Henry David Thoreau having been born two hundred years ago this summer just past, a sojourn in Maine seemed a necessary thing. As it does most years. This year the trip was to be accompanied by a reading of the philosopher’s report on his trips to Kathadin and Northwestern Maine, then as now seemingly back of beyond, a “damp and intricate wilderness” isolated from the settled world in Maine and nearby Quebec among endless streams, lakes, bogs, swamps, and thickets. (The Maine Woods, published free online in various forms and formats if you don’t mind reading a screen.)
The road leads through Millinocket, then a teeny settlement founded by the very Thomas Fowler who guided Thoreau and his fellow travelers up Mount Kathadin in 1846. Beyond Millinocket lies the country known as the “North Woods,” much of it lumber company property that was tough to get to in Thoreau’s day, and time-consuming today. Plus consuming of tires. Thoreau traveled by way of train, steamboat, coach, ferry, cart, voyageurs’ bateau and his feet. We drove all the way, some parts of the route twice on account of the tire issue. We got more than a nodding acquaintance with the way to Millinocket and an extra night on the town. In between then and now, it boomed and busted.
Thoreau and his pals hired a local man named Louis Neptune to get through the Maine maze. GPS and a map brought us to the lakeside campsite we had found online some weeks in advance. First come first serve, so we’d kept our fingers crossed. To increase our chances at a choice spot without neighbors, we had picked one without immediate vehicle access. It turned out there were but a hundred-and-twenty-five paces betwixt car and picnic table but that indeed had served to keep out car-camping hordes much like ourselves.
The most direct route from vehicle to tent site ran via the shore of the lake. The carpenter and I resolved to carry our not inconsiderable camping luggage — far removed from Thoreau’s shared blanket and a side of pork — thither in our canoe. Not the food. Camping in this country, food remains in the car on account of the bear. Thoreau didn’t get a whole lot of food but ate a lot of blueberries. So did we. As does the bear.
The shallows at the north end of this pond are sandy as they are wont to be in these parts, and seemed largely devoid of rock but for some irregularly spaced pebbles. Easy peasy walking while pulling a canoe loaded to the gunnels with tent, sleeping mats and bags, a tarp to make shade and an untold number of bins and boxes containing the wherewithal of cooking and eating for a stay of five days for two over-prepared Americans.
WHOA! Pulling up short in good cartoon fashion, we nearly dropped ourselves, the canoe, and all the gear into the water, tent wobbling on top. As soon as we pushed the ship into her element and commenced splashing and sloshing, the pebbles and rocks on the lake bottom flew away in a silent underwater explosion. What gives?
You should be so lucky. When the rippling stopped we saw fat cartoon fish with a finned tail — impersonating rocks at the bottom of four inches of the clearest pond water you have ever seen. They weren’t fish, though. Wanting to hear the loon and see the moose, we had stepped into an incubator where hordes of the largest fattest, most bulbous polliwogs even the carpenter who grew up lakeside had ever seen had fetched up in the shallows for the final reconstruction from wog to frog. Each of the balls containing, like an IKEA box, the entire makings of one frog, including directions written in double helix script.
All were heavily pregnant with forelegs still within their bellies. Some had grown hind legs already, but none were using lungs or had frog faces with eyes on top. We knew at once that was all coming anon and we had front row seats to the show. Who doesn’t want to see metamorphosis in action? A miracle if you’re inclined to think that way and who wouldn’t stand in awe at the intricate instructions we pass down the generations through the simple mechanism of fertilizing an egg.
The passage of a long canoe body and four feet — suitable to a large moose tho differently arranged — had woken them out of their gestational torpor in a hurry. I hoped that we hadn’t caused frog legs to go missing in the uproar.
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Ssssh! The carpenter touched my foot and motioned silence as I bolted upright. But the moose splashing by our tent could not care less about the two humans gawking from their sleeping bags a mere fifteen feet away – awestruck by the easy trot and grace with which she moved her entire bulk through the water. A good omen, I thought, for getting up an expedition to see if I could find a miracle in motion in the pond.
Cooking fires doused and camp shipshape, I got into the kayak, an excellent craft borrowed for purposes of solitary photography, to spend an hour or two stalking the polliwogs. I wanted to see if I could catch one in the act of making change.
To circumvent their tendency to flee in all directions at the slightest disturbance and trusting that polliwogs focusing on becoming frogs can’t tell the difference between the bark of the hemlock and the orange plastic of the Pungo, I contrived to paddle out a ways and let the current and the wind push me into the shallows like a restless log marked and set adrift in spring by a logger to make its way to the mill downstream. Suitable activity in the heartland of immense lumber drives that first built the English fleet, then the American cities, and then carried much of the news deemed fit to print, no?
Slowly I drifted into a large field of tailed pebbles. All around me, polliwogs were hanging at the bottom, basking in the sun. All the same, they looked full of tension and profoundly ill at ease —like they could not find a way to be or how to be. Some had incipient back legs and were elongating into mouse shape, some were still working on the leg part. They’d drift with slowly rippling tail, then suddenly shudder, swish tail and dart off a yard or two at great speed, only to resume motionless drifting. Drift, shudder, drift, shudder. I tried to imagine what it would be like to suddenly feel you need to grow major body parts without understanding what is happening and Kafka came to mind. Drift, shudder.
Still, I was hoping to see a leg pop out here or there. Not being equipped with a handy tail to keep me stationary, it took some doing to stop drifting ashore. Propping one hand on the lake bottom, I used the other to try and catch a polliwog popping a leg with the camera. Thus arrayed sideways in the kayak, I sat quietly for an immeasurable amount of time for this twenty-first century human being, a full twenty minutes, watching a creature that looked like a frog in the legs and a polliwog elsewhere slowly get less bulbous in the front. (Okay, I may have imagined that part.) Just as I was sure a front leg was going to emerge any moment now, the wog wagged its tail. Gone.
Repeat. Drift. Repeat again.
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That night, as we took a final stroll to the car to put the food away, the edge of the pond was a city of frogs, hidden up to their noses in the mud and the tiny flotsam and jetsam at the very edge of the water. Perhaps they’d crawled into the mud whence we all came for the final steps?
Ahead of our progress, a great panic ensued and dozens of frogs skipped, jumped, and swam for dear life, only to pull up about ten yards out to watch us intently, silhouetted and enlarged against a backdrop of silvery water in the fading light.
For a polliwog to become a frog, it must grow four legs, a face, and lungs to breathe air, as well as pop up its eyes and absorb a tail longer than itself. To my mind, it’s a feat that easily surpasses surviving primary school through college — resulting in better knowledge of nature by the by.
A great big thank you to Tiffany for the loan of her kayak.
Have a gander at this album of polliwog and frog portraits. The result of chasing wogs and frogs for four days. They don’t sit still for the camera. I could never get a jumping frog to hold digitally with the equipment at hand. The secret to getting a frog to pose is to move in quickly enough that she doesn’t dare move. At that moment you have a few seconds before she vanishes anyway. I finally learned to see the many frogs largely submerged in the cellulose foam churned up by increasing wind which made it possible to stalk them quickly. Take a look at the emergence of legs and the elongating of shape. They end up looking like underwater mice with a big fin. After a day or two the majority had front legs, and at some point I managed to get a portrait of a sort of a very shy pollywog with front and hind legs and a tail, still submerged, by standing stock still in the water for an eon. I threw in a loon at the end to show that there was a variety of entertainment at Wadleigh Pond. But that’s coming anon.
It may take a moment to get sharp.