Wilderness Camps in Maine | An Allagash Love Story
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.