In November of 1968, I was delighted to be facing an exhausting trip from Fort Benning, Georgia to Alaska because most of my classmates from the Infantry Officer’s Basic Course were headed to Ranger School, followed by a couple of months in Fort Polk, La., then to a combat tour in Vietnam. I had finagled an assignment to the Modern Winter Biathlon Training Center at Fort Richardson, just outside of Anchorage. There I joined less than 20 other former college skiers who had been selected to train for the Military Ski Championships, the Biathlon World Championships and the Winter Olympics.
Although we were all grateful to be in Alaska, rather than Southeast Asia, it was not a cushy assignment. The training was intense, often involving three exhausting workouts a day, and the competition was fierce. Although on one level we were all friends and teammates, it was never forgotten that only six of us would earn a trip to the World Championships or the Olympics. As a result, we competed at everything: how many kilometers we skied in training, who won the weekly time trails, even who was first in the chow line.
After our military service, many of us remained friends and stayed in contact while others fell out of touch, although a love of the outdoors, especially Nordic skiing, remained a common interest.
Last fall, Terry Aldrich who had recently retired from a career as a ski coach at Middlebury College, e-mailed proposing an adventure: six of us old biathletes would reunite for a week-long paddle the length of Maine’s famous, nearly 100-mile Allagash Wilderness Waterway. In addition to Terry and myself from Vermont, Dan and Dennis would represent Minnesota, George, after an academic career in Montana had relocated to New Hampshire, and David, as a long-time Maine resident, would fill the role of “local guide.”
The weeks sped by and before long I was rummaging through mildewed camping gear and untangling ancient fishing line in a last minute panic to get ready. Five of us descended on David’s house in Maine to pack for the trip, catch up with buddies we hadn’t seen (in some cases) for decades, feast on lobsters and steamed clams and swap stories about our adventures in Alaska almost 50 years ago. It is truly remarkable how individuals experiencing the same event, years ago, can have completely different memories of what actually happened.
The drive from the central coast to the start of our canoe trip just northwest of Baxter State Park was illuminating in terms of just how big Maine is and how much of the interior is undeveloped forest land.
We loaded our gear and launched the canoes soon after noon at the southern end of Chamberlin Lake. After weeks of anticipation and the long drive, it was great to finally be on the water, at least for the first few minutes — until we paddled into the open lake and into a stiff headwind. In spite of the decades, the old competitive instinct kicked in and the heavily loaded canoes struggled against the wind and the choppy water for three hours.
Although none of us had called “Uncle,” there were no complaints when David paddled toward the Gravel Beach campsite. My shoulders were so sore I doubted I could get my backpack out of the boat. Dan was so stiff he tripped getting out of the canoe and ended up in the water. We struggled to set up camp before an approaching squall. Terry restored our positive attitudes with a terrific venison stew and French bread. Stories and joking flew around the campfire until the black flies attacked with a vengeance. We agreed to call it a day and stumbled into our tents. It was 7:30 p.m.
From that first evening, the trip kept getting better. Even Terry and I capsizing in the Chase Rapids had a positive outcome since we emerged wet and cold, but otherwise unscathed, and it provided the other four plenty of fodder for ridicule for the duration of the trip.
Our third night on the river, Terry presented a bottle of adult beverage which he had skillfully concealed in his pack. As he poured into our camping mugs he proposed a toast to the five former teammates we had lost this past year. This got everyone’s attention since few of us had been aware of all five. We reminisced about our teammates, acknowledged how fast the years have flown, and expressed gratitude for the outdoor experiences and friendships we have enjoyed.