An American elm tree stands in the distance on the shore of the Allagash River in this undated photo. Credit: Courtesy of RJ Heller

We have been through a lot these past couple of years. Doubts abound about the status of our humanity towards one another. 

I had doubts, so I went to the Allagash River. There, my concerns floated away in the company of strangers with every stroke of the paddle.

The Allagash was once a dream. Then it was in front of me: a dream-borne reality of green goodness, water in all its glory — rapids, eddies, wind-blown white caps rolling across lakes — all amidst erratic boulders, flora and fauna. The boats — six of them — carried people who were traveling together yet, individually, seeking something personal from the wildness of it all. 

For five days, we canoed 60 miles. Twelve people from all walks of life paddled this northeast-flowing river, together. The quiet between strangers is loudly palpable in the beginning. Then the moment takes over. Water beckons, instructions are given, supplies are loaded and the work begins.

Muscles found me as a stranger, repeatedly poking me with every tentative movement I made. My knees bruised from the initial punches thrown by the river; I finally acquiesced to its power. The repetitive nature of the day eventually became comforting. Loading, paddling, unloading, making camp, preparing meals and then calling it a night are the moves made every day along the river. A journey’s monotony embraced because we were at the mercy of the wild and your success depends on the group’s success. We now depended on each other.

While forests hugged our sides, the water’s flow continually challenged our skill and nerve. Though moose ignored us, we still saw plenty of wildness in a waterway that has been protected by the State of Maine since 1966, being the first time a waterway was protected by a state — to be preserved forever. The Allagash is a vast, wild jewel.

From Churchill Dam to Allagash Falls we made our way, one canoe following another. Separate but together, always together. Around every bend of the river was a wrapped gift waiting to be opened. Bald eagles, blue herons and kingfishers constantly challenged our picture-taking acumen. Spruce, pine and birch trees waved us on amidst ancient American elms saying “not today” to disease. Mergansers and the common loon were our steadfast wingmen for the journey, while clownish Canadian jays stole snacks from our hands. And always from under the water were rocks of time urging us on with their grace.

We saw nothing man-made with the exception of a bridge or two for the logging trucks to cross.. A unique symbiotic relationship at work, loggers and nature coexist along the Allagash. The never-ending cratered dirt roads require riders exiting vehicles to check for valuables dropped from pockets or brittle bones that might have snapped. The Allagash is not an easy place to get to, and that’s a good thing. 

We paddled a river that once saw Indigenous people in birchbark canoes travel its flow and who called it home. Through water deep and shallow, yesterday’s loggers drove miles of timber. Thoreau paddled this waterway in 1857— his thoughts left behind to be found over and over again. We, too, all of us, left our own thoughts behind. We left them around every bend, on the trail to a nearby fire tower, in the river’s cooling water as we swam and in the casts of fishermen reliving boyhood dreams of catching trout. 

Conversations were not about politics, religion or societal ills, but more about life experiences, travel and the well-executed art of roasting a marshmallow in pursuit of that perfect s’more. More importantly, our talk was about the moment, savoring every second. None of us were thinking about the next day let alone the next minute. We were the minute, and for 12 people to realize this at the same time is special. 

Yes, humanity is intact. For it was there, huddled around the campfire as we all shared an experience that lifted us to a higher place. 

As the light of that last campfire dimmed into embers of orange, our group was at peace with a trip that would soon end. And for many there that night, I am certain, dreams of what that next journey might be danced while they slept.

On that last day, I stood and watched each canoe navigate to shore. A light mist floated above each boat, halos lifted into sight by the morning sun poking holes through the trees. Amid the sound of water, laughter and gravel now underfoot, we were baptized with hugs and handshakes, our hearts stitched together over a period of time that will now last a lifetime. 

I left the river renewed in the company of friends. I am certain Geoff, Anna, Lauren, Lani, Jake, Richard, Katie Beth, Olga, Dakota, Sarika and Griffin all felt it too: an end and a beginning all at the same time. 

Each of us walked away with our own personal connection to the river and to each other. We also, collectively, left as one after sharing time and place in a sanctuary of goodness. It was a good trip, a necessary journey, and one that I know will sustain us all through our lifetimes.

Anyone interested in exploring the Allagash Wilderness Waterway can find out more online at Allagash Canoe Trips.

RJ Heller, BDN Down East contributor

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.

RJ Heller, Down East contributor

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.