By J. W. STOLLE
IF you were to approach me suddenly and ask me point blank where and how I spent the happiest three days of my life, I would answer without groping or even batting an eye, "Swashing it in the Maine woods."
The time was June, the place was the primeval forest of northern Aroostook and the partner of my felicity was an educated, athletic native giant whom nature had endowed with all those qualities and accomplishments that make an ideal companion.
It is not my intention to throw cold water on this narrative by alluding to the black-flies and mosquitoes that were holding their annual convention at the time indeed no, I merely mention them to show that even though we encountered enough of the well meaning little pests to populate the entire universe, so great was our enjoyment of those three memorable days that we scarcely noticed them. This was due to the fact that we had anointed our features with oil of tar, lard, and several layers of very good fly dope. After all, who minds a few million mosquitoes when two-pound trout are biting on anything from a Parmachene Belle to a bit of-newspaper skittered along in imitation of a half-drowned miller moth? Both of us had been bitten by mosquitoes so many times before that we were inoculated by their serum to a point of almost absolute immunity.
We entered the bosom nature just as the sun was taking his "morning's cup of heavenly vintage," as Omar Khayyam used to say. Of course, the birds were singing, as happy, carefree birds always do on a glorious June morning. Once inside the forest, our expectant nostrils inhaled the fragrant, invigorating balsam air and our eyes, as we hurried along the tote road, drank in the full beauty of the leafy greenwood.
We had gone scarcely half a mile when we saw a red fox trotting along the tote road about twenty rods ahead of us. Presently he stopped on a knoll and leisurely surveyed his tiny panorama. Meantime we tiptoed along on our noiseless moccasins till we were within ten rods of him before he saw us. With what grace, ease and swiftness he got himself hence! Soon afterward we encountered a large porcupine in the act of climbing a maple sapling. He had just begun to shinny up the tree when he saw us and changed his mind. Dropping clumsily to the ground (he had climbed about two feet) he tucked his head between his forelegs and mutely bade us to help ourselves. It is amazing, this faith that nature had placed within the porcupine, which enables him, in the presence of enemies, to assume this attitude of careless, utter indifference. It was a good time to test the truth of the well-known claim that porcupines were capable of throwing quills. I took a stick and lightly rubbed the back of this bark eating rodent and his only response was a half-hearted attempt to drive a few handfuls of quills into the stick with his tail.
Thus we went along the cool, shady miles of the tote road, now pausing a moment to admire a cock partridge strutting along a mossy log, now returning the astonished stare of a big buck with velvety antlers, returning, no doubt, to his favorite ridge after having enjoyed his morning's morning at the river.
Occasionally the tote-road touched the high bank of the Big Machias, and at these points we would take off our packs, light our pipes and, as we rested, revel in blissful contemplation of the long stretches of river flanked on either side by high banks covered by a mixed growth of spruce, balsam, beech, silver birch and maple. Oh, the sublime beauty of it! And here we were, without a care in the world, off for a three days' trip in this paradise!
At noon we came to a tiny brook of pure spring water. What a privilege to kneel in the soft ground moss and kindle the campfire! We, who that very morn called it good. Such is the magic alchemy of the big woods atmosphere.
After the midday lunch, while we lay flat on our backs on a sun-warmed patch of moss and smoked in utter defiance of the black flies, my companion suggested that, since we had agreed to it, that we leave the tote-road, ford the river and strike cross country for a little group of beaver ponds some eight miles to the northwest. Nothing would please me more, so we struck out across the waist deep stream and with the sun as our only guide, traveled through the pathless wild in a northwesterly direction, having previously agreed, that, in the event that we failed to reach the beaver ponds before sundown we would camp for the night at the first water we found between then and dark.
We avoided the dense growths of cedar and spruce, and kept, whenever possible, to the open hardwood ridges.
About the middle of the afternoon we came to a freshly marked bear-tree. By a bear tree I mean a tree upon the bark of which a bear annually leaves the marks of his or her powerful claws. There is an interesting mystery connected with this strange bit of natural history I have talked with many old and young woodsmen about it and none could give me a satisfactory explanation. The bear does not confine himself to one species of tree I have seen both old and new marks upon beech, birch and even cedar. It might be a sign that there is a bear den in the vicinity, but as yet I have never heard of a den being found near the marked tree. However, the fact that the female skunk, in the mating season riddles and shreds the bark of a small bush near her den, leads me to believe that the bear-trees are marked by female bears only. The tree referred to above looked as if it had been marked annually for a good many years.
We had purposely come away from civilization without a tent. If the weather remained fair we intended to sleep on the boughs under a brush lean-to; if it rained, we would rely upon the bark of the ubiquitous balsam or spruce to give us shelter.
It might be of interest to the growing generation of sportsmen if I should make a short digression here and explain the construction of a bark lean-to. In the first place, it should be remembered that it is possible to peel bark only from May till the full moon in August. This might sound superstitious, but experience has taught me that it is a fact. Up until the day before the advent of the first full moon in August the camper can, by chopping rings around the bark three feet apart, and then slitting the tree oi1 one side from one ring to another, peel the entire section in one piece. When flattened out this section of bark makes a sheet of waterproof roofing about three feet square. If you attempted this stunt the day after the August full moon, you would find that the bark had stuck to the tree overnight. I make no attempt to explain this phenomenon I merely take pleasure in stating it to those who are not already aware of it.
Since a tree thus stripped of its skin must inevitably die, it behooves the sportsman to chop it down and make the most of its bark for the shelter, its boughs for the bed, and its trunk for backlogs for the night fire. It is a wasteful and wanton practice to ring and strip five or six growing trees, when one, felled to the ground, will furnish all the bark required. Having first constructed a shed frame by placing the tips of five or six straight poles on a cross pole resting in two crotches about six feet high, with the other end of the poles resting on the ground, you are ready to lay on the covering of bark. Merely lap the edges of the sheets of bark three or four inches", and when finished you have a shelter that compares favorably with the best of shed tents. But to get back to the beaver ponds.
Guided by the sun and an almost brutal sense of direction, we reached our first objective just as the sun dipped below the serrated horizon of spruce tops. Trout were "rising" all over the little pond, which was about six feet deep and as clear as the purest crystal. We forgot the pressing need of firewood and shelter, and with boyish avidity rigged our fly rods. At each cast the gut leaders, equipped with Grey Hackle, Silver Doctor and Parmachene Belle, tautened the instant the flies struck the water. Se.1dom less than one, often two and occasionally three trout, weighing in the neighborhood of one pound each, responded to each cast. It was glorious! And the remarkable feature about it was that just before each cast the most careful observer would have said there was not a trout in the pond. For, mind you, the water was only six feet deep and as clear as the air itself. There were no sunken logs or hiding places at the bottom. There was, however, a growth of a species of eelgrass, which covered the bottom of the little pond like a rich carpet. It was from this unexpected cover that the trout darted to meet the descending fly just as it struck the water. Only once, and then in Alaska, have I enjoyed such fly-fishing. These trout were no respecters of flies indeed, I even saw one in the act of rising to and swallowing a dry, curled up alder leaf that somehow floated into the zone of excitement.
In the gathering twilight we built our fire, picked a few boughs and slammed up a rough brush lean-to which would serve its purpose of keeping the falling dew off ourselves and blankets. It was quite dark before we relaxed to enjoy our delectable supper of fresh trout, friend salt pork, cream of tartar biscuits and black coffee.
About ten o'clock that evening, after our fire burned itself out (it was warm, and we did not trouble ourselves about keeping a night fire) I heard a splash that seemed to come from the other side of the beaver pond, barely sixty feet away. In those days I used to be quite "skittish" about any overt unknown sounds I heard in the stilly, darksome wild. I cautiously aroused my companion, who had just begun to test out his snoring apparatus, and coaxed him to listen. Presently the splash was repeated.
" Its a beaver", was my partner's only comment.
The next morning we arose at sunrise, performed our ablutions in the cool, limpid brook below the beaver dam, and again tackled the trout You may be sure we soon had enough for breakfast. How good they were! I must, before I cross the Big Divide, make another pilgrimage to that spot, hallowed as it is in my memory.
Breakfast over, we rolled our blankets, gathered our scanty duffels and struck wily nilly cross-country for the Trafton Bogan. "Bogan," by the way, is the colloquial name of a dead-water lagoon that once formed the main channel of a river. The began referred to once formed the main channel of the North Branch of the Big Machias, and several of its deep pools were fed by cold springs. Here there was almost no limit to the size of the trout. It was these deep pools we had in mind when we started that morning.
That forenoon my companion, who was no more familiar with that particular locality, than myself, did a remarkable thing. We had traveled about five miles through the trackless forest without a compass. The sky had clouded over shortly after sunrise and the only way we could locate the sun was by turning the point of a hunting knife on the shiny side plate of a rifle. Cloudy as it was, there would always be a shadow on the side of the blade opposite to the sun. Our watches told us the time. Thus at nine o'clock the sun would be exactly southeast, at twelve, south at three P. M. southwest, etc. At any rate, we were about due to strike the North Branch tote road just east of Trafton Bogan. I asked my companion at about what point he expected to hit the tote road, to which he replied:
"I calculate we'll hit 'er about where she passes Deadfall Boulder."
Deadfall Boulder was a huge rock, very unusual in that part of Maine, which towered among the branches of the trees on the crest of a ridge just north of the tote-road. Sure enough, when we reached the road we looked about us, and there stood the towering boulder!
At Trafton Bogan the trout were on strike. By this I do not mean that they struck at anything, like the smaller trout in the beaver pond previously mentioned. No. Though we could see them lying on the bottom of the deep, limpid pools, they positively refused to be interested in flies, spinners, minnows or even angle worms.
In one of these spring fed pools, under a leafy clump of overhanging alders we saw what both of us took to be the biggest square-tail brook trout ever beheld in his native element by the hungry eyes of two fishermen. It would be a waste of paper to attempt to describe his dimensions I know the attitude of the genus homo when one of his species specifies the weight and measure of an uncaught fish. But I will say this much, that trout was big I In size he was so unique that I strained my intellect in an effort to devise a means of capturing him. He was alike indifferent to any and all the enticements we displayed. Owing to the overhanging clump of alders we were unable to drop a bare hook anywhere near him. In order to persuade him to go out into the open pool where I could reach him with a hook, I poked him gently with the tip of my steel bait rod, whereupon he would circle about lazily and return to the exact spot he had just left. I can see him yet, as he rested on those clean pebbles, his white rimmed fins spread out to an unbelievable width and his big gills pulsating rhythmically. Several times we "shooed" him out from under the alders, but always he returned, and his balancing fins covered the precise pebbles they had just left.
Finally, I hit upon the scheme that would land him in the grass at my feet. To the tip of my bait rod I fastened, by means of a strong silk line, a three-pointed hook hastily torn from a trolling spoon. I was about to slide this improvised gaff under his unsuspecting majesty, when an untoward thing happened. My companion, standing on the very edge of the grassy bank slipped and slid into the pool with a mighty splash! When all was quiet again and the water was cleared, the big trout had vanished. Unspeakable disappointment! Until my dying day I expect to retain a vivid picture of that trout of trout.
We managed to catch a few small trout at the mouth of a little brook just above the pool.
That night it rained. Anticipating a deluge, we had built a very serviceable bark lean-to and were about to drop off to sleep when my attention was attracted by the "W-o-o-f!" of a prowling bear. The terrific downpour had extinguished our fire and we were immersed in a blackness comparable only to that of an unimproved dungeon. My companion, who by virtue of his long residence in that region, was inured to all the night noises of the woods, after listening a few minutes for more evidence of an approaching bear, rolled up in his blanket and in spite of my whispered protests soon went to sleep. With me it was different. I had never met a bear, even in daytime, and was not at all anxious to meet one under such circumstances. Presently the bear "W-o-o-f-e-d!" again, and I experienced a distinct thrill. The bear was now much nearer. In that strained and awful suspense I listened for the slightest snapping of a twig. The rain had ceased. Without further warning I became suddenly aware that the bear was within eight feet of where I lay! I distinctly heard him sniff. I could stand- the strain no longer, so I woke my sleeping companion and bade him listen.
"'S a bear!" he hissed. "Where's the rifle? Strike a match!"
So engrossed had I been, listening for the slightest sound of the approaching bear, which I hadn't even thought of the rifle. Perhaps this was because there was no room in my mind for an additional thought. And, unfortunately, there were no dry matches immediately available, and somehow the rifle had worked its way under the bedding. In my wild groping I finally encountered the gun just as my companion produced a feeble flame from a clammy match. At the smell of the burning sulfur the bear emitted a full sized sniff, and still unable to see him, I fired.
"You got him, by Judas I" exclaimed the holder of the tiny flame.
To make sure I fired again into the utter blackness and we heard the bear bound through the underbrush. Again and again I fired and then all was still. With indifference that I would have considered admirable under other circumstances my companion again rolled up in his blanket and went to sleep, while I kept a lonely vigil till dawn relieved me at last. As soon as it was safely light I searched the vicinity for the bleeding corpse of the bear, but none of his remains could be seen with the naked eye. The next day we bent our steps leisurely homeward, and thus ended one of the most delightful trips I have ever made into the bosom of Nature.
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