Wilderness Camps in Maine | An Allagash Love Story
“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.