Well before dawn, we push away from shore and -- just as travelers on North American rivers have done for centuries -- slip paddles into the water and turn our canoes downstream.
Flickering silver from a quarter-moon ripples the river surface, a sheen of light to show the occasional V-wave behind rocks. In the velvet darkness we are attuned to small sounds -- paddle clunks, current riding over rocks. Gradually, gray light filters through a heavy mist, the stars dim and sunrise begins.
Canoes link us to the history of this continent as no other craft can. American Indians made canoes everywhere there was water to navigate, from 60-foot cedar dugouts in the Northwest to the elegant birchbark canoes of Maine's North Woods. When Europeans pierced the wilderness to capture the fur trade, they did so in canoes. These pioneers remain figures of romance. As we drift silently into this still morning on Maine's St. Croix River, we can imagine ourselves apprentices to any of these.
This is a quiet stretch -- which is why our guides, Randy and Issy Cross, scheduled our morning paddle here. The river is thick with mist, what Randy calls "river smoke." He duct-tapes a candle lantern to the stern of his canoe, and we follow this small light as it weaves its way downstream and disappears around a bend. His pipe leaves a trail on the water, scenting the river smoke.
It takes a couple of hours for the sun to actually break the horizon. We paddle slowly, drifting as much as we stroke. I stop on a marshy shore to photograph as the light begins to color to purple, then to peach; birds begin their pre-dawn chorus. When the sun rises, it back-lights the river smoke, silhouetting every boat and slowly burning the mist off. An immature bald eagle perches high on a snag, one of a dozen adults and immatures we see on the St. Croix, Maine's primary breeding area for the species.
We are in Washington County, Maine, where the sun reaches the United States first each day. Quoddy Head, down in Passamaquoddy Bay, is the absolute easternmost point, and this morning's sunrise on the river, a half-degree of longitude to the west, occurred only a few moments later.
Our ease on the river is a new acquisition. Most of us have nostalgic memories of paddling as kids and little experience since. Could we really handle rapids alone? On our first day, when Martin Brown, owner of Sunrise County Canoe Expeditions, assigns most of us full-sized 15- to 17-foot canoes at base camp, he assures us that we can manage them solo.
Still, we are apprehensive, especially the small women without exceptional upper-body strength. Randy and Issy reassure us, pointing out that spouses in a tandem canoe often need counseling by the end of the first day on the river.
Canoes have a reputation as being tippy, we remember. Martin wants us to forget that. To prove his point, he rocks his canoe wildly, even while standing to pole.
"Two people in a tandem canoe guide a small craft," he says. "One person wears a canoe -- like a ski. When you're poling, you have a fine sense of the river. You glide like a water bug. It's mostly technique, not strength."
The neglected art of poling is a technique that harks back to the era of loggers driving rafts of timber down Maine rivers.
"If you did nothing but paddling, you'd be wondering what to do after two years," Randy says. "You've peaked out. With poling, there are limitless possibilities. It takes a lifetime to master.
"When your paddle hits bottom, grab your pole."
To pole in shallow water, you stand in the canoe and push yourself down (or up) the river with a 12-foot ash or spruce pole, pushing off the bottom with the tip or "walking" your hands up the pole. To slow, you reach downstream to "snub" your way precisely through a rapid.
Your moves depend on how high you hold the pole, its angle to the boat and your body, where you place the tip on the river bottom, which side of the boat you choose for setting the pole and how well you read the current, which is always shifting. As soon as you veer more than five degrees away from your line, you lose the chance to correct, and the river turns you sideways.
The St. Croix, a designated Canadian Heritage River, rises in the Chiputneticook Lakes, and for its 95-mile length, forms the border between Maine and New Brunswick. We begin our trip at the last of the lakes, Spednic.
After struggling against a wind that keeps blowing me sideways, I am relieved, but not proud, to finally reach our campsite on Todds Island.
The Maine wilderness is the domain of guides like the Crosses -- men and women who have grown up with rivers and woods and canoes. Since 1899, the state has licensed guides, today administering a rigorous oral and written test in recreation, hunting, fishing and whitewater skills for certification as a master guide.
Canoes are like an extra family vehicle in Maine, which boasts more than one canoe for every four people. Randy began canoeing the St. Croix in 1974 while still in high school. Today, he's a wildlife biologist, keeping track of 60 bears in north-central Maine, but continuing to lead a few river trips each year. Randy admits to owning 10 canoes.
The emphasis today is on kayaking and rafting, but open canoes give you an intimacy with rivers that is impossible in a heavy raft. There are no passive passengers; everyone paddles. Also, canoes can be portaged, allowing you to move from drainage to drainage or to bypass unrunnable falls. Maneuverable in shallow rocky streams, canoes can carry larger amounts of bulky gear and make better time on flat-water lakes than whitewater kayaks.
Canoes need not be stodgy, but they are more accessible than rafts or kayaks. Any family with a $300 used canoe, inexpensive paddles and a few duffels, coolers, sleeping bags and life jackets can push off into the current and float away on a wilderness river, taking children too small to hike.
At 9 or 10 years old, children can begin to contribute seriously to bow paddling. Adults do most of the work while the kids still feel they are helping. Issy, an assistant high-school principal in her non-river life, says canoeing "builds confidence and better self esteem."
"People were doing similar things with poles and paddles 150 years ago," Randy says. "Canoes are the one craft that really takes you back."
All the Maine guides we encountered favor river "costumes" that emphasize nostalgic traditions -- wool, felt and plaid, faded dirt-browns and dusty greens, the colors of the forest. We had been instructed to outfit ourselves from head to foot in wool or quick-drying, warm-when-wet polypropylene fleece. As it turned out, good weather during the late August days kept us mostly in shorts and T-shirts.
During that first night, we hear loons on the lake; a tree falls in the dark of the island forest. In the morning, a squirrel's chatter wakes us -- a furry alarm clock perched on a stump 15 feet from the tent door.
The sun breaks through the steely morning mist as we watch Randy and Issy and their camp helper cook a breakfast of "river toast," two-layered French toast with cream cheese in the middle. Blue-gray lines of distant woods turn to green, the forest's true color; it's almost as if the sunlight is green. We won't see an overcast day again.
A gentle current helps carry us across Spednic Lake to Vanceboro, where we divide into crews of six to carry the loaded canoes one by one up a bank and around a dam that controls the river downstream. Because this dam and the large headwater lakes allow for a continuous moderate water level, canoeists can paddle the St. Croix through October, when most other regional rivers are dry.
When we push off into the St. Croix below the dam, we paddle our first whitewater, Kill-Me-Quick Rips. The St. Croix is a dream river for a beginner's canoe clinic, a sampler -- starting with the lake, moving on to smaller, then increasingly larger rapids, with plenty of shallows for poling and stretches of flat water, forests and meadows for contemplation.
L "It's lively without being intimidating," Martin Brown says.
The guides select camps for their sunrise and sunset views. At English Cove, the early-risers are up before 6 a.m. At breakfast, I still am giddy with memories of the orange fire of the rising sun burning away the mist.
On our leisurely schedule, we often have time for nature walks. The kids in the two families on our trip delight in learning that a double whorl of leaves on Indian cucumber root indicates an extra-big and tasty root. They also discover the sticky, piney delight of chewing spruce gum.
Once on the river, we practice our strokes. Every adult in our crew is paddling solo, except for those with children in the bow, and we gain an exhilarating sense of self-reliance.
On the third morning, Randy gathers us in an eddy for our first sobering poling lesson. The challenge of the technique is evident as we stand to practice, timidly and inefficiently flailing and spinning. Randy reminds us to watch our angle: "You have to react; be like a fish!" Even Issy cannot match his mastery.
At Little Falls, we kneel to paddle, for extra power and stability. This is our first big rapid, a drop that generates plenty of adrenalin. After scouting the drop, each of us enters the current with care, but the canoes fulfill their promises of stability, and we thrill to the sense of control. Waiting for our turns, we cheer the good runs and the bad, and pass cameras around to record our passages.
We disappear into river time, living for the moment. Rapids come and go, and our canoes glide through quiet stretches. When thirsty, we simply dip a cup into the crystalline river and drink. We pole the shallows and take turns photographing each other as we run the bigger rips, like Little Falls, Haycock and Canoose.
The winding river preserves our sense of privacy, of near-wilderness, though the land is mostly owned by a logging company. Maine and New Brunswick require Georgia-Pacific to leave an uncut "beauty strip" of old-growth woods -- spruce and fir, hemlock and cedar -- along the river corridor.
The kids fish, hoping for salmon (a cold water catch unlikely this late in the summer) and hooking many smallmouth bass, releasing all but one 12-incher. Tim, the youngest at 8, catches frogs.
River left is Canada, river right is the United States, but we don't always remember we are on an international boundary. The river becomes our world, and such distinctions seem arbitrary.
Randy's stories introduce us to the legends of wilderness canoeing: tales of negotiating ice jams on Baffin Island, paddling ahead of floods in the volcanic landscapes of Iceland, route-finding around mammoth boulders on Quebec's Moisie River.
Jay and Suzy from Connecticut emphasize how well a canoe trip works for families.
"In our house, there is such a range of physical abilities," Jay says. "On a trip like this, everyone has their own challenges, rewards and satisfactions, from Timmy on up to me."
Below Dog Falls, we pull in to an overgrown campsite that hasn't been used for years. Randy and Issy announce a contest to LTC name the camp as we work to clear the brush and branches enough to make room for sleeping bags and kitchen gear. The results of our vote honor my wife and me: Utah Point. Not many St. Croix paddlers come from so far away.
For most, this is a four-day trip, an extended weekend from Boston.
"The fact that the river is at least one full day from any population center keeps it from being ruined," Martin Brown says.
This is our last campsite. We eat an early dinner, load the canoes and lie down in our sleeping bags, tentless under hemlocks and stars. Tomorrow is the morning paddle we have been hearing about since the first of our six days on the river.
Roused at 3:45 a.m., we eat a quick snack and, bleary-eyed, stumble into our boats with mugs of coffee, wearing every layer of polypropylene L. L. Bean could supply.
After more than five hours on the river that pass amazingly fast, we stop for breakfast at 9:30 a.m. at the mouth of Hidden Passage. Exhausted, Suzy sleeps in the sun while her boys, Tim and Chris, roughhouse through lovely glens in the sunlit woods. Randy uses up much of the remaining food in what he calls "kitchen-sink pancakes." They are as heavy as lead, which we all acknowledge before devouring them with gusto.
Hidden Passage gives us one last chance to practice our poling -- a little stream across Egg Point that takes us on a tortuous half-mile journey through shallows and around downed trees. We feel transported to Cajun swamp country, Southern bastion of poling. Halfway through, we must sit and paddle simply to avoid being knocked over by low-hanging branches. "Small-stream navigation" is Randy's somewhat overblown description of the interlude.
Emerging onto flat water at Grand Falls Flowage, I realize I've come a long way from my frustrating fight with the wind and current on Spednic Lake that first day. The women concerned about paddling solo at the beginning of the trip are grinning.
This last morning, I watch as Randy leaves his mark at our breakfast stop. Each time he takes leave of a St. Croix River campsite, he crosses two pieces of split kindling in the stone fireplace and decorates them with a bundle of wildflowers or dried grasses. With this unlikely calling card, the registered Maine master guide takes full responsibility for the condition of the camp: "Randy Cross was here."
He does this quietly. I did not even notice until the third morning of our trip. With his mark he says much about how to take care of this river. Guiding a St. Croix trip "is like going home," he says.
In this crowded world, we share ownership of all the remaining wild places just as we share the romantic legacy of canoeing. The St. Croix, like every river, is our lifeblood.
If you go
Croix International Waterway Commission, Box 610, Calais, Maine 04619, (506) 466-7550. This is a contact for maps and further information on recreation facilities.
* American Canoe Association, Suite B-226, 7432 Alban Station Blvd., Springfield, Va. 22150; (703) 451-0141. The umbrella organization for the sport.
* American Rivers, Suite 400, 801 Pennsylvania Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C. 20003; (202) 547-6900.
* Blackfeather, 1960 Scott St., Ottawa, Ontario K1Z8L8; (613) 722-9717; fax (613) 722-0245.
* Mahoosuc Guide Service, Bear River Road, Newry, Maine 04261; (207) 824-2073. Polly Mahoney and Kevin Slater run canoe and dog-sledding trips; they use traditional equipment like wood canoes and specialize in cross-cultural Canadian trips with Cree Indian guides.
* National Association of Canoe Liveries and Outfitters (NACLO)/Professional Paddle Sports Association, P.O. Box 248, Butler, Ky. 41006; (606) 472-2205; fax (606) 472-2030. A contact for outfitters in other parts of the country.
* North Woods Ways, R.R. 2 Box 159A, Willimantic, Guilford, Maine 04443; (207) 997-3723. Ultra-traditionalists Garrett and Alexandra Conover use handmade wood and canvas canoes.
* Sunrise County Canoe Expeditions, Cathance Lake, Grove Post, Maine 04657; (207) 454-7708 or (800) RIVER30. Trips range from the Rio Grande in March to the Canadian Arctic and Iceland in summer, to the St. Croix at the height of autumn color.
* Wilds of Maine Guide Service, 2 Abby Lane, Yarmouth, Maine 04096; (207) 846-9735.