One Skipped Stone


Adam Kibbe

Foam lines the southeast shore of Nahmakanta Lake. Small but feisty whitecaps whip up more spume as they wash continually upon the stony beach, spilling inland enough to form a tiny lagoon that leaves a lonely strip of gravel like a reef in the shallow, rocky water. The wind whips our clothing and chills us. But the sun is out. Sort of…...

Less than an hour before, we’d given up on our over-optimistic plan to transport our metric tons of gear two miles overland to remote Rainbow Lake. That we even attempted it merits much discussion (some follows), but we did not do so without recognizing the need for a simple fallback plan. But now our piece-of-cake fallback plan has hit an unexpected snag, one that would stay with us the rest of our trip, though we didn’t yet know this. Wind. The dependable, often northwest wind of this part of Maine, with which Nahmakanta is perfectly aligned by its geography, achieves howling speed down the 3-1/2 miles of open lake. Nahmakanta’s narrow, but it is lengthy in the axis of the prevailing winds. And it was ready to rumble. We weren’t.

There being but an hour of light left, we prudently improvise a new fallback plan and drive a few miles back to a campsite near First Musquash Pond. The pond – almost eponymously boggy swamp for the most part – is down a small path out of sight, and this simple clearing seems as generic a spot as one could imagine. But it’s pleasantly out of the winds that agitated Nahmakanta, and not so near the road that we’d anticipate visitors. As much a tailgate party as camping, we set up tents, pour gin and tonics, and settle in for dinner. Early to bed and early to rise would get us back out on the lake so early we’d never know we missed a night. A gentle rain falls over our makeshift plan C, and after a companionable first dinner “in the woods”, we sleep.

The next morning, while some are cleaning up after breakfast, others of us drive back to the lake to see what there might be to see. Déjà vu – foam and whitecaps still. Perhaps less daunting, though…... Sure. We could paddle that. So with the bravery of facing a crossing that is at least a campsite breakdown and a couple of gear portages away, we return to our temporary camp to deliver the “good news”. A freewheelingly packing up, and we head back for nearby Nahmakanta.

But by the time we return, the wind has hit its stride, and once again we find ourselves staring down ourselves across that churning lake. Yes, we’d paddled worse, and yes, we’d be heading straight into it, the most controllable direction, but there seems no immediate reason to get right out there. It has to calm down sooner or later. No storms are forecast – this was just the day waking up. It’d settle down -- it has to. So let’s just get the gear down to the shore, take it one step at a time.

Okay, some effort later, the canoes are now loaded (and how!), but the winds are still ferocious, so let’s just have some lunch, kill a little more time. Talk over options.

Lunch is good, but uncomfortable, at a table only sort of out of the wind, and no appealing options surface in conversation becoming burdened by certain baggage of years past. It’s also cold in the dominating wind, so afterwards we cave in to the easy shelter of trucks with heat waiting just a hundred yards or so away, and after a few minutes of engine on, five guys – one in the rear bed of the communal SUV – settle into their padded, heated, sheet metal shelter. Beyond the slowly fogging tempered safety glass, high branches make balletic anemometers, posting bulletins of unabated winds on nearby waters. Then the fogging glass muffles even that silent weather report, and gentle snoring makes its own rhythm. We nap.

Some time later restlessness (and for some of us, anxiety) coaxes us from our four-wheel-park cocoon, and we find ourselves once again on the shores of uncertainty, group dynamics already eroding our enjoyment of being where we’ve worked so hard to be. A group of five has become two groups of two, plus an impotent, conflicted, shuttle diplomat.

After several talks and avertive walks, we (sort of) decide to wait and see if the winds will calm as evening comes, as they have so often done before, and optimistic patience wins the day. With the sun setting behind the hills of the western shore, the waves lose their menace, and at least some of their energy, and four of us push off into them in our two canoes, leaving one man and some gear behind. After an uneventful 20 minute crossing, two of us begin to set up camp, gather firewood and prepare dinner, while the other two set out in the gathering dusk on an electric-motor-assisted round trip to retrieve our fifth member -- who we would’ve missed – and the rest of our gear – whose absence might’ve gone unnoticed given the already notable volume of excess. Their return is in full night, though with a full moon rising high behind them in a clear sky, a well-aimed flashlight guiding them to our otherwise invisible camp. Silhouetted against the moon’s beaten-silver track glistening upon the lake’s surface, their outline is a welcome sight. But the moon’s light, while a reflection, is also the last we’d see of the sun undiffused by clouds for many days.

An edginess of topics undiscussed color an otherwise enjoyable night. We play some glow-in-the-dark frisbee on the ample beach, including many a classic, lone-man-in-a-canoe foray after throws gone badly astray. The fire crackles welcomingly, dinner is, as always, quite good, and accompanied by a couple of superb Chiantis. We’re finally “out here”. The full moon beams down on us in our quiet little toehold on Maine’s familiar wilderness. But we hadn’t really settled down yet, not with the place, nor with each other.

During the night it rains and blows mightily. And the next day it rains and blows as well. We breakfast late but hang around under the shelter of the tarps. By mid-day, Michael -- having, we suspect, inadvertently exchanged the caffeinated and decaf espressos that morning and thereby poisoning his usually mellow demeanor -- stalks the fringes of our tarped refuge like the perimeter of a prison, snapping frustratedly at our inactivity. The lethargic of us sit and mutter under our breaths -- two days of solid effort (in our minds “doing something”) have yielded this scenic refuge, and not traipsing about in the rain seems a fine way to spend a well-earned day off. If only we could just talk about something other than what we are not doing…... Or better yet, just crawl into a tent and get warm -- maybe read, maybe sleep…... The tension of intention against inertia, frustration against apathy, yields a wholly forgettable day, punctuated only by an obscenely successful hunt for firewood and, of course, several more delicious, if by then unnecessary meals. Followed by sleep.

Our second day on Nahmakanta is again characterized by rain and wind, and also still by tensions in the camp. Cause and effect, or something else? Where did all this tension come from? I’m sure I don’t remember packing it. Maybe it crept into our exposed gear in the half-launched canoes on the wave-drenched shores while we napped in our Detroit-built, V8 Procrastinator. Or maybe it was a free giveaway we didn’t notice being put into our bags at the checkout in the bounteous and prescient General Store back in Millinocket. Or maybe it’s now something embedded in the fabric of our trips, just as wood smoke greets me when I unpack my backpack each fall to inventory and repack for the upcoming trip. This sure merits exploring.

Before this trip began, back when I ponied up a half-dozen potential destinations -- as I do most years, striving for some place new, but still remote -- very little specific responses came back my way. Partly that’s just the accepting natures of most of the group, but given the far-ranging discussions around our digression to cabins the last two years, I’d expected more analysis. When we met at our final all-afternoon table at La Provence to go over whatever details might need resolution before departing – such as the all-consuming meal schedules -- the leading plan got little scrutiny and simply became The Plan.

Dan did voice a concern that we not get up there so late, or expend so much time and effort exploring the unlikely trek into Rainbow, that we faced arriving at whatever final destination too close to dark, and to his comfort level time cutoff. He even advocated afterwards in an email that we just pass on the Rainbow possibility altogether, but those of us who had labored deliriously over our O.T.C.’s (Overland Trail Carts) like kids making soapbox derby racers, drowned him out in a howl of protest. How could we give up on an effort whose scope we couldn’t gauge from a distance? What sort of quitters were we?

But then Dan got maps on CD and did detailed research on the area through which we would have to pass if we were to achieve Rainbow, marking landmarks and calculating distances (which were admittedly daunting). And we agreed to leave well before sunrise to get to the trailhead as early as possible to allow time for reconnaissance, and to either complete the portages or bail for Plan B with time to spare. The brief email standoff forgotten, we each made our individual final preparations, then met on the appointed day at Dan’s in the predawn dark, loaded up, and left for the Northwoods a group of happy would-be campers.

First, however, we went over our route together in detail on a map, since we were going a different way than usual, a route we’d only taken once many years ago (and from a different direction). The lead vehicled was established, contingencies agreed upon, and the Talkabout walkie-talkies with fresh batteries were handed out to facilitate inter-vehicle communication. After, all, we’ve done this many times, are familiar with the pitfalls, and know the value of planning. But no, wait -- that must have been some other guys……….

Having taken much longer than expected (though no more than usual) loading way more gear than we’d hoped to see amassed in Dan’s driveway, we couldn’t wait to be off and did none of that. The Talkabouts were inaccessible in a crate under everything else, and one truck had no map, though the other truck didn’t know that yet.

Unconscious of the setup, first we made ourselves just a little bit later still by going for coffee away from our destination, but then we finally actually hit the highway and started making good time. But we jockeyed back and forth on the highway as the follower became impatient with the inconsistent pace of the leader, and we generally gallumphed along with almost teenage abandon. And we missed our regular shortcut exit through Portland. As we got off at an exit advertising the road we’d already missed, we found ourselves at a place we’d actually been once or twice before for exactly this same stupid reason, so we knew exactly what to do -- one illegal turn made it all right again, and off we went, slightly chagrined (note: we would make the exact corollary mistake on the way home, but I don’t propose to get there in this telling). But alas, we were not chagrined enough.

After several more hours and many miles faded easily and rapidly behind us, we were approaching the exit off the main highway (of which I had forewarned no one, I’ll admit), and Q and Mike chose that moment to once again leapfrog us. Flashing his lights and sounding his horn, Dan took the exit anyway, but they missed it. The next 20 minutes involved much waiting and second-guessing, but we ultimately decided they weren’t coming back and must’ve improvised something else. We convinced ourselves we’d all meet up in Greenville and set off. As it happens, they were waiting at a gas station just a mile or two up our route, having doubled back, not found us, and picking that as the logical place to wait. We glanced over as we passed, but didn’t see them. Luckily, they saw us and caught up.

Now many things bear pondering. Knowing generally where we were going, why’d they pass that exit? Or knowing they had no map, why’d they pass us at all? And seeing them pass the exit, why’d Dan take it? Then, why’d we wait out of sight at a location they couldn’t easily ever get back to? And after a dutiful time there, why did we never consider the obvious gas station, and why didn’t we see them waiting there? Not for lack of discussion……..

Perhaps I was too persuasive in my evocation of a similar incident 15 years ago when Michael went up ahead of Eric and me but was not waiting where we expected him. We waited and then searched for almost an hour all told, while Michael waited somewhere else (only a little further up our route, as it turns out). But that time we all knew the route, and as we had not seen him, or any signs of his demise, ultimately we decided to press on, as ultimately did he, and we found him waiting for us in the warmth of the motel. That model helped make up our minds for us here, but it’s not a very satisfying explanation -- the list of why’s is long. But maybe some of that tension had by now seeped into our group. And it wasn’t even noon.

We arrived in Greenville about on schedule -- we would’ve been early but for our highway shenanigans. But then we killed some considerable time in the alluring general store, full of food and guns, clothes both orange and high-fashion, detailed maps we don’t buy, and, yes, a 12v electric water pump, a key ingredient to this year’s windmill at which to tilt. Replete of digression, and with a few purchases both essential and unessential, we then begin the uncertain second part of the trip.

Thanks to some hand-colored maps in duplicate, for which I’ll take credit, we successfully negotiate the 40 miles of winding gravel logging roads with only one moment of confusion. And after an hour or so, at last: the trailhead. Soon we’ll find out whether Plan A is feasible, or whether Plan B is our future. A hasty bite of lunch, a token first burden strapped on, and we’re off.

But as we begin, we’re at the threshold time we’d calculated as beyond which this would not be feasible. Dan voices that he’s where he’d feared he’d be, too, forced to point out the obvious to the willful and deluded remainder, again backed into the corner of the naysayer. We’re still within the parameters we’d discussed -- but pushing it, and some of the tension is now clearly visible. Nevertheless, we set off, albeit with a certain fatalism (at least on my part, but, I suspect, others as well). Q has the straps of a massive duffel digging into his flesh but is off like a fresh Marine recruit and soon looses the rest of us. I speed up to catch up, as I know he doesn’t know the particulars of the trails. He waits for me at the trailhead.

Okay, I’d said trailhead already. That was an approximation. After all, Rainbow wouldn’t be remote if any idiot could just drive to it. First we actually have to hike almost a mile of gravel road from which our vehicles are barred by a clever barrier of rocks and bollards. Then we reach the literal trailhead. All the while I’m gauging the feasibility of negotiating all this with tippy carts laden with coolers and other bulky gear. As we set off down the narrow, rutted trail, that feasibility wanes rapidly, and before the first truly impossible obstacle, I’ve given up. I’m actually relieved when I climb the first rock ledge, then lumber over the fallen snag, and then trudge through the mudpit. These things mean we won’t even have to try.

Surprised at the elapsed time, we rest at the first waypoint Dan had found in his map explorations. We’re out of time, and we agree that the requisite miracle hasn’t surfaced and drop our loads. But for some obscure reason we then choose to hike on a bit, just to see the second waypoint, I think, a small series of ponds that might’ve afforded us a chance to paddle our gear the last leg and not portage the entire distance. A need for closure with Plan A, maybe. Or just wanting the double-time reconnaissance march to yield something besides blisters. But distances are deceiving, and we never reach it. I hang back with Mark S., who is by now seriously lagging, while the other three churn ahead. We had agreed on a failsafe turnback time, but that’s long past. And at one unusually large mudpit, Schreib and I finally stop and commence yelling to call back our comrades. It takes awhile, but they do return, Balboas who never found their Pacific.
So why’d we spend so much time in this futile exploration? Diehards? Blowhards? Head cases. Unbeknownst to us, though, group dynamics were already raging, with perverse permutations playing out.

Dan had had his say at the onset, and from what I can tell, he was so determined to not be the one to call a halt that he was willing to let the clock tick well past expected limits just to have it be Michael or Q who finally chose to turn back. He was actually notably triumphant on this point upon their return, but the import of this dynamic hadn’t sunk in to us yet. Relieved to be done with this exercise and aware of the waning daylight, we hurried back down the trail, cheerfully engrossed in an esoteric discussion (complete with physics formulas) of whether rheostats can actually save energy. Yeah -- head cases. And before too long we were back at the trucks and on our way, and we finally found ourselves pulling up the “gate” to Nahmakanta. Where a trailer to transport our gear awaited us, one that put all our O.T.C.’s to shame. But the wind was waiting too.

It wasn’t too hard, actually, that first evening, to come to a consensus to bail on Plan B as well, and seek shelter out of the wind inland. And we did enjoy our first night, with a roaring fire, truly excellent gin & tonics, and Dan’s ritual sushi before Schreib’s excellent dinner and surpassingly good wines. The gentle rain felt to me a benediction, that we’d chosen well in demurring. Incongruous as it was to be fetching items from the tailgates of the trucks, there was also a certain improvisational pride in our makeshift camp, and I, for one, relished the evening. Sleep came easily.

But after breakfast and reconnoitering, after packing up and moving, and after arrival and portaging, the lurking, asynchronous dynamics began to induce palpable discordance into the group chorus. “Out of tune” is an apt analogy on several levels.
Expectations are the root of all dissatisfaction and strife. From the comfort of my home, where I now write, I can’t say what our individual expectations might have been, exactly, including my own, but they weren’t being met. The Two Marks, though, seem to have little in the way of expectations overall and are thus the most even-keeled of our bunch. Mark S. became, perhaps, more closely allied to Dan’s pragmatic, comfort-zone-limited outlook, while Q, the irrepressible Energizer Bunny, synched up with the indefatigable Michael and went off in search of alternatives. I stood somewhat more alone with my demons.

Much as I love and have an affinity for it, water scares me -- read “Face to Face” on the Lower Jo Mary part of our website. I started the section of that piece which begins that way as a spoof but found it to be more true than I’d intended. But as much as I wanted to turn tail from this actually-not-all-that-terrible windy, open water and make up Plan D, I also wanted someone else to make the decision. Michael, however, gave that up years ago -- even if someday it drives him to suicide or homicide, he’s not going to wave a flag and charge at some agenda, not with this group and its history, anyway. And it’s quite counter to the natures of The Two Marks, and Dan……. well, now, control -- control can be asserted indirectly………

We walked. We talked. We came together and broke apart and both had and avoided loaded conversations. We evaluated the merits of various put-ins for getting out on the water, and even did discuss some fallback plans. At one point Dan did a Dan and declared that the only obvious resolution was simply that we would camp there that night in one of the two sites, but rare net unanimity vetoed that, as the winds that stymied us would’ve assured utter misery. Ultimately Michael voiced a modestly assertive opinion that an evening calm would surely come soon, in which we could finally paddle to the nearest lake campsite. Unable to agree on anything else, and all of us in our own way at heart desirous to be off this shore and “out there”, done with “this”, we waited for diurnal thermodynamics to reward his optimism, or prove it wishful thinking. A stay was granted.

Relief and muted triumph warmed us as we later absorbed the splendid revelation of the full moon in the clear sky over the dark waters we’d just crossed, all five of us together, the struggles behind us, with no imminent discord, and dinner on its way. We played, that night, but as I’ve intimated, all was not well in our world, though if we sensed it at all consciously, we also sensed ostriches in our ancestry……..

In retrospect, while I now have a better understanding of some of the inner workings, I’m still mostly unable to grasp Michael’s frustration with the group the next day. After all, we’d worked pretty hard to get to this deferred day one. And just being out there is itself ample reward, arguably more in need of savoring for its delayed achievement. Plus, make no bones about it, the weather sucked. I’ll hazard a guess that Michael thought he saw some writing on some wall, that any number of the signs we’d thrown up along the way foretold a complete capitulation to this otherwise temporary inertia if he didn’t nip that in the bud by whipping us into some sort of action. Any action.

Truth be told, with this off his chest, days later when our lone sunny morning warmly massaged shoulders hunched from huddling many nights around a fire in the chilly, fickle winds, Michael disappeared unannounced into his tent with a book, and it took a little convincing to get him out and up for our last anemic attempt at adventure. Not much cajoling, but the contrast is notable.
That first full day on Nahmakanta Lake, Michael did at least get us out on a hunt for firewood. A hunt that yielded so much grade A timber that we left a stacked pile of dry, split pine and hardwood that’d make the next campers think they’d died and gone to woodsman heaven. And that’s after we burned as much as we wanted (and needed) through three days and nights of 36 degree temperatures. Granted, it was makework, stuff that needed doing, but it was effective, both in its immediate purpose, and in getting us off our frozen butts. They say that wood you cut warms you twice, and in the near-freezing temperatures, that became a silent motto that regularly got one or two of us over to the bountiful pile to saw and split more kindling. In the wilderness, wood is wealth, and we were minting millions while keeping warm.

And we came around a bit, knitted a little as a group. We began to read aloud from books we’d brought as we hung out together and killed time before and after dinner. The second soggy, windy day there we took on Michael’s new holy grail – a hot tub – but I think that deserves its own telling. It was a grand effort, though, which began in secret well before the trip and which occupied much of that day. It wasn’t as successful as the sauna of the year before, and it wasn’t quite a full group effort – subtle sign of that which dogged our heels -- but it was an echo of the spirit we were missing.

What were we missing? Missing can simply mean a lack of something, and missing can be the response to that lack as well. It can also be an overlooking, or not comprehending. And all apply, I think. The weather had us pinned down, or at least we let it have that effect. So we were missing our canoe outings and explorations, activity. We were conflicted about our response to that, and to the weather, so we were missing much of our usual camaraderie. And we were missing some of each others’ points in discussing this, and missing much of the consequences of our actions and our attitudes, both before and on the trip. It’s quite likely we were, and still are, missing some of the prime underlying motivators for the disparities we observed among ourselves.

I have posited several things about my friends’ reasoning in my rambles thus far, and I know that I do not know what I assert to be truth. I can only paint the picture my way, fess up to conjecture, and hope it engenders introspection and constructive dialogue. Not enough of that happened out there -- more, I hope, will follow this. But it is not my intention here to now go over every friction of the next several days and analyze our responses, theorize on each other’s reasons and limitations.

Suffice it to say we tried a paddle and a hike, on which we saw some gorgeous trail and overlooks, but age and expectations colluded to curtail that outing, and we ate a cold lunch as a consequence of avoidable oversight. And we risked our lives unnecessarily on the crossings, particularly the return in waves again mounting dangerously.

I in the fairest weather we were granted, we conceived and attempted a bushwhack to an attainable but isolated nearby pond, but it ground to a halt as the group split around expectations and commitment. This latter, aborted undertaking generated the most discussion, and got the elephant out of the corner and partially into view, but the blind men telling its shape have yet to put the overall description together.

We did have some notable highlights, in particular when we read aloud in round robin from the World War II journal of Q’s father on the last night, one of the most poignant and memorable of all the nights in the 20 years we have been doing this. An honor and a privilege, and a selflessness that embraced our motley crew with rough grace.

The sun blessed us once with its transforming presence on the last full day there, and we read and napped in its warmth, took pictures and went for solo walks, and soaked up all of the sight and smell and sound of what we’d been mostly blind to for all the days before. I myself was gone with my camera for hours, and while I only got one or two good shots, it was like learning to see all over again. I hadn’t opened up to these woods, but then I drank in all its detail, from the lowliest detail of duff on the forest floor to the brilliant colors that lingered improbably late into this year, as if just for us, and for this moment.

Michael did much the same, and I thought I could hear him off in the woods at times. Probably not, as we seem by our later recountings to have gone different ways (and judging from our galleries, having photographed different woods!), but we emerged from the trees onto the shore near our site in serendipitous synchrony, and he handed me two stones. Both were large, round, flat stones, ideal for skipping, one of my most treasured pastimes on these trips, as Michael well knows. Given the constant flux of events and the constant turmoil of the waters, I hadn’t skipped a single stone on this trip yet, and these were beauties. But one had a figure in it resembling a heart, and I chose to take it home as a present for my wife, who often gathers stones found in nature shaped like hearts. The other I set aside for when the waters were calmer. We still had a day.

Our last day we got up early, before dawn, to break camp and begin our return before the sun was high enough to once again agitate the atmosphere with its energy, and by extension, the lake surface. Michael and Q took the first boatload off into a spectacular , calm dawn ,while the rest of us finished breaking down camp and erasing all traces of our presence (except for that handsome bequest of firewood and tarp poles). Q returned alone, though that was not a given, as it happens -- his round trip is a story and a psych profile all by itself. We loaded the remainder and made ready to make the final return trip, leaving the place but not the essence of the experience. I went down to the shore and the still mostly calm waters -- though waves were beginning to show farther out and would add some anxiety and interest to our return paddle – and pulled from my pocket the stone I’d set aside. Stiff from four nights of uncomfortable bedding and inactivity, I stretched a little to warm up my shoulder and arm. The sandy beach offered no smaller stones with which to warm up and practice, so this model stone would be my first, and my last. I called to my friends to watch as I skimmed Michael’s gift out onto the lake.

It was a crappy throw. Not a complete flub, but not the fantastic, too-many-to-count skip that that stone deserved. But I hadn’t practiced, and the lake was choppy. My first try. What could I expect? I wryly shrugged at my lame effort and turned and walked up the beach towards my waiting friends, now ready to leave. But as the ripples I’d caused faded behind me, I felt a twinge of loss. Not just that we were leaving, and that this year’s trip was about to be formally over, but that I’d somehow spent the whole of it locked into conflicted internal dialogues, and frictional outer ones, and had never skipped a stone. Something I usually do hundreds of times, over many interludes. Dependably. I missed it. And as I climbed into the canoe and shoved off, and the possible imports flirted with my awareness, I also wondered what else I’d missed…..