This past week, the campus at Chewonki became a ghost town as semester students, faculty, and staff hit the road for a week of wilderness adventures. Small groups paddled on the Allagash or the St. Croix rivers, hiked in western Maine’s Bigelow Range, or sea kayaked off the Maine coast, but six students took a particularly memorable trip down the West Branch of the Penobscot River, led by Chewonki President Willard Morgan and his wife, Jennifer Barton, along with Maine Coast Semester faculty members Phill Kratzman and Holly Hoffman.
All of the students on this West Branch adventure were brand-new to overnight canoe travel. Two were fairly experienced paddlers but four were not. Three “greenhorns” had never in their lives camped outside. Despite mixed levels of experience, the weather was spectacular and morale was high. “It felt like one big family moving down the river,” says Morgan.
The West Branch of the Penobscot, along with its vast collection of forests, lakes, and mountains, can feel remote and untouched, yet humans have a long history here. The native Wabanaki (including the Penobscots), lived and traveled by canoe and on foot throughout the North Woods for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, giving rise to many of the place-names that still anchor the map of Maine. This segment of the river is also part of the acclaimed “Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail,” honoring transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau, who paddled his canoe here in the 1850s with a Penobscot guide.
Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?
—The Maine Woods, Henry David Thoreau
“With first-timers, there’s so much newness,” says Morgan. “Canoe paddling, mountains, sleeping outside, cooking outside, using a hand pump, using an outhouse—for these students, there were so many new things to experience.”
A good first wilderness trip can shape an individual’s approach to the wild throughout their lives, believes Morgan. Success depends largely on how well leaders support trippers. “It’s about creating a culture of caring,” he says. “If participants are feeling unsafe in any way, they can’t learn. It’s not just about being out there in the wild; they need to be well fed, supported, rested. At Chewonki, we are very intentional about the whole process.”
There were surprises for the seasoned leaders, too. Maine’s hottest days of the year were the first two of the trip, causing an unheard-of late hatch of biting black flies. One student got a fever of 102.5. A wild thunder-and-lightning storm blew through. The north wind fought the group for a full day of paddling. And the thermometer dipped to 35℉ on the last morning of the trip, a 50℉ drop from the first day.
For leader and Maine Guide Jenn Barton, facing those challenges together intensified the impact of the trip. “Most poignant for me was the opportunity to endure, with those students, the hardships that paved the way for meaningful conversations,” she says. “On a trip that necessitated three types of headwear— head nets (which we didn’t have), sun hats, and wool hats–there was bound to be some bonding! But truly, I can barely recall a complaint, only eagerness to dive right into active and reflective experience.”
Not that there was coddling going on. When it turned out that more than half of the toilet paper was gone after the first day, leaders and students had a talk. After that, everyone got a lot more careful. They finished the trip with one square to spare.
As they traveled through the region, Barton and Morgan told their students about the history of Mount Katahdin as a Wabanaki spiritual center; massive log drives in the 19th century, and the role of paper mills in the 20th; pointing out the time-wasted remains of a once-bustling logging camp on Chesuncook Lake’s Gero Island, fallen into ruin over a century ago and now reclaimed by wilderness.
“The river and its landscape have changed dramatically over 150 years,” says Morgan. The area went from virtually untouched to a long period of heavy use by the lumber and pulpwood industries, now dramatically diminished. Now is feels like wilderness again. “The area we traveled looks much more wild than it did 100 years ago,” he says.
Some moments of the trip were pure comedy, as when the group let Andrew Kunik know that one of his socks, which he was drying on the end of a stick over a campfire, was quietly burning. (He brought it home, singed hole and all, to hang in his cabin as a souvenir.)
Others were pure transcendence. “We were paddling through wispy clouds on Chesuncook Lake at dawn on our way to the take-out, Mount Katahdin inching into view behind Gero Island, and I had a very real sense that we were crossing back over the wilderness threshold,” says Barton. “I felt such awe that this beauty is always creating and recreating itself no matter where our focus lies, that the world just carries on, the loons cry out, and the sky watercolors itself each time the sun crosses the horizon.”
- Jennifer Barton (former Maine Coast Semester faculty member and Girls Camp, Wilderness Trips, Traveling Natural History Program, and Outdoor Classroom staff)
- Willard Morgan (Chewonki president)
- Holly Hoffman (residential fellow, Maine Coast Semester)
- Phill Kratzman (U.S History teacher, Maine Coast Semester)
- Fer Juarez (from Atlanta, Ga., and The Westminster Schools)
- Andrew Kunik (from Naples, Fla., and Seacrest Country Day School)
- Phoebe Nerone (from Wakefield, R.I., and The Prout School)
- Ariel Power (from Hope, Maine, and Camden Hills Regional High School)
- Diana Sanchez (from the Bronx, N.Y., and Concord Academy)
- Phoebe Snyder (from New York, N.Y., and Dwight-Englewood School)