Editor's note: This is one in an occasional series of stories called First Person, with contributions from readers and Star Tribune staff members.
There we were, bearing down, gritting our teeth and paddling as hard as we could on the Aroostook River in northern Maine. My brother-in-law and I were both experienced paddlers in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) and Quetico Provincial Park, but that was irrelevant. The shore of the river was not moving. We weren’t either, and would soon be going backward. “Get out” was a near-simultaneous refrain. We needed to drag our canoe upstream until we found calmer waters.
If we did this once, we must have done it a hundred times during the duration of our five-day adventure. We were canoeing more than 63 miles round trip up the Aroostook River from Oxbow, Maine, to Munsungan Stream. The final destination was Munsungan and Chase lakes. We returned using the same route, and I finished the adventure with a hike of more than 46 miles back down to Island Falls, Maine. We saw no one canoeing the river or stream the entire trip for good reason: The locals likely knew how terrible and arduous the circumstances.
Quite simply, it was the most challenging canoeing conditions I’d experienced. Why go against the flow? There was really only one reason: because that’s what Theodore Roosevelt did.
Our paramount mission was to retrace the experiences of Roosevelt around Island Falls, during his summer of 1879. Doing so is part of my broader mission to study the terrain of Roosevelt and retrace many of his primary adventures. I already have completed treks in the White Mountains and the Dakotas (Roosevelt’s Dakota Territory). Adventures to come include the Adirondacks, Oyster Bay (N.Y.), the Matterhorn, Cuba, Africa and Brazil. “TR” preached what he called “the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife,” which often manifested itself in extreme physical activity and helped to form the grit and leadership of one of our nation’s greatest presidents. I’m seeking, through self-discovery, to better understand this “terrain” development and identify the lessons to take forward.
I have this opportunity because I’m in transition professionally. I decided to take the summer off to jump-start this project, spend time with family and friends, and also begin forming my own strategy and leadership development firm. I also want to raise awareness and money for the Semper Fi Fund, which helps wounded and ailing servicemen and women, and call attention to the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. TR was awarded the Medal of Honor and helped to create our National Park system as our president from 1901-1909. He understood the importance of taking care of our service members and preserving the environment for future generations. We should do the same.
Our specific Maine adventures in June 2017 included summiting Mount Katahdin, canoeing to Munsungan Lake and spending some time on Mattawamkeag Lake on the outskirts of Island Falls. My son, Jeb, 19, and I reached the summit of Katahdin; for the Musungan and Mattawamkeag portions, my companion was my brother-in-law, Gerard Madden, who is an avid outdoorsman and retired Maine state trooper.
TR had been to Maine many times, but it was this trip in the summer of 1879 that was the most defining for him and likely had the biggest impact. At the time, he was 20 and had just completed his junior year at Harvard. He wanted time in the outdoors. His guide was William W. (Bill) Sewall, who ultimately became his mentor and lifelong friend. We stayed in same house as TR in Island Falls, called the Sewall House, which acted as our base of operations in between segments of the trip. (It is now a yoga retreat owned and operated by Sewall’s great-granddaughter.) It was awe-inspiring to prepare and rest in the same confines.
While the entire trip was riddled with challenge and difficulty, the Munsungan Lake portion stood out. TR’s first strenuous adventure played out there. TR had more rain than we did, but the rest of his personal accounts read like a carbon copy of our trip, including the endless dragging of a canoe upstream in ankle- to waist-deep water. We even employed a pole, actually a retrofitted wooden closet rod, an approach used back in those days in an effort to try to push ourselves, with limited success, up the river. In a letter to his sister, Anna, on Sept. 14, 1879, TR describes the Munsungan trip: “I enjoyed the trip exceedingly, but I think it was the roughest work I have yet had in the way of camping out; our trip to Katahdin was absolute luxury compared to it … and when night came we would lie down, drenched through, too tired to care much one way or the other.”
The formative effect of this trip on TR cannot be overestimated. It taught him the elements of leadership and teamwork in very tough circumstances. It required problem-solving, collaboration, courage, empathy, relationship-building, positive reinforcement and the development of a resolve against what appears insurmountable. I contend that Maine in total, and specifically the Munsungan Lake trip, from a historical perspective, was some of the most highly formative terrain on TR’s early life. In essence, Maine set the stage for much of the rest of his development to occur in the Dakota Territory and beyond. Without Maine, Sewall and Munsungan Lake, the story to TR’s formative evolution and trajectory might have been significantly different.
The broader lesson for all of us is that one lake, one river or one stream can transform who we are as individuals and can impact our nation as a whole as we build leaders. This has been my direct experience canoeing, portaging and camping in the BWCA and Quetico. For me, the transformative bodies of water are the Greenwood Creek, Waiwag River and Mack Lake in the Quetico Provincial Park. For TR, it was the Aroostook River, Munsungan Stream and Munsungan Lake. What will be the lake, river or stream to create the formative transformation in your own life? Don’t be afraid to go against the flow and discover what TR called “the strenuous life” to figure it out. The rewards can be quite spectacular.