CONVERSATIONS WITH MAINE

College of the Atlantic grad lives, teaches intimate acquaintance with nature

Becca (left) and Lill (right) at their second resupply rendezvous at Whetstone Falls.
Photo by Saras Yerlig
Becca (left) and Lill (right) at their second resupply rendezvous at Whetstone Falls.
Posted Sept. 24, 2013, at 4:48 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 24, 2013, at 5:26 p.m.

I reconnected recently with Becca Abuza, one of my favorite past column subjects. A 2011 College of the Atlantic graduate, Becca has turned her love of the outdoors into a true life calling. Her work as a biologist and educator is admirable, but more impressive is her genuine passion for every harrowing, rugged moment she spends in intimate acquaintance with nature.

Email communications with Becca can be spotty — she has spent most of the last four months in the woods — but I have had the pleasure of hearing from her in between trips. She updated me on her activities since her spring 2011 canoe excursion, when she explored historic water routes in Maine. Becca’s voice in print tantalizes the explorer in me. She is thoroughly familiar with remote places, yet still filled with awe over their beauty and the physical challenges of reaching them.

In fall 2011, after a summer leading canoe trips together in a Chewonki girls’ camp, Becca and her friend Lill decided to spend the month of October paddling in the North Woods.

“We bought a used canoe, chose a route and set out on a chilly clear October day, with mist rising from Nahmakanta Lake and no idea what it would feel like to travel as a team of two for five weeks,” Becca said.

“That first week was the height of fall. We saw every sunrise and sunset for a week straight. At the end of that week, after the triumph of making it to Chesuncook, it rained, many of the leaves fell, and muted colors took the place of flaming shores … We arrived back at Fourth Debsconeag Lake knowing that we talk best while portaging, that dried fruit is essential, and that canoe expeditions inspire us to write,” she said.

The following spring, Becca explored some of the southwestern landscapes she studied at College of the Atlantic.

“We spent a week backpacking in the Gila Wilderness in southern New Mexico, where the snow was up to our waists. And we had to body slam through crusty corn snow, dragging our feet over the snow by hand so that we could place them, lunge forward with the weight of our full packs, and posthole down again,” she recounted.

A ranger had predicted no more than a foot of snow during that trip.

In summer 2012, Becca worked on amphibian surveys for the park service in Yosemite.

“I was totally in heaven. I realized by the end of the summer that any day that I climbed a peak over 10,000 feet was inevitably better because of it,” she said.

But still, Maine has a hold on her.

“Someone mentioned the Downeast lakes and my heart jumped! It is a part of the world that will always call to me, no matter how expansive the Yosemite Wilderness is,” she said.

This past summer, Becca guided two three-week canoe trips on the West Branch of the Penobscot and the Allagash rivers with Chewonki. A highlight was using an axe, a hatchet and a fixed blade knife to cut a seven-foot length of cedar, shape it into a board and carve it into a paddle.

“We had some sandpaper for making spoons, so we were able to sand it and oil it with Crisco,” she said.

They also tackled the Mud Pond Carry for the first time, well known to paddling enthusiasts and described by the likes of Thoreau and John McPhee. The trail marks the divide between the Allagash and Penobscot watersheds.

“It is a pretty inspiring spot. You reach Umbazooksus Lake, and there is a cairn on the shore that marks the trail, a narrow break in the alders. The trail isn’t a typical wooded carry path, it’s a groove in the mud — at many points a small stream that you walk through. You can tell at the very start by the cut in the brush that people have been walking it for hundreds of years,” she said.

Becca has spent years with Maine’s Chewonki Foundation, both as camper and expedition leader. Last spring, she worked as an intern for their Traveling Natural History Program, caring for non-releasable animals and bringing them into classrooms.

“This is my first time teaching indoors,” Becca said, but she was excited to see students “connect to scientific material/natural history in a way that is tied to tangible experiences.”

Becca will soon embark on her first ever solo canoe trip. She will then head to the cloud forest of Ecuador on the western slopes of the Andes.

“It will be a combination of guiding frog tours, doing frog surveys, plant surveys, and helping with some writing projects. It feels like the best of both worlds to have some New England fall and get to hang out with reptiles and amphibians,” she said excitedly.

Many thanks, Becca, for transporting us vicariously to those worlds.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at robin.everyday@gmail.com.

 

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