Americans have shaped the idea of wilderness, and it has shaped us. The Last Empty Places is one man’s love letter to the enduring American wild, where our country’s character was forged and its destiny set in motion.
Memories of growing up in a log cabin in the Wisconsin woods inspired writer Peter Stark to seek out untouched tracts of the American wilderness. What he discovered in these “blank spots” on the U.S. map is that these places are actually teeming with the rich history of our nation.
Stark journeys into the great wild to four of the emptiest expanses he can find—northern Maine, central Pennsylvania, the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico, and southeast Oregon—and in so doing weaves together a majestic and dramatic tale of frontiersmen and fighters, naturalists and philosophers, émigrés and natives. But he also goes beyond that, acknowledging to some of the great minds that first framed our relationship to the wilderness that would become our home—passionate thinkers and writers including Thoreau, Emerson, and John Muir.
The result is a narrative that blends nature and history in a vivid new way, a tale that provides an unforgettable window into our country’s past and present.
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Peter Stark is the author of Last Breath and At the Mercy of the River. He is a freelance writer, a correspondent for Outside, and has written for Smithsonian and The New Yorker. He has been nominated for a National Magazine Award and has written a collection of essays, Driving to Greenland. He is the editor of an anthology of writing about the Arctic titled Ring of Ice.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
From far off, it was said, you could hear the women and children screaming. If you’d been there, in Nova Scotia—they called it Acadia then—in September of 1755, you would have seen the women down on their knees along the dirt lane, pleading, praying, wailing, reaching up with extended arms as their men and boys were marched from the church at Grand Pré down to the British ships that waited with the high tide.
All men and “lads” over the age of ten had been summoned to meet at the church at this Nova Scotian port town at exactly 3:00 p.m. on September 5. When 418 of the Acadians were gathered within the church, British soldiers barred the doors and windows. Colonel Winslow, the British commander, in a powdered wig, sat at a table surrounded by soldiers and read aloud from a document containing orders that supposedly originated with the king. It detailed the fate of these French-descended inhabitants of Nova Scotia—the Acadians—as the British soldiers went from port to port to round them up.
“His instructions and commands, to wit, That your lands and tenements, cattle and live-stock of all kinds are forfeited to the Crown, together with all your other effects, except money and household goods, and that you yourselves are to be removed from this his province.”
The decree was translated into French. The Acadians, most of them, didn’t read or write. No one recorded their precise reaction at that moment in the church at Grand Pré more than two hundred years ago except as it lives on today in stories and songs among Acadian descendants in the bayous of Louisiana, deep in the North Woods of Maine, and still in parts of Nova Scotia. We have instead the words of Colonel Winslow himself, who wrote that the Acadians were “greatly struck.” He couldn’t understand the imprecations hurled his way in their ancient dialect of French.
Inside the church at Grand Pré, the British pointed their muskets at the outraged Acadian men and boys. The Acadian ancestors had migrated from France and settled here, on this great peninsula of land they called Acadia and we know as Nova Scotia that hovers out in the Atlantic east of Maine. By the time the British read their decree at Grand Pré in September 1755, the Acadians had lived on the peninsula for a century and a half. They’d been among the very first permanent northern European migrants to the New World, arriving in 1606—even before the first British colonists founded Jamestown far south in Virginia. The Acadians had hunted the forests for furs and for meat, fished the bays and coastlines, diked the tidal salt marshes into fields. Unlike many of the British settlers to the south, they’d lived harmoniously with the Indians, learned to craft birch-bark canoes and snowshoes, traded with them, intermarried with them, raised métis families. They “trucked with the savages,” as the British put it disgustedly. They were an independent, self-sufficient people, a people of the forests and the marshes and the rivers—not quite French, not quite Indian, but both; or, rather, a unique people that blended both.
And now the end had come for Acadia. The British had won the great peninsula from France in 1710 in a military victory, and for more than forty years, during a time of peace between the two great empires, had let the Acadians be. But now war was again afoot between Britain and France. The Acadians, way out here on the remote fringes—on the vague borderlands between the two clashing worlds—were caught between.
The heavy rains started as we drove our rental car up the New England coast toward northern Maine—toward the lands where fleeing Acadians had disappeared. After flying east from home in Montana, we’d spent the night outside Boston, in Concord, close by Thoreau’s Walden Pond. That morning, in the motel’s breakfast room, where the children gleefully made waffles on the do-it-yourself iron, the television had predicted rain for the next four to five days. As I paid the bill in the lobby, a fine, warm Gulf Stream drizzle was falling on the electric-green motel lawn. A few hours later on I-95, when our economy rental car reached L.L.Bean at Freeport, Maine, a blurry deluge crashed on the windshield and streamed up from the tires. At Bean’s, I bought a tarp, poles to suspend it, extra tent stakes, and a new rain jacket to replace my old one, as it suddenly seemed woefully inadequate. As a kind of treat to myself, I also bought a new fly rod. For the children, already well outfitted with rain jackets and pants, Amy picked up a couple of extra insect headnets—the kind with brims. The previous night, over an expensive bistro dinner in Concord, she’d been much bemused by conjuring the image of me taking notes while wearing a headnet propped up on sticks.
“That’s why it’s blank where we’re going,” she’d choked through tears of laughter over her soup, to the children’s bewilderment. “No one wants to live there! Because of the bugs!”
But it was the prospect of rain that bothered me more than the threat of bugs. I was slightly cheered after we left the coast past Bean’s, heading inland, almost due north, on I-95, and the rain tapered off. By the time we reached Medway—the gateway to the Maine Woods, a couple of hours inland—the rain had stopped altogether. Stuffed to the ceiling with our camping gear, our little white car bumped off the dry highway and into the graveled parking lot of Nicatou Outfitters, a wood-sided building scattered with a few others beside the road. The late afternoon gloom and heavy gray skies held low over the pointy tips of the dense fir and spruce forest behind the shop. I was thinking, Five days. That’s a whole lot of rain on an eight-day canoe trip. Especially on a wilderness river. With children. And no way out of the forest. Except paddling onward into the cold downpour.
“Are you Betsy?” I asked the wiry, blondish, thirty-something woman who emerged from the shop to greet us, followed by a bouncy young black Lab.
“I am,” she said.
I later would learn that her mother’s family, the Faloons, had settled here in the mid-1800s when Medway was still known as Nicatou—located at the forks of the East and West Branches of the Penobscot River. Her husband, Galen Hale, held a regular job with the Maine environmental inspection branch while she ran their outfitting shop. Inside, fishing lures and billed hats and paddling gear lined the walls, and a wide assortment of mosquito repellent. I inspected the varieties while she gamely showed our children, Molly, eleven, and Skyler, eight, how the black Lab, Nicky, could roll over.
“It’s been so wet lately. I was out in my garden today and the bugs were pretty bad. You’ll want to bring plenty of bug dope,” she said, in an accent full of dropped “r”s and open “a”s.
I’d heard the same mantra—“bring plenty of bug dope”—from at least three other Mainers, including her husband, Galen. From Montana, I’d spoken to him by phone several times, telling him I was looking for the emptiest, blankest spots on the map, as well as an outfitter to help us.
“Do you know the Saint John River?” I’d asked him.
“Ayup,” he replied, with that famous Mainer laconic brevity.
Could he rent us canoes for it?
Could he guide us down it if we wanted?
Did he know the other rivers of northern Maine?
Then, in a burst of loquaciousness, he volunteered his qualifications.
“I been living here in Medway all my life. My family started guiding here in 1833. When Henry Thoreau came to the Maine Woods in 1846, his guide was Thomas Fowler. That’s my great-great-great-granduncle by marriage, on my mother’s side. I can show you pretty much exactly where Thoreau went, if you want. I can even show you where he spent the night here in Medway. Supposedly at Mom Howard’s.”
I knew I’d found my man. You could say that in a strange, roundabout way it was Galen Hale’s great-great-great-granduncle by marriage (on his mother’s side) who inspired me—and other like-minded Americans—to have a passion for wild places to begin with, to yearn for the blank spots remaining on the map. Until Thoreau and company came along in the early 1800s, most of what European people strove for during their first three hundred years on the American continent was to stamp out every spot of blankness that they could reach. They sought out these blank places, this largely uncultivated continent thinly peopled by Indians, as cheap land to homestead. They saw nothing good—but rather evil—in the “wildness” of it. The value of blank spots, of wild places, lay only in their cultivation—in “civilizing” these spots and “taming” the natives. It was in good part Thoreau—and his trips to the Maine Woods—who changed all that.
“You’re a brave woman, Amy,” remarked David Skipper as another gust of rain lashed the windshield of his van.
A burly, friendly man, Skipper drove shuttles to the Maine rivers for Galen and Betsy Hale’s clients who wished to canoe. He now steered the big blue van—our rented canoes lashed on top, our mound of gear loaded in back—down a gloomy mud-and-gravel forest road. The wipers whipped back and forth. The rains had begun that morning, reaching from the coast up into the Maine Woods, when we woke up in the little motel across from the Hales’ shop in Medway. For nearly three hours since Medway, we’d been driving on these graveled roads through the soaking wet fir and spruce woods, through this great green sponge of evergreen trees, woody brush, dripping moss.
“How much longer?” Skyler finally asked.
“Five minutes,” Skipper said.
Fifteen minutes later the gravel road curved right, and we barreled off it down into a low, grassy clearing with a small campground that opened onto the shore of a large gray lake.
Gauzy gusts of rain blew across its surface, veiling and unveiling the low, darker gray bands of pointed spruce and fir that ringed the far shore. I spotted one other human presence in the campground, the first we’d seen for the last hour or so of driving—a pickup truck and camping trailer at the clearing’s far end, buttoned up tight against the weather. It was early June, but the gloom made it feel like late November.
This was Baker Lake, and we were at its foot. Its outlet stream ran past the campground, about fifty or sixty feet wide, sliding past us before disappearing between the walls of forest. Here lay the headwaters of the St. John River. The village of Allagash, the first settlement downstream from this spot, sat a hundred miles away. Those hundred miles we’d paddle by canoe.
We climbed out of the van into the downpour. Amy scrambled to help Skyler and Molly pull on rain pants, rain jackets, and rain hoods while David and I unstrapped the canoes and laid them on the wet gravel landing at the river’s edge. As quickly as I could, I nestled our ten or twelve waterproof dry sacks containing sleeping bags, clothes, tent, and two large coolers crammed with food into the canoe hulls. It was already three o’clock, and I was eager to make some distance before dark.
Back in the Nicatou Outfitters shop at Medway that morning, Galen and David had mentioned that, along the right riverbank a few hours downstream from Baker Lake, sat an old trapper’s cabin.
“Remember that cabin,” David now reminded us. “That would be a mighty nice place to spend the night in weather like
this. It’s there for anybody who wants to use it.”
Skyler abandoned his hunt for arrowheads along the shore and we climbed in—Skyler in the bow of one canoe and I in the stern, Molly in the bow of the other and Amy in the stern. David helped shove us out into the river.
We four raised our paddles, swiveled the canoes to point downstream, and began stroking into the gusts of a stiff headwind, waving goodbye to David as we slipped into the rainy, gray-green forest.
Acadia, one might say, was born of indifference by rival empires, and was finally killed off by the same imperial rivalries.
In 1541, Spanish spies, skulking around French ports, got wind of a French expedition, under Jacques Cartier, headed to North America to establish France’s claims to regions around the St. Lawrence, which Cartier had explored a few years earlier. Spain, of course, decades before in the wake of Columbus, had established American colonies farther south—in Mexico and then South America. After catching wind of Cartier’s expedition for French settlements in the New World, the Spaniards consulted with the Portuguese, who also had their own American colonies, in Brazil. Should they should take action against the French plans for settlement near the St. Lawrence?
“They can do no harm at Baccalaos,” the Portuguese diplomats soothed the upset Spaniards.
Baccalaos was the Spanish and Portuguese name for the northern region. It meant “Codland”—the rich shoals of fish on the Grand Banks, the continental shelf off today’s Newfoundland. Since the early 1500s, the Grand Banks had drawn an annual fishing fleet of Basque, Portuguese, and Breton vessels that stuffed their holds with salted codfish and sold them in Europe (Portuguese recipes today still call for the salted cod known as bacalhau). But, thick as these cold, foggy regions were with schools of offshore cod, the Spanish and Portuguese apparently didn’t think it worth fighting the French over settlement claims to them. The wealth of cod lay offshore, for one thing, and, besides, the Spanish and Portuguese claimed far greater empires—rich with gold and silver—in the lands to the south.
Initially, they proved to be right. It wasn’t worth fighting for. After suffering a terrible winter from scurvy and cold along the St. Lawrence, Cartier returned to France the next summer commanding what turned out to be a boatload of quartz “diamonds” and fool’s gold. As an explorer, Cartier was put out to pasture in a crude manor house near St.-Malo, while for the next fifty years, throughout the late 1500s, the French mostly ignored their claims to North America as they fought decades of civil war between the Catholics and the Protestant Huguenots. When the religious wars ended, however, eyes again turned to the New World.
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