May 14, 2012, Washington, DC: Maine’s Moosehead Lake is somewhere else I’ve been just once, despite how firmly this day there is seared into my memory. That afternoon, we were simply messing around in boats, splashing and swimming in freezing cold water. It was an hour or so before dinner and we’d spent the day canoeing from the base of Mt. Kineo to a campsite on a nearby island. It was the penultimate day of a two-week backcountry trip — a trip that required not one van ride, not one grocery store, not one stop in town. We had left our jumping off point in civilization on foot and we’d hike back in the same way, just twelve kids and two adults with the food and shelter we’d need for weeks strapped to our backs. Canoes would await us halfway and we’d portage them back to the headquarters of the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School.
I vividly remember a few other things about this day and the next at Moosehead Lake. I remember waking up the next morning with the bottom half of my sleeping bag underwater. Next I remember our group accidentally leaving behind a tent on the island, only to discover our mistake halfway back to the finish line. I remember how we sat down on a long log by the trail and fought for hours over whether to go back and get it — after two weeks camping together, we’d become more like siblings. We did reluctantly retrieve that tent, tracing our steps out to the island and back again, and it set us back hours. We trudged the final mile of our journey in low spirits, carrying heavy canoes on top of our heads. Our carefree afternoon spent messing about in boats the evening before had fast become a distant memory.
Sixteen years later, the power of this place stays with me for a variety of reasons. One is this vision of a free afternoon at Moosehead Lake, swimming and paddling before dinner without a clock or car in sight. Absent the modern conveniences that measure our minutes and hours and days, a sense of time falls away in places like this one; only on camping trips can two groups make a plan to meet in a specific spot “sometime Tuesday afternoon” or arrive several hours late and consider these acceptable time frames in which to operate.
Of course, the story of the tent left behind has stuck with me, too. It reminds me that we need to pick up after ourselves both in the backcountry and in the front country — especially if we have any hope of protecting these carefree places where we’re completely off the clock.
“‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,’ he went on dreamily: ‘messing-about-in-boats; messing… about in boats-or with boats… In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it.'”
-Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
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