By Chuck Harris
Sluicing pulp on Indian Pond nights was ghostly at times when mist from the river below mixed with midnight for. Sounds were muffled, wet walk booms coated with spruce pitch, its piney woods smell clung to us like paste, boots pants and shirt-sleeves. Nights were coolers on the booms and the wee hours of sleep we caught refreshed us enough to spend our days exploring, hitchhiking as far as Skowhegan, even Lewiston once, returning often late at night on our off days. No one made that 14-mile drive from The Forks at night, so if we made camp we were lucky.
Some of the older fellows who had camps at Moxie Pond worked days at the sluice. Some evenings we would stop and visit with them and their families on the way to The Forks for nightly refreshments.
"Don't go to Jackman," they told us. "Rough crowd up there."
Of course we went. Seven or eight of us one evening piled into what cars there was and headed up the road. Jackman was a lonely-looking outpost, not a lot going on. Lumber mills were around, so were the crews. Entering a bar, things quieted down, people turned to see the strangers, pool games stopped … Then smiles and handshakes followed.
These fellows were overjoyed to have some new faces, and some new drinking pals to chat with. They didn't want to fight, they wanted to "party." That night, we all ended up at some Enchanted Mountain chalet-type place, crashing a wedding reception with a band. No one seemed to mind. The bouncer, not to keen, let about six of us in on one ID card … Much joy and merriment - and there were girls of all things! One member of our group fell in love and drove every night of the summer thereafter to Jackman town, somehow managing to appear each morning for work.
Activity in the evenings included Joe Junks' bunkhouse auctions. Up for sale included old horse collars, broken neck bottles, various logging tools, well turned to rust. Most anything Joe could talk about turned to gold through his speeches (you'd think he was auctioning off fine art!). Marios the cook enjoyed his after-hour spirits and often came over to watch the show, he loved to bid up a piece Joe held dear, then having scored the final bid, take the item no farther than the trash drum by the door and give it a toss in, smiling back at Joe who stood, mouth wide open as if the Mona Lisa had just been slashed to a thousand pieces.
I was to run into Marios Fortin 24 years later at Pittston Farm. He was hired as a cook and I worked maintenance on the farm. Our eyes caught each other in the kitchen his first day: I said pointing at him, "Kennebec Log drive…"
He yelled, "Yes, yes Chuck!"
He had weathered hard from Hudson's Bay, but I remembered his grin, that child-like prankster smile. "Yes and how's Jim? And dat dog?"
"Ribs?" I said. "Beau chein." Ribs had died years before from an overdose of porcupine quills. Her passion to hunt and kill was her "Waterlee." Jim resided in the North Carolina mountains, a sign maker and carpenter extraordinaire. Marios brought from home, the next week, a picture of us standing outside the KLD kitchen. I still have that. Memories are what young folks should shoot for. They are like gold in later times. No one can take them from you. We rekindled our friendship at Pittston and I learned a few more words in French. It was good, he had sobered up and had a little farm and family. Bunkhouse life can get in one's blood, I look back now and I followed that life as long as I could. Just for the memories working with real men, learning not to sweat the little things in life, as death can come so suddenly. My old Mic Mac chum "Hubie" Isaac on the West Branch (Penobscot) drive said one evening, "might as well spend her tonight Charlie, tomorrow we could drown…"
So be it.
Our French Canadian men took off different weekends for St. George and their families. The bunkhouse emptied out a bit then. As we were mostly a young lot of fellows, somehow a missionary family thought we needed some spiritual guidance and came every week for a month. We received them with open ears and found conversation with them new. As we were headed to the watering hole, not much time could be found for "baptisms" in the lake out back, but we were cordial and polite. The preacher tried at supper to corral different fellas, but with "no talking at meals" things went slow in that department.
We had about 10 or so extra electricians the rest of the summer at meals. They were removing a giant transformer that had been struck by lightening in a fierce storm. This operation took the entire month of August. The new transformer was as big as a house, and shipped via extra low bed trailer from Wisconsin… Slowly. When the lightening bolt struck the transformer at the power station way down below the dam, we were on the water above in flat-bottom boats. The pick poles being wet jolted me in the bow as sparks and blue flame skipped in the downpour across the steel dam grating.
She struck the power station we figured, as we checked each other for over-charred ears and smoking clothes, "wow look at that." A blue flame shot 50 feet into the air. The station lay 100 feet below so that ball of flame was a big one, awesome. We were not killed that day but we found a place out of the lightening inside the gatehouse of the dam. One local boy who had been running for cover, skipped across the wet grating as it flickered sparks. He was a shivering; a sobbing scared young man when we entered the cover of the headworks house. His eyes were as big as saucers.
Jim and I worked some at checking booms behind the camps. These boom logs were spruce, 28 feet long, chained together. Our job was to roll these over, check the toggles and chain links for wear, replace plugs, or "cull out" split logs. This was usually done on most returns to the head of the lake or the "booming out grounds" as it were. It took about 100 sticks to make a boom - 200 actually - as "bags" or a "boom" would be double-bagged for safety. The chain toggles were a bit different from West Branch chains to me, but same breed of cat. The work on the water at this operation was always interesting, especially working with Indians who spoke their Native tongue, once in a while the word "boom" could be understood. Otherwise, everyone knew his job and it all went smooth; rolling, spearing, "cant dog" step and hold, chain, pulled, toggle, crossed, flip her over, check, drive a boom plug with an axe to secure, move down one stick, repeat. Nothing found in books about this work, you learn by doing, watching, listening. That's it. Beautiful, listening to America's true language flow forth, chickadee like sounds, true to the place and the times.
The Indians all usually go home St. Anne's week. This happens on all the drives, it's their Fourth of July. Jim and I headed out for the Fourth to visit sweethearts far to the south of Maine. A long journey for a kiss, but young love is without boundaries … and a bunkhouse full of coughing, snoring old timers gets old. The holiday was a new breath of life into our crew, we all returned well and ready to wade around in wet clothes for another month or two. Ready to start taking down the rear of the drive from East outlet to The Forks. Ready for the whitewater part, a full "driving head of water" … and those awful steep sides of that gorge and how to get in and out of there.
That's what lay ahead, we were ready. The river was always ready as well … ready for us.
Email nick [at] noumbrella [dot] com with your questions, comments and concerns.
Design and Content © 2002 to 2006 No Umbrella