Scopan Lake Eclipse Expedition Part One: Snowballing Trek-In Fiasco

Scopan Lake, North Maine Woods April 6, 2024. Four-hours into the trek, I found myself in complete darkness, up to my waist in snow, and alone in the North Maine Woods.

Note: Given the extreme conditions, I only have one photo of our trek in and will share the remainder in Part 2.

April 1: I sent an expedition packing list and what to expect document (below) to the group of college students interested in the trip. I knew some were not cut out for it, and hoped the extensive preparation and trip description would deter what we call bones-for-soup individuals—those who, in a survival situation, may give up, panic, or simply not listen. This could have dangerously slowed the progress and put the entire team in danger.

April 6: I picked up my eldest son Simon, and his recently-engaged fiance Tyler, in Orono at 12:00PM sharp as planned. Everyone else had backed out after reading my trip prep (above). They were not ready, and took 20-minutes to change and make sandwiches before returning to the car. No biggie, I’d planned for it.

We arrived at Scopan (formally Squapan) Lake near Ashland, ME at 4:00PM as previously planned. A fisher crossed the road in front of us, a rare sight. As we passed the public landing, it was obvious from the lack of ice shacks and snow sled tracks that the ice was not safe to cross.

Tyler had way too much stuff, and I now regret not being firm with him to strip it down to essentials. I left my Jeep in a place Kevin and I had parked before (and had permission via road association). I felt compelled to leave a large note on the dash reading “Roads Dues Paid, Kevin Wheaton” in thick permanent marker facing the roadway, with our home and cell phone numbers under Kevin’s name. Should there have been trouble, they could reach us. I’m honestly not sure why I packed a marker—so left it in the car. One less thing to weigh down the pack. We set out at 4:20PM, 20-minutes later than planned.

Shortly after entering the woods, it became apparent the terrain would not allow passage with the sled. Tyler was not used to snowshoes and kept falling due to his extremely large pack. While deciding what was essential to the success of the trip I asked for a moment of silence. I marked it on the GPS and tied pink flagging tape high as I could reach nearby.

We threw a tarp over the supplies and abandoned them.

It became obvious that traversing the woods to reach the path I’d planned was not possible at that rate to reach the camp by sunset. Tyler fell over constantly due to his unbalanced, overweight pack. They were playing music from his phone. I asked him to conserve battery and turn it off so we could listen. I heard a stream nearby and wanted them to also hear it—a learning moment. (Later in the trip it was obvious the stream had been rerouted via culverts in recent logging operations uphill, so was not on the GPS map I’d previously downloaded.) We made a 90° turn away from the lake in order to intercept a skidder trail on the map. It was discouraging to say the least.

The poor guy had spent the better part of the first hour tripping on snags and blowdowns, stepping in wet holes, and eventually broke his snowshoes just before reaching the trail. Upon falling, a stick cut through his hand. That was when the gently-drifting little snowflakes turned to freezing rain that clung to our clothes. One of the bindings on my snowshoes stopped ratcheting and the strap that wrapped around the boot-heel of the other became unhooked constantly. Shortly after that, Simon’s also began to have issues with the binding loosening and not ratcheting again. We tied them to our packs and pressed on.

It was nearly 5:46PM when the trail met the train tracks which were always plowed, according to all sources. On our way through Ashland we’d seen an overturned train engine alongside the rail and two mangled cars behind it. More had obviously been pushed away with heavy machinery. A handful of onlookers with hardhats looked to be assessing the situation. It hadn’t struck us that the train was on the same rail as we’d planned to use until much later.

The tracks were covered in heavy, wet snow. Our disappointment was ripe. When we reached a sunny spot along the tracks with crusty, party-melted snow we stopped for a break. It was the first time in hours we weren’t standing up to our knees in snow. I called to check in with Kevin, then turned my phone off. (Note: Tyler does not have a black eye in this photo on the tracks. They went to a party the night before and it was makeup smudging from the sweat, rain, and rubbing against branches.)

It was like walking in sand, this went on for at least a mile before coming to an opening that I knew lead to the last trail before we needed to cut into the woods behind the camp. We made another 90° turn, but this time back toward the lake.

To get from the tracks to the trail, we had to push through a slash yard. For you non-Mainers; a slash yard is where a logging operation left behind a chaotic mess of upturned roots, haphazardly strewn trees too small to bother with, branches that were mechanically stripped off, deep skidder tire ruts, and big stumps. It’s exhausting to clamber over without a few feet of snow on top of it.

I tuned on my phone, verified our position and checked in with Kevin at 7:15PM. It was a long road that I knew would abruptly turn when we needed to cut in, so I turned my phone off. My battery was getting low. Simon had a power bank and there was a small solar set up at the camp, so I’d left my much-larger battery bank behind with the other supplies.

The woodcocks were calling, that meant it was about 30-minutes to dusk, and another 30 until full-dark.

At that point it was evident we were in a race against time. Our outer rain-resistant layer had soaked through as freezing rain continued to cling to the fabric. I asked them to be silent, catch their breath, and listen to the forest while we took a break to drink, snack, and checked the map. Tyler wanted a specific distance, to see the route, and to know what time it was. I told them none of that mattered, and it was futile to use the phone battery for things we could not change.

The facts were: we were not arriving before dark, it was later than they thought, and the distance to the camp was longer than he wanted to know. I had no interest in spending time explaining when we could be moving.

It was the last leg of the journey—which I knew all along would be the hardest. It was time to cut in the older growth woods with hip-deep snow toward the camp as the last light faded from the sky. I checked they had a working headlamp, then told them I would break trail and to follow my tracks. I pressed on, practically swimming through the snow and grabbing trees as I went. The snowshoes tied to my bag caught on brittle dead branches, shattering them with loud snaps. I thought to myself it was a good thing I wasn’t hunting. I gave Kevin one more call to let him know we were close at 8:07PM, then put the phone away to let my eyes adjust in the direction of the coordinates. I used tree silhouettes as a point of reference to focus on, checking my phone when I reached each one before moving forward.

In a matter of minutes it was pitch black under thick tree canopy on an overcast, moonless night. I took out my trusty headlamp I’d fully charged that morning. It blinked, and went out immediately.

Later I found a tiny stick in the charging port that had prevented it from charging. It was just one more thing, in an increasingly long list of things, that went wrong. But that was okay. There’s nothing in the Maine woods that frightens me, aside from exposure—and the only way to remedy that is to dry off and warm up.

My only concern was getting Tyler and Simon inside the camp. I pulled the useless headlamp down around my neck and checked the GPS every few minutes until I saw slivers of pale light between the trees. I thought maybe I was seeing things, so I closed my eyes and slowly counted to five, trying to steady my breathing as I did. When I opened them, it was obvious that I was seeing the barely-visible white surface of Scopan Lake through the trees. Relief washed over me. I checked my map and realized I was right on top of it. I walked right into the front yard. Finding the camp was the easiest part of the entire adventure.

For a split second I wondered if it was the wrong camp. But that didn’t matter, because whoever’s camp it was I was getting in and starting a fire.

It was the right camp—but the hidden key was not where it belonged. I rang the big cast-iron bell hanging by the front door and hollered for them, then went to the woodshed thinking the key might be hung on a nail in there, but it was also locked. I had to break in to the camp.

I could hear them in the distance, that was good. My trail in the snow was surely obvious. My fingers were stiff and slow—I’d given my gloves to Simon early in the trip and lied about my hands being warm, so he wouldn’t feel bad and lie about being warm too.

The guide should always keep composure and never show weakness for the sake of moral.

The door on the wood stove was stuck and there were no large sticks of wood—they were in the woodshed. I found the key to the shed. The padlock opened, but that door was also stuck. An iron bar was leaning against it, and the use was obvious. The doorway was warped and the latch was under too much pressure to move. I put the iron bar under the lower side of the door and gently pried it upwards until the latch could be freed.

The iron bar was so cold that my hands had lost feeling. They weren’t frostbitten, just really damn cold. I unzipped my coat, stuck my fingers in my armpits like my grandfather had taught me; palms-in, hand flat, until they reached a safe temperature.

I loaded my arms with wood, pushed back through the snow, and dropped the armload by the stove. I used the largest log to bash the wood stove door open. There was a plastic bag of birch bark, lichen and cedar wool. I dropped in the whole bag, layered split cedar over it, then two good-sized logs.

They arrived, about 20-minutes behind me as I was building the fire—entirely unaware of the continued fiasco of jammed doors. By that point Tyler was shaking, pale and slurring; bad news. I barked orders. Simon held the door of the top-loading wood stove open while I lit it, then dropped it as soon as it took off. It’s by far the most incompetent, convoluted stove I’ve ever used.

We pulled Tyler’s pack off and lit oil lamps. As we stripped him down to his thermals, his body wafted thick steam. It rolled off his body like a dense fog. I’ve never seen anything like it. We marveled at the majestic steaming young man as we discussed everything that had gone wrong. We sat him by the fire with a dry blanket wrapped around him and scrambled to put more wood on. He was back to joking, laughing, and was a damn good sport given the situation.

I walked around the outside of the camp on wobbly legs and turned on the propane for lights and the snazzy 1960’s gas stove. The place was like a time capsule. When I got back inside it didn’t work. I went back out to turn it off just in case it was a leak. It was likely a kink in the soft copper line or the regulator was gummed up. Either way, it was a problem for later.

Simon and I changed our clothes for into dry ones too. Once we’d gotten the situation under control, in about 30-minutes time, I called Kevin at 9:00PM. Meanwhile, the backs of my legs broke out in hives from my thermal leggings and I had to strip them off, wash the area, and take a Benadryl. I pulled on sweatpants and it went away in minutes. I called Kevin’s mother at 9:15PM to report we were safely in the camp.

I pulled the rations from my pack and melted snow to boil ramen, and fed the fire until we were all comfortable, at which point it was too smokey and we needed to open the door—it was stuck, again. We wiggled, pulled up on it while wiggling, then finally as it came loose, the window cracked. Tyler somehow managed to fix it with a thin rope and very old glue. It was impressive after such a long day.

We hung our wet clothes and settled in. We were all relieved and loafing on the armchair and bunk. We recapped the adventure and had a celebratory and much-deserved smoke. Phew.

To recap the unbelievable snowballing fiasco:

  • Lake was not passable
  • Abandoned supplies
  • Snowshoes broke
  • Unmapped stream
  • Train tracks unplowed
  • Water-resistant clothes soaked
  • Headlamp died
  • Camp key missing
  • Wood stove door jammed
  • Woodshed door jammed
  • Propane didn’t work
  • Broke out in hives
  • Trapped inside camp
  • Window broke

Little did we know then what would unfold the following day. I’ll follow up with the second half of this wild adventure. Spoiler: The police were involved.

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