Wilmer Hafford stands outside Pray's Store at Ripogenus Dam and tells his clients -- "sports," as he calls them in the parlance of upcountry Maine -- that he is "the strongest man in these parts."
It is a contention we do not challenge.
But to demonstrate that he is fully prepared to defend his title against all comers, Hafford refuses any assistance in loading our five 17-foot canoes onto his trailer.
To meet Wilmer Hafford under any circumstances would be an experience, but it is perhaps best to meet him standing in the rain, watching him load canoes effortlessly without saying a word. And when he is finished, he says quietly out of the side of his mouth, "Some of the sports like to see me do that."
In terms of civilization as it is defined by modern man, Pray's Store is officially the end of the line, and travelers mark it well. It is the last place to buy beer, and, on this cold, late spring morning, sales are exceedingly brisk as a Jeep-load of fishermen, weighted down with state-of-the-art field gear paying homage to the god L.L. Bean, stock up.
We have come to the end of the line for the beginning of a five-day canoe trip along a more than 100-mile stretch of the St. John River in what remains of Maine's backwoods.
Guide is not exactly the appropriate word to use in describing Wilmer Hafford's role in this folly. He is not going along with us on the St. John but he is an essential part of the trip, for he hauls us and our gear back through miles of deep woods to a point where we can begin to canoe out.
Today we are his sports, and already, even though we have gone nowhere, Wilmer Hafford, canoe juggler and backwoodsman, has been worth the price of admission. At about 200 pounds, although he claims to have lost weight, Hafford is a solid but rather shy fellow who says little. Standing hatless in the rain, he is wearing a mud-flecked flannel shirt, which is not tucked into his worn jeans, and a pair of old boots.
After hauling us deep into the woods, Hafford will then have our three cars driven to Allagash in the north of Maine, where, God willing, we will find them in five days.
He is joined in this endeavor by two charming young maids of the north woods dressed in exactly the same fashion as Hafford but for earrings. Either of them looks perfectly capable of tossing a few canoes around, too. They repair to the trading post to purchase sufficient firewater to fuel their return journey with our cars, leaving Wilmer to juggle canoes.
And so we are bundled aboard Wilmer's four-wheel drive for a cramped and uncomfortable three-hour trip along unpaved and rutted paper company roads, a journey that alternately combines the boredom of Greyhound bus travel with the thrill of stock-car racing. Because of the rain the windows are closed. It is a steamy, stuffy ride for the seven of us and Wilmer, made more so by the fact that we are all wet.
I am happy to report that traffic in those parts is mighty light -- and I'm probably alive today because of it.
Hafford has previously startled and entertained sports by driving at what state troopers euphemistically call "a high rate of speed" through the backwoods. The thrill of the jaunt is heightened by the apparent lack of a brake on Hafford's rig. He assures us that a brake is an entirely unnecessary luxury hereabouts as he coaxes his vehicle past a logging truck on a hill.
A lifetime of catering to the whims of sports and living in northern Maine has left Hafford with many skills; alas, loquacity is not one of them. So we drive mostly in silence, and if we are bored the periodic flashing of the brake failure light on the dashboard keeps us alert.
I would like to be able to report that a drive through the deep woods of northern Maine is a scenic trip comparable with motoring through Big Sur, but this is not the case. The gravel roads that crisscross the interior are designed solely to serve their masters, the paper companies. Scenery is an unplanned-for luxury. The roads roll on for miles through scrub and areas that have been cut -- frequently grotesquely scarred stretches that resemble the surface of the moon or a World War I battlefield.
The tedium of the drive is relieved by the occasional moose that immediately charges off into the woods when confronted by Wilmer and us sports.
Our drive offers little else in the way of man or beast, although we do meet two elderly women and a chihuahua at a paper company checkpoint.
After paying our fees and collecting the necessary permits we continue on to the west end of Baker Lake, where Wilmer Hafford drops us off and shortly leaves in quest of another party of sporting types.
Although I was born and raised in Maine, I have since infancy cultivated an aversion to the out-of-doors, manual labor, and exercise more strenuous than miniature golf. These are not precisely the qualifications one seeks in a member of an expeditionary force.
When I was growing up in Maine I was taught to look with great suspicion on those who outfitted themselves with expensive and exotic paraphernalia and hit the trail. We believed that such people, however well-intentioned, were mildly deranged.
The newspapers were full of lively accounts of search parties looking for missing adventurers with mixed success.
Nevertheless, during a bout of lightheadedness and against my usually better judgment I agreed to join a party of canoeists on the St. John. I suppose I thought I could talk myself out of it later.
Alas, elaborate excuses -- and there were many -- and my own not inconsiderable talents as a thespian failed me. My sentence was not to be commuted, and so I resigned myself to a horrible death in the wilds and set my affairs in order.
The fact is that men have mounted the gallows more cheerfully than I went whitewater canoeing.
Before I could sally forth to the wilderness I felt an uncontrollable urge to shop with abandon. I presented myself at H & H Surplus and Camper's Haven in the heart of downtown Baltimore, my current home.
H & H, while not Abercrombie & Fitch, is a spirited operation, a kind of multistoried curiosity shop specializing in the strange and exotic, a warren of used military uniforms, barrels of machetes, martial arts paraphernalia and freeze-dried delicacies for the trail.
All of the above were covered with a fine patina of dust. I don't know what that says about the sporting life in Baltimore.
I descended into the depths of H & H and promptly became hopelessly lost in the vast reaches of the chemical toilet display section. Fortunately a roving member of H & H's hearty staff found me and led me back to where the trail was marked.
I was able to resist an urge to sample the wares in a section offering haberdashery much favored by readers of Soldier of Fortune magazine. However, although I needed nothing, I made a major and a minor purchase.
The first was a one-man tent said by its manufacturer to weigh no more than two medium-size pocket handkerchiefs -- just the tent for the canoeist traveling light.
My second purchase was a 69-cent metal shaving mirror, which I anticipated might be used to signal air search-and-rescue teams scouring the back country for missing outdoorsmen.
As it turned out my companions had enough tents for a foreign legion regiment.
But I am glad to report that my little mirror was the life of the party and much sought by those who wished to shave, examine their sunburns or just admire themselves.
I arrived in Maine just in time to join in the advance preparations for the trip. These were being choreographed by a ne'er-do-well pal of mine who has refused to seek any form of gainful employment lo these many years since he left college. My companion, with free time aplenty, has extensive experience in organizing these little outings.
We were to be joined in our assault on the waters of the St. John by a varied bunch of ersatz woodsmen and women, several of whom were given to gross misrepresentation of their skills in the wilds. These included a medical contingent of a doctor, a registered nurse and a dentist; two lawyers; an aging geologist; a woman who has something to do with getting federal dollars into the right or wrong hands, depending on how one views these things; another woman who claimed to be the producer of a marine biology television talk show, if there can be such a thing; me; and my shiftless associate, a journalist.
Our last supper before we left to die in the deep woods was at a pizza parlor. After this, reeling with dyspepsia, we assembled at a local supermarket to stock up on supplies. My fellow travelers favored a diet high in cholesterol and other substances linked to arterial blockage, so our larder included: An unholy number of pork products, slabs of bacon, sausages and pork chops. Various canned meats, not-so-distant relations of dog food. These had no labels on them but were instead stenciled "A Product of Brazil" or "A Product of Argentina" -- to be referred to by my companions as "gaucho meat." Sardines, peanut butter and honey (to be eaten separately). Pasta. A sinful amount of chocolate and other sweets. A small bag of limes, our only fresh produce. These were necessary because certain members of the expeditionary force had also brought along two half-gallons of generic tequila, which they liberally dosed themselves with after a day of roughing it. And that old standby of the trail, canned beans and franks, a meal served on our final night on the river to somewhat critical reviews.
And so provisioned we went forth to test ourselves against the elements. We stopped briefly in Bangor to rendezvous with two other members of the party (three others were flying in to a remote airstrip), and continued north for a little more than an hour to the dreary paper mill town of Millinocket.
Another hour's drive took us to our rendezvous with Wilmer and the wood nymphs.
It took us about 7 1/2 hours to drive from central Maine to the west end of Baker Lake. Driving south on the interstate for the same amount of time would have put us quite near New York City. This says as much about Maine's back roads as it does about the size of New England's largest state.
The North Maine Woods, as it is designated by the giant paper companies that control most of the land there, consist of hardly anything but mile after mile of woods. There are no towns or villages. The land is marked on the map as T5, R12, meaning township five, range 12. The area is unincorporated and virtually uninhabited.
Long before we met Wilmer Hafford at Ripogenus Dam we had gone through our first paper company checkpoint, the first of several reminders that we are on private land at the pleasure of the paper companies.
The ice was only just off the major lakes in the north woods about a week when we left for our trip, and there was a purpose to this.
Back in the mid-19th century Henry David Thoreau made several celebrated trips into the Maine woods, traveling by canoe along remote rivers. He wrote later, somewhat bitterly, of "our insect foes on this excursion."
Maine has changed a great deal since Thoreau paddled through, but the matter of insect foes has not. It was to avoid just such close encounters with the dreaded black fly that we headed upcountry as early in the season as possible. When the weather warmed up the woods would soon be alive with insect foes.
Unless Maine has had an unusually mild winter and little spring rain, the waters of the St. John will be high and fast-moving in late May, the best time to run the river.
I went along in the canoe of the elderly geologist, who was nearly stone-deaf but for a hearing aid, which he frequently turned off to shield himself from life's unpleasantries. His affliction was deemed an appropriate natural defense against my stories, and so we made ideal canoe-mates.
The old geologist and his son had in an imaginative moment obtained several large plastic barrels formerly used for storing herring and black olives. These receptacles had blessedly been fumigated and were now used to hold all of our earthly possessions while we were on the river. They had lids that screwed on and were airtight and would, according to the theory of the day, float should the occasion arise.
Like a lot of things, in theory the barrels were a grand idea. Alas, at the end of a day of paddling down the winding St. John some poor soul had to carry them up the steep riverbank to the evening's campsite. This task, not unlike piano moving, and made more difficult when done standing in mud, fell to me. It was the major hurdle in pitching camp.
As soon as this was done several of the heartiest reprobates in the company immersed themselves in the frigid waters of the St. John to soothe their aching muscles and wash off a day's sweat. This ritual was immediately followed by the aforementioned preprandial libations.
Paddling 25 miles or so a day could whet an anorexic's appetite, and so we dined early and ate heartily. And so to bed, often even before dark.
My fears of imminent death in a cascade of white water resembling the Snake River were soon dispelled. Instead we paddled on through long stretches of bleak forest on a river that seemed currentless at times.
We planned our days around the evening's anticipated campsite. The campsites along the river were few and often far between, but were well-maintained (by the paper companies), if somewhat spartan, containing a fire ring, a picnic table usually covered with a roof, and an outhouse.
Purists up in Maine will tell you that the whole state has gone to hell and that there's really nothing left of the wild country. This is probably true. However, all things being relative, the banks of the St. John are not a public park in New Jersey, and despite the crowds I had been told to anticipate, we saw virtually no one for the first two days, and then only a handful of other canoes.
Woods crews working for various paper companies were occasionally to be seen on any of the several bridges that cross the river, more reminders that we were on private land.
Halfway down the river an ancient and toothless French Canadian appeared on the riverbank and waved us in, checking to see if we had a permit to be on the river.
Although one does not have to travel too far from the river to find signs of the paper companies, there are not many manmade things along the St. John. There is an old U.S. Border Patrol station at the junction of the Big Black River and the St. John, and there are reminders, too, of the old days in the north woods of Maine when there were logging camps. The decaying remnants of one such camp stand at Nine Mile Bridge, although the old bridge is gone now, swept away by an ice jam.
Five days on the St. John allows less experienced canoeists or out-of-practice voyageurs the chance to polish their skills for the first two or three days before tackling the only real white water on the river.
Big Black Rapids and Big Rapids, the last about two miles long coming just upriver from the village of Dickey, will qualify as white water in anyone's book.
These rapids will not disappoint even the seasoned canoeist. They can be heard a long way off, and the sound of their roar quickens the pulse.
At first the stillness of the hours of paddling through quiet stretches of the river is interrupted by a dim roar far off, and canoeists might imagine that it's the wind in the trees.
But suddenly one rounds a bend in the river and looks down on a stretch of frothing white water. It is not unlike looking down a staircase, and there is that same sensation in running a rapids in a canoe.
Several members of our party allowed as they might consider walking along the riverbank rather than running such water (your correspondent being the chief proponent of this alternative).
But saving face proved more important, and we ran these rapids without incident and spent a good deal of time at the end of each cascade congratulating ourselves on our prowess and marveling that the river gods had spared us.
Christopher Corbett's latest novel is "Vacationland" (Viking).