A new guide shows you how to climb Moosehead Lake’s famed mountain in the footsteps of Thoreau.
By John Gibson
Photographed by Alan Lavallee
“Thus aroused, I too brought fresh fuel to the fire, and then rambled along the sandy shore in moonlight, hoping to meet a moose come down to drink, or else a wolf. The little rill tinkled the louder, and peopled all the wilderness for me; and the glassy smoothness of the sleeping lake, laving the shores of a new world, with the dark, fantastic rocks rising here and there from its surface, made a scene not easily described. It has left such an impression on my memory as will not soon be effaced.”
—The Maine Woods by Henry David Thoreau
Previous trips to Maine’s North Woods had whetted Thoreau’s appetite for more. On July 20, 1857, he and Edward Hoar traveled by train from Concord, Massachusetts, to Portland, Maine, then went to Bangor on the packet. They were met there by George Thatcher, who took them to Old Town, where they engaged Joseph Polis, a Penobscot elder, to be their guide. Polis agreed to a salary of $1.50 per day plus 50 cents a week for the use of his canoe. This would be Thoreau’s last journey to Maine’s great North Woods, an exploration of distant places beyond all settlement and a fitting sequel to his 1846 climb on Katahdin.
Thoreau and Hoar had planned a trip up Moosehead Lake, thence to the lakes near the St. John River and back south on the Penobscot. As they prepared to set out, Thoreau wrote, “My companion and I had each a large knapsack as full as it would hold, and we had two large India-rubber bags which held our provision and utensils. As for the Indian, all the baggage he had, beside his axe and gun, was a blanket, which he brought loose in his hand. However, he had laid in a store of tobacco and a new pipe for the excursion.” Their possessions, including the canoe, were loaded on a stagecoach, and the three proceeded north sixty miles to Greenville, on Moosehead’s southernmost shore.
Rain kept the men at a tavern in Greenville for the night, but they departed up the lake early on July 27. “About four o’- clock the next morning,” Thoreau wrote, “though it was quite cloudy, accompanied by the landlord to the water’s edge, in the twilight, we launched our canoe from a rock on the Moosehead Lake.” He described the canoe as roughly eighteen feet long, about thirty inches wide, and freshly built by Polis. He guessed it weighed about eighty pounds and thought it staunch and solid, “it being made of very thick bark and ribs.” The boat, the kind that today would be called a freighter canoe, “carried about 600 pounds in all, or the weight of four men.”
“It had rained more or less the four previous days, so that we thought we might count on some fair weather,” Thoreau noted. “It was inspiriting to hear the regular dip of the paddles, as if they were our fins or flippers, and to realize that we were at length fair embarked. We who had felt strangely as stage-passengers and tavern-lodgers were suddenly naturalized there and presented with the freedom of the lakes and woods.”
The three men moved up the western shore of the lake to stay out of the wind. Thoreau wanted to land at Kineo, about eighteen miles northwest of Greenville, and to camp there. He expected that if the wind was up, they could cross to Kineo with the wind at their backs if necessary. “The wind is the chief obstacle to crossing the lakes,” he wrote, “especially in so small a canoe.” Later he continued, “We stopped to breakfast on the main shore southwest of Deer Island, at a spot where Mimulus ringens [monkey flower] grew abundantly. We took out our bags, and the Indian made a fire under a very large bleached log, using white-pine bark from a stump, though he said that hemlock was better, and kindling with canoe birch-bark. Our table was a large piece of freshly peeled birch-bark, laid wrongside up, and our breakfast consisted of hard bread, fried pork, and strong coffee, well-sweetened, in which we did not miss the milk.”
Picking their way northward, the party had trouble finding the route through heavy mist and maneuvered carefully, staying west of Deer Island. Thoreau cataloged the birds he saw as they moved along. “The birds sang quite as in our woods — the red-eye, red-start, veery, wood-pewee, etc., but we saw no bluebirds in all our journey, and several told me in Bangor that they had not the bluebird there. Mount Kineo, which was generally visible, though occasionally concealed by islands or the mainland in front, had a level bar of cloud concealing its summit, and all the mountain-tops about the lake were cut off at the same height.”
Continuing southwesterly, the three passed the lake’s westernmost outflow into the Kennebec River. The Kennebec carries Moosehead water all the way to the sea at Popham. Thoreau and Hoar were seeking a point far enough along Moosehead’s shore to get roughly opposite Kineo, where they might turn east, with the wind behind them, while making a crossing. “Here we were exposed to the wind from over the whole breadth of the lake, and ran a little risk of being swamped,” Thoreau noted. “While I had my eye fixed on the spot where a large fish had leaped, we took in a gallon or two of water, which filled my lap, but we soon reached the shore and took the canoe over the bar, at Sand-Bar Island, a few feet wide only, and so saved a considerable distance.”
They were close to Kineo soon enough, and it was time to paddle over, whatever the breeze. “Again we crossed a broad bay opposite the mouth of Moose River, before reaching the narrow strait at Mount Kineo, made what the voyageurs call a traverse, and found the water quite rough.” Thoreau wrote at some length of the danger for canoes and small boats on this enormous lake due to wind. From shore, he recognized, the lake’s surface might appear relatively tranquil, but farther out even modest winds could generate waves sufficient to quickly capsize or cut a canoe in two. He also spoke of the danger of winds suddenly arising on what had been quiet waters, “so that nothing can save you, unless you can swim ashore, for it is impossible to get into a canoe again when it is upset.” Moosehead is both broad and long, some forty-four miles in length at its extremes, and navigating it in a small craft can be humbling, as some find to their consternation even today. Thoreau seemed impressed with their vulnerability, writing, “Think of our little egg-shell of a canoe tossing across that great lake, a mere black speck to the eagle soaring above it!”
Polis told Thoreau and Hoar about an Indian legend holding that Kineo was a great moose that had been killed by Penobscot hunters and that the mountain had retained the shape of the moose, as if hunkered down in the lake’s waters. Polis appeared to give the legend credence and asked them how they thought such a kill might have been accomplished.
The doughty canoe came ashore at a point Thoreau described as “a mile north of the Kineo House,” none the worse for wear. He estimated they had come twenty miles. “We designed to stop there that afternoon and night, and spent half an hour looking along the shore northward for a place to camp. . . . At length, half a mile further north, by going half a dozen rods into the dense spruce and fir wood on the side of the mountain, almost as dark as a cellar, we found a place sufficiently clear and level to lie down on, after cutting away a few bushes. . . . The Indian first cleared a path to it from the shore with his axe, and we then carried up all our baggage, pitched our tent, and made our bed, in order to be ready for foul weather, which then threatened us, and for the night.”
Kineo is a mountain sculpted by heavy glaciation and weathering. It is shaped like a drumlin, with its highest end to the southeast. The elevation is marked by bold, abrupt cliffs on its southeast side — layers of blasted rock further roughened by glacial plucking. The mountain is formed of blue-gray felsite studded with quartz, feldspar, garnet, tuff, pumice, and a particularly valued type of rhyolite. Jackson’s 1838 Geology of Maine called the typical deposit here hornstone. To native peoples, the mountain’s rhyolite was useful in primitive tool making, and samples of such have been found distributed throughout New England. Bluff on its southeast side, Kineo gradually subsides in elevation to the northwest, its exposed back scraped and suppressed by an advancing mile-thick ice sheet during the Pleistocene. The cliffs on the mountain’s southeast side are a dizzying 700 to 800 feet in height, and its summit provides spectacular 360-degree views over Moosehead and the surrounding country.
Thoreau, despite the unsettled weather, was eager to get to Mount Kineo’s summit and to explore the local woodlands. “After dinner, we returned southward along the shore, in the canoe, on account of the difficulty of climbing over the rocks and fallen trees, and began to ascend the mountain along the edge of the precipice,” he wrote. Sending their guide back to camp and telling him to come back for them with the canoe before nightfall, he and Hoar made their way upward through the still-wet grass.
Thoreau observed, “The clouds breaking away a little, we had a glorious wild view, as we ascended, of the broad lake with its fluctuating surface and numerous forest-clad islands, extending beyond our sight, both north and south, and the boundless forest undulating away from its shores on every side, as densely-packed as a rye-field, and enveloping nameless mountains in succession; but above all, looking westward over a large island was visible a very distant part of the lake, though we did not suspect it to be Moosehead, — at first a mere broken white line seen through the tops of the island trees, like haycaps, but spreading to a lake when we got higher. Beyond this we saw what appears to be called Bald Mountain [today Boundary Bald Mountain] on the map, some twenty-five miles distant, near the sources of the Penobscot. It was a perfect lake of the woods.”
If Thoreau came here to walk the ground, others came to tour. It’s interesting to compare Thoreau’s account of his Katahdin expedition in 1846 and his journey in Joe Polis’s canoe and then the hike up Kineo in 1857 with the ruminations of James Russell Lowell, who arrived at Kineo in 1853. Lowell traveled to Maine roughly four years before Thoreau’s expedition up Moosehead Lake and down the Penobscot River via Northeast Carry and seven years after Thoreau’s extended outing in this region to climb Katahdin. Lowell edited the Atlantic Monthly, to which Thoreau contributed. When Lowell later removed some lines that Thoreau wrote in “Chesuncook,” an article on a moose hunt that he had observed in the same region in 1853, Thoreau chastised him loudly for the omission in June of 1858: “The editor has, in this case, no more right to omit a sentiment than to insert one, or put words in my mouth.” He would not publish in the Atlantic again until after Lowell’s editorship ended, in 1861.
Lowell had come to Greenville by stagecoach from Bangor and stayed overnight there. Being a good deal more patrician in his sentiments than Thoreau, he complained of his lodgings and said of the town that it was “a little village which looks as if it had dripped down from the hills, and settled in the hollows at the foot of the lake.” In his essay “Moosehead Country in 1853,” Lowell complained of being overcharged when boarding the steamer Moosehead, which would carry him north up the vast lake. He betrayed himself as a city man, finding the great woods wanting because they were not like the metropolis. Unlike Thoreau, Lowell had come prepared to disapprove of what he found. Indeed, the temperaments of the two men could not have been more different.
As the steamer moved up the lake, Lowell softened a little. “There were three or four clearings on the western shore, but after passing these, the lake became wholly primeval and looked to us as it did to the first adventurous Frenchman who paddled across it. . . . On all sides rose deep-blue mountains, of remarkably graceful outline and more fortunate than common in their names. . . . It was debated whether we saw Katahdin or not, (perhaps more useful as an intellectual enterprise than the assured vision would have been) and presently Mount Kineo rose abruptly before us, in shape not unlike the island of Capri.” Aboard the steamship, Lowell was the quintessential Bostonian on tour, very much concerned with the surface of things, with their appearance and their similarities to foreign places. He later climbed Kineo, pronouncing it easy, and took a drink from one of its springs.
Thoreau, by contrast, enjoyed the grand outlook Kineo provided, despite the occasional drizzle. He and Hoar had what he called “India-rubber” wraps and took no shelter from the wet weather. Polis, because he had no rain gear, took shelter under the overturned canoe. Thoreau wrote, “If I wished to see a mountain or other scenery under the most favorable auspices, I would go to it in foul weather, so as to be there when it cleared up; we are then in the most suitable mood, and nature is most fresh and inspiring. There is no serenity so fair as that which is just established in a tearful eye.” As the two men looked down the lake, they could just make out the reflected blue tinge of a clearing sky near Greenville.
As Thoreau roamed about Kineo’s summit, he found mountain cinquefoil, harebell, bearberry, Canada blueberry, wild holly, round-leaved orchis, bunchberry, woodsia ferns, and twayblade (Liparis liliifolia). “Having explored the wonders of the mountain, and the weather now being entirely cleared up, we commenced the descent,” he noted. That evening, Thoreau woke in the night and walked about. As he did, he found several examples of decaying wood that glowed brightly in the darkness. “I saw at once that it must be phosphorescent wood, which I had so often heard of, but never chanced to see. Putting my finger on it, with a little hesitation, I found that it was a piece of dead moosewood (Acer striatum) which the Indian had cut off in a slanting direction the evening before. Using my knife, I discovered that the light proceeded from that portion of the sapwood immediately under the bark, and thus presented a regular ring at the end, which indeed, appeared raised above the level of the wood, and when I pared off the bark and cut into the sap, it was all aglow along the log.” He also found similar displays on a nearby stump. He would later write, “I was exceedingly interested by this phenomenon, and already felt paid for my journey. . . . I little thought that there was such a shining light in the darkness of the wilderness for me.”
In these lines we get a sense of how such small moments, moments that might be available to us but that we ignore in the rush of modernity, were essential to Thoreau. Coming across foxfire in the shadow of Kineo meant a great deal to him, for nature did not disappoint. In such intervals, the woods offered him sustenance. “I did not regret not having seen this before, since I now saw it under circumstances so favorable,” he wrote. “I was in just the frame of mind to see something wonderful, and this was a phenomenon adequate to my circumstance and expectation, and it put me on the alert to see more like it. . . . It suggested to me that there was something to be seen if one had eyes.”
Excerpted from In High Places with Henry David Thoreau: A Hiker’s Guide with Routes and Maps by John Gibson; Countryman Press, Woodstock, Vermont, 196 pages, $18.95.