When documentary filmmaker Sprague Theobald and his wife divorced in 1992, time and distance began to wear away at his relationship with his children.
"Regardless of how hard a family works during a divorce, there is almost always going to be that very large elephant in the middle of the room, sometimes for years," he says. "At one point or another it has to be acknowledged."
So in 2009, Theobald grabbed the elephant by the tusks and took his family—his son, stepson, stepdaughter, and her boyfriend—on an 8,500 adventure across the Northwest Passage. From their starting point in Newport, Rhode Island, through the passage and around Alaska to Seattle, their journey was almost always a contast battle with ice, polar bears, and extreme weather.
"Doing something new and adventurous builds a new history, one that is valid and present and can be referred back to time and again," says Theobald, who wrote about the trip in his book The Other Side of The Ice: One Family's Treacherous Journey Negotiating the Northwest Passage.
We caught up with Theobald via email to talk about the trip, his book, and if spending time outdoors can heal damaged relationships.
Did you know going into your voyage that the journey would result in a memoir and a documentary?
When the idea of the trip occurred to me, all I had in mind was the hope to carve a documentary out of it. At the time my focus was climate change. It was by divine intervention that my family joined and got involved. My stepdaughter, Dominique, and I had done several thousands of offshore miles together. My son, Sefton, hadn't done so many, but college was keeping him from being able to do the full Arctic trip. My stepson Chauncey and I hadn't spoken in over 12 years. About a month before we were to depart from Newport, I got an email from him asking if he could be a part of this adventure. After years of trying to initiate a dialog with him, I jumped at the chance. Dominique freed up her schedule and Sefton had a semester of college waived. The kids all knew that I was going to be doing the documentary about climate change but that was pretty much all they knew. Once the trip started and we were all under the same roof, all together for the first time in 15 years, I quickly saw that the real story was about family. There was no filming agenda to uncover feelings or discuss past history. If this new angle was going to work, it was going to have to be organic and on the kids' terms. The chances were very good that it may not have worked at all. Such is the gamble you make when producing documentaries!
As for the book, I had no plans to write a book–life was hard enough! About six months after the trip ended, an article was done about it and an agent in New York read it and tracked me down. Over many cups of coffee, he talked me into writing a book about the experience. It was the best coffee meeting I ever had!
You embarked on this journey 15 years after your divorce. What took you so long?
It took that long because as a filmmaker and sailor I was pretty busy chasing down jobs that would have immediate effect: pay. The Northwest Passage trip took seven very long years of planning and fundraising. Nordhaven Yachts quickly jumped aboard and said that they would meet every dollar of my budget. Sadly, three months before we left for the trip, Nordhaven had to pull every penny of their proposed funding. We had met a year earlier when they had told me they would cover the entire budget. I had also met with an ex-executive at a major sports channel who said, "You'll never have to spend another dime on the trip. We want it and you!" I never heard from him again. As it ended up, all the funding came out of my own pocket—something I will be dealing with for a very long time to come.
To answer the question about why it took so long to get the kids together: After the divorce, each child and I had spent time together, one-on-one, but as life goes, never all together at the same time. After a few years, due to justified hurt and sadly avoidable miscommunications, Chauncey and I spent absolutely no time together. The kids moved to the other side of the country with their mom and visiting became a bit more challenging. In any given situation or disagreement there are two very distinct and appropriate realities. As the kids spend more time with their mother, they very naturally and rightly experience life according to one reality. There were many past scenarios which may or may not have been accurate, that they learned as truth. There were many untold hurts and angers, which I wasn't able to address all at once. At the time of the divorce, they were very young and I didn't want to overwhelm the kids with "he saids" and "she saids." I just hoped that as they grew they would become more curious about me and my life decisions.
What were the group dynamics starting out?
Starting out, the dynamic was great: excitement and anticipation of trying to accomplish something so few ever have kept us going. It's estimated that more men have walked on the moon than have successfully done the passage in one season.
And how were the dynamics by journey's end?
As with any trip, in an expedition of this nature there were casualties along the way. The one major casualty was that Dominique and Clinton decided not to continue their relationship while we were in Greeenland, but wanted to continue the trip. Shortly after that, the appropriateness of her decision became very apparent to me as I found that Clinton's offshore experience wasn't quite what I was led to believe. After several very unacceptable incidents aboard the ship, he very ungraciously parted ways with us in Nome. I was qualified to run the boat as I have about 40,000 offshore miles, but the whole point in hiring Clinton was to help run the ship so that I could concentrate on the film. From the start I found that our plan simply didn't work. It was prearranged that due to his work schedule Greg would have to leave early as well.
A lot of families go through difficult situations; why do you think spending time outdoors can help people move on?
I was hoping was that there wasn't a prescribed way of dealing with it. Just as I didn't want to ignore it for the rest of my kids' lives, I also didn't want to ask everyone to "gather 'round" because I needed to get some facts straight. When you have a third focus, such as we did–a very powerful, brutal, and life-threatening focus, you learn a heal of a lot more about what a person is made of and what makes them tick. It was my hope that my kids saw, under extreme pressure from before the start of the trip, who I was and what I would accept in my life. On the trip it was the kids and me, not the kids trying to watch their mother and me work through insurmountable issues.
Why did you choose such a difficult and dangerous voyage?
It may sound trite but the trip chose me. Ever since I was a kid I was fascinated with The Passage, by how it could exist but not exist. How Franklin could take two 100-foot ships and 120 men into it and simply vanish? How almost 30 other expeditions could go to find him with many not returning. To this day we have no conclusive idea of what happened to Franklin and his men. One night in 2006, I was at dinner with some New Yorkers; one of them asked: "What would be the ultimate adventure for you?" Before my brain could control my mouth I answered, "To try to find and transit the Northwest Passage." The next day I started making phone calls. And for the most part, it all kind of fell into place from there."
What was the scariest moment?
Several times I was scared right down to my socks. More times than not I thought that it was all over, that we were going to end up as names in the maritime history books. Perhaps the most terrifying was when we were trapped in Peel Sound by ice sheets up to ten feet thick, which were pushing us toward a rock-bound shore. Through the binoculars I could see the ice sheets exploding and shattering due to the extreme pressures of the hidden currents. Some quick calculations showed us that we were about three hours away from the same fate: being crushed and driven under the ice. I went to my bunk to try and come to grips with it all and that's when I saw the headline in my mind: "Father Unites Family Only To Lead Them To Their Deaths." The headline was as real as it gets, not a projection of fear but an actuality. Unless there was some divine intervention, it was going to be over for all of us. We had Arctic camping gear and the like, but regardless of what you may read, the area is rife with polar bears, the only mammal besides humans that kills simply to kill, not always because they're hungry or threatened.
How has your relationship with your family been since you completed the trip?
We landed in Seattle in November 2009. A day doesn't go by that I'm not rocked by a memory from the trip. I've asked my kids how they feel about it now that time has passed and they are also still very moved by it. The relationship I have with my kids is indescribable. The love, trust, and understanding that we all found during those historic five months and 8,500 miles (our boat Bagan, was the first production powerboat to transit The Passage) has given us an amazing base from which to look both forward and backward. This is not to say that we talk every day on the phone now, or have great emotional moments every time we do talk, but it's there–there's a strong connection in our hearts. In fact, our relationship is so "normal" now, that I was just saying to a friend the other day: "Why is it that the only time I hear from my kids is when they need to borrow money or something?" It couldn't be more wonderful!
"One need never leave the confines of New York City to get all the greenery one could wish..."
Well, that's arrogant, more than a little myopic (have New Yorkers ever been accused of that?). These words are welded into the railing surrounding the World Financial Center harbor in lower Manhattan.
Recently, I found myself in New York City, the city where I was born, though not raised, and to which I returned in my twenties. I found myself thinking about several earlier trips to the city with our kids and, oddly, I found myself trying to define adventure.
Oddly, because I tend to think of adventure as heading into the wilderness, but maybe that's because of where I came from. New York is closer to the environment I was used to as a child than is the vast outdoor childhood of my kids. Maybe adventuring just means exploring an environment that's unknown to you. As it turned out, for my Montana-based kids—kids for whom a half-mile-high mountain was a familiar playground by the time they were ten, who could paddle rivers, and hike forests—heading into the urban tangle, navigating subways, streets and avenues, was an adventure. But when we first took our kids to New York City we were worried. What exactly does one do with energetic, physical, adventuresome kids in a big city?
To New York's credit, the city is trying hard to create "greenery," to make sure leafy, open spaces are available to people all across the city (not just for those living near Central Park). And they're succeeding. The spaces are beautiful. The adventure is finding them.
When I'm alone in the city, I just wander, look at the architecture, visit museums, find my old haunts. But ambling walks were not going to cut it with our kids. Unless...we could make it a game.
In my twenties, I discovered a network of "pocket parks," mostly in midtown Manhattan. So on one of our first trips, my husband, Peter, and our kids, Molly and Skyler, and I set off on a scavenger hunt. Our goal: to find as many pocket parks as possible. Like coming on a secret glade in a tangled rainforest, these tiny parks tucked into concrete canyons are magical refuges; several have walls of water, effectively replacing the sound of car horns with a steady, soothing whoosh. Our kids were enchanted. We found four before we retired to the Plaza Hotel in search of food and the mischievous, storybook character, Eloise.
The bellhop looked regretfully at Molly. "She's just stepped out," he said, absolutely straight faced.
For our kids, everything about that trip was new and exciting, from staring out the front window of the lead subway car—watching the tracks curve and straighten, the subterranean stop lights change from red to green—to riding the elevators up to the observation deck of one of the original World Trade Towers to peer down at the tiny toy cars one hundred and ten floors below.
From the World Trade Center, we headed a few blocks west to the Hudson River and our favorite park, the Battery Park City Esplanade, a 36-acre complex of riverside gardens. (It's also a popular site for Saturday afternoon wedding photos. On our very first trip when Molly was one, she got scooped into the arms of an Asian couple, posing in white gown and tux. Nothing like a strange blonde toddler in your wedding photos for a conversation starter.)
She was too young that first time to do more than walk or ride piggy back, but with older kids if you pack rollerblades, a skate board, or a fold-up scooter (which also serves as camouflage if your child wants to pass for a Manhattan school kid) you can keep your children occupied for hours, winding through open lawns, past fountain-sprayed ponds, whimsical sculpture parks, beach-volleyball courts, skate parks and mini-golf greens. And now, if you don't want to pack your own wheels, you can rent a Citi Bike from ubiquitous rows of blue bike stands. Strolling along the esplanade you'll pass a floating origami-like glass pavilion, the New Jersey-bound ferry terminal.
It reminded me of taking the ferry to Staten Island, which you can catch at Manhattan's southern tip. One of the five boroughs of New York City, Staten Island is a 25-minute, boat trip away. I used to go with my father when I was the kid visiting the city, just for the fun of the ride. It's easy to forget, amid the skyscrapers, that New York is a city of islands and waterways, on the brink of an ocean. But looking out over the river, at the widening harbor, at freighters and barges, tugboats and ferries, one can really feel it.
Returning to the Battery Park City Esplanade this time, I discovered something new, lodged at the end of Vesey St.: the Irish Hunger Memorial. It commemorates the potato famine that first sent the Irish to our shores and urges us, today, to consider modern issues of hunger. Probably doesn't sound like a prime destination for kids. But it would be for mine. It's a "wild" hill, built on a frame of glass and limestone. Embedded at its foot are the remains of a nineteenth-century, Irish, stone cottage. From there paths meander upward through an overgrown-grass-and-rock landscape, a "fallow field." At the top, one hovers over New York Harbor, where, still thrusting her torch in the air, is the Statue of Liberty, as commanding a presence as ever. Beyond her are the immigrant-clearing houses of Ellis Island. You can't get a much more visceral connection to the metaphor of America.
Turning around, one's eyes follow the sleek, faceted sides of the new World Trade Tower rising up to its sky-piercing spire at the top. The 9/11 Memorial is still under construction at its base. At this point, had my kids been there, at that cusp of past and future, it would have been a provocative moment for a conversation.
New York is fabulous for this—for provoking the conversation. The conversation about the relationship between man and nature, between man and man; the conversation about what man can create—you're surrounded by it and it's magnificent—but also what man can destroy. These are the conversations we often have with our kids, but for "wilderness" kids, the city gives these discussions a whole new spin.
The earthquake came in like a gale, shifting and groaning, gathering force, as though fulfilling the idea of itself. April is the windiest month on Nicaragua's Pacific coast and at the beach earlier in the day we'd been pelted with sand by nearly constant 40 mile-per-hour gusts. So when the rumbling began, it was easy to mistake it for the wind rattling the walls or someone in the condo upstairs dragging furniture across the floor.
It was a little after 2:30 in the afternoon on our second day at Rancho Santana, a high-end resort about three hours west of Managua. We'd spent all morning swimming and had finally gotten our daughters, ages three and five, settled down for a nap in the next room. Steve and I stretched out with our books in the living room, the breeze blowing in through screen doors and ceiling fans whirring maniacally overhead. Siesta, Nica-style.
But the mind works in funny ways during an emergency, and almost instantaneously my brain started screaming "earthquake!" The shaking was coming from within the walls and the floor, from above and below and from all sides at once. It made a noise, not the telltale clattering you'd expect from dishes falling out of the drying rack, but a deep, almost primal roar that sounded like nothing I'd heard before.
There are a few exceptions for the old saying, "Never wake a sleeping baby." Earthquakes are right up there at the top the list. When I flung open the bedroom door, they were curled together like cats, cocooned in sleep. I grabbed Pippa and Steve picked up Maisy, and we ran outside into the courtyard. Housekeepers from neighboring condos had gathered on the steps and they looked at us with our flushed, discombobulated girls in our arms and cried, "Fuerte!" Strong.
We'd come to Nicaragua to find the wilder side of Central America, hoping for an alternative to the increasingly Americanized Costa Rica, where we could get a taste of local culture and live as close to nature as possible. In the week we'd been the country, we'd done some of the swankiest "camping" of our lives in the open-air bungalows at Morgan's Rock; been treated to the gritty, after-dark tour of Managua; wandered around the Plaza in colonial Grenada; and spent nearly every other waking minute playing in the pristine sea. Now we were being rocked by a 6.6 magnitude earthquake just 40 miles away. You don't get much closer to nature than that.
The quake was over almost as soon as it began, an aftershock to a quake that had struck Managua the day before, destroying buildings and leaving at least one person dead. The land-based tremor posed no threat of tsunami, but President Daniel Ortega had put the country on a red-alert earthquake watch. Our condo was exactly one foot above sea level, and for a while I stood vigil on the porch, watching the ocean and waiting with dread for the giant sucking surge of a tidal wave. But the afternoon heat was easing, and with it the wind, and the girls were clamoring to swim. So eventually I abandoned my post and we went to the beach instead.
Founded in 1997, Rancho Santana is one of Nicaragua's oldest and largest luxury resort development, with a couple dozen condos and casitas and nearly 100 private villas spread along five of the Pacific Coast's finest beaches and some of its best surf breaks. Our tasteful two-bedroom condo had a full kitchen, a patio with ocean views, and—something of a shock after our airy, screened palapa at Morgan's Rock—air conditioning. It was a mere two-minute walk from both Playa Santana and the beach club, the heart of the resort with a pool and restaurant, oceanfront massage and yoga cabanas, bocce court and horseshoe pits, and unimpeded sunset views. With options like that right out our front door, it would have been tempting to stay put, but we only had three days to explore the ranch and its more remote playas.
South of Santana, the small, steep arc of yellow sand at Playa Escondida feels desert-island remote—a good thing for the green turtles that come ashore to lay eggs in the sand. When we arrived the next morning with the resort's resident naturalist, Fredder, he showed us the white board used to record the nests and estimated hatch dates. The Nicaraguan government employs round-the-clock turtle-watchers to monitor nesting beaches along the Pacific coast and guard against poachers trying to nab eggs (local lore claims they're aphrodisiacs) during the 51-day incubation.
As we left, Fredder asked the turtle man to call him at the first sign of a hatch. We hadn't gotten more than 100 yards away when Fredder's cell phone rang. "They're hatching!" he exclaimed, turning on his heels and motioning for us to follow. Back at one of the sand pits, the turtle man held a small, black writhing newborn in his palm. It was hardly the size of my three-year-old's fist, and its eyes were almost entirely encrusted in sand. Fredder explained that as soon as they're born the baby turtles have to make their way to the ocean on their own (their mother has long since left the nest), which somehow imprints the beach's location into their turtle brain, ensuring they'll be able to find their way back in three to five years to lay their own eggs. That is, if they survive.
Within minutes, Fredder and the turtle man had plucked a couple of dozen tiny turtles from the pit, and they were already beginning to drag themselves toward the water, leaving what looked like miniature tire tracks in the sand. As he pulled more from the hole—there are often 80-100 per nest—he placed them gently in the girls's palms, where they fluttered like earthbound butterflies. The first turtle to reach the sea was tossed about in the waves at the water's edge, thrusting its head above the surface to breathe every so often, until at last it was carried out into the deep and disappeared into the turbulent surf. Back on the beach, the sand itself seemed to be shifting and rippling, alive with dozens of baby turtles crawling toward the light of the ocean—pure, animal instinct that left us nearly speechless.
It's hard to top the spectacle of new life being born before your eyes, but we came pretty close in our remaining time at Rancho Santana. We rode horses from the ranch's stables, along Playa Santana toward a jagged point of land called Magnific Rock, went tide-pooling along the jagged volcanic shelf in front of the beach club, ran sections of the ranch's 16-mile trail network, and spent a lot of quality time doing laps between playa and pool.
When it comes to surfing, Steve and I are opportunistic, lazy, and inexperienced. If there are boards on hand, and we can drag them straight from our front door across the sand to a low-stress, beginners' break, then we'll surf. But the break at Playa Santana looked fast and intimidating, and there were nearly always at least a dozen surfers bobbing on their boards, waiting to drop in—and just as many on shore, scoping the action in the simultaneously intent-yet-laid-back way that true surfers have. Clearly we had no business on that wave, so instead I watched the surfers watching the surf. Between sessions, tattooed, deeply-tanned twenty-somethings from southern California and Hawaii lazed in the pool and sprawled out in the shade of the canopied chaises that looked like hermit crab shells.
The breaks at and near Rancho Santana lure surfers from around the world, but at times it felt like everyone at the resort was American and that we'd stumbled into spring break in San Diego South. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Despite its groovy surfer vibe, especially during $5 margarita sunset happy hour, Rancho Santana also exudes a genuine, palpable sense of community, whether you're first-time visitors like we were, or more committed transplants who bought condos or built villas on the property.
By our second day there, we'd met families from North Carolina, Vermont, and New Mexico, who'd been drawn to the surf and gorgeous beaches, as well as full-time expats from Florida and Maryland, who loved it so much they'd moved down for good, with kids in tow. Rancho Santana is one of the only resort developments in Nicaragua with its own school, a sweet, two-room schoolhouse, next to the organic garden and just behind the beach.
On Saturday night, our last in Nicaragua, Steve and I dropped Pippa and Maisy off at school for the weekly kid's night out, where $15 each bought them dinner, a movie, and four hours of babysitting—like much of Nicaragua, a pretty great deal. Steve and I had been having so much fun with the girls all week that we didn't need the break, but they were clamoring to play with their new friends, so we obliged and headed off to a lobster-and-steak dinner at a gorgeous new villa overlooking Playa Escondida.
It was a fitting end to a nearly perfect Nicaragua family beach adventure. At three-and-a-half and five-and-a-half, our girls are old enough that we don't have to watch them constantly or shadow their every move; increasingly independent, they sought out children wherever we went and were game for almost everything Nica threw their way: tortilla-making, cow-milking, chicken-petting, turtle-birthing, hermit crab racing, horseback riding, even napping through their first earthquake. And after five years of lugging around a crazy mountain of gear—diapers and car seats and baby carriers and portable cribs—this time we got by with a couple of suitcases and booster seats. If one way to measure relaxation is by how many books you read while on a trip, then in Nica—where I notched a personal best of three-and-a-half—I really kicked back. For the first time since becoming parents, we felt like we'd had a true vacation.
More than that, though, in ten days we saw just enough of Nicaraguan culture to feel as though we'd actually left the U.S., and leave us wanting more—not always an easy feat on a beach trip. The girls are still too young to fully grasp the poverty that grips most of the country, but like the wilderness raft trips we've taken since they were babies, I like to think that exposure at any age becomes part of their subconscious, another link in a chain of memories that turns curious, engaged little girls into true travelers. Despite our doubts at the outset, from the moment we arrived, Nica delivered just the right dose of adventure, and then some. Earthquake and all.
I looked with dismay at our 11-year-old daughter, Molly. One eye was swollen almost shut; the other was rimmed in dried blood, the remnants of the feast of many bugs. Our eight-year-old son, Skyler, had counted 73 angry red welts on his tender white skin. Those were just the ones he could see.
"I get it now," I said, slow to catch on, "this is why no one lives here!"
Our family of four was on Day Five of our eight-day wilderness canoe trip from the headwaters of the St. John River in northwestern Maine down to its confluence with the Allagash. My husband, Peter, was doing research for his book The Last Empty Places. The goal of the book was to explore places that are "blank" on the U.S. map. He'd defined "blank" as spots having no lights in nighttime satellite photos.
When Peter suggested the family come along, I was thrilled. I'm always looking for solid chunks of time together and a chance to get away from the distractions of city life into something simpler, maybe something that demands a different kind of resourcefulness.
After three days of travel—12 total hours of driving, 2,492 miles of flying, and a final four-hour van shuttle over dirt roads into deep woods—we finally put in at Baker Lake. It was pouring. Sheets of rain obscured gloomy green walls of fir and spruce. We hastily pulled on rain pants and jackets and slopped through the mud, strapping dry bags and coolers into our two rented canoes.
Pushing off from the dripping shore, each kid in a bow and Peter and myself in the sterns, it was already feeling ambitious; maybe too ambitious. The village of Allagash, where we were headed and the first we would come to, lay 100 miles downstream. One hundred miles devoid of human habitation. No cell phone coverage. No exit. I had a feeling the trip was going to live up to its billing.
"Don't fohget theyah's a desahted trappah's cabin a couple of houahs downstream. It could look pretty good byah then," shouted the shuttle driver, a jovial Mainer, stolidly holding his ground in the downpour.
Despite this unpropitious beginning, we were excited to be on the water. About ten yards wide, the shallow river slid easily over amber rocks. Within the first half hour, we rounded a bend into a young moose. Grazing at the edge of the river, he looked at us intently, as though unsure what we were, then raised his already massive head and trundled up the bank and out of sight. Two river bends later, we came upon a mother and her calf, squarely in the middle of our path. They didn't seem inclined to budge. We slowed up. They stared. We slid to the bank farthest from them. They stared; then as though saying, "You won't be so lucky next time," slowly turned and lumbered up the opposite bank.
By the time we spied the low, mossy cabin in a small clearing it was almost dark. Thankful not to have to raise our own shelter, we dragged our canoes up the bank, hefted our dry sacks onto our backs and forced open its heavy wooden door. Unabated rain, increasing cold and a dawning realization of just how deserted this river is, was starting to feel as daunting as it was exhilarating.
Inside, the furnishings were sparse; a wood stove, an enameled washbasin and several bed frames, their exposed bedsprings topped only by thin sheaths of cardboard and a sliver of foam.
"This is great!" we exclaimed. One's standards rapidly readjust.
Skyler and Molly headed to the river for a skinny dip in the rain, while Peter and I built a fire in the stove, made hot chocolate, and prepared a makeshift pizza. Next to the door, hanging on a nail, was the faded tally from a whist game, in French. It felt as though we'd stepped into another country, another time.
"Can leaches kill you?" Skyler asked, as he and Molly burst through the cabin door, looking for our camp towels. At eight, Skyler had begun assessing his world in terms of threats. "Would I die if I jumped off this?" "Could a tornado destroy our house?"
The next day we woke to pelting rain on cedar shakes. We were not in a hurry to get back on the river. Peter wrote notes while the kids and I made pancakes. We read, we reorganized our stuff and finally pushed off by mid-afternoon. How blissful, and rare, not to have a schedule!
The rain was unrelenting, but the kids didn't seem to mind. We got what would turn into our daily fix of close encounters with moose, stumbled over slippery rocks, dragging our canoes when it got too shallow, and limped into a campsite. There are designated sites all along this stretch of the St. John. Some years earlier, The Nature Conservancy had managed to purchase eighty miles along the river from large paper companies to preserve it as the wild place it is.
While Molly and I set up the tent, trying to keep the inside dry, Peter and Skyler looked for firewood. By the time we had the pads and sleeping bags laid out—an inviting nest of down floating on air—the guys had the fire going, using a handful of birch bark as tinder; a trick Peter had learned from semi-nomadic Orochen hunters in Manchuria. To Skyler's amazement, it worked like a charm. "How could a human be complete without understanding how to create and wield fire?" Peter would later write. After a dinner of grilled steaks and s'mores we fell into our tent. Peter read aloud from Thoreau's 1840's essay on the area, Ktaadn, the kids played string games, and we fell happily asleep.
For three more days it rained and rained and rained. Each day, we unpacked and repacked our sodden tent, and got back on the swollen, grey river. Despite the miserable conditions, we were falling into a pleasant rhythm. Molly, determined to finish her book, Bridge to Terabithia, sat in the bow squinting through the rain wash. Skyler straddled the bow of his canoe and shouted out obstacles ahead, like the watch in a crow's nest.
At last, on Day Five, the sun came out. We cheered. Prematurely. Along with the sun came the bugs. An unstoppable, voracious, blood-sucking army of black flies, mosquitoes, no-see-ums seemed to rise from the forests. We tucked pants into socks; buttoned shirt cuffs; donned head nets like some kind of high-tech burka. Nothing worked. At night we tried to smoke them out with a fire. In the morning, we beat a hasty retreat to the open river. Only there, with a breeze out in the middle, could we get away.
By now, fed by the entrance of several tributaries, the river had spread to 60 yards wide and was moving faster. It braided around grassy islands that had been cleared a hundred years earlier for a logging camp replete with hotel, school, post office, and farm buildings; but they had long since melted back into earth and grass, redwing blackbirds and bald eagles, loons and geese paddling with their goslings.
Molly, who'd study the map each morning to chart our progress, was beginning to yearn—as we all were—for Allagash.
"Do you think there'll be a five-star hotel?" she asked, only half joking.
On Day Eight, we finally pulled in under the bridge in the village of Allagash. We were met by 88-year-old Evelyn McBrearity, who seemed oblivious to the halo of mosquitoes around her head. She must have seen us coming and was quick to meet the new arrivals. Her son had a bunkhouse up the bank. She offered us shelter. What could be better? A bed inside, a burger at the cafe down the road and we were in heaven.
Sometimes it seems it takes the rain, the bugs, the bare bedsprings, and fire-cooked meals to jog us out of taking all the ordinary comforts we have for granted, but also to realize we can make out fine, no happily, with a lot less. And, perhaps there are places that should be left to their natural inhabitants, places where we should be just grateful visitors.