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Steve Jermanok’s Active Travels: Thoreau’s “The Maine Woods”

Kevin Slater and Steve Jerrmanok paddling down the West Branch of the Penobscot River in Maine.
Kevin Slater and Steve Jermanok paddling down the West Branch of the Penobscot River in Maine.


As an outdoor writer based in New England, I’ve spent a good deal of time following in Henry David Thoreau’s footsteps, from climbing Monadnock and Katahdin to walking the shoreline of the upper Cape to swimming in Walden Pond. In 1864, the great naturalist and philosopher published his book “The Maine Woods” that chronicles his exploration of the remote Maine waterways. In October 2009, I had the good fortune to paddle down the West Branch of the Penobscot River following his route. Our guide was Kevin Slater, a legendary Maine paddler who learned these rivers and the skill to carve his own canoes and paddles from his mentor who he simply called, “the Old Timer.” We spent four glorious days on the water, with few other paddlers, spotting moose, bear, loons, and osprey. In the backdrop was mighty Katahdin, the end point of the Appalachian Trail. The story appeared in an issue of Sierra Magazine, the publication of the Sierra Club. If you want to paddle with Slater on the Penobscot, contact him at Mahoosuc Guide Service


steve   Steve Jermanok As a columnist for National Geographic Adventure, adventure travel expert at Budget Travel, and regular contributor on outdoor recreation for Outside, Men’s Journal, Health, and Sierra, Steve Jermanok has written more than 1,000 articles on the outdoors.He’s also authored or co-authored 11 books, including Outside Magazine’s Adventure Guide to New England and Men’s Journal’s The Great Life. His latest book is Go Now! Put Your Life on Pause and See the World. He’s currently an adventure travel expert at Away.com and blogs daily at  Active Travels.


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  1. May 7, 2014 at 2:19 pm — Reply

    Hello! Just wanted to pass along this update on Thoreau. On May 16, a group will be heading out for a 16-day canoe tour celebrating the 150th anniversary of Thoreau’s travels with his Wabanaki guides. More information below.

    On May 16, a group of Maine Woods guides, members of the Penobscot Nation, scholars, and others begin a sixteen-day canoe trip retracing the last of three adventures immortalized in Henry David Thoreau’s iconic book The Maine Woods. The expedition, organized by Maine Woods Discovery (mainewoodsdiscovery.com), will traverse the Maine Woods much the way Thoreau did 150 years ago–traveling through a largely undeveloped forested landscape filled with vast lakes and wild rivers.

    Published in 1864, after Thoreau’s death, The Maine Woods was one of the first published accounts of recreational travel through Maine’s “uninterrupted” forest landscape. Primarily organized to commemorate the 150th anniversary of this seminal work, the trip is also being mounted by Maine Woods Discovery and its partners to promote the outstanding recreational opportunities available in the Maine Woods today.

    “Reading The Maine Woods as you paddle through this country it’s amazing to see how little it’s changed since he did his canoe trip over 150 years ago,” says Kevin Slater, co-owner of Mahoosuc Guide Service and lead guide for the 150th anniversary expedition. “It’s still wild, undeveloped and full of wildlife.”

    Following Thoreau into the Woods
    Like Thoreau’s trip, the 150th anniversary tour will begin with a visit to Penobscot tribal territory on Indian Island in the Penobscot River just north of Bangor. Overland transportation will follow the old stagecoach route to Greenville where participants will set off for the two-week canoe expedition – paddling the full length of Moosehead Lake, crossing into the Penobscot and Allagash River watersheds, down Webster Stream (through Baxter State Park) to the East Branch and main stem of the Penobscot River and south to the starting point on Indian Island.

    Each 2-4 day trip segment will feature a specific Thoreau-related focus with experts joining to provide context and commentary on themes ranging from Native American culture to literature, history, ecology, lumbering and conservation.

    The project is being coordinated by the Northern Forest Center with guiding and logistics support provided by Mahoosuc Guide Service, New England Outdoor Center and the Appalachian Mountain Club. Financial support has been provided by: Elliotsville Plantation, Inc.; Plum Creek Timber; and Bangor Savings Bank. A partnership with the Maine Office of Tourism is helping to secure national and regional level media participation.

    Partnering with the Penobscot Nation
    A central element of the trip involves engaging members of the Penobscot Nation as cultural guides to the Maine Woods.

    “Thoreau never could have travelled in the Maine Woods as he did without the support of Penobscot guides, notably Joseph Attean who led him on an 1853 excursion, and Joe Polis who guided the 1857 expedition our group is retracing,” says Mike Wilson, Senior Program Director for the Northern Forest Center. “We’re honored to be working with members of the Penobscot Nation to highlight the critical role their guides played in shaping Thoreau’s experience in Maine and ultimately his perspective on nature and the environment.”

    “This is our homeland, and it is a great honor to share our cultural knowledge with the people of the State of Maine,” says James Francis, Penobscot Tribal Historian and Director of the Penobscot Nation Culture and Historic Preservation Department. “This trip honors our ancestors and the guides whose contributions enhanced Thoreau’s Maine Woods experience. Without them the true spirit of the Maine woods would have been devoid from Thoreau’s senses.”

    Thoreau’s experiences in Maine and with his Penobscot Guides profoundly influenced his philosophy and his thinking about nature and wilderness – inspiring him to write:
    “…not only for strength, but for beauty, the poet must, from time to time, travel the logger’s path and the Indian’s trail, to drink at some new and more bracing fountain of the Muses, far in the recesses of the wilderness.”

    Applying Thoreau’s Viewpoint in Today’s Maine Woods
    “The Maine Woods represents Thoreau’s most sustained and intensive exploration of wilderness and holds an important place in the history of conservation,” says James Finley, editor of the Thoreau Society Bulletin. “It also provides detailed descriptions of his journeys along the trails, rivers, and lakes of Maine, full of particulars and relevance for, in Thoreau’s words, ‘those who may have occasion to travel this way.’”

    Finley is one of five scholars and historians from across the country taking part in the trip to both learn and share their perspective on The Maine Woods and Thoreau’s influence on American literature and attitudes toward nature.

    “This trip is a great opportunity to promote the fact that the experience Thoreau had in the Maine Woods is still available to visitors and remarkably unchanged more than 150 years later,” says Matt Polstein, President of New England Outdoor Center. “A great part of this story is the way this landscape supports our forest products industry and Maine’s outdoor and cultural travel economy. We’re fortunate to have private landowners and conservation groups who have kept the forest and its waterways largely undeveloped and accessible, and outstanding guides who are in the business of helping visitors experience the largest intact forest landscape in the eastern United States.”

    “For today’s consumers, travel is a big deal and in their perfect world, authentic and adventurous travel creates new connections and friends, it refreshes existing relationships and sets the groundwork for personal transformation,” says Carolann Ouellette, Director of the Maine Office of Tourism. “The Thoreau-Wabanaki Tour is a wonderfully innovative example of like-minded businesses working together, with support from the non-profit sector, to provide today’s consumers engaging, high quality, “off-the-beaten path” guided tourism experiences in a truly unique region, the Maine Woods.”

    Following The Tour on the Web, Facebook and Twitter
    In preparation for this event, several detailed pages for the expedition have been set up at the Maine Woods Discovery website http://www.MaineWoodsDiscovery.com/150Thoreau where the public and the media can review the day-to-day itinerary for the trip, read crew bios, and follow the live progress of the expedition using satellite mapping technology provided by Maine’s Pinnacle Tracking. The public is also encouraged to engage with the crew when possible through social media on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/MaineWoodsDiscovery and on Twitter @TheMaineWoods using #150Thoreau for all social media tracking.

    About Maine Woods Discovery
    Maine Woods Discovery is a standards-based cooperative marketing initiative designed to position the Maine Woods region as a top quality travel destination. Maine Woods Discovery members promote high quality vacation experiences and advancement of best practices within the region’s tourism industry. Maine Woods Discovery is a project of the Maine Woods Consortium (www.mainewoodsconsortium.org) coordinated by the Northern Forest Center (www.northernforest.org)

    About the Photography
    Photographer’s credit required for all uses: Photo ©ScotMiller/ScotMiller.com or Jerry and Marcy Monkman/EcoPhotography.com Permission for image use is granted specifically for publicity purposes for the 150th Thoreau-Wabanaki Tour. All photo uses must be attributed to the photographer. No other uses are authorized at this time. All Scot Miller photographs are from the book Thoreau, The Maine Woods: A Photographic Journey Through an American Wilderness (Levenger Press) and are part of the “Thoreau’s Maine Woods: A Journey in Photographs with Scot Miller” exhibition at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, MA through February 2015. For more information on photographer Scot Miller visit: http://www.ScotMiller.com and http://www.ThoreausMaineWoods.com.

  2. May 7, 2014 at 3:36 pm — Reply

    In celebration of that 150th anniversary, Maine Woods Discovery, an organization promoting the establishment of quality standards for Maine Woods experiences has assembled a group of adventurers – ranging from the tour organizers and Penobscot guides to journalists, scientists, scholars and others – to navigate a carefully-planned 16 day canoe trip based on the itinerary of Thoreau’s July 1857 trip.

    Kevin Slater will be the lead guide on that tour. We encourage your readers to follow along the tour at http://www.mainewoodsdiscovery.com/150Thoreau/ and on Facebook and Twitter.

  3. Bob Blake
    May 9, 2014 at 4:13 pm — Reply

    I traced this route, with solo canoe and book in hand, back in the 1970’s. It was a great read.
    Last winter I read Undaunted Courage, by Stephen Ambrose, and followed the Lewis and Clark expedition route on Google Earth, placemarking all their camping sites as I read. That was a very fun read and a great book. A journey of hardships.
    Take care Everett.

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