It isn't often a parent gets true payback. But what a delight to see a 17-year-old slacker come face to face with the great and unforgiving outdoors.
On a 34-mile-long flat-water kayak trip on the Moose River near Jackman, Maine, my son Justin and his friend Parker had to contend with mosquitoes, rain, cold, blisters, black flies, and chilly earth beneath flat sleeping pads for three glorious days.
How thrilling to channel one's inner Royal Mountie, to discover that in at least enduring discomfort and trying conditions, the old man still can do a bit of John Wayne and wake at 4:30 only to shout across the campsite that we were burning daylight and let's slap leather and heigh-ho, Silver. How wonderful to stare at complaining teenagers and ask in all innocence, what mosquitoes?
Oh, boys, where is your late-night Burger King run now? Your video game toggle switches? Your cellphones, your 30-minute showers, your lazy sleep-until-high-noon comfort? Giddy up!
The Moose River bow trip is well known among New England paddlers. Picture a longbow on a flat surface. Imagine kayaking down the shaft of the bow, turning at the tip, and then paddling along the string until you arrive back at the bottom of the bow. Rare among river trips, it doesn't require a second car to transport boats and gear. Begin at Attean Pond and return there in three days. No way back but onward.
In order to claim the entire adventure, you must begin at Attean Pond and portage 1.2 miles to Holeb Pond. Most boaters prefer to forgo the portage, beginning instead at Holeb Landing after paying an outfitter to drive their vehicle around to the Attean Landing parking lot. That may be a Moose River trip, but it's not a bow. I happened to leave out the portage element when I originally described the trip to my son. Besides, how hard could a 1.2-mile portage be?
Picture two adolescents who had never been on an extended camping trip. Picture damp, humid woods. Picture a rutted, muddy path. Picture rain falling so hard it forced you to look down and to squeeze water out of your eyebrows. Picture mosquitoes so thick, so relentless, that, given a little more time, both boys would have run bucking like mad moose to the nearest body of water, only to plunge in and scream joyfully as they coated themselves with mud. Good New England puritanical suffering, in other words. Just the thing.
Delightful to me was watching the dawning sense that came to the boys that nothing except brute labor would save them. I could see their squirrelly brains spinning to make meaning of the experience. Why would people do such things willingly? And how could they get the next cab out?
We camped at the eastern edge of Holeb Pond that night and the boys went to bed like kids after a country fair. I stayed up a few minutes longer, giving them the old cowboy profile, the rangy, grizzled plains rider feeding sticks into the yellow wedge of a campfire. Fear me, my young, soft slacker boys! You can't change the channel, because there is no channel except . . . me!
The next day made life appreciably better. The Moose River is a lazy, comfortable stream of black water amidst a lovely forest canopy. It is not a crisp river, nor a particularly challenging one, but it does go on. And on. Justin observed that around every bend one could count on a dead pine tree leaning poetically into the water. Easy going gave way to a sense of summer dreaming. River, sun, insects, trees.
We stopped at Holeb Falls, a 30-foot drop, and after a short portage fly-fished in the quicker water. We caught willing chubs, but no trout, and cooled off under a beautiful cascade of white-churned water. Finally, maybe, the boys started to get the idea of it.
We camped that night near Spencer Rips, logging a good 12-mile day. The mosquitoes drove us to bed early, and we woke the next morning to a chilly river, mist rising in gray whirlwinds from the surface. We packed and left, the river quietly urging us forward. A kingfisher stitched the trees along the bank, dropping sometimes to skewer fish, calling ahead at our arrival. We ran the first of the Attean Falls rapids, a nice bit of quicker water, but I portaged around the second while the boys tried their luck. Parker made it without a problem. Justin nearly tipped over and ended with a boat full of water.
We spotted Attean Pond shortly afterward, and the boys began paddling as if their cellphones, Whoppers, and unfiltered water waited. They beat me back to the landing and had their boats partially unloaded by my arrival. Maybe I flattered myself, but I suspected that they felt proud of doing the whole trip. To my astonishment, they described it as a good time, awesome, and cool to various people we encountered on the drive home.
The story of the portage was retold a dozen times with stinging details piling on with each rendition. But in every telling they made sure to include the one essential fact: 34 miles, start to finish.
Cry of the Loon Outdoor Adventures, Attean Pond, Jackman, Maine, 207-668-7808, cryofthe loon.net. Guided tours and rentals. A word of caution: On many canoe and kayak maps, the word "rips" signifies a long, shallow section of quick-moving water. On the map issued by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands covering the Moose River bow trip, the rips more closely resemble tricky drops -- particularly Spencer and Mosquito rips. With boats full of valuable equipment, it is questionable whether running them is worthwhile. You will need a permit if you want a campfire at night. Call the Maine Forest Service at 207-827-1800. For a fishing license, go to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife website at maine.gov/ifw/licenses_permits/fishing.htm.
Joseph Monninger's new novel, "Baby," for young adults, will be published next month (Front Street). A licensed New Hampshire fishing guide, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.