Poling down the St. Croix River Riverboats: A canoe trip in Maine is an expedition into history, nature and personal growth.

February 04, 1996|By Stephen Trimble | Stephen Trimble,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

Well before dawn, we push away from shore and -- just as travelers on North American rivers have done for centuries -- slip paddles into the water and turn our canoes downstream.

Flickering silver from a quarter-moon ripples the river surface, a sheen of light to show the occasional V-wave behind rocks. In the velvet darkness we are attuned to small sounds -- paddle clunks, current riding over rocks. Gradually, gray light filters through a heavy mist, the stars dim and sunrise begins.

Canoes link us to the history of this continent as no other craft can. American Indians made canoes everywhere there was water to navigate, from 60-foot cedar dugouts in the Northwest to the elegant birchbark canoes of Maine's North Woods. When Europeans pierced the wilderness to capture the fur trade, they did so in canoes. These pioneers remain figures of romance. As we drift silently into this still morning on Maine's St. Croix River, we can imagine ourselves apprentices to any of these.

This is a quiet stretch -- which is why our guides, Randy and Issy Cross, scheduled our morning paddle here. The river is thick with mist, what Randy calls "river smoke." He duct-tapes a candle lantern to the stern of his canoe, and we follow this small light as it weaves its way downstream and disappears around a bend. His pipe leaves a trail on the water, scenting the river smoke.

It takes a couple of hours for the sun to actually break the horizon. We paddle slowly, drifting as much as we stroke. I stop on a marshy shore to photograph as the light begins to color to purple, then to peach; birds begin their pre-dawn chorus. When the sun rises, it back-lights the river smoke, silhouetting every boat and slowly burning the mist off. An immature bald eagle perches high on a snag, one of a dozen adults and immatures we see on the St. Croix, Maine's primary breeding area for the species.

We are in Washington County, Maine, where the sun reaches the United States first each day. Quoddy Head, down in Passamaquoddy Bay, is the absolute easternmost point, and this morning's sunrise on the river, a half-degree of longitude to the west, occurred only a few moments later.

Our ease on the river is a new acquisition. Most of us have nostalgic memories of paddling as kids and little experience since. Could we really handle rapids alone? On our first day, when Martin Brown, owner of Sunrise County Canoe Expeditions, assigns most of us full-sized 15- to 17-foot canoes at base camp, he assures us that we can manage them solo.

Still, we are apprehensive, especially the small women without exceptional upper-body strength. Randy and Issy reassure us, pointing out that spouses in a tandem canoe often need counseling by the end of the first day on the river.

Canoes have a reputation as being tippy, we remember. Martin wants us to forget that. To prove his point, he rocks his canoe wildly, even while standing to pole.

"Two people in a tandem canoe guide a small craft," he says. "One person wears a canoe -- like a ski. When you're poling, you have a fine sense of the river. You glide like a water bug. It's mostly technique, not strength."

The neglected art of poling is a technique that harks back to the era of loggers driving rafts of timber down Maine rivers.

"If you did nothing but paddling, you'd be wondering what to do after two years," Randy says. "You've peaked out. With poling, there are limitless possibilities. It takes a lifetime to master.

"When your paddle hits bottom, grab your pole."

To pole in shallow water, you stand in the canoe and push yourself down (or up) the river with a 12-foot ash or spruce pole, pushing off the bottom with the tip or "walking" your hands up the pole. To slow, you reach downstream to "snub" your way precisely through a rapid.

Your moves depend on how high you hold the pole, its angle to the boat and your body, where you place the tip on the river bottom, which side of the boat you choose for setting the pole and how well you read the current, which is always shifting. As soon as you veer more than five degrees away from your line, you lose the chance to correct, and the river turns you sideways.

Borderline

The St. Croix, a designated Canadian Heritage River, rises in the Chiputneticook Lakes, and for its 95-mile length, forms the border between Maine and New Brunswick. We begin our trip at the last of the lakes, Spednic.

After struggling against a wind that keeps blowing me sideways, I am relieved, but not proud, to finally reach our campsite on Todds Island.

The Maine wilderness is the domain of guides like the Crosses -- men and women who have grown up with rivers and woods and canoes. Since 1899, the state has licensed guides, today administering a rigorous oral and written test in recreation, hunting, fishing and whitewater skills for certification as a master guide.

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