From Yankee July 1986
This is about a man called Nuge and his wife Patty and a tiny slice of the Maine wilderness they claimed as their own. For nearly 50 years on Chamberlain Lake their names ran together — Nugenpatty — like one of the melodious Indian names for these waters. It is an Allagash love story, but the Allagash was always hard on love; so like many stories from the north woods, this one also begins in mystery and death.
In the summer of 1929 Lila-Beatrice (Patty) Pelkey was 25 years old and waitressing at a sporting camp on Rainbow Lake, where her brother Claudewas a guide. One day Claude, en route to Greenville for supplies, came up missing. His canoe was found upside down, floating by the shore of Chesuncook Lake. There was no proof, but everyone figured Claude had been murdered, his money stolen. He’d been raised along the Penobscot and was too expert a canoeman, too strong a swimmer to simply disappear on a calm summer’s day.
Among the men called in to search for Claude’s body was a tall, strapping man named Allen (“Nuge”) Nugent. He was 26 years old, the head lineman for Great Northern. For days at a time he’d be in the woods with his crew, stringing telephone wire through the wilderness.
Patty Pelkey’s father took a great liking to young Nugent over those long, hard days of grappling for his son’s body, days that ended at a chow line served by Patty. When Claude’s body was finally found after nearly a month of searching, Allen Nugent was invited to visit the Pelkeys at their East Millinocket home.
“Lo and behold, one Saturday Nuge popped in,” remembers Patty Nugent a lifetime later. “He came quite a few times before I had any idea he came to see me.” She told friends she thought he was the handsomest man she’d ever seen, and she took a job at Kokadjo to be closer to Nuge. Nearly every night he took her riding over the logging roads in the company truck, hoping to convince her to marry him.
“I thought an awful lot of Nuge, but I’d already been through an unfortunate marriage. My husband had been a hard man, drank an awful lot. So I swore never again. I told Nuge I had other ambitions, although I agreed we’d go together — oh, sure we’d go together — even if it caused a little gossip.”
Patty was born the middle child of five brothers and two sisters, inheriting from her mother what was once known as grit, and from her father, who cooked for lumberjacks along the thundering river drives, an unquenchable taste for the woods. All she ever wanted was to be the cook at her own sporting camp, the deeper in the woods the better. She told Nuge she’d save her money for a few years, then they’d find a place for their camps. He already was a noted guide, and Patty reasoned his sports would follow him anywhere.
In those days the unorganized townships of Maine were filled with public lots under the jurisdiction of the forestry service. A lawyer told them that if they settled on a public lot, 40 feet from high water, the land would be theirs; and if the state tried to drive them off, he’d back them for free.
Patty knew where she wanted to go. From the time she was a girl listening to her father’s tales, she’d been entranced with the name. Sometimes she’d fall asleep saying that name. Chamberlain Lake. Chamberlain Lake. Patty picked potatoes and cashed in her insurance policies. Trekking into the country to look for their place, Patty was certain she was the first white woman to set foot on much of that thangled land. With the money they’d saved, about $2,000, Nuge bought supplies and squirreled them away in an abandoned storehouse at Sowadnehunk. He cleared a cross-country trail to Telos Lake, whose waters fed into Chamberlain, hired a horse and wagon, and for days moved supplies to Telos.
He cut cedars and pines, the biggest he could find, hauled them into the lake, and with the help of his father and Patty’s brother Allie, built a raft 40 feet wide, 50 feet long. After a week the raft was ready, loaded with trunks and boxes full of clothes, crates of food and tools, and right in the middle, protected by a tent fly, a brand-new Star Kineo cookstove. They had everything they needed — and one dollar — the night they drifted away…
They traveled at night to avoid the wind, Nuge ahead in a boat towing the raft, Patty on the raft with two canoes lashed together in back, in hope they wouldn’t swamp. She has lived nearly 20,000 nights since then, but she remembers that journey up the lake as if somehow it has been preserved under glass for her to admire for the rest of her life.
“It was a pretty moonlit night, about 60 degrees. We moved so slow. If I wanted to see that we were moving at all, I’d take a landmark, a tree, and watch it very carefully. We’d bought a case of canned salmon, and our first meal in our new stove was hot biscuits, baked potatoes, and my egg gravy to go with the salmon, which I warmed in a frypan with onion.
“At quarter past nine the next morning we landed on the eastern shore of Chamberlain Lake. We started up the lake in a canoe, looking for a campshite. Went up one side, came down the other.
“I looked across and saw a little green knoll, so we came across to look at it. There was a brook and we walked up to it and climbed over a little hill and I thought, ‘This is an elegant view.’ A little breeze was blowing, and Nuge said it was the prevailing wind from the northwest and would keep the flies away. Nuge put his arm on my shoulder and said, ‘Just right, little girl. This is just right.'”
Now it is an afternoon in late February of this year, and Patty Nugent has come home. As always it took some doing to get there. In the morning she left what she likes to call her “city house with all the modern conveniences” in East Millinocket (pop. 2,500), and drove two hours north along logging roads to the headquarters of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway at Chamberlain Bridge. Until recently she would climb onto her snowmobile there and shoot five miles up the lake’s eastern shore. But lately she’s been making some concessions…
On this day the lake is ridged with buckled ice, so Patty allows a ranger to drive her along a winding tote road until they reach a narrow, soft, tree-lined trail where a friend waits with a snowmobile. Attached to the snowmobile is a small trailer on skis. Patty Nugent climbs in. Half an hour later, cushioned with pillows and blankets like a crate of Christmas brandy, Patty is home.
When Al Nugent died here eight years ago, these were the most famed sporting camps in Maine, among the most famous in the country. It is a life she refuses to give up, and nobody in America today has run a sporting camp longer than Patty Nugent. The cabins sit clustered on a slight rise back from the shore with sheds for tools and boats and wood, a smokehouse, an icehouse. A tight shoveled path winds through the compound connecting cabins with privies. Built from hand-hewn logs, the cabins are not lovely in winter. Windows are sheathed in plastic; tar paper covers the cedar-shingled roofs. Stovewood is piled high on the porches…
She apologizes over the clutter in the cabin; having just arrived, she explains, she hasn’t had time to straighten up. In truth there’s not time enough to straighten up these two rooms because the memories of her life here with Nuge flow from boxes to shelves to drawers. Stuffed somewhere in this room is a pair of trousers she fashioned from an old felt blanket that first winter; somewhere else the enamel plates she brought here on the raft.
She had no children, but three generations of children have come to the camps, crowding around her stove in the morning as she fried doughnuts, the hot oil glistening in their hands. They called her Aunt Patty, and the photos of those children, now grown up, romp across a wall. There’s little room to move about, but then Patty doesn’t move about too much. Callers come to her…
She takes her meals in the kitchen at a long table built by Nuge, looking out a window to the lake. Some days, looking out, she’ll see a coyote chasing a deer across the ice, or, in summer, an otter arrowing its way home. Until she slipped a disc ten years ago splitting wood with Nuge, she served 40 people breakfast and dinner from this kitchen, with full lunches always packed by 6 A.M. for the hunters and fishermen. “I could really step then,” she says…
Patty does not live in the past, but if asked, she will float back as light as a tumbleweed. “People are amazed at my memory,” Patty says. “The come to me to find out how it was when first we came into the country.” Her visitor asked, so for four days in February she opened her boxes, spilling photographs onto tables like leaves. She took out rifles and drawshaves, and a leg-hold trap that has lain beneath her bed for years, letting her words knit them together into the story of her life with Nuge. A full moon shone over Chamberlain during those nights, and a north wind tore the breath from you along the shore, but 200 yards back in the woods, out of sight of the cabins, the wind was stilled by the snow-draped trees, and you could remove the scarf from your mouth and nose and look in awe at the piercing, starry sky and think how it must have been once to be alone here with so much forest, to be in love, and to make it work.
Patty sits in her rocking chair, smoking a cigarette and fondling a small, faded photograph that she says few people have seen. The photo was taken a week or two after they landed the raft. Nuge and Patty are standing in front of their first cabin, a crude, temporary shelter covered with birch bark.
“Dear, we were rough looking, weren’t we?” Patty says. “The first time the forest warden saw me I had a bandanna around my hair and a pair of Nuge’s pants on. He went out and told people a band of gypsies had settled in.”
They cleared the land from dawn to dark, butting timber, hauling the logs by hand on sleds made by Nuge; he cut Patty’s from cedar so it would be lighter. Patty limbed the trees with her axe, shaved cedar splits with her drawknife, and kept her man fed. “I learned lots of ways to fix trout,” she says. She baked beans and bread and befriended Dave Hannah, their nearest neighbor, a tall solitary trapper who lived a mile and a half up the lake.
“Dave had no use for us at all. A dam keeper had teased him that Nuge was going to take over his trapline. You should know not to tease a man who lives in the woods alone. He came in here spoiling for a fight. But Nuge said he was here to build camps, not trap. He said ‘Dave, I’ll never set a trap in this country as long as you’re alive.’ And he was our friend from then on. And Nuge never did, until Dave Hannah died and we took over the trapline. And when I ran out of white flour and didn’t have any money and was making all my biscuits from buckwheat, Dave Hannah came down, and, God love him, he left me a sack of white flour. The best present I’d ever had.”
Nuge taught her to shoot, well enough so she could make an empty tobacco tin cartwheel through the air, well enough so that when black bears tore through the cabins in search of food, she could shoot them clean and stay cool doing it. Every year she got her deer.
“A new warden came in here,” she says, “and saw my deer hanging next to Nuge’s.” ‘One of these yours?’ he asked me. I said yes, but I could tell he didn’t believe me. ‘What did you use?’ he asked. I said I used my .38-.40. And if he wanted to, he could take his wristwatch off and set it on the post over there and see if maybe I could hit it. He reddened right up and never bothered me again.”
Nuge taught her to fly-fish from a canoe, holding a fish pail over his head as protection from her first wild backcasts, and later how to fashion flies from the feathers of wild birds and the hair of deer. She tied her flies on winter evenings, and later they were sold in the biggest sports stores in Maine.
He made her knitting needles from telephone wire and copper found at an abandoned logging camp, and Patty readied for winter, unraveling sweaters, using the yarn to knit stockings and mittens. Nuge’s uncle taught her a secret family pattern, and she’d spend hours knitting “Patty caps” that she would line up every fall to sell to hunters. “There are hundreds of my Patty caps in these woods,” she says.
In November they had their first paying guests — hunters drawn by Nuge’s reputation as a deer guide. They paid $10 a day per man for Patty’s cooking and the privilege of sleeping on a bare cabin floor with their coats for bedding. The business was finally started, but the Main Forestry Service, which administered the land, wanted them out.
“We asked for a lease,” Patty says with a trace of anger lingering through time, “but they just wanted to drive us out. They tried to stop us from cutting timber, but we went right on cutting what we needed for the camps. They didn’t know what to make of us. They figured we had some big money man backing us, what with Nuge having guided and knowing so many rich folks.
“A telephone line ran through the woods back then, and after awhile Nuge got us a phone and hooked us in. At least we could talk to the dam keepers, and it was company. The forestry service kept coming down and cutting us off. And Nuge, he’d just wait a few minutes for them to leave. Then he’d hook right back on. After eight years I guess they thought we were here to stay. They gave us a lease, $10 a year. I told Nuge we’d have them eating out of our hands, and before long all the state officials and the governor were having big to-do’s at Nugent’s Camps!”
When winter came Patty sewed parkas from the tent fly off the raft, fished through the ice, and wore double sets of long underwear when she did the wash. At Christmas the dam keeper at Lock Dam, seven miles distant, and at Telos, 12 miles, came for dinner along with Dave Hannah, and Patty served stuffed partridge and deer hearts. Now and again they’d snowshoe to Chesuncook Village, 17 miles away, to pick up mail. Nuge made tables and beds and carved sinks for the camps, and they survived, barely, on small loans from Patty’s father…
By 1938 they finished building the camps, including the cabin where Patty lives today. And luck — or fate — dealt them a curious break. For it was then that Dave Hannah died and Nuge was freed from his promise and could finally trap the country.
“Nuge started me on weasel,” she says. “They weren’t bringing too much then. He figured if I cut the skin we wouldn’t have lost too much. Then we went to bobcat and fox, and when I mastered those, to beaver. Skinned them right in this room by kerosene lantern and I never cut them.”
Nuge ran over 100 miles of trapline. He’d be gone two weeks at a time, living off beaver and muskrat stew, sleeping in tiny, outlying cabins he built along the route. Each day the dam keepers, like worried aunts, phoned Patty. “They needn’t have worried,” Patty says. “I didn’t have a care in the world then. There was nothing I didn’t feel I could handle.”
She set her beaver traps around the ponds, mink traps around the edges of streams, and bobcat traps back in the woods. There were a lot more trappers in the country back then, but there were a lot more animals, too. Come spring Nuge hauled the furs to Chesuncook, then to the buyers in Greenville. “We’d never have made it without the trapping,” she says. “One year we made over $4,800. That came in awful handy.”
One year Nuge told her he wanted to give her a coat of her choice, beaver or otter. “That winter,” she says, “we were getting a dollar an inch for beaver and they were all running large. I said I’d take the otter ’cause it was cheaper.” They took the skins and a pattern to a furrier, paid $200, and waited. When the coat arrived, a note was attached. The furrier was offering $2,000. “I asked Nuge and he said, ‘It’s yours. You decide!’ Well, I didn’t sell the coat. You know what they say about otter? It makes chorus girls’ mink look like floor mats.” She laughs. “Not that I had as many places to wear it as a chorus girl”…
Go anywhere along the Allagash today and ask people about Allen Nugent and the first thing they’ll mention will be his strength. Once it took five men to load a cookstove into the boat at Telos. Single-handedly Nuge got it out of the boat, over the knoll, and into the kitchen. He filled the icehouse with 400-pound blocks of ice, hauling them on a sled harnessed to his broad back as if he were a team of oxen. He’d pick up 500-pound gasoline drums, roll them along his leg, and set them into his boat…
She laughs, a congested, throaty laugh always on the edge of a cough. “Nuge was powerful, but when guests got rowdy I took care of them. You never saw that man without a smile. He’d get up in the morning and it’d be raining or snowing and he’d say ‘It’s a beautiful morning.’ I’d say, ‘Nuge, what’s so beautiful about it?’ ‘Any morning you wake up, darling, is a beautiful morning,’ he’d say. That’s how he was. No matter what happened, he always said, ‘Just right. Just right.’ He wouldn’t fight with me even when I’d fly off the handle. So I gave in. On the 17th of September 1942 we were married. Just a couple stood for us in Lincoln”…
They entertained governors and celebrities and outdoorsmen from around the country. Nuge was a gifted storyteller and at night, after the meal, everyone gathered in the dining room in the glow of the lanterns and listened to Nuge while Patty rocked and knitted. They were taking in over $1,000 a day now, and they bought a house in East Millinocket and a Winnebago for getaways right after deer season. And without telling Nuge, Patty bought a second set of camps up the lake a bit because she knew they would fill them, too, as long as the name said “Nugent’s.”
“Every day lasted so long,” Patty says, “yet time went so fast. People who don’t know the woods will never understand. It’s the first thing they ask me. And I tell them. We were never lonely. Never. Never.”
It is evening now of another day. In the morning, a plane will arrive for the visitor. Eight years have passed, but it is still difficult for Patty to talk about the tenth of February 1978 when Nugenpatty became simply Patty.
“It was a Thursday, his 75th birthday,” she says. “I was frying molasses doughnuts that morning. Nuge was hauling wood and he came back in for some doughnuts. They were his favorite. We talked awhile, then he went back out. After a bit I realized I couldn’t hear his tractor anymore. We found him sitting right there in the tractor. It was a massive heart attacked. Nuge never had a chance to call for help.
“They didn’t want me to fly out with the body,” she says, her eyes taking on the memory, “but I said, ‘I am flying with Nuge.'”
It was the biggest funeral they ever had in the church in East Millinocket. Patty wore the otter coat to the funeral, and when it was over, she took it off, put it back in her closet, and hasn’t worn it since. People from way downriver and up in Aroostook come to look at the stone Patty got, and as she says, “to call on Nuge.” There’s a tree-lined pond on the front and a lone fisherman and both their names, one on each side, and their nicknames, and in the middle the words, “JUST RIGHT”…
“Everywhere I go people tell me I’m a legend,” she says. “A movie man wanted to come and make a movie of me. It don’t make me feel any different. It’s just my home. You know something,” she says, stepping out onto the ice for the first time that week, “I’d give everything back in a minute for just one night to do over, the night me and Nuge pushed off and floated so slow up this lake, and in the dawn I looked across and saw that little green knoll.”