Going over Roll Dam
As I approached the lip of the falls I had second thoughts about going over them, but it was too late for that. Suddenly I was thrown into the maelstrom and tossed about as if in a washing machine. I felt myself moving forward and opened my eyes briefly to see the rocks on the walls of the trench I was in whizzing by, and quickly closed them again. Then the current slowed, and my lifejacket popped me to the surface of the river. I grabbed the rescue rope and pulled myself to shore to join the others.
We were starting a Boy Scout trip down the West Branch of the Penobscot River, and one of the rights of passage to beginning the trip was going over the washed out Roll Dam in nothing but a lifejacket and a helmet. How fearful and exhilarating it was to swim out into the water above the falls, and feel the strong current grab you and pull you to the brink. Better than any amusement ride out there. This was my first long canoe camping trip, and I was quickly hooked. I remember a couple of highlights of camping on an island in the river and feeding fallfish we had caught to a nearby soaring osprey. One evening I went out for a paddle up a stream next to where we were camping, and on the way back down a huge moose crossed the stream just in front of me. It was amazing for me to watch, and I so wanted to move to Maine and see this every day.
The upper west branch that we were paddling drains into Chesuncook Lake, a reservoir formed by Ripogenous dam. It’s about 22 miles long and 1-4 miles wide, with a maximum depth of 150 feet. I’ll never forget coming around the corner into Chesuncook and seeing the Chesuncook Lake House, smack dab in the middle of nowhere it seemed so big. We pulled in to the grassy shore and went up to the house to check it out. They rent rooms and cabins, and at the time I was there, had a small store where we bought homemade root beer and homemade bread. We sprawled out on the grassy lawn overlooking Chesuncook and ate and drank our root beer. My Dad as a joke mentioned to be careful drinking the root beer, as it contained a tiny bit of alcohol, and after that one of the kids in our troop started acting like he was a little drunk. It was pretty funny. Chesuncook Lake House has a webcam that you can see here – this is the view we had while on the grass that day. Chesuncook is a crossroads of sorts, you can head down past Ripogenous gorge ( where they whitewater raft) into the Penobscot River, you can head north to Umbazookus Lake into Mud Pond , carry to Chamberlain and then down the Allagash, or you can head up to Black Pond, into Caucomgomoc Lake and then up stream to Round Pond which is what we did. I remember climbing the firetower overlooking Allagash Lake and picking fresh strawberries to put in the pancakes for breakfast. I paddled way up one of the brooks in the area, dragging over rocks and pulling upstream for a long ways. Suddenly, perched on a rock in the middle of nowhere was an old rusty lamp, probably from the logging days. It was magical almost, as if I was drawn to it somehow.
On the way back down from Round Pond to Chesuncook the wind was behind us, and we lashed the canoes together and raised a large tarp and sailed the 22 miles down the length of Chesuncook. This was one of my first encounters with the region, and the north woods with its adventures and secrets still calls out to me. Those of you who hear it know what I’m talking about.
The region is full of rich history, tales and characters, most notably Hiram Johnson.
The following story was printed in the Bangor Daily News on 12/19/2005, written by Wayne Reilly;
Mainers never cease to be fascinated by hermits. There have been an abundance of them immortalized in local histories or in the minds of older residents in nearly every community in the state. Most of these folks were harmless eccentrics, as was Hiram Johnson until one day in 1959 he shot and killed the logging contractor who had employed him near the bank of Chesuncook Lake, northwest of Mount Katahdin. Then he killed himself after setting his shack on fire.
Howard Collins knew Johnson when he was a boy growing up in Chesuncook Village. He recently discovered what is believed to be the only photograph of the hermit in existence. Johnson is displaying an auger, the device he used to bore holes in the ends of boom logs that were chained together and used to corral floating logs on their way to market. Why this stubborn, solitary man allowed his picture to be taken seems as much a mystery as the rampage that ended his life some years later.
Johnson was 70 years old and reportedly hard of hearing when he killed Leslie E. Spear after the logging contractor tried to enter the “horse hovel” he occupied. Spear was accompanied by two deputy sheriffs and an employee, according to the contemporary report in the Bangor Daily News on Sept. 22, 1959. The dispute, said the newspaper, was over pay, apparently aggravated by a second disagreement about whether Spear could take his logging equipment past Johnson’s squatter’s dwelling, located on land owned by Great Northern Paper Company. Today it is impossible to sort out all the nuances of this emotional dispute.
Howard Collins remembers Johnson well from when his father used to take him fishing near the hermit’s hovel, which was across the lake from Chesuncook Village, behind Gero Island. He lived in a clearing beside the lake in what is called the Cuxabexis region after a stream that flows into Chesuncook from a smaller lake by the same name. Collins recalls a man far different from the crazed “elderly woods recluse” portrayed in the newspapers in 1959.
“Hiram was not a bad guy. Some who didn’t know him just painted him that way because of the murder. All of the so-called ‘old timers’ at Chesuncook Village liked Hiram,” recalled Collins, who worked for Great Northern Paper Company for 32 years and still owns a camp in the area. “He lived in a small cabin at the south end of the village. Shortly after the end of World War II, perhaps 1948 or 1949, he moved to Cuxabexis. … The reason Hiram left the village was he felt it was becoming too crowded for him. … His cabin at the village burned and, needing a place to live, he knew of the horse hovel at Cuxabexis.”
“He was to say the least a very stubborn man,” said Collins, recounting a story about a large pile of scrap iron that Johnson had collected and piled by the side of the lake in the hopes of making some money. He built an enormous raft from 28-foot-long boom logs and piled the tons of iron on the raft. He poled and paddled the craft all the way down the lake, taking a week or more to get to Chesuncook Dam. Someone had called ahead to a junk dealer from Greenville. Johnson rejected the dealer’s offer and laboriously propelled the load back up the lake, unloading it on the shore.
Collins was surprised to run across the photograph of Johnson. It was strange that Hiram would pose for someone to take a picture of him, Collins said. But a viewer can interpret things differently. Perhaps Johnson did not consider the picture to be of him exactly, but of the tool that he was extending in a mittened hand at the end of his rigid right arm toward the camera, as if indicating the photographer should keep his distance. This photographer may have surprised him, saying, “Hiram, let me take a snapshot of that auger you use so well.” Johnson’s first impulse being pride, he posed stiffly, perhaps before he had a chance to think too much about it.
You can see that only photo of Hiram here.
I delved into the story a little further, and found the account from 1959. It appears there are numerous accounts as to what really happened, for instance some stories say it was a shotgun, some say a rifle. Nevertheless, apparently Leslie Spear hired a deputy to fly him out via seaplane to Hiram’s cabin to talk to him about money the old hermit said that Spear owed him. Hiram warned them away from his cabin and then fired a shot at Spear, killing him instantly. The deputy ran back to the plane and radioed Greenville, where more deputies, fire wardens, and woodsmen formed a posse and flew in. A doctor got close enough to Spear’s body to determine he was dead under covering fire, and amidst threats from the hermit. Gunfire was exchanged throughout the morning, and then they lobbed tear gas into the cabin, prompting Hiram to run for another shack 100 yards away to take refuge. The posse waited for nightfall to close in on the shack but in the meantime it caught fire. They found Hiram in the remains of the shack, with a self inflicted gun shot wound.
Hiram was known for his feats of strength , often hiking to Greenville through the woods some 40 miles in distance for supplies. He was said to have hauled 1100 pounds of grain up the ice on the lake “just like a horse”. One of Maine’s many interesting characters.
Dad and I returned to Chesuncook some years later to do some camping and fishing. The summer had been very dry, and the lake was extremely low. You could see on the rocks where the water level usually was way up on shore. We encountered a strange phenomenon while fishing there one day. The Lake was very calm, and we were some distance from shore, when suddenly large waves appeared out of nowhere, almost as if a large boat had gone by and left a wake. We rode out the waves successfully and talked about where they could have possibly come from. Much later, after returning home, we learned that it was a phenomenon called Seiche, which can happen on large lakes when one side of the lake has a different atmospheric pressure than the other. The phenomenon is described well here.
The next day we were on the opposite shore of the lake paddling and trolling for fish. I was absent-mindedly staring at the bottom as it went by, bottom that would usually not be visible except that the lake was so low, when I spied something. I shouted to my dad to look, and he saw it too. We back-paddled and hovered over it trying to figure out what it was. It looked like a gun case. With paddles and fishing poles, we managed to fish it out, and not only was it a gun case, it had a gun in it. A 30.06 rifle. There was a barely visible name on the case that slowly faded from view as I read it. The gun was quite rusty, and had been on the bottom for quite some time. We brought it back to camp with us. Later that evening we heard a motorboat out on the lake, and it was headed in our direction. The man landed at the campsite, and talked with us about how the fishing was, the weather, and the lake level. After some time, he introduced himself, and it was the same name that was on the gun. I was just a kid at the time, and immediately told him that we found a gun with his name on it. He picked up the gun and looked at it, and thanked us for finding it, and said that he had lost it while duck hunting the previous fall. Despite being young, it seemed that the gun had been there longer than that, and I knew that you do not use a rifle to hunt ducks, you use a shotgun. After getting the gun back, he shortly hopped back in the boat and left. Dad and I thought about when we found the gun and realized that we had been within sight distance of a camp on the shore when we picked up the gun, although it was some distance away. I’ll never know the true story behind that gun, dropped into the water at a depth where we wouldn’t have ever seen it, except the water level was low that year. Another North Maine Woods secret that will never be told.