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LAKES WITHOUT LIGHTS
Flagstaff Lake, Maine
One of the great discoveries in wilderness is silence; another is a lake without lights. Growing up summers on Curlew Pond in Plymouth, Massachusetts, I am long accustomed to the serenity of an evening lake. Hissing lantern light and soft, carried camp sounds always accompanied day's end. But there was always light; as evening arrived lights popped on along the lake at campsites and cottages; even late at night one or two remained, sentinel to sleep. Here I stand alone on the shore of a thirty-mile-long lake entirely devoid of lightbulbs, lanterns, or campfires. A remarkable, enchanting scene, a glimpse of a previous world. And when alone and entirely undistracted, I begin to remember.
It is October 22nd, and I have purposely come on this particular date to experience as closely as I can events that transpired here, 232 years ago. In 1775, in the first youthful spasms of our country's revolution, Benedict Arnold led a thousand patriots from Boston through the Maine wilderness to attack the British stronghold of Quebec. Using a faded, unworthy map purposely altered by British officers, they ascended the Kennebec River to what was called the Great Carrying Place. Hauling boats and supplies over this 12-mile-long hump of northern Maine mountains, they struggled through swamp and thicket to the closest navigatable portion of the Dead River. From there, the expedition would ascend the Dead River to the Height of Land, cross it, and descend the Chaudierre River, finally arriving at the St. Lawrence River, and their siege of Quebec.
I am in the Round Barn Primitive Campground, at almost the exact spot where the Great Carrying Place merged with the Dead River. The land, encapsulated in the Bigelow Preserve Public Reserve Land is exactly as it was so long ago with one exception - the long bend of the river is now a reservoir. As long-cast mountain shadows encroach, I sit on one of many boulders dotting the sandy shoreline. A half-moon materializes through thin clouds behind me. A series of small, round-topped mountains skim the opposite shore, the mountains similar, as though a freeze-framed photo of a porpoise and its offspring, slowly, evenly arcing a forested sea. The lakeshore is birch yellow; higher up lay the green-gray domain of softwood and bare maple. It is a silent occasion, made more solemn by what occurred below these risen waters so long ago.
Arnold and his patriots erred terribly in their distances. By the time the struggling horde made it this far into the trackless wilderness, a third had turned back in fear, the rest, worn by excessive toil, suffering from lack of food, and distressed by their prospects, prepared for the worst. Within days, they would begin starving to death. Below me they had camped, and, as though their trials were not severe enough, it had begun to rain and then snow, until the river rose almost twelve feet, disguising its course. Sullen, suffering, and now lost, they shivered through the night, envisioning their fate. They called the site, Camp Disaster.
I have often wondered what happens to pain and suffering once the people who experienced them are gone. Did it truly matter, does it today? Formerly fishermen, artisons, shop clerks, farmers and students, all had served in General Washington's summer siege of Boston, and many were veterans of Bunker Hill. Despite Arnold's warning, "It is a perilous service," all had volunteered. They must have questioned their decision to leave wives and children, now facing the possibility of actually sacrificing their lives to a cause. They would starve if they turned back, and knew not how far ahead lay any reprieve. Alone, frightened, starving, cold and wet in a seemingly unending, unforgiving wilderness, they faced a grim reality. Some of them stole, one murdered, and all of them argued, and worried. Their fate was unknown, indeed perilous, and all too imminent. These waters cover a realm of sadness and despair, borne by persons long departed. There are no lights on this lake but my own, illuminating all that lay underneath, or, perhaps more truthfully, only that which I wish to recall.
Today, glancing upon these waters gives no indication, no inkling whatsoever of what happened here so long ago. So slowly obscured and smoothed over by the years, the reemergence gently surprises. A perfectly undisturbed sheet of water. As I sit on the rock I have my lake all to myself. Those experiences no longer discernable, obscured by placid, silent beauty, and by time. A place to revisit and wistfully acknowledge, unseen by any other, its truth lying just below the surface.
Alone, I stare out over my lake without lights. I remember the youthful spasms of revolution. Yeah, I remember.