Wilderness Camps in Maine | An Allagash Love Story
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.