An Elder's Vision Quest
By By Butch Phillips, Penobscot Indian Elder
The alarm on my watch awoke me from a deep sleep. It was 2:15 AM. I had been asleep for about two and a half hours curled up in the passenger's seat of my wife's car. My wife Linda was asleep beside me in the driver's seat. I lay there for a few moments, not believing that in a short while, I would continue my long journey that began 20 hours earlier.
We were in Medway, Maine at a rest stop on our two day canoe and run spiritual journey from Indian Island, the home of the Penobscots, to Katahdin, our sacred mountain, 100 miles away.
The "Katahdin 100," a Native Spiritual Run, was first run by my nephew Barry Dana, Penobseot Indian, in 1981. Over the years the annual run has become a tradition that is a mirror of the ancient pattern of the Native People. We retrace the annual migration of the people who lived, hunted and sought spiritual attainment in the shadow of Katahdin and on the Penobscot River. The "Katahdin 100" evolved to include other travel to the mountain such as walking, biklng and canoeing. We have also invited our Non-Indian friends to join us in this special spiritual journey. Canoeing is an important part of our heritage and it was logical that we should use the canoe to travel up the river as our Ancestors have done for thousands of years.
For the past 10 years, Penobscot canoeists have canoed and run their way to the mountain by paddling to Medway and then running the remaining 40 miles to Katahdin. This year the plan was to paddle further up the Penobscot River into the West Branch to Pockwockamus Falls, at the base of Katahdin and run the short 10 miles to Katahdin Stream campground, our destination.
Click Here To Subscribe!
I have participated in this annual run for the past 11 years, usually running with a men's relay team. This being my 6Oth birthday year, I wanted to attempt a new and exciting challenge.
My son Scott, who has canoed and run this distance for 10 years, asked me to be his paddling partner. I would be joining our most experienced canoe racers, National canoeing champions and excellent long distance paddlers. The thought of accomplishing this challenge was humbling, as I was always in awe of these young men and women. I felt honored to be asked by Scott to paddle with him and because he believed I could do it. This would not only be a celebration of my 60th birthday, but a celebration of my good health. Also, this would be my Vision Quest!
I had paddled solo for most of the sumrner, slowly building endurance and self confidence. However, I did not know the extent of my endurance or whether I could maintain the pace of these young, well-conditioned paddlers, especially paddling upstream against the current of the Penobscot River.
But here I was, 60 miles up river from Indian Island. We had completed 44 miles of canoeing and 17 miles of running, arriving here by canoe at 11:00 PM. I had endured 17 hours of paddling and running and I was very pleased with what we had achieved thus far and glad that I had decided to try the canoeing route.
As I tried to motivate myself to climb out of the car, I thought of the past day. It was a long wet day. It began with our opening ceremony at 5:00 AM with approximately 70 people gathering in a circle around the Sacred Fire. This ceremony is important to all participants because it prepares everyone mentally and spiritually for the journey. It also reminds us of our Ancestors and the importance of our heritage. This annual journey to the mountain is unique and has become a tradition among our people. We are making that reconnection to the land and to the sacred mountain.
We launched our canoes at 6:00 AM after the opening ceremony as the other teams of walkers, runners and bikers also set out on their individual journeys to the mountain.
Paddling upstream by our Reservation islands, it felt good to be on the river with which we, the Penobscots, have an intimate relationship. Moving upstream gives us a feeling of connectedness to our Ancestors and to the river. Yes, we were traveling upriver with high tech equipment and paddling at a pace that would carry us the same distance in 35 hours that was accomplished by our Ancestors in five or six days. But, the important part was that we were retracing their path.
I thought of the running teams that I had been a part of in the past as I watched runners and canoes paralleling each other up the river for the first 5 hours. I sort of missed the running team, but I was certainly enjoying the canoeing despite paddling in the rain. I was pleased with the progress Scott and I were making and also pleased that I was paddling comfortably even though we had paddled together in a racing canoe only twice before today.
The paddlers would set a record of sorts today. Over the past 10 years, only once had a canoe tipped. Today we would have two. Mark and John capsized within one hour into the trip and Scott and I tipped over near Winn. I had received my baptism in upriver canoeing! Also this was the first time the canoeists have experienced paddling in the rain for most of the trip.
Tired, sore and hungry, I forced myself out of the car and called to Scott to who was sleeping in a small tent. I then awakened the other members of our support crew, my wife Linda, and our son Anthony and grandson Chad who was sleeping in their pickup truck.
Shortly after 3:00 AM, the canoes and our support crews gathered in a circle for our traditional morning ceremony. Burning sweetgrass and tobacco we recommitted ourselves to the task and sought strength from everyone in the circle. We gave thanks to the Creator for our safety and asked the spirits of the Ancestors to guide us and give us the courage and strength to complete this strenuous journey.
Following the ceremony, we started running into the misty darkness toward Millinocket where we would again launch our canoes. The first half mile, my body was sore and stiff, but gradually I settled into my long distance rimning pace. It had rained all day yesterday making staying dry and comfortable a challenge, and now we were experiencing showers again. Running first in a "tee shirt," then rain gear. It was difficult to know what to wear and our supply of dry clothing was becoming exhausted.
Completing the run to Millinocket, the plan was to launch the canoes shortly after dawn, above the dam at Elbow Lake and paddle North Twin and Ambajejus Lakes before the wind came up. The forecast for today called for clearing with little wind!
At 7:00 AM, we shoved off the dam and once again headed North. The long day yesterday, the short sleep, and the run this morning left me less than eager to paddle to our next rest stop, the bridge over Ambajejus Falls; 12 miles away. I bent to the task of paddling once more, trying to maintain a comfortable pace. The lakes were smooth and we made good time, but the long hours were taking a toll on my strength even though I was taking energy drinks often. Twice during that 12 mile paddle, the team agreed to stop for a few minutes so I could rest my tired body and take more nourishment. At the second rest stop at Nick's Gut, it started raining again and we quickly became chilled, so the rest was cut short and we resumed paddling to stay warm. When we started the 2 mile crossing of Ambajejus Lake, the far shore was shrouded in fog, but slowly Ambajejus Point came in view. Rounding the Point, then passing the "Boom House" we entered the mouth of the West Branch. Ambajejus Falls was flooded out and we paddled up stream to the bridge over the falls. I was glad to see that bridge. There would be my family, some nourishment, a short rest and more dry clothes.
Reaching the rest stop I was chilled, tired and my spirits had reached a low point. Sitting alone in the car trying to warm my body, I closed my eyes and rested for about a half hour. My vision of finishing the paddling segment was in doubt. I had reached a point where my body was convincing my mind that it was time to stop. My vision was fading. Then I thought of a saying that we have; "wherever the mind wants to go, the body will follow." On previous spiritual runs I had recited this to others trying to motivate them to continue in times of hardship, and now it was time to practice what I preached and to recommit myself to finish the journey. I mentally divided the remaining mileage into paddling segments between the carry points. I planned to take one paddling section at a time and try to recover enough on the carry to paddle the next segment. For the next eight and an half miles those segments consisted of Passamagamett Falls, Hopkins Pitch and the final carry, Debsconeag Falls. As I made my way toward the shore, to resume our upstream travel, I smelled the sweet aroma of sweetgrass. Mark Ranco was burning sweetgrass in a small clam shell. The smell reminded me of the reason we were doing this journey, the purpose of which had been forgotten in my moments of despair. As I breathed in the smoke and purified my body with it, I felt a renewed sense of commitment and contentment. I thanked Mark for the inspirational uplift and then headed down the bank to the river recommitted to achieving our goal.
After carrying over Passamagamett Falls, the weather had finally cleared and the sun was shining. The warmth of the sun on our backs and a glimpse of the Katahdin for the first time, was very uplifting. As we paddled up the Debsconeag Deadwater, more of the mountain came into view, until the entire mountain lay before us. Debsconeag Deadwater Beach was almost like coming home again. Linda, I and our three sons spent many happy times camping here when the boys were young.
After a short carry over Wheelbarrow Pitch, we approached Debsconeag Falls and our final carry. Carrying our canoes over this 600 yard carry was very nostalgic. We commented that we were walking over an ancient Indian canoe carry and that we were walking in the exact footsteps as our Ancestors. It had been a long time since our People had ascended this river, but we could feel the presence of the Ancestors who once walked in this place. I thought about the Ancestors and how they must be smiling down upon us, because we were keeping alive our canoeing tradition and practicing the old ways. As athletes we were
accepting the challenges of this journey and experiencing the rewards of satisfaction, but we were doing this to heal the People and to promote a healthier lifestyle for all.
The walk over this ancient canoe carry seemed to rejuvenate me. What was an uncertainty for me a day and a half ago, was now only 3 short miles away. I knew I would realize my vision of paddling with my son and the other seasoned canoeists to the base of Katahdin.
Paddling up Pockwockamus Deadwater, all five canoes were together, side by side for the first time. The warmth of the sun and the magical draw of Katahdin lifted our spirits. There seemed to be an excitement among the paddlers. The conversation between the canoeists was lively and contemplative.
We were in awe of the beauty of the river and the mountain and it seemed to inspire us onward with a bit more crispness to the paddle strokes. It was a very powerful moment when all five canoes came around an island and we saw our families and support crews standing at the take out below the falls, waving and shouting to us. All the pain, the hardship and cold wet paddling and running were suddenly worth it. Whopping and yelling, we celebrated as our canoes covered the last few yards of this long river canoe trip. We had set a new standard for the Katahdin 100. It was very difficult and challenging for me, but I was very pleased. I had achieved my goal; I had received my vision quest! It was an honor and pleasure for me to have completed this long 35 hour journey with my son Scott. Also to have my wife, Linda, my son Anthony, and Grandson Chad along to assist was very special, too. This journey has given me a new perspective of what the canoeists experience paddling upriver against the current and I feel I have a special bond with the other paddlers.
Our People have always journeyed into the wilderness to find wisdom and strength. The Katahdin 100, although only a two day journey, provides participants with knowledge about themselves and produces a strength and endurance that they probably did not know they possessed. Our Penobsoot Ancestor, Joseph Nicholas said in part; "I will take you far above the ground where the current of the air is pure, and in the midst of the Spiritual body of air from all quarters of the land, there you will be filled with the spirit." We were certainly filled with the spirit as the five canoes paddled side by side for the final three miles of our river journey.
What has caused so many to join this annual journey to the Mountain? Why do we accept the challenge of canoeing, biking, walking, and running 100 miles in a weekend? To push ourselves beyond the pain and discomfort to a point where the ego lets go and the uncertainty of our capabilities set in. Those who continue past this point will often come to know themselves better. They will experience the presence of the Ancestors! They will be purified; they will connect with the strength of the land, they will experience their vision quest!
Other members of the canoeing team:
Barry and Lori Dana, Maulian Dana, Rob Dana, Ronnie Bear, John and Carol Fracella, John Neptune, Jim Fearon, John Connolly and Chris & Troy Francis.
Feature Story |
Current News |
Photo Gallery |
Subscribe Today |
Outdoor Resources |