News this fall that the state of Maine had acquired the 40-acre site at Lock Dam connecting Chamberlain and Eagle lakes in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway took me back to the writing of Dorothy Boone Kidney.
Dorothy and her husband, Milford, spent 28 summers between 1957 and 1985 in a one-room cabin on Chamberlain Lake tending Lock Dam for Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. and registering canoeists for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Recreation.
A prolific freelance writer whose work appeared in national and regional magazines, she also wrote a number of books, three about their experiences in the Allagash: “Away from It All,” “A Home in the Wilderness” and “Wilderness Journal.”
A native of Presque Isle, Dorothy was living in Washburn when we became acquainted in the 1990s, and she became a regular contributor to Echoes magazine, which I edit. Several of her Echoes stories are filled with poignant anecdotes, as well as history, of those years in the Allagash, years she and Milford cherished.
Dorothy, who died at 82 in 2001, would have been delighted to read last Friday’s piece in the Bangor Daily News by Matthew LaRoche, superintendent of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, in which he highlights the significance of the acquisition of Lock Dam and notes that the cabin the Kidney couple occupied “sits pretty much as they left it.”
Dorothy loved to tell the story of how Milford got his job as dam tender. Inspired by a radio sermon of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, she and Milford had made separate lists of their personal life goals.
When they compared their lists, they discovered they had written exactly the same things, including helping people and being outdoors. Following Dr. Peale’s suggestion, they knelt together and prayed for the opportunity to fulfill those goals.
The couple was living in Yarmouth, where she taught school and he sold business machines. After a fishing trip to northern Maine, Milford told his wife about a man he had met at Lock Dam, living in a cabin and working for Bangor Hydro-Electric.
“That’s what I would like to do,” he remarked.
Less than a year later, they picked up a copy of the BDN during a business trip to Woodland, and Dorothy noticed an obituary for Jim Clarkson, who seemed to fit the description of the man Milford had met the day he followed a stream in the woods and first saw the cabin at Lock Dam.
Milford assured her that was the man. Dorothy encouraged him to apply for the job.
“The president and office staff at Bangor Hydro-Electric Company knew Milford well,” she recalled in a 1998 Echoes article. “In his neat business suit, he frequently demonstrated and sold business machines at their committee meetings and conferences.”
But when he applied for the job as dam-tender, according to the article, the company president exclaimed in astonishment, “But Mr. Kidney, that’s a job for a hermit. That’s not a job for you!”
Milford returned home very disappointed, but Dorothy was undaunted.
“You weren’t dressed for the part,” she told him. “Put on your old hunting jacket, your scruffy pants, your worn boots and go again and apply.”
He did, and they hired him. The couple’s prayer was answered.
“The first year we lived at Lock Dam on Chamberlain Lake we registered about 350 canoeists,” Dorothy wrote in a 1994 Echoes article. “They didn’t begin this wilderness journey unprepared. They dressed for it. Felt hats, usually red or green, were a must to protect their heads from intense sun and driving rain.
“Long-sleeved, flannel or cotton shirts protected them from sunburn and blackfly bites. They wore sturdy, ankle-top, leather boots for walking in the woods and canvas sneakers for wading and guiding canoes in the streams.”
Campers in the 1950s could enter the Allagash by one of three routes, Dorothy recalled. Fly in, drive 150 miles through Canada to Churchill Lake, or paddle 20 miles up Chesuncook Lake, then up Cuxabexis Cove, across Umbazooksus Lake, portage through mucky, black-fly infested Mud Pond Carry to Mud Pond, then across Mud Pond and down a stream to Chamberlain Lake.
“Food was packed in strong wooden boxes with handles for carrying and each box was numbered,” she wrote, adding that guides and camp counselors kept lists of the contents for each box, often carrying the ingredients for each meal in a separate box.
“Canoeists made sure before they left home that they had a hatchet, a canteen, nails, a hammer, a flashlight, bandages, a compass, insect repellent, matches, adequate clothing, and a good book to read if they were windbound.”
Things began to change after Great Northern Paper Co. opened roads creating easier access from Millinocket, Greenville and Ashland. The Allagash region became a state park — the Allagash Wilderness Waterway — in 1966, and the number of people visiting the region increased rapidly.
“By 1985, several thousand canoeists were entering the waterway annually — a far cry from our 350 in 1957,” Dorothy wrote, noting that, in 1991, 3,708 people registered at the Chamberlain Bridge checkpoint alone, with a total of 14,851 entering the Waterway.
“Between 1957 and 1985 we met people from all walks of life making the famed Allagash trip — poor people with worn, patched canoes; extremely wealthy people with expensive equipment and a number of hired guides; city people, out-of-state people, people from other countries. All of them shared a love for the outdoors and many of them had one goal: to run the Allagash, which flows northward for 90-some miles.
“These feelings and desires have not changed,” Dorothy observed. “People have a need to live in simplicity, even for a short period of time, among the trees and streams, as did our ancestors. When they realize they have been living too long under the stress of city life, they seek a clearer perspective.
“They come to the Allagash for a close acquaintance with the cry of the loon, the swirl of white water and the outline of mountains against a blue sky.”
Dorothy also expressed her own feelings about life at Lock Dam in the following poem:
I never wanted
A castle in Spain
But only a cabin
Where I could hear the rain
Pattering on the roof.
I never wanted a city place
But only a cabin
Without a clock
Where time moved
At a slower pace.
I never wanted a great high-rise
But only a cabin
Under a sky
Where the sun sparkled brightly
And birds flew by.
Homey and rustic,
A lake outside the door,
Yes, I settled for that,
Not less, and not more.
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.