I’d rather be Up North. — bumper sticker, indigenous to Maine, typically encountered on thoroughly used pickup trucks
Up North, in the true canoe country, early May is to canoe-tripping what Thanksgiving to Christmas is to retailing. The whole year quickens toward those two weeks. By Mother’s Day, blackflies are out in force, some of the best fishing of the year begins, and one grows distracted.
Up North, early May may mimic mid-March — raw, windy, spitting a little snow. Once I watched two good canoeists, one of them my daughter, paddle out of the lee of Attean Mountain and turn into the teeth of the wind. She, in the stern, and her partner, in the bow, were kneeling, leaning into every stroke and paddling in sync, the bow never wavering to one side or the other, the canoe steady as a weathervane. Textbook. I looked past them to the opposite shore, to gauge their progress. They were not progressing; the opposite shore, however, was. Perfectly under control, making every stroke count, they were going backward. Liz gave it up, angled the bow slightly off the wind, and kept paddling ahead, letting the wind deflect them gradually sideways, back under Attean Mountain.
Two hours later, with Holeb Pond and its outlet stream behind us, the sun was out, the wind somewhere up in the treetops, and we were sitting back, letting the current do most of the work, breathing easy and making time down the Moose River. It’s narrow and convoluted there, winding among alders, its water sleek, alive, a pure and shining black, with no trace of dust or pollen on it, and that is also early May, Up North.
On that trip, maybe 25 years ago, my daughter was almost the same age I’d been the first time I paddled the Moose River Bow trip. Do the math — it tells me my days of canoe-tripping are probably behind me. Probably, I said.
This elixir cannot be packaged, bottled, or sold online, though Americans spend billions annually hoping to find it.
I won’t list the other trips on other rivers and across other lakes Up North, early in May. At night, when I can’t sleep for some reason — having this damned essay to write, for example — I try recalling them to sedate myself. When they finally begin blurring into each other, the Seboeis no longer distinct from the St. John’s from the Machias, with its red pines and blueberry barrens, it means I am about to slip under.
Were there adventures? Once, with the canoe on my shoulders, so all I could see was its inverted interior in front of me and the mucky portage trail under my feet, I nearly ran into a moose. I heard a snort, lifted the canoe bow to look, and we shared a long, aghast instant of reciprocal, interspecific incredulity. Then he turned and went off at that fast, mincing trot into the woods.
But mostly canoe-tripping Up North in the prime time of early May is not about this or that thing that happened or what you chanced to see. It is not even about the pleasing constants of all such trips — setting up camp, the campfire, the tents with pine needles pattering down on them through the night, or even the familiar, fluid rhythm of paddling.
Canoe tripping in Up North in early May is about some quality of the air, something you can actually smell — slightly pungent, with hints of bay leaf, subtle retsina overtones, and the effervescence of chilled champagne, giving an overall effect of pure oxygen, deeply inhaled. This elixir cannot be packaged, bottled, or sold online. Legend says Ponce de León ransacked Florida searching for it; American consumers spend billions annually on drugs, doctors, gym memberships, and holistic horse-fodder hoping to find it. It is unattainable, but Up North, in early May, it exists. Not for long, but for real.