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The river wild

Canoeing Big Black inspires thoughts on the nature of things

IN THE NORTH WOODS, Maine

I. Forest

Beyond the town of Allagash, trees press hard against wide dirt roads until, around a bend or over a slight rise, they disappear with a silent pop into open air framed by the stark borders of clear-cut land.

Then, rumble and bump, truck wheels churning and land flying past, the trees are back again, a second generation or third, tall, tight, and true, or young and already tired, thin and struggling in the soil of stronger spruce, fir, and aspen cut years before, the earliest by men with axes.

Now, though, things move fast and nearly always. Steel timber trucks with claws hanging from their long arms and blades hidden up their sleeves push in to grip and grab the biggest trees standing. Other trucks with flatbeds strong enough to carry a quarter-million pounds charge over those same dirt roads, whether hot and dusty or locked beneath ice, at speeds up to 75 miles per hour to mills where their cargo is turned into planks, pulp, and paper.

This relentless rhythm slows only rarely, for a few weeks each spring when the snow melts, low stretches of road gunk up, and the forest calms.

It was during this time, on a Tuesday in May, that I climbed into a pickup truck with two guides and a photographer for a ride over some of those empty roads -- the Michaud Farm Road, the Maibec-Blanchette, and the Depot, specifically -- to a low bridge over the fat, full waters of the Big Black River. Our plan was to canoe with the strong spring current down the seldom-run river to the confluence with the St. John River and its wide ride back to town. This journey into the relative wilderness would provide a chance to measure the present, recall a more rooted past, and consider, amid the rush of spring runoff heading for the sea, the acceleration of our technological times toward an uncertain future.

A few miles east of the Canadian border, a low, single-lane bridge delivers the Depot Road across the Big Black. Like many of the tributaries that feed the upper St. John, the Big Black weaves through Quebec farmland before flowing into the northwest corner of Maine's 10 1/2-million-acre woods, part of the largest swath of forest east of the Mississippi.

We paddled downstream from the bridge, where the high water ran easily between banks lined tall with evergreen and still-bare hardwoods. Occasionally, pairs of ducks took flight, or a bird of prey circled above the trees. Then, after three miles, a bend opened to a sweep of river and, on the left bank, an A-frame cabin.

Two women were bent over, cleaning gas lamps.

''Bonjour!" one called to us.

She turned to her friend: ''Are they Canadian?"

A man with heavy shoulders, a gray beard, and an easy voice joined the women, then pointed the way to a dock and stairs that led to a sprawling cluster of buildings in a backwoods bear-hunting camp.

Inside one sturdy cabin, its beams cut from the surrounding forest, hung pelts of bobcat, otter, and black bear. On the side of a nearby outhouse, a collection of weathered tools -- ax blades, a pulp hook, a scaling hammer, a peavey for rolling logs, among others -- served as a rustic logging museum.

The owner of it all, Rod Sirois, stood before the cabin and spoke earnestly about the lifetime he had spent in northern Maine, including some 20 years as a game warden.

''The woods is different to me than when I was a young man. The trees were like this," he said, his arms arcing out wide before him, with four feet open between his hands. ''You couldn't get your arms around 'em."

As he locked his hands to close the circle of his arms, he said, ''Now, it's hard to find one like this."

Timber companies now take nearly twice as much wood from the forest as they did a half-century ago, feeding a greater demand for lumber from spruce, fir, and cedar.

The land north and south of the Big Black, privately owned by several companies, is checkered with a tight grid of logging roads. Some stretches, particularly downstream from the bear camp, are heavily cut to within a few hundred yards of the banks. In winter and spring, slopes and ridges, once an evergreen blanket of spruce and fir, are now the leafless brown of more aggressive hardwoods.

I asked Sirois about balance, about how a wild place can be kept healthy while taking away the strongest things that live in it.

After ticking off the status of big game in the area -- the deer population is hurting without the cover of more fully grown forest, while black bear and moose are more plentiful than decades past -- Sirois posed a question of his own:

''Can man toy with stuff without changing it?"

II. Fire

Wood, whether standing in the trunk of a tree, or stacked neatly in a pyramid of twigs, branches, and logs, is fuel ready for an oxidizer. Add oxygen, the most common of those, then raise the heat, to about 4,000 calories per gram of wood, and flames begin to leap.

On our first night on the Big Black, we stopped at a clearing on the northern bank, flat and gravelly from its days as an active logging road.

One guide, Don Merchant, a calm, solid man from southern Maine with a passion for building wood-and-canvas canoes, spotted a dead cedar, fallen at a 45-degree angle a few hundred feet from camp. Another guide, Tim Smith, a former prep school hockey star turned wilderness skills and survival instructor at his base in New Hampshire, used one of Merchant's handmade bow saws to cut through the cedar's 6-inch trunk.

We took turns sawing the trunk to short, stout logs, and Merchant split those with an ax.

Finally, after the strike of a match -- its own head a chemical mixture including sulfur, a fuel, and potassium chlorate, an oxidizer -- first clumps of dried grass, then twigs and the split cedar began to burn.

Smith set dollops of sourdough batter to bake in a camp oven. He wove alder branches into a tight grill to hold steaks at an angle against the fire.

Later, the surrounding air cooled as the cobalt sky darkened and flames brightened the night.

''There are so many things in this world that are superfluous, a construct of society," Smith said, ''and a campfire just isn't one of them."

Then, after a pause, he continued: ''I guess it is what got our species where we are."

Early humans' ability to produce and control fire made it possible to migrate into and settle colder regions -- places, for example, such as the forests of New England.

Into the Middle Ages, fire was such a mystery that it was considered one of the four basic elements of matter, as if it simply existed. But creative minds cracked the code of combustion and harnessed it to drive modernization. Coal, gasoline, natural gas, and nuclear fusion came to fuel our figurative fires: cars and ships, houses and factories, ballparks and strip malls.

The forest, no longer needed to provide ship masts branded with a king's cross, has become a more diverse woodpile. Hardwood is ground to pulp to make paper for news and noses. Wood chips fuel mills that produce more paper to flow through printers in skyscrapers and office parks. Lumber is cut from the trunks of spruce, fir, and cedar to frame apartment buildings and homes.

It is all the more remarkable, then, that at certain bends along the Big Black, it can feel as though none of this ever happened.

By our second afternoon on the river, the photographer, an experienced birder, had spotted dozens of birds, the ruby-crowned Kinglet, yellow-bellied sapsucker, and hooded merganser among them. He saw a pair of merlins mating high atop a spruce.

As Smith and I paddled through the calm of a 9-mile deadwater, we slowed to collect clam shells and study the tracks of muskrat and beaver. We floated idly near one wide, low dam, its wall packed tight with well-chewed branches.

At our second camp, we walked into dense woods that traced a brook northward.

Smith grabbed a chunk of spruce pitch, a powdery backwoods chewing gum, and popped it in his mouth.

He stopped near a mossy log rubbed bare by passing deer, then stooped to study a freshly sprouted fiddlehead fern.

He pointed out a black ash, then a cedar.

Forget that caribou and wolves have disappeared from the region. Forget that only 5 percent of the Maine north woods is thought to be old growth -- not virgin forest, of course, but ''old" in that it was last cut more than 100 years ago.

It was as though this hidden stand near a wide bend in the brook had never felt the press of progress.

We turned back to camp, and I took a detour around a thick patch of saplings. There, on rotted roots, a stump leaned to the southwest. Its rings, huddling closely near the center, showed the tree had grown for 90, maybe 100 years. The trunk was 16 inches wide when it met what looked, judging from the trunk's surface, to be the rugged teeth of a cross-cut saw.

III. Flight

Last year, 25 million people flew from the United States to Europe. Hundreds of passenger jets make the trip each day. Inside the United States, an estimated 30,000 planes depart daily on domestic routes.

The sky is full of little villages with powerful jet engines and video games and tight tubes with twin props and vomit bags, moving, moving, moving.

On our third evening, while the riverbanks drew tight in shadow but the sky still opened in the wash of a soon-to-set sun, a shimmering airplane moved west to east. As it passed the midpoint in the sky, a crisp, steady roar chased it onward.

The jet was one of more than a dozen I had seen since arriving on the Big Black.

Binoculars sharpened the splash of red on the airplane's tail into the logo for Swiss International Air Lines. Later, a check of the schedule would indicate this was probably the Montreal to Zurich daily, departing 5:10 p.m., arriving 6:20 a.m., local time.

Two days before, paddling downstream from the bear camp, Smith and I had talked about the velocity of modern life, about the demand for fuel and resources to keep us all comfortable, mobile, and entertained.

Smith has traveled the world, and keeps a well-designed website for his guiding business.

''I'm not a doom-and-gloom type of guy," he said, ''but something has got to give. And I do wonder what it is."

We took up the conversation on our last full day of paddling, shortly after we had merged from the Big Black onto the St. John. The distance between the St. John's banks was twice that on the Big Black, perhaps 120 yards across. The current pushed more quickly, but a steady headwind battled back.

I asked Smith why he spends so much time studying the nuances of edible plants and fire-making techniques.

''We're so quickly becoming overspecialized as a culture," he said. ''I think there's some value to hanging on to how people used to do things that wasn't so input intensive."

Most days, I live in that disconnected, overspecialized culture, in which food is harvested more from shelves in a store than from rows in a field, in which heat comes from adjusting a thermostat more than chopping wood.

I cannot identify all the trees growing in my backyard, but like many in today's long-distance, high-energy society, I have new skills: deftly navigating airport security checkpoints, dozing fitfully during a red-eye flight in coach, waking to function in a foreign land.

I know that out there, on the edges, are many people who gather around fires of wood or charcoal each night. In stretches of Africa, Asia, and South America, they huddle with family and friends to cook, talk, and sleep. Many need medical and economic advantages that technology can bring, but they are vulnerable, too, to the sense of disconnection that comes with it.

On our last morning, we idled at a campsite on the more heavily traveled St. John. Earlier visitors had left cans of Budweiser and Milwaukee's Best beneath a nearby alder. A resident snowshoe hare scouted beside a picnic table in the hope of finding scraps. The coals of the fire, tucked in the cover of a rusted barrel pit, glowed hot against cold gusts.

''The trouble is," Merchant said, ''the world is too big."

He touched his extended hands together, not to fashion an imaginary tree trunk, but the earth.

''It used to be like this," he said. ''A kid had purpose, within a family, or on the homestead, or in the village that supported it."

He threw his arms open and up, skyward.

''Now the whole world is out there, and a kid doesn't know how to get there."

After paddling a few final miles to the town of Dickey, we would begin a new journey that afternoon. A 10-hour drive south, past a lumber mill and rows of gas pumps outside Dysart's Truck Stop in Bangor, would accelerate toward Boston.

First, though, after conversation had wound down and canoes were loaded on the riverbank, the campfire flames weakened. Then, with a dousing of cold river water, the coals cracked, spit, and died.

Contact Tom Haines at thaines@globe.com.

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