I Took To The Woods
I am not sure what I expected, but certainly not this.
When I was planning my #StoriedWaters trip, I included the Rapid River in Maine, where Louise Dickinson Rich lived and wrote her 1942 memoir, We Took To The Woods. This Book-Of-The-Month Club classic is still in print (Downeast Books, 2007) and has a strong fan base today because of Rich’s humor, humanity, and detail in relating a sense of place and time living on this remote river that is still a world-class fly-fishing destination.
I was at the Western Maine Fly-Fishing Expo in Bethel in March telling some people about my planned adventure. I think it was Jeff Reardon who said, “you should talk to Aldro French. He lives in the house where Louise used to live on the Rapid.”
“OK, good idea, I don't know him, but I’ll see if I can figure out how to reach him.”
“That should be easy. He’s right over there. I’ll introduce you.”
Aldro has been a fixture in Maine fly-fishing for over 50 years. He looks the part: flowing white hair and a white beard, and the weathered look of someone who has guided for years. He eyed me warily as I told him my plans, and my desire to visit Forest Lodge near the end of my trip in June.
Aldro agreed to meet me and wrote down his email address, asking me to confirm the date with him and arrange a time to meet. I am sure both of us felt this was all rather tentative.
I had fished the Rapid once years ago with Lou Zambello by mountain biking in from the gate. Knowing how difficult the access is, I was hoping just to get in for an afternoon to see the place where Louise lived, interview Aldro, take some photos, and maybe cast a line in the river for an hour. I didn't want to be a bother.
Aldro has run Forest Lodge as a sporting camp- part time for 38 years and full time for 20 years- but has wound down operations in recent years, taking no new clients, just a few of his long-time regulars who return to fish and socialize. As “Keeper of the Lodge,” he has faithfully preserved the history and spirit of Louise Dickinson Rich and her husband Ralph Rich, maintaining the Summer House, the Winter House and the Guide Camp as essentially a living museum, entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
In late May, I got an email with a map to the gate (14 miles of rough dirt logging roads) and instructions to meet Aldro there at noon on June 18th. "Bring good coffee," he added. With no phone and sketchy email and texting at the Lodge, our communications were fairly cryptic.
First Stop: Magalloway River
After leaving the Dartmouth Grant Sunday morning, I stopped to pick up a few things in Errol where I found a text on my phone from Aldro: “I’ll be at the gate at 2 pm on Sunday. Please confirm."
“Hmm,” I thought, “Meet at 2. This will be an abbreviated visit.” But I was glad to have the chance to get in there at all.
With an extra two hours, I had time to fish for a short while on the lower Magalloway River in Wilson’s Mills, Maine, below Aziscohos Dam. I had no luck with a few casts below the Rt 16 bridge (it sure looked nice), nor in Mailbox Pool, which I had to myself, although I didn’t have enough time to really work it and figure it out. My focus for the day was the Rapid River and Forest Lodge.
I've fished for many years with Lou on the upper Magalloway, above Aziscohos Lake and Parmachenee Lake, including the famous Little Boy Falls where President Eisenhower fished in 1955. A photo of him landing a trout there was on the front page of newspapers all over the world.
I was surprised to learn from Alice Arlen’s biography of Louise Dickinson Rich that Little Boy Falls is also where Louise started a guided canoe trip with her sister in August 1933, traversing Parmachenee Lake, Azicoshos Lake and Umbagog Lake with a portage up the Carry Road along the Rapid River past Forest Lodge.
Louise learned to fly-fish on that eventful and impressive trip. Not only did she fall in love with fly-fishing (“hooked, as they say,” she quipped) and the backwoods of Maine, she also met her soon-to-be husband, Ralph, an engineer who had just moved into Forest Lodge to escape the corporate rat race.
For both Louise and Ralph, each married before, it was love at first sight. They both realized quickly that they shared many interests and values. He wrote to her constantly over the next few months, and at Christmas time, Louise left her teaching job in Massachusetts and took to the woods with Ralph, writing stories set in "these parts" for many national magazines and publishing her first book, We Took To The Woods, in 1942. They lived at Forest Lodge (mostly) full time from 1933 until Ralph died suddenly in 1944. Louise continued to spend summers there until 1955, and went on to publish over 20 books in her career. She died in 1991.
At The Gate
I pulled up to the gate at precisely 2:00. I am used to driving on rough roads, so I made good time in my 4WD Nissan Rogue. There, also waiting for Aldro, was a couple from Vermont, Dr. Jack (Doc) Beecham and his lovely wife Allie, in their Prius.
“Wow," I thought, "it must have taken them hours to pick their way around the rocks and puddles with that low ground clearance.”
Introducing himself, Jack mentioned that he was retired from Dartmouth's Norris Cotton Cancer Center and had been coming up to Forest Lodge for many years. Before I could learn much about Allie, Aldro pulled up in his pickup.
Aldro instructed me to go ahead to the Lodge, as it would take longer with the Prius and they would need to unload gear to the truck for the last mile, where the road gets too rough.
“You’ll be staying in the Winter House, first building on the left,” he said. To me.
OK… what? Staying in the Winter House? The one in the book? (I said to myself.)
I hadn’t planned to spend the night but I’d been thinking about asking if there was a room available, given that I really wanted to fish the river on such a lovely evening. At that point, I still had no idea what to expect at the Lodge, as I hadn't done much research, other than read the book and arrange the date for a visit.
I pulled up to the Winter House and stepped onto the porch, which has a spectacular view of the river and what is left of Pond-In-The-River Dam. It certainly looked like the pictures I had seen.
The Riches lived here in the winter because it was smaller and easier to keep warm. There is a sign on the wall about the “Friends of Forest Lodge,” a non-profit Aldro had set up, dedicated to preserving Louise Rich’s legacy and the historical buildings on site. The larger Summer House is only 50 yards away, much closer than I thought.
Inside, the three-room Winter House looks like it hasn’t changed since the 1940s. The “wallpaper” in the living/dining room is a collection of original magazine covers, comics, ads and articles from the 1930s and 40s, including Saturday Evening Post, Liberty and Cosmopolitan, probably issues that ran Louise’s articles.
I put my bag on the bed in the small bedroom, where Louise and Ralph had slept. I imagined Louise and their hired hand, Gerrish, tying flies at the table. The books on the shelf and the furnishings were probably there when Louise left. The propane lights were "new," but an original oil lamp was mounted on the wall.
Fishing the Rapid
Aldro still hadn't pulled in, so I wandered down toward the Summer House and a small cabin next to it, where I met Richard Hegeman, a jeweler from Rhode Island, tying flies on the porch overlooking the roaring river below. Richard showed me the tiny brown Rapid River caddis he had tied, and told me he has been coming here since the 1990s, about as long as Doc Beecham. (The two of them had some great stories to tell of their misadventures over the years. According to Richard, Doc is good at falling in the river.)
I told Richard I wanted to make a few casts in the pool below while waiting for Aldro to arrive. I grabbed two rods, one rigged with sinking line, and climbed carefully down the steep wooden steps to the pool below the porch where Richard was working.
I flipped a white maribou soft-hackle Black Ghost out into the pool and pulled some more line off the reel. The fly disappeared into the foam. As the fly came back into view, a large silvery shadow rose and disappeared near the fly. I threw the fly out again, a little farther.
On the second strip, I knew I'd hooked a big fish. I could feel the individual shakes of its head, whump whump whump, rather than the quiver you feel from a small fish. I kept the line tight, and tried to determine what the fish would do.
It ran... across the pool into the heavy current, taking in all my slack line and a bunch more off the reel. When it stopped, I started to work it back into the slower water near shore.
“Richard! Can you bring me a net!” I shouted above the roar of the river. I felt like an idiot. I had just met the guy. All I had was my rod. And this felt like the biggest trout I’d ever had on the line.
As Richard hurried down the stairs with a net, I moved the big fish up toward my feet. Then it ran again, this time upstream for the rocks and the deep water under a small drop, back in the heavy water. As it disappeared into the rocks...snap.
F-bomb. From me. Not the trout.
I looked up at Richard who was standing there, net in hand at the bottom of the stairs. Now I REALLY felt bad. He'd had come running for naught. I reeled in my broken leader – a brand new 5X – and saw that the line had broken cleanly.
‘Well, if someone ever catches that trout, they’ll get the fly I tied yesterday as a bonus.”
I thanked Richard for his help, and went up to grab my vest and net then returned to the same place, deciding to try nymphs to see if I could interest that beast again with something different. No luck, of course.
I moved down the pool a bit and drifted a big Royal Wulff on top with a red nymph dropper in the slower water. On the first cast, a salmon took the nymph and immediately leaped clear out of the water and across the pool. This time I landed the fish, before heading back up the stairs.
Dinner and Dusk
At the top near the Summer House, I met Aldro and reported my misfortune with the big trout. His non-response indicated he had seen fools like me lose big fish plenty of times. “Why don’t you go down into the kitchen and meet Ginny. She’s making dinner. She can tell you what time we’ll be eating.”
Ginny Sislane, whose four dogs were lounging in a portable pen near the house, was making a scrumptious looking dessert with strawberries and rhubarb from the garden. She planned an early dinner so we could all fish afterward until dark. I learned later that Ginny works as a controller for a seafood company in Gloucester, Massachusetts. She is also a recovering field trial competitor.
At about six o'clock, the six of us sat down for dinner in the basement of the Summer House. Aldro reminded me to remove my hat, and said grace. (That's another story entirely!) We enjoyed dinner and dessert and good-natured ribbing among old friends. I felt privileged to be part of this interesting family of conservation-minded folks who love the setting and its history.
After dinner, Aldro and Ginny walked up to Pond In The River to fish from a
canoe. I waded into the river below the footings of the old Lower Dam near a nice seam where two currents joined in a deep pool. While stripping a streamer through the run, I saw a fish jump clear out of the water across the river. There were a few splashy rises within casting distance, so I switched to my dry fly rig.
I wasn’t sure what they were taking, but a Hornberg worked, as did a caddis emerger. I landed four landlocked salmon, all 12 to 15 inches of quicksilver energy, each one leaping into the twilight. Quite a way to end an unexpected day!
The next morning, I went down to the kitchen, where Richard poured me coffee (I had brought Kickapoo coffee from Wisconsin) and cooked me a couple soft-boiled eggs with English muffins. We chatted as the others rolled in, and then Aldro invited me on a guided tour of the several buildings, some original and others newer. He told me that his father had bought the place in the late 1950s, but died several years later, passing it to Aldro.
“My family, we’re all Bowdoin folks,” he said with a wry smile, ribbing me about my connection to Dartmouth.
Aldro loves this place, and now in his 70s, worries about what will become of
Louise and Ralph’s legacy (and his own, I suspect.) He finds it harder and harder to maintain the dozen buildings, and would love to find the right buyer.
Yes, Forest Lodge definitely needs an angel to come along and keep the spirits alive here.
I had time for one more fishing excursion before Aldro was planning to take me and Ginny to the gate. This time, Aldro sent me downstream on one of his four wheeler ATVs to Cold Spring Pool and Smooth Ledge (one of Louise’s favorite places). I loaded my rods and gear onto the machine and headed slowly down the rough Carry Road. It was another muggy and buggy day, so the slight breeze on the ATV was a relief.
At Cold Spring, I caught three classic Rapid River brook trout, all over 14 inches, one on a nymph, one on an emerger, and one on a streamer. At Smooth Ledge, where one could fish all day and never tire of the amazing rock formations, I caught one more before declaring to myself, “ok, this is my last cast.”
Twenty-five casts later, I finally tucked the fly into an eyelet on my rod and trudged back up the hill to the road, smiling to myself that I had such an unexpected and delightful 24 hours at Forest Lodge.
Many thanks to Aldro, Ginny, Richard, Doc and Allie for welcoming me, and allowing me to be immersed in the stories of Forest Lodge and waters of the Rapid River. What an unexpected treat!
I can’t help but end by quoting Louise’s words from the closing chapter of We Took To The Woods:
“Why did we come to live here in the first place? We thought it was because we liked the woods, because we wanted to find a simple, leisurely way of life. Now, looking back, I think that we were unconsciously seeking to find a lost sense of our identity. …[L]iving here has changed me. I hope it has changed me for the better. Certainly I am happier… Certainly I am more at home in this world that we have created than ever I was in that vast and confusing maelstrom that we call civilization.” -L.D.R
I couldn't agree more.