Perhaps it was serendipity, but other forces also were at work to bind together a group of University of Maine at Presque Isle students in just a week last month.
Seven students had signed up to take an intensive canoeing and camping course led by Amanda Baker of Presque Isle and Traci Halvorson of Easton from May 15 to 21.
Offered every other year, the weeklong, four-credit course begins with two days of packing and paddling in the Presque Isle area to practice the fundamentals of canoeing.
“Then we head into the woods and load our boats onto the Allagash River at Bissonette Bridge,” said Baker, recreation program coordinator and adjunct instructor at UMPI. “We are on the water four days and three nights, taking us north, downstream, to Allagash Village, experiencing the sights, sounds and beauty of this wilderness waterway in Maine.”
Preparations included instruction on safety, rescue exercises on Hanson Lake in Presque Isle and a trip from Easton to Mars Hill on the Prestile Stream. Once in the woods, “we keep a very flexible schedule to account for the weather, strength of our paddlers and campsite availability,” Baker said.
She has led the course three times before, but said this year’s group was unusual, growing especially close in the short time they were together. With distinctly different personalities and background experiences, only a few had known each other before the trip.
While most of the paddlers were from Aroostook County, one — Mitchell Chipman of Portland — had never been north of Bangor. That dynamic magnified the beauty of the backwoods experience for everyone.
“There were so many ‘firsts’ for him,” Baker said of Chipman, observing “a reconnection to nature for him that was really great to see and feel.” Chipman’s enthusiasm for every new experience heightened the locals’ appreciation of things they take for granted.
“The woods are part of our life,” said Kyle MacCallum, 20, of Chapman. “We don’t realize how special it is. Having Mitchell from Portland made all of us get a different perspective.”
“I was like a kid in a candy store,” said Chipman, recognizing how others in the group were seeing familiar things through his eyes.
Raised in Westbrook and living near the University of Southern Maine in Portland, Chipman, 24, was quick to identify three things that stand out in his memory of the trip. “I saw my first moose, then I saw one a day. Never before in my life have I done that.”
Then there were the stars … “with no lights — the total opposite of Portland — a breath-taking experience printed in my mind.”
Finally, the people: “They made it special for me. It was a great group of people. I feel like I’ve known them longer, even the teachers. It’s an experience I’ll always remember.”
Not knowing anyone when he arrived in Presque Isle, Chipman appreciated that “everyone was super-friendly.” And while he had canoed on day trips, this was his first excursion with overnights where “everyone had to rely on each other.”
A 25-page paper based on his journals from the trip will fulfill the capstone requirement for his degree in tourism and hospitality from the University of Southern Maine. As he looks toward a career in tourism, he envisions travel, perhaps cruises, but would “love to come back to Maine,” and will remember the Allagash trip “that made me appreciate nature anywhere.”
Presque Isle native Tyler Seeley recalled Chipman’s excitement over the group’s first encounter with a moose on the drive in. Ordinarily you’d just pass by, but the 15-passenger van braked to a stop and everyone got out.
“You don’t realize how much is up here until you see something like that. Not everyone has the opportunity to interact with wildlife on a regular basis. It’s nice to share that lifestyle with someone who appreciates it.”
MacCallum described the last night of the trip when members of the group stayed up late, chatting around the fire and walking down to the river to look up at the Milky Way stretched across the sky. Chipman was amazed by the scene, as though they were under a bowl. “Being able to go outside, seeing the stars, is always special; for him it was super-special.”
MacCallum said he will long remember tucking himself into a nook at the base of Allagash Falls to sit for maybe 15 minutes feeling and listening to the roar and boom of the river, soothed to near sleep by the “tons of water” rushing past. An experienced canoeist, he said, “I love this area, I grew up here, but I didn’t realize how important it was.”
Love filled the atmosphere as the group said goodbye at the conclusion of the adventure. “[Chipman] was constantly talking about how much he loved it … everything,” said Baker. And his feelings were contagious, connecting people with each other and with nature.
“It made me more aware of my surroundings and I think it was very humbling to those of us in the group who do get outside a lot,” Baker said. “I felt like I was on my first wilderness trip again, and it was so refreshing and calming.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.