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Even flow

Dam control makes the remote St. Croix River a canoeist's ideal



Email|Print| Text size + By David Arnold
Globe Correspondent / October 22, 2006

VANCEBORO, Maine -- The bald eagle hit the water's surface in a postage stamp pose. Legs in baggy-feathered pantaloons stretched forward, talons flared, wings arched back in a ``V," the giant bird's attack was so quick and precise that when it rose in the glow of the afternoon sun with a large mouth bass in its clutch, the eagle seemed positively bored.

Not I.

We had just arrived in two pickups, a young moose playfully jogging alongside the trucks for the last bit of the journey. No sooner had we unloaded our four canoes into the river than the eagle hit.

The splash was close. I almost wondered if my camera got wet. It had been ready to shoot, the shutter set on rapid fire. But of course, dumbstruck, I missed the action as the American icon did its Audubon thing.

Had Martin Brown, our lead guide, ever seen such natural drama hereabouts?

``Pretty common in these parts," Brown said, hardly lifting his gaze from the knot he was finishing.

This was the moment I realized I had come to one of New England's most remote, most intimate, and perhaps most overlooked canoeing rivers.

The St. Croix is a 115-mile rumpled ribbon of easy rapids on the US-Canadian border that tends to lie under the radar of many canoeing enthusiasts because of its mightier cousins. The Allagash offers the shadow of Henry David Thoreau and plenty of late- summer tourist traffic; the St. John offers a scale that belittles mere mortals riding it; and the Machias and Kennebec offer intimidating rapids.

And then there is ``The Croix " (rhymes with Troy), serving up nothing but modesty.

``There is simply a sense of seclusion that many of the other rivers don't have," said Michael Guarino, owner of Maine Wilderness Tours, a Belgrade-based company that organizes, among other Maine adventures, canoe trips down the St. Croix.

``Perhaps the Croix's greatest asset is what it does not have. You won't hear boomboxes. You likely won't hear other human beings at all," Guarino said.

The St. Croix has discreet campsites along the shorelines of New Brunswick and Maine; it has corners labeled on maps that are named for frequent users (Browns Corner for Martin Brown is an example). The Croix is not a secret because no fewer than six public agencies in Canada and the United States stand guard over the river's health. No one abuses this gem.

The river is that squiggly segment of the eastern Maine boundary that runs from the bottom of the straight meridian to the Atlantic Ocean. Once the sluiceway for spring log drives, the St. Croix flows from the Chiputneticook Lakes with barely a whisper. If the paddler encounters one other person outside his or her group, it is likely to be at the standard starting point in Vanceboro (population 165).

With any luck, that person might be Hollis Beers, 78, a store owner whom the locals consider about as close to a town historian as they are going to get.

``I'm called a historian because I'm the oldest one around," Beers said. Lived here all your life?

``Not yet."

Vanceboro sits on the American side of a small railroad bridge that once carried 50 trains a day, according to Beers. The old Canadian Pacific track was the winter lifeline between Canada and Boston when ice froze over the shipping lanes of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The bridge made news worldwide in 1915 when one Werner Horn, a German spy, tried to dynamite it.

BLUE RIBBON PADDLE

``He didn't use enough explosive because he did not want to hurt any one," Beers said. The investigation leading to the arrest was neither taxing nor prolonged. Horn was the only stranger in town . He served some jail time, then settled into the role of town celebrity.

Today, perhaps one freight train a day rolls through Vanceboro. And it was here last summer that four canoeists loaded gear into boats amid the roil of fishing eagles, then started paddling downstream, one man per canoe, at a pace that suggested no deadline and no particular destination.

Our group included Bronson Platner, a lawyer from Ellsworth, and professional guides Jared Simsay , 27, and Brown, 56, a Master Maine Guide since 1973.

The flow of the St. Croix is controlled by a dam release. Unlike most other paddling rivers in Maine, the Croix has an all but guaranteed water volume , even through the dry summer months. The frequent rapids are rated easy to moderate -- Class I and II -- on a scale that goes to Class VI (`` loss of life very possible").

Before we departed, Brown had demonstrated four basic strokes that allow the solo paddler to spin the canoe through a circle in either direction -- without changing stroking sides. Each boat carried an extra paddle and a pole for maneuvering in rapids. Given the choice, the guides said they preferred the pole.

``Actually, I would rather go on a trip with an ax than a paddle," Simsay said. ``With the ax I can always make a pole."

Brown has been guiding canoe trips worldwide since the late 1960s, and not all of them would be suited to covers on the L.L. Bean catalog . There was the time on the Rio Grande on the Mexico-Texas border when he saved a drowning man who turned out to be an undocumented worker. He still wears the guy's hat, which he was given in a gesture of appreciation. He has guided newlyweds in over their heads down harrowing rivers in the Canadian Arctic; he has dangled from the float of a seaplane trying to salvage a trip in the Yukon; he has been shot at by drunk clients and been abandoned (temporarily) by a bush pilot running out of gas in the Northwest Territories.

But the Croix is home. Brown estimates he has guided some 300 trips down the river. It is, for him, a meandering metaphor for peace that keeps bringing him back.

``Allow me to open my eyes once every three minutes and I think I could probably do the river blind folded," Brown said.

Perhaps five miles downstream at the far end of a long, open pool of still water, we nudged into the Canadian shoreline to set up camp, and started pitching tents amid the soft, predatory whine of several hundred million mosquitoes. This was a low estimate.

For more than two decades I have owned a bottle of insect repellent containing 95 percent N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide, aka DEET. The little red bottle has remained unopened for fear of side effects that might show up dozens of years later. To open or not to open? Early death, I concluded, was worth it. I cracked the bottle and applied liberally.

Although Maine mosquitoes on a feeding frenzy can literally drive crows to insanity, real guides don't talk about the bugs. Ever.

``Bugs?" said Simsay. ``Where?"

They enveloped him like particles in an electricity experiment as he combed the opposite shore for firewood, his yellow Labrador , Jake , never far from his side. Simsay was always in motion: collecting wood, tending the fire, baking brownies , and catching fish on a fly line. All action, no talk.

And so we were left to our own thoughts in a setting sun, immersed in the sights and sounds of a river lined with wild iris. Osprey, more eagles, and loons.

The loon is an ancient bird, its bones solid and heavy compared with the lighter, perforated skeletons of its higher evolved avian cousins. Add the handicap of unusually small wings, and the common loon on takeoff exhibits the characteristics of a fully loaded C-47. We were camped on a segment of the St. Croix that was perhaps a quarter-mile long. Departing loons needed every inch of it.

The next morning, having downed blueberry pancakes and plenty of bacon, we were back on the river by 9 a.m. There were only a few miles to go until we reached Little Falls and the pullout beach where a pair of pickup trucks were waiting for the return trip home.

For a section of this last leg, a headwind made the going tough. Then we turned a corner, the wind came astern, and the current and air became fingers of the gentle hand brushing four canoes in diamond formation through a wilderness seemingly reserved for us.

Call it home, call it peace, call it the Croix.

Contact David Arnold, a freelance writer in Milton, at northwester@comcast.net .

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