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Chapter 1

MONDAY, TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY, THURSDAY JULY 20-23, 1857


I started on my third excursion to the Maine woods Monday, July 20, 1857, with one companion, arriving at Bangor the next day at noon. The succeeding morning, a relative of mine who is well acquainted with the Penobscot Indians took me in his wagon to Oldtown to assist me in obtaining an Indian for this expedition. We were ferried across to the Indian Island in a bateau. The ferryman's boy had the key to it, but the father, who was a blacksmith, after a little hesitation, cut the chain with a cold chisel on the rock. He told me that the Indians were nearly all gone to the seaboard and to Massachusetts, partly on account of the smallpox, of which they are very much afraid, having broken out in Oldtown. The old chief Neptune, however, was there still.

The first man we saw on the island was an Indian named Joseph Polis, whom my relative addressed familiarly as "Joe." He was dressing a deerskin in his yard. The skin was spread over a slanting log, and he was scraping it with a stick held by both hands. He was stoutly built, perhaps a little above the middle height, with a broad face, and, as others said, perfect Indian features and complexion. His house was a two-story white one with blinds, the best-looking that I noticed there, and as good as an average one on a New England village street. It was surrounded by a garden and fruit trees, single cornstalks standing thinly amid the beans. We asked him if he knew any good Indian who would like to go into the woods with us, that is, to the Allegash Lakes by way of Moosehead, and return by the East Branch of the Penobscot.

To which he answered out of that strange remoteness in which the Indian ever dwells to the white man, "Me like to go myself; me want to get some moose"; and kept on scraping the skin.

The ferryman had told us that all the best Indians were gone except Polis, who was one of the aristocracy. He, to be sure, would be the best man we could have, but if he went at all would want a great price. Polis asked at first two dollars a day but agreed to go for a dollar and a half, and fifty cents a week for his canoe. He would come to Bangor with his canoe by the seven o'clock train that evening—we might depend on him. We thought ourselves lucky to secure the services of this man, who was known to be particularly steady and trustworthy.

I spent the afternoon with my companion, who had remained in Bangor, in preparing for our expedition, purchasing provisions, hard-bread, pork, coffee, sugar, etc., and some india-rubber clothing.

At evening the Indian arrived in the cars, and I led the way, while he followed me, three quarters of a mile to my friend's house, with the canoe on his head. I did not know the exact route, but steered by the lay of the land, as I do in Boston. I tried to enter into conversation with him, but as he was puffing under the weight of his canoe, not having the usual apparatus for carrying it, but, above all, as he was an Indian, I might as well have been thumping on the bottom of his birch the while. In answer to the various observations that I made he only grunted vaguely from beneath his canoe once or twice, so that I knew he was there.

Early the next morning the stage called for us. My companion and I had each a large knapsack as full as it would hold, and we had two large rubber bags which held our provisions and utensils. As for the Indian, all the baggage he had, beside his axe and gun, was a blanket, which he brought loose in his hand. However, he had laid in a store of tobacco and a new pipe for the excursion. The canoe was securely lashed diagonally across the top of the stage, with bits of carpet tucked under the edge to prevent its chafing. The driver appeared as much accustomed to carrying canoes in this way as bandboxes.

At the Bangor House we took in four men bound on a hunting excursion, one of the men going as cook. They had a dog, a middling-sized brindled cur, which ran by the side of the stage, his master showing his head and whistling from time to time. But after we had gone about three miles the dog was suddenly missing, and two of the party went back for him, while the stage, which was full of passengers, waited. At length one man came back, while the other kept on. This whole party of hunters declared their intention to stop till the dog was found, but the very obliging driver was ready to wait a spell longer. He was evidently unwilling to lose so many passengers, who would have taken a private conveyance, or perhaps the other line of stages, the next day. Such progress did we make, with a journey of over sixty miles to be accomplished that day, and a rainstorm just setting in. We discussed the subject of dogs and their instincts till it was threadbare, while we waited there, and the scenery of the suburbs of Bangor is still distinctly impressed on my memory.

The Stage on the Road to Moosehead Lake The Stage on the Road to Moosehead Lake

After full half an hour the man returned, leading the dog by a rope. He had overtaken him just as he was entering the Bangor House. He was then tied on the top of the stage, but, being wet and cold, several times in the course of the journey he jumped off, and I saw him dangling by his neck. This dog was depended on to stop bears. He had already stopped one somewhere in New Hampshire, and I can testify that he stopped a stage in Maine. This party of four probably paid nothing for the dog's ride, nor for his run, while our party of three paid two dollars—and were charged four—for the light canoe which lay still on the top.

The stage was crowded all the way. If you had looked inside you would have thought that we were prepared to run the gantlet of a band of robbers, for there were four or five guns on the front seat and one or two on the back one, each man holding his darling in his arms. It appeared that this party of hunters was going our way, but much farther. Their leader was a handsome man about thirty years old, of good height, but not apparently robust, of gentlemanly address and faultless toilet. He had a fair white complexion as if he had always lived in the shade, and an intellectual face, and with his quiet manners might have passed for a divinity student who had seen something of the world. I was surprised to find that he was probably the chief white hunter of Maine and was known all along the road. I afterwards heard him spoken of as one who could endure a great deal of exposure and fatigue without showing the effect of it; and he could not only use guns, but make them, being himself a gunsmith. In the spring he had saved a stage-driver and two passengers from drowning in the backwater of the Piscataquis on this road, having swum ashore in the freezing water and made a raft and got them off—though the horses were drowned—at great risk to himself, while the only other man who could swim withdrew to the nearest house to prevent freezing. He knew our man, and remarked that we had a good Indian there, a good hunter; adding that he was said to be worth six thousand dollars. The Indian also knew him, and said to me, "The great hunter."

The Indian sat on the front seat with a stolid expression of face as if barely awake to what was going on. Again I was struck by the peculiar vagueness of his replies when addressed in the stage or at the taverns. He really never said anything on such occasions. He was merely stirred up like a wild beast, and passively muttered some insignificant response. His answer, in such cases, was vague as a puff of smoke, suggesting no responsibility, and if you considered it you would find that you had got nothing out of him. This was instead of the conventional palaver and smartness of the white man, and equally profitable. Most get no more than this out of the Indian, and pronounce him stolid accordingly. I was surprised to see what a foolish and impertinent style a Maine man, a passenger, used in addressing him, as if he were a child, which only made his eyes glisten a little. A tipsy Canadian asked him at a tavern, in a drawling tone, if he smoked, to which he answered with an indefinite "Yes."

"Won't you lend me your pipe a little while?" asked the other.

He replied, looking straight by the man's head, with a face singularly vacant to all neighboring interests, "Me got no pipe"; yet I had seen him put a new one, with a supply of tobacco, into his pocket that morning.

Our little canoe, so neat and strong, drew a favorable criticism from all the wiseacres among the tavern loungers along the road. By the roadside, close to the wheels, I noticed a splendid great purple fringed orchis which I would fain have stopped the stage to pluck, but as this had never been known to stop a bear, like the cur on the stage, the driver would probably have thought it a waste of time.

When we reached the lake, about half past eight in the evening, it was still steadily raining, and in that fresh, cool atmosphere the hylas were peeping and the toads ringing about the lake. It was as if the season had revolved backward two or three months, or I had arrived at the abode of perpetual spring.

We had expected to go upon the lake at once, and, after paddling up two or three miles, to camp on one of its islands, but on account of the rain we decided to go to one of the taverns for the night.

Footnote 1: Hard-bread or ship-bread is a kind of hard biscuit commonly baked in large cakes and much used by sailors and soldiers.

Henry David Thoreau

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