It is early October in New England and the maples are riotous with color. To our south looms grand, solitary Mount Katahdin, at 5,267 feet the highest mountain in Maine. To our north stretches a 10-million-acre emerald-green forest all the way to Quebec. This immense piece of real estate, owned largely by timber companies and collectively known as the Maine Woods, is one of the largest, most sparsely populated regions in the lower 48. Five times the size of Yellowstone, it contains not a single paved road.
Seven of us, first-time visitors all, have trekked to the north woods of Maine to experience the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, part of the wild backcountry that Henry David Thoreau called “savage and awful, though beautiful.” It was here, in the large headwater lakes of the Allagash, in a slender birchbark canoe sewn with the roots of black spruce, that the famed author and naturalist began one of his classic Maine adventures. Led by husband-and-wife team Garrett and Alexandra Conover, our party will be journeying in much the same fashion as that solitary writer of 150 years ago. We’ll be relying on traditional, handmade equipment and supplies: wood-and-canvas canoes, hand-carved paddles and setting poles, cotton walk-in tents, split-ash pack baskets, pan-fried caribou steaks, bread baked fresh daily over the fire-you get the picture. We won’t be boiling freeze-dried grub over a gas-powered mini-stove around here. And there’s nary a swatch of Gore-Tex among us; wool rules in our back-to-basics tribe.
Natives of Massachusetts, the Conovers founded North Woods Ways in 1980 and began offering classic canoe guiding into the wildest parts of Maine and Labrador. They had the good fortune to find a mentor in Mick Fahey, a renowned old-school Maine Guide with over 50 years of experience.
“We served an extended apprenticeship with Mick,” Alexandra explains, smiling at the thought of the north-woods veteran, who died in 1985 at age 78. “He was the most intelligent and intriguing person I’ve ever met.”
Fahey taught self-reliance. If their canoes were damaged, they could repair them with native materials using merely an ax and a crooked knife (a one-handed drawknife). If their matches were wet, they knew how to start a fire using a bow and drill. Says Alexandra, “Mick taught us that the safest, easiest, most enjoyable way of travel in the woods is to trust the techniques and equipment refined over 10,000 years.”
“Recreationists these days rely on high-tech solutions to living outdoors instead of developing basic skills,” adds Garrett. “When trouble hits and it’s up to them and not their equipment to bail them out, many can’t take care of themselves.” The Conovers contend that the time-honored styles of native North Americans and pathfinders like Fahey are far more dependable.
Urban geeks for the most part, my friends and I are about to put our guides’ philosophy to the test. At our put-in on the Allagash, just north of Churchill Lake, we gather around Alexandra. Her long auburn hair spills out from under a wide-brimmed beaver-felt Stetson. Her slender figure-decked out in green shades of wool and L.L. Bean hunting boots-belies her considerable strength. As we quickly learn, this 50-something woman can shoulder an 80-pound canoe and jog a portage trail with the best of us.