After a nearly six-week-long slog through the Maine wilderness that included a 13-mile-long overland carry with a 417 pound wooden boat, flirtations with hypothermia and what felt like endless upstream paddles, a small band of hardy Americans stormed Quebec City and claimed it for the French this fall.
It was a rousing triumph for the Maine-based band of adventurers who had spent a lot of the autumn recreating the problem-plagued 1775 expedition of Revolutionary War hero-turned-traitor Benedict Arnold. Unlike the original journey, which ultimately ended in a battle with the British that was a disaster for the Americans, the 2017 crew counted their adventure as a success.
“We were not very sneaky,” Hodding Carter IV of Camden said about his group’s grand entrance into Quebec City on Nov. 4. “When we got there, we were chanting and holding up signs. We’d had a little rum that day, too. If you’re an American soldier and you’re nervous for the battle, you have a shot of rum. [We] had made a Revolutionary War flag with the pine tree symbol. We were waving that through town, saying ‘Down with the British!’”
The euphoria and silliness of that final day was a good end to the journey, which had begun somewhat less auspiciously in late September when the boat that Carter and Phippsburg boatbuilder Rob Stevens had made a few days before proved to be not immediately river worthy. Until the dry wood used to make the bateau swelled in the water, the boat leaked, to an extent that was initially alarming.
“When we arrived that morning, the boat was underwater,” Carter said. “It was not a good beginning for the boat.”
But after the wood swelled up, the heavy wooden bateau floated like a champ, leaking only a little bit during the traverse of the 350 miles of rivers, rapids and lakes between Pittston and Quebec City. The pointy, double-ended flat-bottomed boat was of the same design used by Arnold’s 1,100-man contingent. (Of that number, 450 or so turned back before they reached Canada). Benedict Arnold and his crew had trouble with their vessels, especially during the whitewater portions and the portages. The bateaux leaked so much they destroyed much of their supplies of food and gunpowder, and historians have written that the bateau was the wrong design for what Arnold wanted to do.
So, for Carter, learning that their bateau handled well was one of the important findings of the trip.
“The thing I wanted to show is that this was the right boat for the job,” the writer and self-described “would-be experiential historian,” said. “I really do feel like we succeeded in that sense. Every historian always wrote it was the wrong boat. I always felt it wasn’t.”
Another important realization he made was learning just how much some Mainers and Canadians care about history. Carter and his crew, comprised of Stevens, University of Vermont outdoor program coordinator John Abbott, whitewater guide Ben Schott of Vermont and Wilder Nicholson of Brunswick, were met along the way by members of the Arnold Expedition Historical Society. History buffs, some as old as 89, found them in the wilderness and helped them roll the boat over long portages, offered them a warm place to spend the night or a hot dinner and lifted their spirits. Not all crew members were in the bateau all the time. They cycled in and out of the expedition as life, work and other responsibilities required. But one constant was the support of the people they met along the way.
“The Arnold Expedition Society are the most awesome people in the world,” Carter said. “The Kennebec’s not built up. All the way from Pittston to Wyman Lake, you’re in wilderness almost the whole time. But it’s approachable. We weren’t so far that people couldn’t just find us, and they would. They would just show up. It was the most touching tribute to their commitment to history and knowledge and the beauty of that place.”
The crew also appreciated the tremendous effort that Arnold and his men made to get to Canada. Even with dams that turned narrow, winding rivers into large, easy-to-paddle lakes and accurate maps, neither of which Arnold had, the journey was still physically grueling, Carter said. At the height of land between the Kennebec and Chaudiere rivers, the men were in shallow water trying to go upstream. Even wearing neoprene suits in the water, they were very cold — “almost hypothermic,” Carter said — and covered in bruises from physically lifting and trying to push the boat forward.
“That’s where the suffering turned out to be,” he said. “The days when you only make it a mile or a mile and a half, and you worked for nine hours and your hands are bleeding and raw. That’s an experience that takes it to another level. It’s nothing like what you do in everyday life. It takes me closer to what those guys did. Even though they suffered more, I understood their suffering.”
When Carter and his crew needed to move the boat on land, including the infamous Great Carrying Place that bypassed an unnavigable section of the Dead River, they learned that rolling it over small logs was much easier than trying to carry it by hand. Still, they were able to borrow a boat trailer and used it to push the bateau through customs at the Canadian border. Carter said that the occasional use of modern conveniences such as roads, boat trailers, cell phones and neoprene did not betray the group’s aims of retracing the path and spirit of the Arnold expedition. Moreover, the loved pushing the boat across the border. And the sight of the crew, sporting a motley assemblage of Revolutionary War-era clothing and tricorn hats as they went, tickled the normally implacable agents on both sides of the border.
“The U.S. border people were running out, taking our pictures and laughing,” Carter said. “The Canadian agent, she started smiling even though they’re not supposed to. She said, ‘What are you doing?’ We said, ‘Attacking Quebec City, of course. We’ll take it from the British and give it to you people.’ She said, ‘OK, sounds good.’”
All in all, the trip was an adventure that buoyed Carter’s feelings about Arnold and the men who followed him north all the way to Canada. Nowadays, Benedict Arnold is best known by Americans as a treasonous turncoat. After he defected to the British army, he led their forces against the Americans he had once commanded. This is an undeniable part of Arnold’s legacy, but there’s more to him than being a traitor, according to Carter. Before switching sides in 1780, Arnold was a brave and intelligent leader for the Continental Army, and led soldiers capably through some of the most important battles of the war.
“I think I was an Arnold apologist before it began. Now I’m a confirmed Arnold supporter,” he said. “To do something like this and keep so many of the people inspired, it’s ridiculous. It makes him many more dimensions than what we learned about growing up.”
For Carter, who also has followed the trail of Lewis and Clark and sailed 1,500 miles from Greenland to Newfoundland in a replica of an open Viking longboat, there was something special about the last six weeks. He’ll continue to reflect on the trip as he works on an upcoming feature story for Outside magazine and a documentary about it.
“I’ve done a lot of crazy historical adventures and trips. This is without a doubt my favorite one,” he said. “It was a beautiful experience.”
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