Tradition continues on Allagash

Posted Aug. 28, 2009, at 9:03 p.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — The month-old calf bravely crossed a river channel to catch up with the cow moose vanishing into the thick brush on the other side. The sun was setting over the Allagash River as the cow turned and gently touched noses with the younger animal.

From our canoe, we could almost hear the delicate strings of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in the background.

Right up until the cow moose used her front hoof to roughly cuff the young calf several blows about her head, chasing the youngster off back across the channel amidst much splashing and commotion.

But that’s life along Maine’s longest wilderness waterway — sometimes bucolic, sometimes fierce and always surprising.

There are few better places to witness Maine’s north woods than along the Allagash River and few better places along the river than the historic Willard Jalbert Camps, with its buildings and traditions going back to just after the World War II.

Nestled on Windy Point — a two-acre peninsula jutting out into Round Pond — the camps are accessible only by boat or floatplane.

A half-dozen buildings, including a cookhouse with dining area, three bunkhouses and even a wood-fired sauna and rustic hot tub, are nestled among the spruce and fir.

Located about 40 miles from the village of Allagash, it’s an hour or so over dirt roads to the nearest access point at Henderson Bridge.

The camps are a testament to the days when lumbermen and guides ruled the waterway.

In fact, it was three of those guides, Willard Jalbert Jr. with his brother Robert Jalbert and their father Willard Sr., who built the camps in the late 1940s.

“We used to put in at Twin Brook and motor the canoes up the river to the camps,” Phyllis Jalbert said. “We had to portage around Allagash Falls and it took the whole day, it was really an adventure.”

Phyllis, 63 and a registered Maine guide who grew up in Fort Kent, is Willard Jalbert Jr.’s daughter and today divides her time between homes in New York and Maine, but no matter where she is, a part of her heart is at Windy Point.

The traditions of the north Maine woods run deep in her family so when the very existence of the camps came under fire as the state systematically removed all buildings from the along the river after it was designated a wilderness waterway, the Jalbert family members knew they had to save it.

“They fought like hell to keep it there,” she said. “It worked [and] today I have a long lease and the state has been really good about it.”

Jalbert is aware how fortunate she is to have the preserved family’s legacy.

“Just the thought of those camps not being there would be like a death,” she said. “I just can’t imagine it.”

Maybe that’s because Phyllis and her five siblings grew up in a family with strong ties to the river.

So well known are the guiding exploits of Willard Jalbert Sr., he’s often referred to as simply “the old guide.”

“They were a breed of men of their own [and] they were so knowledgeable and wanted to share that knowledge with everyone,” Phyllis Jalbert said.

“Of course, they weren’t so quick to share their favorite fishing holes,” she added with a laugh.

So impressed was former Supreme Court Justice William Douglass when he stayed at the Jalbert Camps, he is credited with saying, “There are three kinds of bears in the Maine woods: black bears, brown bears and Jalberts.”

The words of Douglass and the countless others who have passed through the camps are recorded in a series of guest books and the observations, comments and reflections within those pages reflect the evolution of the waterway and the people on it.

“Broken motor — paddled from the head of Umasaskis Lake. Stopped at Uncle Sam’s camps in Long Lake.” Willard Jalbert Jr., wrote on Nov. 5, 1953, in the first volume, a book of yellowed lined paper and bound in birch bark. “Pat and Irvin invited me to spend the night. Had I not had such a warm reception I would have kept on going and spent the night on the river. Uncle Sam made some of his wonderful biscuits last night and this morning at 3 a.m. he was making doughnuts.”

That spirit of hospitality at Round Pond is alive and well thanks to Phyllis Jalbert and the core of local guides — or “sponsors” who take care of the day-to-day operations and maintenance of the camps.

“It’s very gratifying to come up here when you think of all the work that went into this place and the history of it,” Andre Landry, one of those sponsors, said on a recent trip to the camps. “If walls could talk there would really be some stories here.”

Landry was at the camps with his wife Norma, 17-year-old daughter Sam and a crew of her teenage friends for one last hurrah before the start of this school year.

“Look at these kids enjoying the outdoors,” Landry said as some settled on the dock to chat while several others took canoes out for an afternoon of fishing. “My thing is just seeing their expressions when they are here — all the money in the world can’t buy that.”

It’s $35 a night plus the cost of groceries for adults to stay at the Jalbert camps. Per Phyllis Jalbert’s policy, students stay for free.

“I want the young people to come in and experience this place,” Jalbert said. “That’s very important for me.”

Maybe it’s because she wants them to grow into adulthood with the same kind of memories she has.

Like the time her father was motoring up the river with Phyllis and her older sister Maxine.

“Along the way his motor broke down, so he left Maxine and I in an old abandoned cabin for the night and went back for the part,” she said. “My mother was fit to be tied when he told her what he had done.”

The girls survived just fine, Jalbert said, sleeping on old metal spring beds, but she did add the elder sibling did a good job of spinning tales of the bears and other wildlife lurking in the nighttime woods.

“That was memorable,” Jalbert laughed.

Jalbert remembers a lot of that kind of joking and laughing over the years.

“When I was 5 or 6 the men were building the cook shack,” she said. “I was always falling over roots or stumps and my grandfather said, ‘Pick your feet up, you’re not on Main Street.’”

Jalbert manages to get up to northern Maine and into the camps several times a year these days. When she can, her mother, 90-year-old Blanche Jalbert, makes the trip with her.

“It’s really such a chance to get close to nature,” she said. “The best friends I ever made were people I met on the river; it’s where everything gets stripped away and everyone is equal.”

For Landry, experiencing life at Round Pond is so special he has made it his life’s mission to get everyone he can there at least once.

He’s well on his way to doing just that.

“I can’t count the number of times I’ve been here,” Sam Landry said. “It’s so nice to see people’s reactions the first time they come here.”

The recent trip marked her friend Allie Charette’s first time at the camps.

“I love it here,” the 19-year-old said. “It’s like a secluded little village.”

Danielle Duperry, 16, agreed. “When you go on vacations other places you have objectives and you have to spend money and go out to eat, but here you really get back to your roots,” she said.

“Hello, it’s paradise,” 16-year-old Cassandra Ann Jandreau, said. “It’s the perfect end to the summer.”

Later that night Justin Taggert, taking a break from a spirited game of cards, was poring over the logbooks.

“It’s pretty neat to see how many people have been here,” he said, as he prepared to add his own observations to the book.

“There’s a lot of history here,” Carter Vaillencourt, 18, added. “It’s cool to see all the different people who came from different places.”

Getting the family Jeep stuck on the way to the river, riding in the back of an old panel truck over the dusty woods roads, picking fiddleheads at a favored spot along Musquacook Stream and the pet turtle named Myrtle are all memories Jalbert carries that were born on Round Pond.

She’s thrilled a new generation of young people is making memories of their own and is looking forward to the next one in line.

“I’m taking my granddaughter there on her first trip into the camps next year,” Jalbert said. “I can’t wait, she’ll be 3 and just love it.”

The camps are available by reservation only. For information on the Jalbert Camps, call 718-858-4496 on weekdays or 718-834-2500 on weekends.

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