CAMDEN, Maine — Nearly 250 years ago, American Revolutionary War hero-turned-traitor Col. Benedict Arnold led an expedition of men through the western Maine wilderness in an ill-fated attempt to sneak up on the British and capture Quebec City.
By most accounts, the expedition was a disaster. Plagued by bad weather, bad maps, fierce whitewater rivers, insufficient food, illness, leaky bateaux, bad planning and just plain bad luck, the men were sick and starving by the time the remnants of the expedition limped toward Quebec City. Some in the party had been reduced to eating shoe leather, candle tallow and even an officer’s dog.
In short, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would spend their free time dreaming of ways to recreate the Arnold Expedition. But that just means you haven’t yet met Hodding Carter IV, a Camden man who describes himself as a “would-be experiential historian” and who is planning to set out in a wooden bateau, or flat-bottomed riverboat, next month with some friends in an effort to retrace Arnold’s tracks. They will leave on Sept. 25 from the Reuben Colburn House in Pittston, the same place the expedition’s bateaux left from in 1775. Carter said they won’t stop until they cross the St. Lawrence River in Canada and reach Quebec City.
“You can read about it, and that’s great,” Carter said. “But it’s only in the doing that you can understand why someone made a decision or became a traitor. For me, it’s also understanding what it took to be that person. I’m not some studly athletic adventure man. But I come out the other end having done it.”
Retracing the Arnold Expedition — a journey which he expects to be challenging but not ill-fated — is just the latest of Carter’s forays into experiential history. The 55-year-old writer also has followed the tracks of Lewis and Clark, the famous American scientists and explorers of the early 19th century, and sailed 1,500 miles from Greenland to Newfoundland in a replica of an open Viking longboat named the Snorri.
Carter, who wrote about the latter trip in his 2000 book, “A Viking Voyage,” also chronicled his efforts to make the Olympic swim team at 44 in the book “Off the Deep End.” Spoiler alert: He didn’t make it, but he had a good time trying.
“I’m a prime example of resilience,” Carter said, adding a self-deprecating final word. “For my kids, at least.”
Until recently, he has been the full-time, year-round swim coach at the PenBay YMCA in Rockport but now is devoting himself toward preparing for his latest adventure. Carter has been fascinated by the Benedict Expedition since his 20s, when he read “Arundel” by Maine author Kenneth Roberts. That’s how he learned about the 1775 campaign, which started from Boston with 1,100 volunteer soldiers and frontiersmen. They sailed up the coast to Maine and then up the Kennebec River to Pittston, where they loaded their supplies into the 220 heavy wooden bateaux that Colburn, an early settler and financer of the expedition, had commissioned for them. On Sept. 25, the full expedition set out from Fort Western in Augusta, following the Kennebec northwest. Arnold, whose map proved to contain grave inaccuracies, estimated the trip to Quebec City would last about three weeks and cover 180 miles.
But that’s not what actually happened, Carter said. By Oct. 2, when the expeditionary force made it to Norridgewock Falls and a mile-long portage, problems were emerging. The bateaux weren’t very watertight and the constant leaking led to food being ruined. As the temperatures fell, the men started to get sick with colds and dysentery. It took the troops a week to complete the mile-long portage around the falls, even with the help of local settlers. Next up: the Great Carrying Place, a 12-mile-long portage around a difficult section of the Dead River. During this part of the ordeal, the expedition was plagued by difficult weather and had its first casualty when a falling tree killed one of the men, and it didn’t get easier as they set out on the Dead River.
“They ran out of food. They dumped on the rapids. There wasn’t much game, and they were starving. Really starving,” Carter said. “There were early snowstorms that no one was expecting, and something they called a hurricane hit. A lot of people got sick. It was sheer misery.”
Before they reached Canada, 450 men turned back, but Arnold pressed ahead with the rest of the troops. By the time they reached the outskirts of the walled city of Quebec, not 180 miles but 350 miles away, it was the middle of November. Still, it was an extraordinary feat, Carter said, adding that Arnold has been called “America’s Hannibal” after the 3rd century B.C. warrior who led an army and a team of elephants across the Alps. After arriving, Arnold’s weakened troops purchased food and supplies from sympathetic French residents and waited for another American expeditionary force to arrive from the west. They didn’t attack the city until Dec. 31, and the ensuing battle was calamitous for the Americans. Arnold was wounded and the other American general, Richard Montgomery, was killed.
Following in the footsteps of history
All in all, it’s fair to say the expedition didn’t go as planned. So why follow in these particular footsteps?
“For me, it’s all about the journey,” Carter said. “I’ve always wanted to do it. For me, this seems like the most pure adventure I’ve ever gone on.”
That may be because, unlike his experience on the Snorri, he doesn’t have a book deal lined up in advance. Or it may be because well-meaning people have been telling him he is too old to do things like this.
“Everyone’s been telling me you can’t really do these things anymore,” Carter said. “No, that’s absolutely not the case. You’re limiting yourself before you should.”
And Carter comes from a long line of people who didn’t limit themselves. He grew up in the deep south, where his grandfather was a “dyed-in-the-wool racist,” Carter said, before he went north to attend Bowdoin College and changed his ways. Hodding Carter II became a progressive newspaper editor in the south, where he crusaded for racial equality. His son, Hodding Carter III, was a journalist in Mississippi who covered the Civil Rights Movement and later served as an assistant secretary of state in the administration of President Jimmy Carter.
“They’d get death threats all the time,” Carter said of his father and grandfather.
His decision to become a writer and historian surprised them, he said, but added that he believes it fits within the family pattern.
“To me, writing is a way of getting at the truth,” Carter said. “It’s so important to understand our history, now more than ever.”
So how will he work to understand Benedict’s expedition? He and boatbuilder Rob Stevens of Phippsburg, who built and voyaged on the Snorri, are planning to build a 400-pound wooden bateau in September quickly, just the way that the Arnold boats were built. They will provision it with the same food the 18th-century troops ate: salt pork, rice, beans, flour and whiskey. And when they and a few other companions board it for the journey, most will be wearing 18th-century clothing, like wool pants, wool shirts, leather jackets and leather boots as they “attempt to paddle, pole and carry the boat up the Kennebec River, through and over bogs, swamps, and rocky carapaces, and then down Quebec’s Chaudiere River,” Carter wrote on his Kickstarter page to raise funds for the trip. The trip has been fully funded, with people pledging nearly $12,000, well over the goal of $8,500. He specified that the 2017 expedition should take about the same amount of time as Arnold’s but does not plan on losing any member of the team.
Then, presumably exhausted, they’ll sleep at night in old-fashioned white canvas tents. Still, they’ll bring along a dry bag with some modern communication devices, and they won’t say no if kind settlers who live along the route offer them food that isn’t salt pork.
“That’s a big hint,” Carter said.
The plan is to get the laden bateau up the Kennebec until they hit The Forks and then turn west onto the Dead River. They’ll cross Flagstaff Lake, and somehow portage over the height of land that was so challenging for Arnold.
“Twelve miles — that’s going to be a nightmare,” Carter said.
They’ll bring their passports, but are still working out their border-crossing strategy. Unlike Arnold’s expedition, they’ll likely have to check in somehow at customs. Then it’s on to Quebec City, which he is hoping they’ll reach by December.
“We’ll attack the city,” Carter said. “Or at least we’ll go after the nearest creperie.”
Afterward, the participants are planning to make a documentary about the journey, and Carter also expects to write about it. In the end, one of the things he is hoping to prove with his quixotic quest is that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. It just might take a commitment to problem solving, ability to be uncomfortable and willingness to dive into an adventure.
“People weren’t necessarily heroic or the super adventurers we always imagine,” he said. “Instead, they were brave enough to take that next step. People say to me, ‘You’re not a sailor. You’re not a river man.’ But you see me do these things and you say, ‘Oh my God, it isn’t that tough?’”