For those of us who call coastal Maine home, we easily negotiate coves, bays, inlets, reaches and other words for saltwater bodies.
In “Return to Moose River,” Bar Harbor author Earl Brechlin takes us out of our element and on an adventure into unfamiliar terrain — Maine’s North Woods — in good company with the veteran journalist’s wide circle of friends and family from his wife Roxie, nephew Ryan and late identical twin brother Carl to pack-rat paddler Paul “Pauley” Charest and Bar Harbor man-about-town Rob Jordan.
For 35 years, Earl has called Maine home, first as a University of Maine forestry student from Meriden, Conn., then a newsman and editor for decades at the Mount Desert Islander, Ellsworth American and the former Bar Harbor Times. He currently serves as the nonprofit Friends of Acadia’s communications director.
In addition, he’s a Registered Maine Guide, builder, model railroader, postcard collector and the author of seven nonfiction books about his adopted home state.
The Moose River, which rises from hardscrabble streams flowing down the mountains west of Jackman along the Canadian border, is at the heart of Earl’s latest book that takes the form of 14 essays. He and his brothers Carl and Dale and friends they grew up with first paddled the remote, northwestern Maine river in 1986. That canoe trip officially launched the Moose River Camping Club and inspired the group to keep alive their friendship through a canoe trip every fall and a backpacking trip each spring.
On that first expedition, the “Return to Moose River” author had his nephew and novice paddler Ryan in his canoe.
“Little Ryan’s paddle barely reached all the way to the water. So, he paddled with me although when we were hit by some serious headwinds on long flat stretches and fell behind the others …” Earl writes in the opening essay. “Now, on this return trip, as an adult, he is in the stern of his own canoe, paddling fearlessly with great slashing strokes through three-foot whitecaps on windswept Attean Lake.”
The club or MRCC, as its members fondly refer to it, is the thread binding the essays that are peppered with the author’s sharp wit and periodic pokes at his old buddies. They also showcase his spare, vivid and lyrical prose and eye for detail honed from decades of reporting and writing.
The more than a dozen essays range widely in subject from the perils of snowmobiling on constantly shifting ice to nearly losing an agile, but legally blind fellow hiker down a 20-foot rocky chasm near Cathedral Pond in Baxter State Park.
First and foremost, Earl pays tribute to the wild beauty and character of the Maine north woods where he has decamped annually to freshen his perspective, relax and recharge from the consuming news business.
In his opening essay, he notes how the winter, storms, freezing and flooding wreak havoc and alter the scenery and landmarks along the Moose River from one year to the next.
In spring, he writes, “ice-out releases a torrent of water that breaks up several feet of ice and hurls it headlong downstream. Great waves of dirty, groaning icebergs pluck unlucky trees and rocks from the banks as they go …
“Places where the river makes a hard turn end up buried under a pile of twisted trees and limbs stripped bare of every shred of bark. In summer, these smooth skeletons bleach bright white in the sun. By fall left high and dry on a sandbar or bank, this dry-ki, as it is called, makes excellent firewood for intrepid campers hoping to ward off the evening’s deepening chill.”
A skilled reporter and writer, Earl employs different devices to engage and entertain readers. His own inquisitiveness prompts him to ponder local geographic curiosities such as why the Moose has East and West branches, but no North Branch. Or, the fact there’s a Number One Brook and a Number Six Brook.
“Why some harried mapmaker decided to do away with brooks two through five,” he observes, “which are nowhere to be found, is not entirely clear.”
Then there’s the world’s “longest undefended border.” Maine’s St. Croix River, straddling the U.S.-Canada line, is a no-man’s land — time wise. Look left, it’s nine o’clock. Look right, it’s only 8. The air temperature is another anomaly. The United States uses the Fahrenheit scale while Canada and most other countries operate on Celsius.
“When it’s zero in St. Croix, there’s still time to get the last of the squash picked in Vanceboro,” quips Earl, also noting the St. Croix is “one of the few places in North America where you can throw a stone across a body of water and have it hit the opposite shore an hour before it left.”
People who live, make a living and are drawn to the North Woods are brought alive in “Return to Moose River.” Like an 80-something sporting camp cook who tells Earl and his buddies that the drive from Princeton to Vanceboro is “’bout three beers.” After dinner, she emerges from her fluorescent-lit domain to sit down and chat over a fifth of Canadian Club.
“Short and lean, with an air of authority that comes from decades of bossing around customers and coworkers alike, she radiates energy that leaves no doubt that she is a force to be reckoned with …,” Earl writes. “She picks it up to take a swig, the muscles in her wrinkled neck betraying a series of three long gulps. ‘Sweeeet,’ she says in a husky exhale as the bottle returns to the table and the damp end of the Chesterfield to her mouth.”
While “Return to Moose River” is an elegy to Maine’s North Woods, the book also chronicles the author’s adult life journey — the joys and inevitable losses — especially the sudden death of his twin brother while floating with the MRCC gang on inner tubes down the Potomac River near Harpers Ferry, W.Va. The life-jacketed father of four slips off his raft and is swept away in the wild, swift-moving water. Unbeknownst to his companions, Carl had developed a blood clot that had gone into his lungs and cut off the blood supply to his brain.
His life abruptly halted, Carl’s death is a terrible blow to family and friends. The irrepressible outdoorsman’s passing draws the MRCC’s members and families even closer and inspires them to have solid brass coins made that are placed in crevices, crannies, outcroppings and other spots on journeys for other adventurers to discover and pass along or keep as a memento.
So far, the keepsakes have surfaced all over the planet from Stonehenge and Peru’s Machu Picchu to the Acropolis and Omaha Beach in Normandy. Those kindred spirits who deposit them somewhere again can check the club website to see if they have been found.
Returning to Moose River a decade after their first expedition there, Earl places his coin on a rock where he photographed his late twin brother helping his son brush his teeth. He and Carl’s extended family and friends also converge along the downstream edge of a suspension bridge to scatter his remains.
“There are some who will wonder why we stand witness here, so far from where he lived, so far from where so many of us live,” Earl says before the ashes disappear downstream. “But in the end, it’s here that his spirit really belongs, where he felt most alive. We’re not leaving Carl in the middle of nowhere. We’ve brought him home.”