First, a few clarifications. This trip took place neither in Switzerland nor in a Swiss canoe. What made it Swiss was the presence here in Maine of our Swiss relatives, Vreni and Ueli.
Before they came for their first visit nearly twenty years ago, I was afraid they – or at least Ueli – would find our northern Appalachians a bit tame. They live in the spectacular Bernese Alps with the most storied of those mountains, the Eiger, Moench, and Jungfrau, at their doorstep. Ueli is a tall, lean, rugged man in his fifties who spends much of his free time hiking, climbing, or skiing in the mountains or hang-gliding off 4,000-foot “hills” that are almost as high as our highest peaks here in western Maine.
But my worries were groundless. Vreni and Ueli didn’t come to Maine looking for another Switzerland. They came looking for Maine, and they liked what they found. They liked climbing our modest mountains and seeing unbroken forest stretching out in every direction. They liked strapping the canoe onto the car roof and heading up to Rangeley where they could picnic on the islands of Upper Richardson Lake and explore miles of undeveloped shoreline.
But ever since I showed them some pictures from more ambitious canoeing ventures I’ve been on in Quebec and Labrador, they had a yen to take not just a day’s outing in the canoe but an extended trip. A month in the Canadian north was longer than their time with us would allow, but a week’s trip in Maine would suit them just fine.
The classic West Branch Penobscot trip seemed the ideal choice. About forty miles altogether, the trip begins on Lobster Lake and ends on twenty-mile-long Chesuncook Lake with Katahdin in full view. I had no trouble enlisting my friend Steve and his son, Ethan, to join us, providing both additional muscle power and the pleasure of their good company. This would be, I thought, a comfortable, leisurely, and scenically rewarding trip just right for our guests, and also one I had not taken myself for over fifteen years and was eager to revisit.
My memory was that the twenty miles or so on the river were pleasant enough but that the lakes at either end were the high points of this trip. When we paddled into Lobster Lake about two o’clock on a warm, sunny, late-September afternoon, I realized that my memory was correct, except that the lake was, in reality, even more beautiful than any memory of it could ever be. Katathdin rose up about thirty miles away on the horizon to the east, and to the south, the great green loaf of Big Spencer Mountain seemed almost close enough to touch.
We pulled into a campsite on Ogden Point and set about enjoying the first idyllic afternoon of a short canoe trip on which the gods would smile from beginning to end. We set up the tents, gathered some dri-ki for firewood, brewed a four-o’clock coffee, went for a swim, and lounged like seals on the sun-baked ledges next to our private beach. While Steve stayed in camp to cook up supper, Ethan and I took off in one canoe to see if we could find the trail that goes up Lobster Mountain from Jackson Cove. Vreni and Ueli took another to explore the western shore of the lake’s major island.
That evening, when Vreni and I were sitting by the coals of the fire just before bedtime, she said, “Thanks so much for putting this trip together for us, Bob. After just this one day, it already feels like a dream come true.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m betting the whole trip is going to feel that way.”
If anybody had taken me up on that bet, I would have won it. The weather held. Total rainfall was about three drops as we were paddling the last couple of miles on the river, and then the next day heading south on Chesuncook, where ferocious winds can pin canoeists down for days, we had a brisk tailwind helping us on our way, cloudless blue skies overhead, and Katahdin visible all day.
We camped that evening five miles short of the takeout, expecting to paddle an hour or so and be on our way home by noon the next day. But during the night, a gale blew in from the northwest and refused to let up. We grumbled a little and settled in for a windbound day, walked the shore, read in the tent. Ueli, ever inventive, built a huge, stork-like statue out of dri-ki.
The next morning, we saw that the gods had done us a favor after all. The sun coming up in the east backlit Katahdin, setting the clouds around the peak ablaze; and once it topped the mountain, it filled the mist hanging over the wind-still surface of the lake with light. Hard to imagine a more glorious finale to our Swiss canoe trip than this. Vreni had it right: a dream come true.
Robert Kimber has written often for outdoor and environmental magazines. He lives in Temple, Maine.