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After 25 years, a Maine couple relives their honeymoon, snowshoeing for 200 miles in North Woods

GREENVILLE, Maine -- For their silver anniversary, Alexandra and Garrett Conover are following in the same snowy footsteps they took during their honeymoon 25 years ago. They're not forgetting the kids either. They are taking along scores of them, schoolchildren who will follow via the Internet as the intrepid husband and wife snowshoe 200 miles across the frozen rivers and lakes of Maine's remote North Woods.

Last Sunday, the couple took their first steps under sunny skies in 15-degree temperatures with dozens of well-wishers, from children to outdoorsmen, walking the first mile on the thick ice.

After traversing the 40-mile-long lake, the two, both licensed Maine guides, will travel on the 10,000-year-old frozen winter highways once used by Native Americans and traders. The Penobscot and St. John will be the two main rivers the pair will use as their footpath to reach the small village of Allagash near the Canadian border two days before Valentine's Day.

Incredibly, they've done this before. Their love of the outdoors stoked the fires of their winter of 1980-81 honeymoon adventure. The next year, they reversed the journey and used different watersheds. Now, they get a chance to revisit the isolated Maine North Woods to see the changes outside on the land and inside themselves.

"If you think about our lives, we don't have office skills, but we do have skills in the woods," said Alexandra, 51, during an interview before the trip.

They practice those skills daily at home. For nearly 20 years, they have lived year-round in a tent outside Dover-Foxcroft in Willimantic with no running water or electricity.

The canvas 12-foot-by-20-foot tent is a short walking commute to the offices of their guide service, North Woods Ways. They have no Internet service and no television, but they do drive a minivan. For work, they mostly guide snowshoe and canoe trips in Maine, but they also venture over the border to Canada and lead trips into rugged Labrador. The Conovers coauthored the out-of-print survival guide "A Snow Walker's Companion" set for rerelease in October.

Their journey will take them through the boreal forest that is home to the mightiest of moose and the smallest of Arctic shrews.

"We'll see infinitely more tracks than animals in person," said Garrett, 49.

Quick fox, coyotes, and snowshoe hare might happen by, while overhead they may see plump Canada jays or hear the hoot of an owl. Fierce winds, brutal cold, -- the optimal temperature travel range is between 15 above and 15 below zero -- and treacherous ice are potential pitfalls. The lion's share of the journey is on frozen water, but the couple will have a pair of 2-mile portages over land between waterways.

The Conovers figure they each will burn about 4,000 to 5,000 calories daily during the trek, ingesting about 150 pounds of food between them during their trip. They won't be eating any freeze-dried, prepackaged foods, however. Instead, they'll cook along the way and start their days with breakfasts like hot cereal with nuts and fruits, molasses cookies, and on special days, pancakes. Each day, they'll make a fry-pan bread called bannock, and lunch on internal fuel like salami, crackers, cheese, nuts, and dried fruits they've made themselves. Two food caches along the way will augment their supplies. The winter walkers will rally 'round the woodstove for hearty fare like chicken stew or beef stroganoff for dinner. As for water, it's under the ice. Chisel down, and it's theirs.

The stove will be stoked with wood cut with an axe. Made out of lightweight titanium, the stove weighs about 15 pounds. Though the temperature might be below-zero outside, in about 15 minutes they can get the stove cranking to a nice 80 degrees. Near the top of the tent, where wet clothing hangs, it can reach 120.

Home will be a breathable Egyptian cotton tent. Sleeping bags on mattress pads are their beds. The 10-foot-by-12-foot tent is a little bigger than what they want, but they do need room for company. The Conovers won't be totally alone during their journey. An intern will spend a week with them - Zack Davis, 21, from Round Pond, a human ecology major at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor (both Conovers graduated from there).

Instead of manning the phones and photocopier like many interns, Davis was busy before the trip doing other things.

"I've been dehydrating a lot of food, pine-tarring and waxing the toboggans," he said.

After the first week, the Conovers will take part in an ecology weekend at Pittston Farms with members of the Forest Society of Maine and National Resources Education Center of Greenville. Also on hand will be a Boy Scout Venture Crew from Cambridge, Mass. During the first week, a handful of friends are coming along, like Tom Jamrog of Lincolnville, retired school psychologist and experienced winter camper.

"Once you pass the two- or three-day mark, you forget about your old life," he said outside his tent before taking off. "This is your life. I love the routine."

The Conovers shun synthetic clothing against their skin, preferring wool. For the woods, they wear white cotton hooded anoraks and pants to shield them from wind. Thick mittens protect against cold and let them handle hot items like a stovepipe. Mukluks are on their feet. Outfitted in white, they look like winter-time travelers from lifetimes past.

All that gear -- the food, the bedding, the clothing -- goes onto wooden toboggans about 10 feet long by 1 foot wide. Each Conover pulls a sled packed with 130 pounds of essential items.

They plan to cover 8 to 12 miles a day during their 29-day adventure.

The Conovers do make concessions to the modern world. When they guide, they take along a first aid kit and satellite phone for emergencies. The phone will be used daily as the couple calls in to a Webmaster for updates to their website. The calls will be recorded and posted on the website as the two detail the experience. Local schoolchildren will follow the Conovers' progress and post questions that will be answered, although not in real time.

A digital camera is also part of the equipment. Every 25 miles or so, the route goes by a bridge. They've arranged to be met there so they can hand off the camera card and have it mailed to the Webmaster.

Calling their walk "Winterwalk for the Wilds 2005," the Conovers are using the trip to promote the sport of snowshoeing, as well as incorporating a little natural science and history along the way. A snowshoe messenger service, the two are carrying letters and cards from Greenville fourth-graders to Fort Kent-area fourth-graders.

Before taking off, they visited area schools like Greenville High School to talk up their project. Dale Murray teaches seventh- and eighth-graders. On the board in his classroom is the Conovers' website address. Murray plans to encourage students to check in.

"Their enthusiasm was obvious at the assembly," he said. "They were full up with questions."

The Conovers' own enthusiasm was warm last Sunday morning, which was cold and windless. They let children pull their toboggans, easily, over the ice under the shadows of Big and Little Squaw mountains. Up ahead, perhaps a day's journey, is Mount Kineo. Then it's deep into the Maine woods where they will be alone for days on end until the people of Allagash come out to greet them for their final mile of an incredible walk through the heart of winter.

Marty Basch is a freelance writer in New Hampshire.