Yankee Classic: Everything unraveled one sultry late-summer afternoon in 1958, the horrifying day that changed the Allagash River forever.
By Greg Jalbert
Sep 11 2015
Yankee Classic: October 1990
Everything unraveled one sultry late-summer afternoon in 1958, the horrifying day that changed the Allagash River forever.
Listen to how the story happened:
I grew up among river men. My father was dependent on the wilderness for his life, and I was dependent on him.
Although he was an influential Fort Kent lawyer, hosting senators and advising governors on key issues, the thought of living an ordinary life terrified him. In the Allagash wilderness he became part child, part wild man in search of adventure.
As soon as the ice cleared, we began our expeditions on the Allagash. Ten miles up the river from Allagash Village, we were often stopped early in the year by a wall of jammed ice. It looked like the blunt face of a glacier and cut us off from the portage trail around Allagash Falls. Using a ladder he had tied to the top of our duffle, we portaged the gear and hauled the canoe up and over the jam. Then he took one last look downriver and, like a hunted man, pulled the ladder up after himself. Only once, arriving at the falls in the dark, when the ice wall was leaning, threatening to fall on us, do I remember his turning back.
He roared his outboard down through the rapids above the falls, guiding the canoe towards the lip before cutting it hard into shore and up into the brush. Every time he motored down to the lower landing, part of me shot over the falls and drowned. Terror was often the price I had to pay to be with Robert Jalbert on the Allagash River.
But while my school friends waited for the latest western to appear on the colossal screen of the Savoy Theater in Fort Kent, I sat in his lap while his hand, square and broad as the mitt of a bear, covered my own on the throttle. Together we gunned our 20-foot, broad-beamed canvas canoe up against the north-flowing river, following a secret channel known only to river men.
It was there, just beyond the falls, that we entered a rich, mystical landscape, the kingdom of the Jalberts. When the log drives ended along the Allagash around 1940, the lumber camps and depots were closed. Other than a handful of men from Allagash Village, my family was alone in the woods. There was no one else to look for them if they got lost, to rescue them if they got hurt.
They crossed Round Pond in November and swamped the canoe with ice and water. They pole-vaulted over sluices at Long Lake Dam. When the pole snapped, they were carried away in the flume. They got Jeeps stuck in the middle of icy rivers; they were snowbound in out camps and had to walk miles through deep snow without snowshoes; but they never got hurt. They never got a hook caught in their ear. They never bled.
On an island just upriver from the falls, my great-grandfather leased land from the paper company in the 1800s and raised cattle and produce to feed the men in the lumber camps and depots. My grandfather Willard was born on that farm. As boys, he and his brothers captured a moose and harnessed it to the sleigh. Later his mother died in childbirth. Even though we did not own a single acre of land, we Jalberts felt a certain right to a territory earned through our struggle to survive and the losses we endured.
Summers, when the river was so low and there seemed no hope of passage, my father poled the canoe over gravel bars and we fished the cool-water pools at Rosie’s Rock and Jalbert Brook, where my grandfather and Uncle Willard had lived in a camp and cut logs, piled them at the landing still visible today, and then knocked out the key log in the spring to launch the log drive and return home from the winter woods.
Justice William O. Douglas was guided by my grandfather. There were many old guides in the North Woods, but only my grandfather was called simply, “The Ole Guide.” It was Justice Douglas, after one expedition, who popularized the expression, “There’s three kinds of bears along the Allagash: the black bear, the brown-nosed bear, and Jal-bear.”
Often I think the Jalberts were the wildest. Ours was the only family to haul upriver and over a portage trail refrigerators, stoves, furniture, and building supplies. One of the camps was logged in just three days from the time the trees were felled to the time the peak-a-gee was rolled into the notches at the top of the roof. Without time to cut trails, the men dragged 30-foot logs through the brush, the butts cradled in the spiked cant hooks of two peaveys as the men bulled against the handles. Their skin was stained black with spruce pitch.
* * *
One day in the mid-1940s an enraged paper company representative landed in a float plane. He marched up to my father, my uncle Willard, and the Ole Guide and demanded to know what right they had to build camps without a lease the company refused to give them. The Jalberts backed the little man-who had just threatened to burn them out-into the clothesline, which held him like a snare. “Burn these camps,” my father growled and swept his arm to include the timber along the surrounding ridges, “and you’ll never put out the fire.” A few days later the lease appeared. People who asked politely were turned down.
These were the stories of my childhood. And sitting in the bow of my father’s canoe, I searched for a way to become as worthy as the men who gave me their name. But I could not even cast a fly.
For luck, my father spat cigar juice on his fly. He cast so delicately it fell without dimpling the water. He twitched it once, twice. “Watch!” he hissed, the cigar squeezed tight between his teeth. As if commanded, the trout leaped from the water. My father’s lips curved up into a cocky smile.
But in the fall, he abandoned me. All I knew of his hunting adventures, I learned in my father’s home movies. Sitting beside him in the dark, I watched as a bear leaped on my father’s back. In that moment, even with him sitting so close, I felt the terror of his loss from me. My father plunged his skinning knife into the heart of the animal, but the bear continued to fight. They rolled through the snow, neither one in command of the other. Finally my father rolled on top and again he stabbed the bear. As the bear struggled to rise one last time, it collapsed. On the screen my father is worn but victorious.
Sports came great distances to be guided by Jalbert men. But now that I am the age of my father in those movies, I can see how the myth of an inviolate wilderness and of my invincible family began to unravel when I was four years old on a sultry afternoon on the 22nd day of August in the year 1958. It is the day that I will always believe changed the river and our lives forever.
* * *
The sky was the dull yellow shade of overripe wheat. I sat quietly beside my sister in the middle of our Old Town canoe and stared over my mother’s hands in the bow. At the landing below Allagash Falls, my mother remarked how silent the birds were. They, along with the other animals, seemed to have disappeared.
Within half an hour the gear had been portaged a quarter of a mile. As my father flipped the canoe onto his back, the rain began to fall. At a fork in the trail, he perched the bow in the branches of a tree. We scurried under the canoe and hunkered down as he dashed up the trail for the food.
“It’s just a clearing-off shower,” he told us cheerfully as he dove under beside us. The rain began to sizzle along the canvas. My mother cut slices of homemade bread, spread them thick with mayonnaise, and layered on slices of bologna.
Then hail, the size of a boy’s fist, hurled from the sky. The air grew cold. As night fell, bolts of lightning slivered the air. Thunder cracked. My mother offered us soda and Whoopie Pies, and my sister stopped crying. For a while we licked the luxurious cream from between the two chocolate moons of cake. My father told us about angels bowling in heaven. He sang cowboy songs as the water eddied around our red and yellow rain boots. For a while the terror left me. But after we had eaten, after the songs and the stories, I saw, for the first time, the expression of fear as the lightning flashed against his face. Something had entered the woods he could not wrestle to the ground.
During a break in the storm he loaded us into the canoe. As thunder once again began to close in, we could see in the distance a light hovering above the river, which seemed to fly away the faster we approached it. Finally we idled up to a steep bank, and I saw faces pressed flat against rain-smeared glass. Against my will, my father picked me up and carried me inside.
Bobcat skins hung from the walls and their pungent, steamy smell assaulted me. In the glow of kerosene lanterns they came shimmering back to life. Outside, the storm circled and pounced, hissing and spitting through the chinking. My mother pulled off our wet clothes while a woman as wide as a door offered meat as strong and sour as the smell of her skin. I refused it. I clung to my mother. Desperate, I would not let them leave me there alone.
In the morning we motored up the river. I saw steam rising from scars that ribboned the hillsides. The air was pungent with the aroma of sapwood and overturned earth. Among the cross-piled timber stood 20-foot spires of cedar, spruce, and rock maple, their tops twisted off and flung away.
The landscape seemed to have been ravaged by a giant bear. As brush collected around the canoe, we became the center of a small drifting island. We waited for my father to ease our shock by telling a story. He stood up and mumbled but a single word: “Tornado.” For me it would come to mean an eerie, haunted place where two rivers meet along the water of the dead, until the word came to mean simply, “the end.”
At the center of the storm my father called a clearing-off shower, the tornado had hopped, skipped, and jumped through five townships, an area of more than 150 square miles. During its rampage, it knocked down 2,500 acres of timber with a loss of 21,000 cords of high-quality spruce and fir. The swaths stretched from 100 feet to a quarter of a mile wide.
To salvage the timber, woodcutters came into the Allagash with chain saws. Instead of driving logs down river, they bulldozed roads for trucks to haul the logs to the mills. But just as they had for over a hundred years, horses twitched the logs from the cuttings to the yard beside the road.
From our camps at Windy Point there on Round Pond, we could hear for the first time the whine of chain saws. The cutters came from the west, from St. Pamphile, Quebec. Midway down through the Round Pond Rips, they built a bridge to continue swamping out a road east to Musquacook.
The roads, rough and rutted in the spring and summer, made our camps more accessible. First we could drive within 20 miles of Round Pond, then 15, and then only a few years after the tornado, within five. When the Canadian contractors put up gates to preserve the country for themselves, my father cut them down or shot off the locks.
By the early 1960s the horses were replaced by all-wheel-drive diesel skidders, which churned through the woods on wide tractor tires as tall as a man. In a little over two hours they twitched as much timber as a horse could twitch in a day. Then huge tree harvesters came plodding through the woods on tires eight feet tall and over three feet wide. In one hour one man could cut 100 trees. At some point we stopped listening for the woodcutters.
After the woods around Round Pond were cut and opened to a flood of Canadian hunters, we found an isolated pocket of timber up along Musquacook Stream where no one could reach us. In the late 1960s we guided sports from a base camp that was only a teepee, and then we built a rustic out camp. They came from New Jersey and depended on us to escort them into the deep woods, an area so far beyond their wildest dreams that it really terrified some of them.
We continued to prove ourselves by snubbing a canoe down through white water, using a pole to suddenly stop over a fishing hole. Even in rain we could bake reflector-oven biscuits as light and flaky as any gourmet restaurant. And our stories still connected sports to the frontier past. But I was beginning to lose track of what was real and what was not.
Along with the new machines, the spruce budworm caterpillar began devastating the forest. Threatened with a vast loss of inventory all through the 1970s, the paper companies bulldozed year-round logging roads into areas they proceeded to clear-cut.
In the midst of the clear-cutting epidemic, my uncle Willard and his son, Billy, were killed in a car accident. My father found his way out of grief in the woods, renovating my uncle’s worn-out camps at Round Pond. But even his relationship to the camps had changed. Since the creation of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in 1968 the camps were no longer ours.
I remember the shock in my father’s face, the quiver of uncertainty in his voice, when he gathered us around the table to announce that he might not be able to save the camps. He was forced to sell them and accept a lease from the state of Maine.
In tin canoes, park supervisors blindly banged into every river rock. Flustered, they claimed the channel was a fiction designed to humiliate and embarrass them. My father roared past them, in honor of the river men who dug it, spray arcing like wings, even in low water, even in the dark.
Something in him began to fade, though he still plotted hunting strategies. According to those plans, we would extend our network of hunting trails from our camp at Burntland Brook into areas where he had dreamed of stag bucks. But he rarely hunted there. He left the camp with us at dawn, only to return by nine or ten o’clock. I would come back for lunch and find him reading or sleeping.
In the fall of 1977 my father and I returned to the out camp for the last time. We drove nearly 50 miles an hour down a wide gravel road where we had once slogged four miles through snow over our knees after a surprise blizzard. The road had been cut past the door. In the coming darkness of that day, we could see ahead of us a machine more alien than skidders and timber harvesters – a Winnebago. New Jersey plates. My father would not look at the vehicle as he turned the Jeep around, as if by ignoring it he could make it disappear. The wilderness as a landscape for possibilities was truly and forever gone.
* * *
In the early evening of May 21, 1980, my father stepped into a bush plane overloaded with gasoline. A canoe was strapped to the pontoons. The winds were severe. The plane was flown by a pilot who had very little experience with that kind of load under those conditions. Anchored in a fishing hole in Round Pond, I waited for him. Like my grandfather and my father, I told the old stories to the fishermen I was guiding. Driven by wind, the lake swells were humped and twisted as haystacks. If we’d had a radio, I would have called him not to come, though he probably would not have listened to me.
When a plane circled my boat and dipped its wing, I changed my bait, hoping to catch a string of trout that would impress even my father and gain his approval, applause, and praise. The plane landed across the lake at the camp. A motor sputtered to life, and a friend aimed the bow of the canoe straight at us.
My father’s plane bad been struck by a gust of wind, spiraling out of the sky soon after takeoff. On impact it bad burst into flames. In the funeral parlor river men gathered in the back of the room. The organist played “The Red River Valley,” a haunting song he often sang to himself. As the casket was slipped into the hearse, a wail, like the shriek of a child, rose from the throat of a woman who spoke for us all; only this wail was not intended to reach into another room, but beyond the edge of the world to pull my father back.
I continued to guide sports, continued to tell stories in an attempt to rekindle the passion of the past. But I never told them that when I watched the old home movies after my father’s death, I realized that the bear he killed with a knife was already dead and he was only acting for the camera.
I protected the myth of my father far too long. The wild man in him frequently lost control. I never told them how he once flew at me screeching because I had forgotten to open the stove damper and the camp had filled with smoke. That afternoon when he stalked among paper birches, I raised my rifle and zeroed in on his chest. Staring at each other, we both knew I had not mistaken him for a buck. He turned away and never said a word.
After struggling for five years to maintain not only the camps but the family legend, I too gave up-gave up the lease and moved away. The Allagash had become a place where I needed a permission slip to build or renovate a camp, cut a trail, or cut firewood. I was not permitted to cut brush so the breeze could blow through the campsite and carry away the blackflies. When I left, the Allagash forest was, at some points, a 500-foot strip of standing timber, like the false front of a Hollywood movie set, hiding clear-cuts that stretched from one horizon to the other. Even in the islands of standing timber, the trees were diseased and rotting. The blowdowns were so cross-piled that I could not hunt through them. I don’t go back to the camps anymore.
Still, as I watch the home movies, I see river men remarkable beyond anyone I could ever hope to meet. I see myself in my father’s lap and for a moment know no greater joy, contentment, or security.
Now when I go back to the Allagash, I tent along the river. Along the trail to the fire tower, my daughter, Alaina, stops beside a chipmunk hole and in the awkward language of a three-year-old builds the story of Mrs. Chipmunk inviting the Field Mouse for tea. Micaela stops us abruptly and points under the mossy belly of a cedar. Cupping her hand against my ear, she whispers,”Lady slipper.” I am astonished and embarrassed; I have never noticed one before. There is still a place along this river for enchantment. At eight years old, my son, Zachery, sits confidently in the stern of our canoe and begins the education of a river man by hitting rocks. And remembering.
In late autumn, when the tourists and even the rangers have disappeared, I canoe the Allagash alone. The water and spruces are black. The canoe becomes heavy with ice rime. Floes of slush rattle like marbles along the hull. I manage to dip the paddle as silently and rhythmically as my father, as though I have entered his body.
I hunker down along the river bank and tinder a fire, brew a pot of tea, roast my half-frozen sandwich. The weight of my uncle’s rawhide coat is a comfort against the cold. Over the river valley, the clouds are pleated and heavy with snow. Through the hollow impending air, I hear a haunting cry calling my name. Though I know it is only a coyote, I listen for my father, my uncle, and the Ole Guide, whose voices enter me, as if to say, “Tell this story,” as if it is their last hope of reckoning anything.