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by Butch Phillips, Penobscot Nation

(An  excerpt from “`Wilderness within Wildness without’ by Bridget Besaw)

During an up river canoe trip to Katahdin, our sacred mountain, my son Scott and I paused to rest as we carried our birch bark canoe across a portage, one that is mandatory for both upstream and downstream travelers. We were at Debsconeag falls on the West Branch of the Penobscot River, where the river plunges 28 feet in a quarter of a mile, from a solid ledge to huge granite boulders below. The carry trail is an uphill path lined with hardwood trees

and is well worn from countless footsteps over the years. As we lay on the ground to rest and cool our backs, we listened to the songs of the water created by the falls. On certain sections of the river throughout our trip, I had felt at the distinct connection to my ancestors but this particular place heightened my awareness of their presence and I could feel their spirits all around us. I told Scott that this carry trail probably hasn’t seen a birch bark canoe for a hundred years and that we were walking in the footsteps of the ancient ones and they were smiling down on our people today for keeping our traditions alive. I gave thanks to our ancestors for this place and for keeping us safe as we paddled up the river from Indian Island.

Butch Phillips and son Scott, Katahdin, above Debsconeag Falls, W. Branch of Penobscot River.

Later I remembered that Henry David Thoreau and his companions, guided by Penobscots, camped here on their return trip from Katahdin in 1847. I couldn’t help but wonder if we rested in the same spot as they had. Every fall during Labor Day weekend, the Penobscot Indians renew this ancient journey up the Penobscot River to Katahdin. This tradition, called the “Katahdin 100”, began in 1981 when my nephew Barry Dana decided to retrace this ancient pathway by running from Indian Island to Katahdin, a distance of 100 miles. Now an annual tradition, it has greatly expanded and includes scores of tribal members and their non-Indian guests who walk, run, bike and canoe. Neither a sporting event or a race, this is a spiritual journey of ceremony and personal sacrifice, carrying the spirits of our ancestors with us.  

To the Penobscot Indian, few things in nature are more important than the river. Without the river, we would not be here. It has been the pathway through our aboriginal hunting and fishing grounds and has provided not only physical but spiritual sustenance as well. For thousands of years the Penobscot traveled extensively by birchbark canoe in what is now northern Maine, an area of dense forest with hundreds of lakes, rivers and streams, connected by numerous ancient portages. In the center of our aboriginal territory stands Katahdin, bordered by the East Branch and the West Branch of the river that bears our name. With the coming of the settlers to the area, these waterways have seen hundreds of log drivers and recreational canoeists but none could know nor feel the significance that this area holds for the Penobscot People.

Because of the many changes to the river due to dams and pollution, today the Penobscot no longer depend of the river for their everyday survival and as a consequence, river use diminished. Despite the changes however, the reverence for the land and the river thrives today. This relationship is not only aesthetic but one of spiritual connectedness to the natural world . This annual journey to Katahdin reaffirms and age-old connection to the land, our precious river and our canoeing heritage.

Scott and I left the dam on North Twin Lake before dawn. This was the third and last day of paddling up the river from Indian Island, home of the Penobscot. We left before the other paddlers because the birch bark canoe was slower than the flat water racing canoes that were accompanying us. We paddled North Twin and Pemadamcook lakes in the dark with a light wind at our backs. As we paddled across Ambajejus Lake, the wind had ceased and we were treated with a glorious sunrise that reflected on the glassy calm water. At the north end of the lake, we reentered the river and again faced the relentless current which made paddling more technical and demanding, much like we experienced for the past two days. Paddling upriver is very challenging. In addition to the current, there are many rapids, falls and dams that must be paddle over or carried around. Most of the time, we paddled at a rate between 55 and 60 strokes a minute which can be a real test of one’s endurance.

We carried around Passamagamet Falls, paddled over Hopkins Pitch and Wheelbarrow Pitch which brought us to the carry at Debsconeag Falls. After carrying to the top of the falls, we waited for the other canoes to join us.

Across the river and off in the distance stood Katahdin , irradiating its spiritual influence over the area. We could see the entire mountain above the trees and it was perfectly reflected in the water. The mountain had been visible to us at several places down river but at that this remote spot, with the solitude of the moment, it was truly a powerful experience. Each of us was in awe of beauty of the river and the mountain and for some of us that scene was the defining moment of our journey. Distinctive places like this create an awareness of the sensitivity of the amazing gifts left to us by the ancestors and remind us how important it is to protect them for the unborn generations. Rejuvenated by this revelatory experience, we once again launched our canoes for the final three miles of paddling.

Paddling up Pockwockamus dead water, all the canoes were side-by-side for the first time. The beauty of the river and the magical draw of Katahdin seem to inspire us for there was a bit more crispness to our paddling strokes. It was a great moment when we came around an island and we could see our families and support crews waving and shouting to us from the landing below Pockwockamus Falls. From here we would run the final 10 miles through the woods to Katahdin Stream Campground within Baxter State Park. There we would re-join the other teams of runners, walkers and bikers who have also completed their personal journey to the mountain.

In the shadow of Katahdin, we feast together, giving thanks to the Creator and to the Ancestors for our safe journey. Although our bodies are tired, we drum, sing and dance around the Sacred Fire in celebration of our heritage. On the last day, a closing ceremony is held where each of us relates our personal experiences of this unique Native tradition . The connection to the land, river and mountain continues.


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