(short fiction by John Martin ©1997)
Tony cringes as he stumbles into the clearing. His hand is in his mouth, and words come out dulled and slurred.
"Ah bihh bmyh ohngue."
Sure enough, he bit his tongue. His hand is bloody when he removes it to spit. He had stooped to enter the tent he set up, and his foot caught a root and propelled chin to knee. Teeth nearly pierced his tongue in a clean, half inch chasm. Blood gushes, runny and thin with saliva. I try not to panic.
It is day two of our fourteen day canoe trip. We paddled twenty-two miles against a cool northern wind today on giant Moosehead lake in Maine, and we're exhausted. Our campsite sits on an island about a mile from shore, five from a road, and forty, I guess, from the nearest town which doesn't have a clinic. Although I've never heard of a person bleeding to death from a tongue-wound, I wonder if the trip is over.
No. I try again not to panic. I recall that the tongue is amazing, thinking of a story I heard-or am I wishing it?-of a person who bit completely through his tongue, and it healed in a week. To stall, I pull out the first-aid, and give him gauze to chew.
I think we need to get him out, but logistics of a rescue mission with six kids and two counselors, three hours from sunset, will take some thought, or turn into a Reader's Digest "Drama in Real Life" feature. I hope the tongue will stop bleeding, but it's better to err on the side of safety, right? Better the trip than the kid? And the summer had been so kind.
• • •
The sun smolders through chilling remnants of night air as mist dissipates above this small Maine lake. The call of "MORN- - -ING DIP!" breaks silence; in turn, bodies break the surface. I am a fool. I have not missed a dip in years and willingly dunk myself again. Unlike the air, the lake holds yesterday's sun. Spring-fed and clear to a depth of thirty-five feet, Craig Pond lies like a thin maple leaf pointing north, nestled between three old mountains-a self-contained watershed. The white sand bottom resists the reeds' slow encroachment, and Craig Pond holds purity like moss clings to trees on its shores: Fir, Poplar, Spruce, Basswood, Red Oak, White Oak, Birch, Maple, and Moose Maple-with leaves bigger than some boys' heads. The water is sweet, mellow, and quenching, whether in a glass on the porch under the June noon sun, in the chill of morning dip, or by the naked midnight mouthful floating free through the moon's reflection.
Eyes open, I watch the lake surround me; I languish until lungs protest and propel me to the surface. The first breath brings pine and cedar deep to my belly affirming my dream. I am alive and well in my third season at Flying Moose. This swim, bared in the morning sun, or suited in a cool rain, has become a ritual reminder of my humanity. The hot showers of the rest of the year, do little to rouse my body from the warmth of bed, and do even less to animate my mind after corporate hypnosis. But here, morning water shocks me into a consciousness of the breathing woods.
Flying Moose Lodge-touted as "a woods camp for boys"-is unlike any camp I've seen. It may be the last camp that fits the values of Fred Gunnery, who planted the seed of summer camp in America. In 1887, Gunnery, a boys school teacher in Connecticut, arranged a primitive two-week outing for his class. They hiked, cooked, and slept under stars. Vigorous outdoor exercise builds muscles and young masculine character. The idea spread, and by 1905 there were over 700 private camps in America-most in New England. Urban youth without farms to work on now had summer plans. But, as with evolution, the experience of "roughing it" soon included posh accouterments: candy, servants, and in some instances marble bathtubs. George Meylon watched camps get soft, and in 1910 he built a camp on Lake Sebago in Maine that returned to Gunnery's philosophy. Nearby, another camp, Magunticuk opened with the same philosophy, but less success. In 1921 Magunticuk sold property near Flying Moose mountain. One of its counselors bought it, and Flying Moose Lodge began. There were fewer than twelve kids during the first few years, and not many more when Harrie Price jumped at the opportunity to spend the summer of 1928 with his Quaker school teacher, a counselor at Flying Moose. He caught Moosepox in two days, and came back every summer until he was too old. Then he returned as a counselor. When he graduated from college, it went up for sale, and he bought it.
Fifty-six years later, his son, Chris, directs camp, and I linger in the lake at morning dip. On Sundays, we get extra time before Steve Samson, always bugging the cook by six, rings the big brass bell. As I pull out of the water and dry on the swim dock, the bell peals again for breakfast squad. From the porch, someone bellows.
"Epsilon Squad! Mr. Rahell! Hunt! Green! Crandon! Grant! Taylor! You're on squad! Yes, Sid, you. Time's awastin'!"
I wring my chamois towel, pull on shorts and sandals, and walk the hill to Big Top to dress for breakfast. Big Top is one of three wooden shelters of Adirondack construction, sided with ragged-edged planking from trees cut in camp. The open side looks down over seven 16x16 canvas platform tents with circus names. Here, younger boys live with cots and trunks and hand-made shelves. A general din arises each morning from Animal Tent or Peanut Gallery-giggles and arguments of morning preparations. The bell sounds again, a call to eat.
Sunday is pancake day. In the dining hall, boys pack onto benches at three long tables. Today the seating schedule changes, so there is more confusion and noise than normal. Pans of cakes are carried to ends of tables where staff bend and test spatulas. The director has the best, with a wooden handle and slotted head connected by a long stainless shaft tuned with perfect flex. He loads a lightly-browned disc.
"Mr. Becker?" he inquires, but Ben already holds his beige melmac plate. The pancake catapults over the table and slaps the dish. Congratulations are passed to Chris for his flip, but he defers praise to Ben's catch.
"Mr. Walters?" The scene repeats for the rest of the table, mirrored by the other tables. Pancakes fly all over, collide, are intercepted, or fall miserably short and are snatched up by camp dogs. Every few flips displays a stunt: off the ceiling, over rafters, or a running bomb. In 1993, I sat at the end of the table and accidentally lodged a pancake on a trip plaque. Three years later another pancake knocked it to the table, and surprised us with maggots.
My first summer marked a new way of life for me. I caught Moosepox. The year before I was a trip leader for a 300 kid co-ed camp near Seattle, but the emphasis seemed more on protocol than kids, and insurance dictated even the slightest adventures. The process of getting hired had taken five letters of recommendation, a police check, detailed resume and vita, and lengthy phone interviews. At Flying Moose, I was hired on someone's word. This camp was clearly different.
It took three days to make the trip from Wisconsin to Maine. The nurse, a burly, rough-bearded Chris Price, met me on the dirt road leading into camp and directed me to my cabin half a mile across the lake. Like all buildings on camp property, this cabin looked nondescript in cedar shingles, nearly invisible from thirty feet.
A muted Quaker sensibility is built into every aspect of camp and it reflects and defines Chris's father, who, fresh out of college with a new wife, put down more money than he could afford on the camp that shaped his youth. He believed in God, frugal stewardship, and hard work, and ran his family quietly but firmly. Their summers, savings, and lives he committed to camp. By cutting every corner-to the point of straightening bent and rusty nails instead of buying new ones ("They hold better than new ones," he'd say)-he paid off loans and began to show a profit. Over years, enrollment rose to its maximum of forty-seven boys, and he used profits to acquire more land surrounding Craig Pond.
My first year was the camp's first year without the man who had defined it for over fifty years. That June, staff unpacked, unfolded, and erected camp from its collapsed state of winter storage as they had for years before. We reshingled roofs, and repaired or rebuilt tent platforms. We unbolted heavy wooden shutters, sturdy enough to discourage off-season vandals, and stashed them under buildings. From the dining hall, we unstacked canoes and carried them to the cool water of early summer to test and repair. And life at camp continued in the Maine woods.
After breakfast, Chris announces the big trips for this year. During the summer the forty-seven boys choose to bike through Acadia National Park, to hike sections of the Appalachian trail, to climb Mount Katahdin, or to canoe on lakes, rivers, and ocean. The canoe lies at the heart of Flying Moose. The crown jewel is a 14 day, 220 mile trip in cedar and canvas canoes that the boys helped build. The route covers much of what Henry Thoreau followed in 1857, through Moosehead lake and up the Allagash waterway.
Most of the boys in my shelter will come with me on Allagash. This August morning we test our canoes again. Small leaks develop over summer and are lazily ignored for all trips but the long ones-three days paddling in puddles builds character, but fourteen days of gear soaking is a different story. The four canoes we get are the newer of the hand-built ones: The Mohawk Special, #21, Harrie III, and Roadkill. We set the eighteen foot, 80-100 pound canoes in the water, get inside with chalk, and watch for pools to form. The canoe's width is shaped by ribs and half ribs-alternating one and two inch wide strips of eighth inch thick steam-bent cedar. Fastened to these with brass tacks, thin strips of cedar planking run the length of the canoe. Middle leaks are obvious and easy to repair, but pools on the narrow ends often mean leaks at the stem-the most vulnerable and complicated sections. A good canoeist will not let the canvas touch anything but water and air. But over the summer, these canoes are handled roughly by boys and staff. Even soft sand, like sandpaper, wears through paint and causes leaks. It is best to start with as few leaks as possible.
E.M. White started making canoes in 1889 in a small Maine town an hour north of Bangor. His flagship model, the White Guide, is still considered by many to be one of the best canoes ever made. Flying Moose used them until Old Town Canoe Company stopped making them in the 1950s. By 1971, wood and canvas canoes of any brand were becoming difficult to find, and more and more expensive. Flying Moose made its own form based on the White Guide, and had since produced a canoe each summer.
The wood-canvas canoes have been joined by a small fleet of Old Town Trippers-a sturdy plastic-bodied design based on the White Guide. These go out with less-experienced boys on rockier rivers. This addition has greatly reduced the weekly chore of canoe-patching: the sanding around the hole to canvas, cutting patches from old jeans, gluing down with Ambroid, and painting over again.
These canoes are used instead of the plastic ones, on the big trips for a number of reasons. Because they are hand-built and expensive, there are fewer wood-canvas canoes on the river each year. Old-timers often stop the boys and swap stories, and since the boys have been involved in the building and patching of the canoes, they are proud of them-a pride that respects canoes and treats them well. Based on White's classic design, Flying Moose canoes also ride low in the wind, and the keel-less design turns tight on rivers. The battleship-gray painted canvas slides over rocks that will grab and hold aluminum canoes.
The Roadkill has a leak in the stern that requires attention, and we carry it up to saw horses to dry in the sun so we can patch it that afternoon. Despite birth from the same form, no two canoes that Flying Moose has built have come out alike. The creation of a perfect canoe is an annual dream that always nearly comes true. Roadkill is perhaps the best. It glides as straight as any synthetic canoe.
Canoes are named after themes of summer. In Roadkill's year, Flying Moose had a counselor called Lothar. During the school year he led the life of "Michael", a respected jazz pianist and Harvard law student. But for summers, Lothar, like his uncle, father, and brother before him, shed his name and manners at Flying Moose, first as camper, then as counselor. The year before, his kick was survival, and he spent three days in the woods after camp with only a knife and loincloth, searching for berries and bunnies, and trying to stay warm. He saw it as a natural extension of years as a camper, but recalls that after the first night all poetic visions were squashed by the need for food. He survived. Water was plentiful, August is warm, and Blueberries-which he won't eat anymore-grow heavily on the mountains. His only brush with death came at dusk on the second day, as he crossed a nearby highway in front of a van. The van skidded to a stop and four local teens yipped out of the van, and yee-hawed through the woods after him. He lost them soon enough, but spent the next day far from all roads.
My first summer, he returned for a second year as a counselor in need of a new loincloth. It only made sense to skin his own. However, since trapping requires a license, he bid us to look for fresh roadkill. Eleven-year-old Mark Walters, a new camper, flew in a week late to camp because of chickenpox. After four summers with Moosepox, the boy still remembers being apprehensive when the plane landed, and mortified on the ride to camp.
On a quiet back road ten miles south of Bangor, they skidded to a stop at a furry lump on the gravel shoulder.
"I think it's a cat," the boy said.
"Yeah, but it wasn't there an hour ago! It's fresh!"
The striped golden tabby tom was still warm, and had no collar. It joined them for the ride to camp. That night, a crowd of boys gathered behind the kitchen with Coleman lanterns as Lothar explained that a cat was almost as difficult to skin as a raccoon. He demonstrated the "zipper" -- a razor sharp hook on the back of his knife for slitting skin down the belly. He shattered the skull with the butt of the knife, and removed the brain for the chemicals to tan the hide. He stretched it tight on a flat of plywood, and let it cure on the garage into a comfortable loincloth.
The body we de-boned to make a study for the nature table. A month's worth of meatloafs were spiced with cat comments. Ultimately, Fluffy Roadkill, for we grew fond enough to name it, was commemorated into a plaque and better -- a great canoe.
• • •
It is noon on the tenth day of our Allagash trip, and Tony's tongue sports a gash that promises to disappear soon enough. It stopped bleeding that first night, eight days ago, and except for refusing chili-garlic sauce, it hasn't given him any trouble since. Taylor calls lunch, and Josh suggests a flotilla. We call to Stornello and Patrow who paddle ahead in the Roadkill. As canoes converge, we see that Taylor has no shorts on. He calls it ca-nude-ing. Under the pressure of peers, and "For the love of all things sanitary!" he is persuaded to dress , and we break out hard-crusted loaves for PBJs. This is the last trip they will be on as campers. None can return for two years. But Taylor will be back as a counselor, as will Zach and Stornello. The others may return, unless they get lured away by girlfriends or car payments--Tony talks of having a car at home to pay off. Stornello has been sending letters home every week, and his brother and friends are coming to pick him up next week; they want to see what all the excitement is about. Flying Moose works that way. There is no national ad campaign*, no business plan, no polished edges at all. And it works.
Today is easy. Two days ago we wore ourselves out on the Mud Pond portage-three loaded trips on a one and a half mile carry through knee-deep goo. Yesterday, we recovered. Tomorrow we hit Chase Rapids-a five mile run of class three rapids. The water should be high this year. That run almost always scrapes through the thin skin of a canoe.
Patrow asks for the sardines. Sent out on every trip as a joke, sardines always come back with younger boys, but this trip will bring back smelly tins, burnt out and smashed flat. Sixteen years old, sitting in hand-built canoes in Northern Maine, sharing sardines and smiling.
*of course, Flying Moose is now on the Web at www.flyingmooselodge.com.
A story about a trip I went on with some pretty cool campers in 1996. I wrote for a class in 1997.