April 21, 2018
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Expedition full of surprises for College of the Atlantic senior

By Robin Clifford Wood, Special to the BDN

The day I met Becca Abuza, she had just pulled off the Penobscot River after 11 days of trekking. Despite the rugged conditions, exhilaration emanated from her small, wiry frame.  She had an inner glow that complemented a head of vibrant red hair.

When Becca began a study of historic native water routes of the Penobscot and Machias watershed  — her senior project for College of the Atlantic — she didn’t realize where it would lead. Before she had even launched her canoe, Becca encountered an unexpected soul mate from the distant past: Fannie Hardy Eckstorm.

Fannie, a naturalist and explorer who worked in Maine in the 1800s, kept extensive notes, journals and photographs of her expeditions, all housed in a collection at the University of Maine. Becca happened upon Fannie’s notes during her winter research and became enthralled by this like-minded woman from a previous century. Becca’s study of historic water routes took on the secondary purpose of re-creating Fannie’s explorations.

Becca began canoeing as a young girl in western Massachusetts. She and her father, Robert, a self-taught naturalist, used to set out in canoes to search for good fishing spots. Later, she took part in the summer programs of Maine’s Chewonki Foundation, which she kept up for 10 years. She sailed and backpacked, but mostly loved canoeing.

A friend from COA accompanied Becca for the first part of her trip. Midway, the friend left to join another expedition and Robert Abuza took her place. I soon discovered how fitting it was for Becca’s father to join her expedition. Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, whose photocopied notes accompanied Becca on her journey, also traveled with her father more than 100 years ago. Manly Hardy, a fur trader, accompanied Fannie on a recreational canoeing expedition. Since they both were naturalists, they gathered data, photographed the flora, fauna and landscapes of Down East Maine’s waterways, and kept journals as they went.

“Were there surprises along the way?” I asked.

“The whole thing was a surprise!” she said. “No one I talked to had done this route continuously. I had planned a lot of trips before, but this one was more of a scouting expedition, so I never knew exactly what to expect.”

The historic route that Becca followed overlapped almost entirely with the places that Fannie and Manly traveled .

“I even found some of the same spots to photograph in 2011,” said Becca.

It was not an easy route. From Third Machias Lake, she traveled upriver on Fourth Lake Stream, then Fourth Lake, Gassabias and Nicatous lakes, the Passadumkeag and the Penobscot River. The most challenging point was a slogging 2-mile portage through a bog. All of the expedition equipment — turtle traps, identification manuals, etc. — made transport more cumbersome than she was used to.

It helped to be accompanied by the written voice of Fannie.

“She was very funny in her journals,” Becca told me, clearly very fond of this pioneering woman whom she knew only in print.

Becca is a wonderful advocate for what the state of Maine has to offer. We have a wealth of resources in natural history and the natural environment unrivaled by most states. Those are the resources that attract young people like Becca Abuza to come and to stay. I asked how she felt about her small college after four years, on the brink of graduating with about 70 fellow seniors.

“I’ve loved it, and I still find that there are endless opportunities.”

So what comes next for Becca?

“Well, I graduate on June 4,” she said. “After June 11, I’ll be in the woods.”

Robin Clifford Wood may be reached at robin.everyday@gmail.com.

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