The Downeast Lakes Land Trust was delighted to welcome author David Cook to the Wabanaki Center in Calais, ME for a discussion of his book Above the Gravel Bar. A history teacher with a passion for canoeing, Mr. Cook came upon the notes of Fanny Eckstrom in 1978. Eckstrom, a serious researcher from the Penobscot region, published over two hundred pieces on natural and human history, language and folklore. Her notes for a talk given in 1920 titled Indian Trails of Maine captured Cook’s imagination. Building on her notes, which centered on the Penobscot watershed, Cook’s experience as a paddler and researcher allowed him to flesh out the native canoe routes of Maine and the Maritime Peninsula and capture them in Above the Gravel Bar.
Starting his talk with an overview of the last 10,000 years of sea level and temperature fluctuations in Maine, Cook placed himself solidly in the Environmental Determinist camp archeologically. A strong advocate of the idea that plants, animals and landscapes determine the way humans live, Cook explained how native place names are couched in terms of available foods, geographic oddities and ‘canoe-ability.’
Sharing stone artifacts he had discovered during his canoe treks, Cook reflected on the continuity of the canoeing experience in the region. “A canoe is an opportunity for “re-creation’. You are re-creating an ancient mode of travel. Out there, fighting the flies, you find yourself wondering about the people who did this every day.” He considered the timeless nature of pulling out his canoe at take-outs used for thousands of years, and camping at sites which “still appeal to us… [with] good exposure to the sun and breezes. “I often choose a site that has been used for thousands of years,” reflected Cook. His collection of chipped and flaked materials from campsites and pull-outs lent credence to his timeless perspective.
“Of course, the terrain was a lot different then. There were more beavers, who are great allies of canoe people. Beavers dam up small streams and raise the water where it is shallow or running at a considerable current. These are like canals for canoeists. Things are far more managed now, and many of the small steams are completely impassible, or even subsumed by urban development,” he explained. “Still, the best way to understand the native place names of Maine, is from a canoe going up-stream.”
Mr. Cook reflected on the nature of canoeing in Maine, from legacies of extinct sea mink, to paddling with curious whales in the Bay of Fundy and obscure hints to canoeists in stream names (‘hunk’ means hard work, while ‘keg’ implies easy paddling). “It always lit me up as a kid,–how far you can go in a canoe– that you can do it at any level you want. The geography of Maine is made for canoeing. A squirrel in a tree wouldn’t come down and take his little life in his hands to cross the open ground to get to another tree when he can jump the branches of one tree to the next. With the major rivers running north and south and tributaries interlacing east and west like clasped fingers, it makes no sense to travel any other way.”
“David Cook possesses a rare and visceral sense of the pre-historic routes of travel in this region. The conservation of traditional knowledge like his concerning our forests, lakes and streams is an integral part of the DLLT’s mandate,” said the DLLT’s Education and Communication Manager, Tanya Rucosky. “It was a pleasure to host him this evening, and provide an opportunity for him to share his wisdom with others.”
The DLLT regularly hosts speakers, community forums, work parties, and workshops, and leads outdoor adventures that highlight the natural and cultural history of the Maine woods and waters. Visit our website to discover what is happening next!