoreau.”

On one part of the trip, Dr. Kucich recalls, they were on tribal lands, where the group gained an understanding of the connection between existing tribal culture and the land. They found the earth covered with ground nuts, a small, edible tuber that Thoreau speaks about at great length. 

“Jennifer Neptune said, ‘Yep, here they are. Here's how we prepare them.’ We cooked them the next night, and that was our entre into how they interact with the world,” said Dr. Kucich. 

Although Dr. Kucich had not had prior connections with the Penobscot Nation, he is no stranger to Indian concerns. At Bridgewater, through the efforts of President Dana Mohler-Faria, Dr. Kucich is in his second year helping to develop a K-12 literacy curriculum and train teachers for the Red Cloud School for the Lakota Indians on the impoverished Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

That experience helped Dr. Kucich connect with his Indian trip guides, drawing some contrast because the Penobscot Nation appears active and vital in the region and profoundly affected by Thoreau.

“My sense is that in some ways, they probably have a firmer confidence as a nation now than they may have done in Thoreau's time when I think they were really wondering if they would survive this round of change that was coming through.”

For others, a voyage into the Maine wilderness transcends our “crazy postindustrial capitalist world,” says Dr. Kucich. “The Maine woods is a place where that really feels particularly powerful. It’s that refreshing, rejuvenating, renewing sense of being in the woods that works for me, works for a whole lot of other people as well. … That was probably the aha moment, that it's not just me who really loves Thoreau.”