Chesuncook - Part 4

Thoreau Reader:  Home - Maine Woods - Chesuncook Part 5

[1]    After breakfasting on moose-meat, we returned down Pine Stream on our way to Chesuncook Lake, which was about five miles distant. We could see the red carcass of the moose lying in Pine Stream when nearly half a mile off. Just below the mouth of this stream were the most considerable rapids between the two lakes, called Pine-Stream Falls, where were large flat rocks washed smooth, and at this time you could easily wade across above them. Joe ran down alone while we walked over the portage, my companion collecting spruce gum for his friends at home, and I looking for flowers. Near the lake, which we were approaching with as much expectation as if it had been a university, for it is not often that the stream of our life opens into such expansions, were islands, and a low and meadowy shore with scattered trees, birches, white and yellow, slanted over the water, and maples, many of the white birches killed, apparently by inundations. There was considerable native grass; and even a few cattle whose movements we heard, though we did not see them, mistaking them at first for moose were pastured there.

[2]    On entering the lake, where the stream runs southeasterly, and for some time before, we had a view of the mountains about Ktaadn, (Katahdinauguoh one says they are called,) like a cluster of blue fungi of rank growth, apparently twenty-five or thirty miles distant, in a southeast direction, their summits concealed by clouds. Joe called some of them the Souadneunk mountains. This is the name of a stream there, which another Indian told us meant "Running between mountains." Though some lower summits were afterward uncovered, we got no more complete view of Ktaadn while we were in the woods. The clearing to which we were bound was on the right of the mouth of the river, and was reached by going round a low point, where the water was shallow to a great distance from the shore. Chesuncook Lake extends northwest and southeast, and is called eighteen miles long and three wide, without an island. We had entered the northwest corner of it, and when near the shore could see only part way down it. The principal mountains visible from the land here were those already mentioned, between southeast and east, and a few summits a little west of north, but generally the north and northwest horizon about the St. John and the British boundary (1) was comparatively level.

[3]    Ansell Smith's, the oldest and principal clearing about this lake, appeared to be quite a harbor for bateaux (2) and canoes; seven or eight of the former were lying about, and there was a small scow for hay, and a capstan on a platform, now high and dry, ready to be floated and anchored to tow rafts with. It was a very primitive kind of harbor, where boats were drawn up amid the stumps, such a one, methought, as the Argo (3) might have been launched in. There were five other huts with small clearings on the opposite side of the lake, all at this end and visible from this point. One of the Smiths told me that it was so far cleared that they came here to live and built the present house four years before, though the family had been here but a few months.

[4]    I was interested to see how a pioneer lived on this side of the country. His life is in some respects more adventurous than that of his brother in the West; for he contends with winter as well as the wilderness, and there is a greater interval of time at least between him and the army which is to follow. Here immigration is a tide which may ebb when it has swept away the pines; there it is not a tide, but an inundation, and roads and other improvements come steadily rushing after.

[5]    As we approached the log-house, a dozen rods from the lake, and considerably elevated above it, the projecting ends of the logs lapping over each other irregularly several feet at the corners gave it a very rich and picturesque look, far removed from the meanness of weather-boards. It was a very spacious, low building, about eighty feet long, with many large apartments. The walls were well clayed between the logs, which were large and round, except on the upper and under sides, and as visible inside as out, successive bulging cheeks gradually lessening upwards and tuned to each other with the axe, like Pandean pipes.(4) Probably the musical forest-gods had not yet cast them aside; they never do till they are split or the bark is gone. It was a style of architecture not described by Vitruvius,(5) I suspect, though possibly hinted at in the biography of Orpheus;(6) none of your frilled or fluted columns, which have cut such a false swell, and support nothing but a gable end and their builder's pretensions, that is, with the multitude; and as for "ornamentation," one of those words with a dead tail which architects very properly use to describe their flourishes, there were the lichens and mosses and fringes of bark, which nobody troubled himself about. We certainly leave the handsomest paint and clapboards behind in the woods, when we strip off the bark and poison ourselves with white-lead in the towns. We get but half the spoils of the forest. For beauty, give me trees with the fur on. This house was designed and constructed with the freedom of stroke of a forester's axe, without other compass and square than Nature uses. Wherever the logs were cut off by a window or door, that is, were not kept in place by alternate overlapping, they were held one upon another by very large pins, driven in diagonally on each side, where branches might have been, and then cut off so close up and down as not to project beyond the bulge of the log, as if the logs clasped each other in their arms. These logs were posts, studs, boards, clapboards, laths, plaster, and nails, all in one. Where the citizen uses a mere sliver or board, the pioneer uses the whole trunk of a tree. The house had large stone chimneys, and was roofed with spruce-bark. The windows were imported, all but the casings. One end was a regular logger's camp, for the boarders, with the usual fir floor and log benches. Thus this house was but a slight departure from the hollow tree, which the bear still inhabits, being a hollow made with trees piled up, with a coating of bark like its original.

[6]    The cellar was a separate building, like an ice-house, and it answered for a refrigerator at this season, our moose-meat being kept there. It was a potato-hole with a permanent roof. Each structure and institution here was so primitive that you could at once refer it to its source; but our buildings commonly suggest neither their origin nor their purpose. There was a large, and what farmers would call handsome, barn, part of whose boards had been sawed by a whip-saw; and the saw-pit, with its great pile of dust, remained before the house. The long split shingles on a portion of the barn were laid a foot to the weather, suggesting what kind of weather they have there. Grant's barn at Caribou Lake was said to be still larger, the biggest ox-nest in the woods, fifty feet by a hundred. Think of a monster barn in that primitive forest lifting its gray back above the tree-tops! Man makes very much such a nest for his domestic animals, of withered grass and fodder, as the squirrels and many other wild creatures do for themselves.

[7]    There was also a blacksmith's shop, where plainly a good deal of work was done. The oxen and horses used in lumbering operations were shod, and all the iron-work of sleds, etc., was repaired or made here. I saw them load a bateau at the Moosehead carry, the next Tuesday, with about thirteen hundred weight of bar iron for this shop. This reminded me how primitive and honorable a trade was Vulcan's.(7) I do not hear that there was any carpenter or tailor among the gods. The smith seems to have preceded these and every other mechanic at Chesuncook as well as on Olympus,(8) and his family is the most widely dispersed, whether he be christened John or Ansell.

[8]    Smith owned two miles down the lake by half a mile in width. There were about one hundred acres cleared here. He cut seventy tons of English hay this year on this ground, and twenty more on another clearing, and he uses it all himself in lumbering operations. The barn was crowded with pressed hay and a machine to press it. There was a large garden full of roots, turnips, beets, carrots, potatoes, etc., all of great size. They said that they were worth as much here as in New York. I suggested some currants for sauce, especially as they had no apple-trees set out, and showed how easily they could be obtained.

[9]    There was the usual long-handled axe of the primitive woods by the door, three and a half feet long, for my new black-ash rule was in constant use, and a large, shaggy dog, whose nose, report said, was full of porcupine quills. I can testify that he looked very sober. This is the usual fortune of pioneer dogs, for they have to face the brunt of the battle for their race, and act the part of Arnold Winkelried (9) without intending it. If he should invite one of his town friends up this way, suggesting moose-meat and unlimited freedom, the latter might pertinently inquire, "What is that sticking in your nose?" When a generation or two have used up all the enemies' darts, their successors lead a comparatively easy life. We owe to our fathers analogous blessings. Many old people receive pensions for no other reason, it seems to me, but as a compensation for having lived a long time ago. No doubt our town dogs still talk, in a snuffling way, about the days that tried dogs' noses. How they got a cat up there I do not know, for they are as shy as my aunt about entering a canoe. I wondered that she did not run up a tree on the way; but perhaps she was bewildered by the very crowd of opportunities.

[10]    Twenty or thirty lumberers, Yankee and Canadian, were coming and going, Aleck among the rest, and from time to time an Indian touched here. In the winter there are sometimes a hundred men lodged here at once. The most interesting piece of news that circulated among them appeared to be, that four horses belonging to Smith, worth seven hundred dollars, had passed by farther into the woods a week before.

[11]    The white-pine-tree was at the bottom or farther end of all this. It is a war against the pines, the only real Aroostook or Penobscot war.(10) I have no doubt that they lived pretty much the same sort of life in the Homeric age,(11) for men have always thought more of eating than of fighting; then, as now, their minds ran chiefly on the "hot bread and sweet cakes"; and the fur and lumber trade is an old story to Asia and Europe. I doubt if men ever made a trade of heroism. In the days of Achilles,(12) even, they delighted in big barns, and perchance in pressed hay, and he who possessed the most valuable team was the best fellow.

[12]    We had designed to go on at evening up the Caucomgomoc, whose mouth was a mile or two distant, to the lake of the same name, about ten miles off; but some Indians of Joe's acquaintance, who were making canoes on the Caucomgomoc, came over from that side, and gave so poor an account of the moose-hunting, so many had been killed there lately, that my companions concluded not to go there. Joe spent this Sunday and the night with his acquaintances. The lumberers told me that there were many moose here-abouts, but no caribou or deer. A man from Oldtown had killed ten or twelve moose, within a year, so near the house that they heard all his guns. His name may have been Hercules,(13) for aught I know, though I should rather have expected to hear the rattling of his club; but, no doubt, he keeps pace with the improvements of the age, and uses a Sharpe's rifle now; probably he gets all his armor made and repaired at Smith's shop. One moose had been killed and another shot at within sight of the house within two years. I do not know whether Smith has yet got a poet to look after the cattle, which, on account of the early breaking up of the ice, are compelled to summer in the woods, but I would suggest this office to such of my acquaintances as love to write verses and go a-gunning.

[13]    After a dinner, at which apple-sauce was the greatest luxury to me, but our moose-meat was oftenest called for by the lumberers, I walked across the clearing into the forest, southward, returning along the shore. For my dessert, I helped myself to a large slice of the Chesuncook woods, and took a hearty draught of its waters with all my senses. The woods were as fresh and full of vegetable life as lichen in wet weather, and contained many interesting plants; but unless they are of white pine, they are treated with as little respect here as a mildew, and in the other case they are only the more quickly cut down. The shore was of coarse, flat, slate rocks, often in slabs, with the surf beating on it. The rocks and bleached drift-logs, extending some way into the shaggy woods, showed a rise and fall of six or eight feet, caused partly by the dam at the outlet. They said that in winter the snow was three feet deep on a level here, and sometimes four or five, that the ice on the lake was two feet thick, clear, and four feet including the snow-ice. Ice had already formed in vessels.

[14]    We lodged here this Sunday night in a comfortable bedroom, apparently the best one; and all that I noticed unusual in the night for I still kept taking notes, like a spy in the camp was the creaking of the thin split boards, when any of our neighbors stirred.

[15]    Such were the first rude beginnings of a town. They spoke of the practicability of a winter-road to the Moosehead carry, which would not cost much, and would connect them with steam and staging and all the busy world. I almost doubted if the lake would be then the self-same lake, preserve its form and identity, when the shores should be cleared and settled; as if these lakes and streams which explorers report never awaited the advent of the citizen.

[16]    The sight of one of these frontier-houses, built of these great logs, whose inhabitants have unflinchingly maintained their ground many summers and winters in the wilderness, reminds me of famous forts, like Ticonderoga or Crown Point, which have sustained memorable sieges. They are especially winter-quarters, and at this season this one had a partially deserted look, as if the siege were raised a little, the snow-banks being melted from before it, and its garrison accordingly reduced. I think of their daily food as rations, it is called "supplies"; a Bible and a great-coat are munitions of war, and a single man seen about the premises is a sentinel on duty. You expect that he will require the countersign, and will perchance take you for Ethan Allen,(14) come to demand the surrender of his fort in the name of the Continental Congress. It is a sort of ranger service. Arnold's (15) expedition is a daily experience with these settlers. They can prove that they were out at almost any time; and I think that all the first generation of them deserve a pension more than any that went to the Mexican war.


1. The Dominion of Canada was formed in 1867, so the boundary was still British when Thoreau was in Maine - back
2. French word for boats, in this case flat-bottomed and pointed at both ends - back
3. In Greek mythology, boat used by Jason to search for the Golden Fleece - back
4. Called panpipes from their association with Pan of Greek mythology, they consist of connected parallel tubes - back
5. Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (ca. 70 B.C.-ca. 25 B.C.). Roman architect & engineer for Julius Caesar and Augustus, wrote about Roman architecture - back
6. In Greek mythology, a musician whose music had supernatural powers - back
7. In Roman mythology, the god of Fire - back
8. In Greek mythology, home of the gods - back
9. Swiss hero of the Battle of Sempach (1386), said to have thrown himself against the Austrians, gathering as many enemy spears as possible, creating a gap in the Austrian line that allowed the Swiss Confederation to win the battle - back
10. Border disputes between Maine and Great Britain. - back
11. Period in Greek history described by Homer's writing, around 1400 B.C. - back
12. Hero of Greek legends who fought in the Trojan War - back
13. In Greek mythology, son of Zeus, required to perform 12 impossible tasks - back
14. Ethan Allen (1738-1789), with Benedict Arnold, led an expedition that captured Fort Ticonderoga in the first colonial victory of the American Revolution. - back
15. Benedict Arnold (1741-1801) led a 1775 military expedition of 1,150 men in batteaux and birch bark canoes through the Maine wilderness to Quebec; with spoiled provisions, snow, rain, mud, smallpox, near starvation, and desertions, only 650 men arrived in Quebec, where 100 were killed and 400 were captured. - back

Thoreau Reader:  Home - Maine Woods - Chesuncook Part 5