The wrapon 'a walk in the winter' Catching up with the Conovers' 29-day trek in Maine is a far cry from keeping up

Email|Print| Text size + By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / February 27, 2005

WILLIMANTIC, Maine -- It was Super Bowl Sunday. Garrett Conover was in a tent in northern Maine by the banks of the St. John River, just above remote Seven Island, and he couldn't name the teams playing.

Alone with his wife, Alexandra, the two had seen more moose, deer, coyote, and birds than humans. It was 1 degree on this early Sunday morning and the Conovers were on day 23 of their 29-day winter walk.

''This last week has been optimal," Garrett said into his satellite phone. ''We've been doing 10 and 12 miles each day with no problem."

A couple of days before, a friend had met them and exchanged digital camera cards so photos could be posted on the website the Conovers were updating dailyin chats with a webmaster. The webmaster, in turn, had refrained from sharing current events with them.

''As much as you love being around your spouse," said Alexandra, taking the phone and referring to the friend who had met them, ''a new person, you observe more keenly."

You observe tracks, too. She talked about seeing bobcat tracks in the same way someone might chat about a colleague or what their child did at school.

''It is interesting to me that this highway we are on is also a highway for the animals," she said with a slight cough. ''We watch coyote and fox tracks. You can see their personalities. They are quick and sharp animals, determined but erratic."

Tracks become the television of the outside world when you snowshoe 200 miles from Greenville to Allagash. The Conovers, both Maine guides who run a business called North Woods Ways offering trips in Maine and Canada and who live year round in a tent in Willimantic, were walking the same route they covered 25 years ago on their honeymoon. This time, they included an outreach program called ''WinterWalk for the Wilds 2005," incorporating a website to promote snowshoeing and natural sciences among children.

From the shores of Moosehead Lake on Jan. 15 to the village of Allagash near the New Brunswick, Canada, border on Feb. 12, the couple traveled the frozen lake and river highways of Maine, pulling everything they needed on two toboggans. Initially, they were each pulling about 120 pounds, but when an expected food drop fell through, they were fortunate enough to stock up along the way, bringing the sleds to about 150 pounds each.

The Conovers -- he's 49, she's 51 -- braved temperatures from 33 below zero to 43 above, living in a tent they heated with a woodstove they carried. Alexandra did notice her jeans were loose when they got home, but couldn't say how many pounds she had lost. Garrett said he had missed his favorite radio programs: ''A Prairie Home Companion" and ''The Thistle and Shamrock."

The two had only four rest days and braved snow, ice, headwinds, and rain. They had a pleasant 8- to 10-day stretch of sunny, windless weather as well.

Retired school psychologist Tom Jamrog from Lincolnville was among a handful of winter campers who spent the first couple of nights with the Conovers, leaving with them from Moosehead Lake. When the Conovers decided to take a rest day, or ''layover" day as they call it, Jamrog and a fellow snowshoer pressed on by themselves, spending about a week in the woods and covering 52 miles.

They experienced wind so fierce it ripped their tent, which they repaired with safety pins. At times, they saw neither humans nor lights, only coyote tracks. At night, the ice on Moosehead Lake moaned.

''We heard groaning and cracking all night long," said Jamrog.

Snow and subzero temperatures followed them. Even in that cold, Jamrog briefly went in through the ice, one foot just above the ankle. He quickly wicked off the water with snow and was all right. And he got a feel for long-distance snow travel.

''We were spent by the end of the week," he said. ''Now I know why the Conovers take a layover. You need to rest, take a break, build up your reserves."

About a week into their trip, the Conovers arrived at Pittston Farm, on the western shores of Seboomook Lake, for a planned winter ecology weekend with a dozen members and parents of a Cambridge-based Boy Scout Adventure Crew. Among them was Hannah Lyons-Galante, 15, a Cambridge Rindge and Latin sophomore, who endured an eight-hour drive to get there.

''They thought everything through," Hannah said of the Conovers. ''They had so much knowledge of wildlife. They're just calm people."

Her father, Paul Lyons, a solar engineer, was impressed with how the Conovers worked together.

''That's what really struck me," he said. ''How two individuals could celebrate their commitment to each other in such a public celebration."

The Conovers also spent a lot of time alone. They usually take trips like this with clients, and for the first time in more than a decade, they were alone together in the wild during an extended journey. Their thoughts ran free. Alexandra played the harmonica. They reveled in private jokes. They could walk together, side by side in their white anoraks and pants, for long, uninterrupted, wide-ranging conversations. Though they were surrounded by the beauty and solitude of the Maine North Woods, they also bemoaned the loss of old-growth forest and local ownership of large tracts of land.

''We've been guiding so long that we're not overly accustomed to the simplicity of just the two of us," said Garrett by phone a few days after the trip.

Having been down this path 25 years ago, Alexandra noticed she didn't have the aches and pains she'd had at age 26 when she was hauling her gear the wrong way. Aside from general fatigue, the two did not have so much as a blister.

''I'm 51 and feel physically better now than at 26," she said. ''I'm more efficient at 51 -- but I'm sure it will catch up."

Strong environmentalists and individualists, the two aren't exactly finished with long-distance snowshoeing in Maine. In 1982, they snowshoed from Allagash to Greenville. That's something they hope to do again next winter.

Marty Basch is a writer in New Hampshire.

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