Vladimir Nabokov wrote a book called Speak, Memory, and as I
recall, his memory spoke of his childhood and youth in minute
detail and with an authority that took my breath away.
If I ask my memory to speak, I sometimes get utter silence and
sometimes vivid recollections that prove delusional when held
up against indisputable facts or the memories of family or friends
who have visited the same places or shared the same experiences.
The portion of my aging brain dedicated to memory I picture as
a filing cabinet filled with millions of overstuffed folders, many
of them bearing unhelpful labels like “Miscellaneous Miscellany”
or “Random Notes on Various Subjects.”
But when I reached for my mental Saint John River folder,
I felt as confident as Nabokov. After all, how many times had
I paddled that river? Six? Seven? Eight? So when my canoe-
tripping friends from Vermont suggested an excursion there
this past spring, I was keen to go, and even though I hadn’t been
back for several years (at least 10 – well, maybe more like 12 or
15), I could still see the river unfolding, mile by mile, before my
mind’s eye. The Saint John is not just imprinted on my brain, I
thought; it’s engraved there.
Our shuttle driver dropped us off at Baker Lake, the usual
put-in point for the 105-mile run down to the takeout in
Allagash Village. Under a bright noonday sun, we grabbed a
quick lunch, loaded our gear into the boats, and were off, the six
of us: Al and Wendy, Dave and Ann, all from Vermont; Jerry and
me from Maine.
I was gratified at first to see the river behaving just the way
my memory said it should: a few miles of easy rapids just below
the outlet from Baker Lake, then – for the next 10 miles or so,
before we pulled ashore to camp at Morrison Depot – pretty
much flatwater through low-lying land.
When we set off the next morning, about 10 o’clock, having
waited for a heavy early morning rain to let up into a less for-
bidding drizzle, we were soon in a winding, wriggling stretch of
the river, and I told Jerry about three times that around the very
next bend we would be at the confluence where the Southwest
Branch of the Saint John meets the Baker Branch we were on.
When that confluence failed to appear after the next bend and
the next, I said to Dave, “It’s taking us a lot longer to get to the
Southwest Branch than I thought it would.”
“We passed it about half an hour ago,” he said.
And so it went for the rest of the trip. Major landmarks like
the remaining abutments from the old Nine-Mile Bridge and
the unmistakable Seven Islands archipelago I recognized, but
most stretches of river in between I might as well have never
seen at all. My most recent memory of the approach to the
Southwest Branch confluence was of picking my way slowly and
carefully down a shallow, riffly bend with barely enough water
in it to float my boat. This time, we soared around that bend and
on downstream so effortlessly I didn’t even notice I’d been there.
By Robert Kimber
Saint John Memories
If ever there was a river that proves Heraclitus’s pronouncement
that you never step into – or never paddle – the same river
twice, that river is the Saint John, notorious for its rapidly rising
and falling water levels.
But once I’d realized the folly of trying to make my flawed
memories of the Saint John match up with its reality, I could
rejoice in the river in the here and now. At a log cabin at Ledge
Rapids, a windstorm had blown down a huge white pine standing close to the camp. Miraculously, the falling tree had just
nicked the camp roof, tearing off only a few shingles over the
eaves. We spent a bitterly cold and windy day in the comfort of
that camp watching mid-May snow flurries blow horizontally
down the river, and we weren’t the only travelers who’d found
refuge there from the cold and snow. Looking through a side
window, we saw just a few feet away from us a yellow-rumped,
a Blackburnian, and a Canada warbler sheltering in the thickly
needled branches of that downed pine.
Two days later, when all five of my companions decided they’d
enjoy a little nap after we’d finished our lunch at the Ouelette
Farm campsite, I wandered the riverbank where spring flooding
had left immense snow and ice blocks piled up at least twice my
height, and where sun, rain, and wind had continued to work them
into shapes any sculptor would envy, both for their conception
and their execution: fanciful yet solid, blending the massive
and the delicate slabs of ice and snowpack alternating in layers
reminiscent of stratified rock. In mid-May, they still seemed as
enduring as the Pyramids, but in a couple of weeks they’d be
gone, high art wiped away by the barbarous late-spring sun.
What a lark it was to see this old friend of a river with a fresh
eye. Stop worrying about what you’ve forgotten, it told me,
and seize this day. But then there was one memory that didn’t
fail me. I remembered that paddling with my friends Jerry, Al,
Wendy, Dave, and Ann was just as much fun as it had always
been every time before – I was spot-on about that.
Robert Kimber has written often for outdoor and environmental magazines. He lives
in Temple, Maine.