Saturday, October 15, 2011

Black Spruce Journals

Photo credit: Barnes and Noble

Black Spruce Journals:
Tales of Canoe-Tripping in the Maine Woods, The Boreal Spruce Forests of Northern Canada, and the Barren Grounds by Stewart Coffin (183pp., 2007, pub by Heron Dance Press, Williston, VT)

That’s probably the longest subtitle I’ve ever seen, but it describes his travels over a lifetime. His story spans the period from when he was introduced to canoe/camping by his father and then as a Boy Scout until, at age 77, he felt it was time to chronicle his travels. Mr. Coffin signed up for a whitewater canoeing course in 1954, one of the first such programs in the country. Through whitewater training, he met Jane, his wife, who was as passionate a paddler as himself. They began their travels through the Maine streams and lakes using a paddling guide published in 1935. It was apparently the first such guide ever done, was difficult to find, as only 500 copies had been published, and was in dire need of up-dating. Through their memberships in the Appalachian Mountain Club they began to scout every lake and stream, first in New England, and then beyond, to do write-ups for a new and more comprehensive paddling guide. The book is chocked full of personal experiences, good and bad, about old guides, canoe builders and paddle makers, his experiences as one of the first in the country to venture into fiberglass canoe construction, his work in nature photography, and the rivers, islands, and bays he explored in the Canadian provinces and territories. One of his goals was to never travel a river more than once, but to keep moving on to new territory. Occasionally, however, he would retrace his steps while working as a guide for other tripping parties, or when a section of river would be used again when it became part of another route, but he covered a tremendous amount of country.

I found one story interesting because it intersected with something that happened right while I was reading the book. Somewhere a stone had hit the left fog light on the Ram and put a hole through the light. We were coming from Ponca City, headed back to the campground at Kaw Lake, when I saw a Dodge dealership. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to pull in and see if I could get a replacement bulb. After looking up the part on his computer, the man at the parts counter said the replacement bulb would be $150, and since they are so expensive, they don’t carry them in stock. It would be a special order. A hundred and fifty dollars, for a light bulb----A LIGHT BULB. No wonder American auto makers aren’t doing any better than they are. How do they expect to get return customers when they select parts that are so expensive that it breaks the bank to replace a bloody light bulb. Of course this is all the harder for those of us who can remember what things used to cost. Stewart Coffin tells the story about one of their trips up into Maine in 1958, when a wheel bearing went out on their 1950 Ford. They left the vehicle with a local garage. Since they were from out of town, the mechanic stopped what he was doing and promptly replaced the wheel bearings so they could get back on the road. The total bill, including both parts and labor, was $13.50. And now they want $150 for a light bulb.

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