From: The Life of Henry David Thoreau (1890)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Richard Bentley & Son 1890 London


To avoid the need of too frequently breaking the continuity of the narrative of Thoreau’s Concord life, it is convenient to group together some of the chief excursions made by him between 1846 and 1860. And first as to his mode of journeying. The perfection of travelling, he thought, was to travel without baggage; and after considerable experience he decided that “the best bag for the foot-traveller is made with a handkerchief, or, if he study appearances, a piece of stiff brown paper well tied up.” He would travel as a common man, and not as a gentleman, for he had no wish to spend a moment more than was necessary in the railway-carriage, among the sedentary travellers, “whose legs hang dangling the while,” or to be a prey to the civility and rapacity of the landlords of hotels; he preferred to journey on foot, and to spend the night in the homes of farmers and fishermen, where he could sit by the kitchen fire, and hear the sort of conversation in which he was always interested. “The cheapest way to travel,” he wrote in the Week, “and the way to travel the farthest in the shortest distance, is to go afoot, carrying a dipper, a spoon, and a fish-line, some Indian meal, some salt, and some sugar. When you come to a brook or pond, you can catch fish and cook them; or you can boil a hasty-pudding; or you can buy a loaf of bread at a farmer’s house for four-pence, moisten it in the next brook that crosses the road, and dip it into your sugar-this alone will last you a whole day.” He wore a shabby gray coat and a drab hat, and carried with him a piece of tallow for greasing his boots, for he no more thought of blacking these than his face; and “many an officious shoe-black,” he tells us, who carried off his shoes while he was slumbering, mistaking him for a gentleman, “had occasion to repent it before he produced a gloss on them.” He was better pleased when the farmers called out to him, as he passed their fields, to come and help in the hay-making; or when he was mistaken for a travelling mechanic, and asked to do tinkering jobs, and repair clocks or umbrellas; or when, as once happened, a man wished to buy the tin cup which he carried strapped to his belt.

  Before starting on an expedition it was his habit to procure all the available information from maps and guide-books, and he often took with him a part of the large Government map of Massachusetts. His pack was quickly made up, for he kept a list of the few necessaries that he carried, among which were sewing materials, a book for pressing plants, spy-glass, compass, and measuring-tape. He had learnt the art of camping out in his earlier excursions, and was well skilled in pitching a tent or constructing a hut at the shortest possible notice. On these occasions his favourite drink was tea, which he made strong and sweet in his tin cup, so that, as Channing hints, the traveller was not only refreshed but “grew intimate with tea-leaves.” He was fond of carrying with him a large slice of cake, with plums in it, for he found that this furnished him with dinner and dessert at the same time. Thus simply equipped, he was practically independent of time-tables and hotel-lists, could roam wherever the fancy took him, and take his own time in his observation of the fauna and flora of the districts which he visited. Such expeditions were not only an agreeable recreation in themselves, but were a means of adding to his various collections and suggesting new subjects for his pen; so it was natural that the pleasant experience which he gained in his week’s jaunt in 1839 should have been repeated more frequently in later years.

  Cape Cod, the long sandy spit which was visited by Thoreau in 1849, and on several later occasions, is described by him as “the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts, behind which the State stands on her guard, with her back to the Green Mountains, and her feet planted on the floor of the ocean, like an athlete protecting her Bay.” All wild and desolate landscapes had an attraction for Thoreau, and he delighted in the dreary expanse of this long monotonous tract of shore, with its drift-wood and kelp-weed, flocks of gulls and plovers, and incessant din of waves. “If I were required,” he says, “to name a sound the remembrance of which most perfectly revives the impression which the beach has made, it would be the dreary peep of the piping plover which haunts there. Their voices, too, are heard as a fugacious part in the dirge, which is ever played along the shore, of those mariners who have been lost in the deep since first it was created. But through all this dreariness we seemed to have a pure and unqualified strain of eternal melody, for always the same strain which is a dirge to one household is a morning song of rejoicing to another.” His accounts of these vast sandy tracts are extremely vivid and picturesque; the very dash and roar of the waves seem to be reproduced, as though we were reading, as the author suggests, “with a large conch-shell at our ear.” It was possibly with reference to his visit to Cape Cod that he wrote his stanzas about the sea-shore:

“My life is like a stroll upon the beach,
As near the ocean’s edge as I can go;
My tardy steps its waves sometimes o’erreach,
Sometimes I stay to let them overflow.

“My sole employment is, and scrupulous care,
To place my gains beyond the reach of tides,
Each smoother pebble, and each shell more rare,
Which Ocean kindly to my hand confides.

“I have but few companions on the shore:
They scorn the strand who sail upon the sea;
Yet oft I think the ocean they’ve sailed o’er
Is deeper known upon the strand to me.

“The middle sea contains no crimson dulse,
Its deeper waves cast up no pearls to view;
Along the shore my hand is on its pulse,
And I converse with many a shipwrecked crew.”

  It was amidst these surroundings that Thoreau, after witnessing the pathetic scenes that followed the wreck of an Irish brig at Cohasset, walked and meditated with a companion (Ellery Channing, presumably, though the name is not recorded) in the wet, windy days of a stormy October. “Day by day,” it has been said,1 “with his stout pedestrian shoes, he plodded along that level beach—the eternal ocean on one side, and human existence reduced to its simplest elements on the other and he pitilessly weighing each.” They journeyed northward, on the Atlantic side of the Cape, till they came to Provincetown at its upper extremity, a voiding towns and villages on their route, and spending the nights in the cottages of fishermen and lighthouse-keepers, where Thoreau was several times mistaken for a travelling pedlar. “Well,” said an old fisherman, unconvinced by the explanations that had been offered, “it makes no odds what it is you carry, so long as you carry truth along with you.” At Wellfleet, where the wayfarers were entertained in the hut of an aged oysterman, an idiot son of their host expressed his determination to get a gun and shoot the “damned book-pedlars, all the time talking about books.” What might have been a more serious misunderstanding was caused by a robbery of the Provincetown Bank about the time of their visit to Cape Cod, for Thoreau learnt afterwards that the suspicion of the police had centred on him and his companion, and that their journey had been traced the whole length of the Cape.

  The volume on Cape Cod, parts of which appeared in Putnam’s Magazine in 1855; and in the Atlantic Monthly in 1864, is deliberately formless in style, being interspersed with quotations from old histories and records of merely local interest; it abounds, however, in its author’s dry sententious humour and epigrammatic paradoxes. It has been remarked that Cape Cod is in one sense the most human of Thoreau’s books, and has more tenderness of tone than Walden, as if the sea had exercised a mellowing influence on his genius. Especially good are the Dutch pictures of the Wellfleet oysterman and the “sea-captains” of Provincetown. “It is worth the while,” says Thoreau, “to talk with one whom his neighbors address as Captain, though his craft may have long been sunk, and he may be holding by his teeth to the shattered mast of a pipe alone, and only gets half-seas-over in a figurative sense now. He is pretty sure to vindicate his right to the title at last-can tell one or two good stories at least.” In this volume the experiences of several visits are condensed into one account.

  On 25th September 1850 Thoreau and Ellery Channing started on a week’s tour in Canada, equipped each of them in the simple fashion which Thoreau adopted on his excursions (he avows that he wore his “bad weather clothes” on this occasion), and styling themselves, accordingly, the “Knights of the Umbrella and the Bundle.” They first visited Montreal, where the Church of Notre Dame made a great impression on Thoreau’s imagination, as described by him in a very characteristic passage:

  “It was a great cave in the midst of a city,—and what were the altars and the tinsel but the sparkling stalactites?—Into which you entered in a moment, and where the still atmosphere and the sombre light disposed to serious and profitable thought. Such a cave at hand, which you can enter any day, is worth a thousand of our churches which are open only Sundays, hardly long enough for an airing, and then filled with a bustling congregation—a church where the priest is the least part, where you do your own preaching, where the universe preaches to you and can be heard. I am not sure but this Catholic religion would be an admirable one if the priest were quite omitted. I think that I might go to church myself sometimes, some Monday, if I lived in a city where there was such a one to go to. In Concord, to be sure, we do not need such. Our forests are such a church, far grander and more sacred. . . . I think of its value not only to religion, but to philosophy and to poetry; besides a reading-room, to have a thinking-room in every city! Perchance the time will come when every house even will have not only its sleeping-rooms, and dining-room, and talking-room or parlor, but its thinking-room also, and the architects will put it in their plans. Let it be furnished and ornamented wi.th whatever conduces to serious and creative thought. I should not object to the holy water, or any other simple symbol, if it were consecrated by the imagination of the worshippers.”

  From Montreal they went on to Quebec, and thence to the Falls of St. Anne, thirty miles lower down the St. Lawrence. In the latter district they obtained lodging in a house where their French host and his family could speak but a few words of English, and they concluded that “a less crime would be committed on the whole if they spoke French with him, and in no respect aided or abetted his attempts to speak English,” a resolve which they carried into effect with some amusing difficulties-for in spite of his Gallic extraction, a knowledge of the French tongue was not one of Thoreau’s accomplishments-solving their frequent misunderstandings by writing on the table with a piece of chalk. What chiefly impressed Thoreau, during his brief visit to Canada, was the contrast between the imperialism of the Canadian cities, whose inhabitants appeared to him “to be suffering between two fires—the soldiery and the priesthood,” and the more homely free-thinking independence of American life.

  The Yankee in Canada, in which his experiences and impressions are related, was partly published in Putnam in 1852. “I do not wonder,” he wrote to Mr. Blake, “that you do not like my Canada story. It concerns me but little, and probably is not worth the time it took to tell it. It has come to an end, at any rate; they will print no more, but return me my MS. when it is but little more than half done, as well as another I had sent, because the editor requires the liberty to omit the heresies without consulting me-a privilege California is not rich enough to bid for.” The Yankee in Canada is certainly one of the least successful of its author’s writings; for though it contains a few fine passages and interesting touches, it is decidedly overladen with description, the cities being, as Horace Greeley expressed it, “described to death.” “I fear that I have not got much to say about Canada,” says Thoreau, in his opening sentence, “not having seen much; what I got by going to Canada was a cold.” This frigidity, if the truth be told, has left its mark on the pages of the Yankee in Canada.

  The object of Thoreau’s three excursions to the Maine Woods, the wild district which lies at the extreme north-east of New England, was chiefly to gratify his strong curiosity and interest in the habits and character of the Indians. In September 1846, during his fortnight’s absence from the Walden hermitage, he visited Maine, and in company with a cousin, who was employed in the Bangor lumber trade, made a voyage up the western branch of the Penobscot river, and ascended Ktaadn, one of the loftiest mountains of New England, over 5000 feet in height. The paper on “Ktaadn and the Maine Woods,” which appeared in the Union Magazine in 1848, is a record of this expedition, and contains some vivid descriptions of the outlying lumber-farms and log-huts; the manufacture and management of the batteau, or “bark-canoe,” by which they navigated the rapids of the Penobscot; their trout-fishing extraordinary in the clear swift streams which descend from the heights of Ktaadn; and, above all, the primitive solitudes of the Maine forests, which were still the haunt of the bear, the moose, the deer, the wolf, and other wild animals.

  “What is most striking in the Maine wilderness is the continuousness of the forest, with fewer open intervals or glades than you had imagined. Except the few burnt-lands, the narrow intervals on the rivers, the bare tops of the high mountains, and the lakes and streams, the forest is uninterrupted. It is even more grim and wild than you had anticipated, a damp and intricate wilderness, in the spring everywhere wet and miry. . . . Who shall describe the inexpressible tenderness and immortal life of the grim forest, where nature, though it be mid-winter, is ever in her spring, where the moss-grown and decaying trees are not old, but seem to enjoy a perpetual youth; and blissful, innocent nature, like a serene infant, is too happy to make a noise, except by a few tinkling, lisping birds and trickling rills?”

  In the autumn of 1853 Thoreau, accompanied by the same relative, and by an Indian hunter named Joe Aitteon, paid his second visit to the Maine Woods, the lake of Chesuncook being this time his destination. The paper entitled “Chesuncook,” which was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1858, is occupied in great measure with the subject of moose-hunting, and contains, among other things, some highly characteristic reflections on the “murder of the moose,” in which Thoreau had been a witness and to some extent a participator:

  “On more accounts than one, I had had enough of moose-hunting. I had not come to the woods for this purpose, nor had I foreseen it, though I had been willing to learn how the Indian manœuvred; but one moose killed was as good, if not as bad, as a dozen. The afternoon’s tragedy, and my share in it, as it affected the innocence, destroyed the pleasure of my adventure. It is true, I came as near as is possible to come to being a hunter and miss it, myself; and as it is, I think I could spend a year in the woods, fishing and hunting just enough to sustain myself, with satisfaction. This would be next to living like a philosopher on the fruits of the earth which you had raised, which also attracts one. But this hunting of the moose merely for the satisfaction of killing him-not even for the sake of his hide—without making any extraordinary exertion or running any risk yourself, is too much like going out by night to some woodside pasture and shooting your neighbour’s horses. These are God’s own horses, poor, timid creatures, that will run fast enough as soon as they smell you, though they are nine feet high.”

  “The Allegash and East Branch,” the account of Thoreau’s third and final excursion to Maine, in July 1857, at which time he had been in weak health for two years, forms the concluding portion of the volume afterwards published under the title of The Maine Woods, and is chiefly concerned with geographical topics, botanical specimens, and the character of Joe Polis, an intelligent Indian guide, from whom Thoreau derived much valuable information. “Having returned,” wrote Thoreau to Mr. Blake, “I flatter myself that the world appears in some respects a little larger, and not, as usual, smaller and shallower, for having extended my range. I have made a short excursion into the new world which the Indian dwells in, or is. He begins where we leave off. The Indian who can find his way so wonderfully in the woods possesses so much intelligence which the white man does not, and it increases my own capacity, as well as faith, to observe it. I rejoice to find that intelligence flows in other channels than I knew. It redeems for me portions of what seemed brutish before.” “As to Thoreau’s courage and manliness,” says Mr. Edward Hoar of Concord, who was his fellow-traveller on this expedition, “nobody who had seen him among the Penobscot rocks and rapids, the Indian trusting his life and his canoe to his skill, promptitude, and nerve, would ever doubt it.”

  The following letter, addressed by Thoreau to Colonel Wentworth Higginson, in reference to a projected tour through the Maine forests to Canada, is interesting as showing with what precision and practical acuteness his expeditions were planned:

“CONCORD, 28th January 1858.

  “DEAR SIR—It would be perfectly practicable to go [to] the Madawaska the way you propose. As for the route to Quebec, I do not find the ‘Sugar Loaf Mts.’ on my maps. The most direct and regular way, as you know, is substantially Montresor’s and Arnold’s and the younger John Smith’s-by the Chaudière; but this is less wild. If your object is rather to see the St. Lawrence River below Quebec, you will probably strike it at the Rivière du Loup (v. Hodge’s account of his excursion thither via the Allegash. I believe it is in the second Report on the Geology of the Public Lands of Maine and Mass. in ‘37). I think that our Indian last summer, when we talked of going to the St. Lawrence, named another route, near the Madawaska—perhaps the St. Francis, which would save the long portage which Hodge made.

  “I do not know whether you think of ascending the St. Lawrence in a canoe—but if you should, you might be delayed not only by the current, but by the waves, which frequently run too high for a canoe on such a mighty stream. It would be a grand excursion to go to Quebec by the Chaudière-descend the St. Lawrence to the Rivière du Loup—and return by the Madawaska and St. John’s to Frederickton, or further—almost all the way down stream—a very important consideration.

  “I went to Moosehead in company with a party of four who were going a-hunting down the Allegash and St. John’s, and thence by some other stream over into the Ristigouche and down that to the Bay of Chaleur-to be gone six weeks.

  “Our northern terminus was an island in Heron Lake on the Allegash (v. Cotton’s R. R. and township map of Maine). The Indian proposed that we should return to Bangor by the St. John’s and Great Schoodic Lake, which we had thought of ourselves; and he showed us on the map where we should be each night. It was then noon, and the next day night, continuing down the Allegash, we should have been at the Madawaska settlements, having made only one or two portages; and thereafter, on the St. John’s there would be but one or two more falls with short carries, and if there was not too much wind, we could go down that stream 100 miles a day. It is settled all the way below Madawaska. He knew the route well. He even said that this was easier, and would take but little more time, though much further, than the route we decided on, i.e. by Webster Stream, the East Branch, and Main Penobscot and Oldtown; but he may have wanted a longer job. We preferred the latter, not only because it was shorter, but because, as he said, it was wilder.

  “We went about 325 miles with the canoe (including sixty miles of stage between Bangor and Oldtown), were out twelve nights, and spent about forty dollars apiece, which was more than was necessary. We paid the Indian, who was a very good one, $1.50 per day and 50 cents per week for his canoe. This is enough in ordinary seasons. I had formerly paid $20 for an Indian and for white batteau-men.

  “If you go to Madawaska in a leisurely manner, supposing no delay on account of rain or the violence of the wind, you may reach Mt Kineo by noon, and have the afternoon to explore it The next day you may get to the head of the lake before noon, make the portage of two and a half miles over a wooden R R, and drop down the Penobscot half a dozen miles. The third morning you will perhaps walk half a mile about Pine Stream Falls, while the Indian runs down, cross the head of Chesuncook, reach the junction of the Cancomgamook and Umbazookskus by noon, and ascend the latter to Umbazookskus Lake that night If it is low water, you may have to walk and carry a little on the Umbazookskus before entering the lake. The fourth morning you will make the carry of two miles to Mud Pond (Allegash water), and a very wet carry it is, and reach Chamberlain Lake by noon, and Heron Lake perhaps that night, after a couple of very short carries at the outlet of Chamberlain. At the end of two days more you will probably be at Madawaska.

  “Of course the Indian can paddle twice as far in a day as he commonly does.

  “Perhaps you would like a few more details. We used (three of us) exactly 26 lbs. of hard bread, 14 lbs. of pork, 3 lbs. of coffee, 12 lbs. of sugar (and could have used more), besides a little tea, Indian meal and rice, and plenty of berries and moose-meat. This was faring very luxuriously. I had not formerly carried coffee, sugar, or rice. But for solid food, I decide that it is not worth the whi1e to carry anything but hard bread and pork, whatever your tastes and habits may be. These wear best, and you have no time nor dishes in which to cook anything else. Of course you will take a little Indian meal to fry fish in, and half a dozen lemons also, if you have sugar, will be very refreshing, for the water is warm.

  “To save time, the sugar, coffee, tea, salt, etc. etc., should be in separate watertight bags, labelled and tied with a leathern string; and all the provisions and blankets should be put into two large india-rubber bags, if you can find them watertight. Ours were not.

  “A four-quart tin pail makes a good kettle for all purposes, and tin plates are portable and convenient. Don’t forget an india-rubber knapsack, with a large flap, plenty of dish cloths, old newspapers, strings, and twenty-five feet of strong cord “Of india-rubber clothing the most you can wear, if any, is a very light coat, and that you cannot work in.

  “I could be more particular, but perhaps have been too much so already.—Yours truly,


  Mention has already been made of Thoreau’s fondness for mountains. He possessed in a marked degree the instinct of topography, and with map and compass would make out his way unerringly through the wildest regions; and Channing tells us that he could run up the steepest places without losing breath. “He ascended such hills as Monadnock or Saddleback mountains,” says the same authority, “by his own path, and would lay down his map on the summit and draw a line to the point he proposed to visit below, perhaps forty miles away in the landscape, and set off bravely to make the short cut. The lowland people wondered to see him scaling the heights as if he had lost his way, or at his jumping over their cow-yard fences, asking if he had fallen from the clouds.”

  In July 1858 he made another expedition with: his friend Edward Hoar, this time to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Switzerland of New England, which he had visited with his brother nineteen years earlier. They travelled by carriage, and Thoreau complains in his journal of the loss of independence, as regards choice of camping-stations, which this method involved; it was not simple and adventurous enough to suit his tastes. He also disliked the “mountain houses” which were already erected in New Hampshire, with large saloons, and other appurtenances of the city, for the supposed convenience of the tourist; “give me,” he says, “a spruce-house made in the rain.” Their chief exploit during the fortnight they spent in New Hampshire was the ascent of Mount Washington, the highest mountain in New England, where, in descending towards Tuckerman’s Ravine, Thoreau lost his footing on the steep crust of a snow-slope, and was only saved by digging his finger-nails into the snow. They camped for several days in a plantation of dwarf firs near the foot of the ravine, and by the carelessness of their guide in lighting a fire several acres of brushwood were set in a blaze, which proved to be the means of attracting the attention of two other friends. “In the course of the afternoon,” says Thoreau in his journal, “we heard, as we thought, a faint shout, and it occurred to me that Blake, for whom I had left a note at the Glen House, might possibly be looking for me, but soon Wentworth (the guide) decided that it must be a bear, for they make a noise like a woman in distress. After an hour or two had elapsed, we heard the voice again nearer, and saw two men. I went up the stream to meet Blake and Brown,2 wet, ragged, and bloody from black flies. I had told Blake to look out for a smoke and a white tent. We had made a smoke, sure enough. We slept five in the tent that night, and found it quite warm.” The next afternoon Thoreau sprained his ankle while scrambling on the rocks, and was laid up in the camp for two or three days.

  “What mountain are you camping on nowadays?” he wrote to his friend Blake some months after the excursion. “We are always, methinks, in some kind of ravine, though our bodies may walk the smooth streets of Worcester. Our souls (I use this word for want of a better) are ever perched on its rocky sides, overlooking that lowland. What a more than Tuckerman’s Ravine is the body itself, in which the soul is encamped, when you come to look into it! However, eagles alway have chosen such places for their eyries.”

  Monadnock, a mountain of nearly four thousand feet, which is visible from Concord on the northwest horizon, had been visited by Thoreau, like Wachusett, in his early manhood. In 1858, a month before his excursion to the White Mountains, he camped a couple of nights on its summit in company with Mr. Blake, and two years later he again ascended it with Ellery Channing, who, being unaccustomed to mountain life, did not relish its inconveniences as much as his friend, but complains pathetically of the “fatigue, the blazing sun, the face getting broiled; the pint cup never scoured; shaving unutterable; your stockings dreary, having taken to peat,” and other similar experiences. There is an interesting account of this adventure in one of Thoreau’s letters to Blake:

  “4th November 1860.—We made an excellent beginning of our mountain life. We went up in the rain-wet through—and found ourselves in a cloud there at mid-afternoon, in no situation to look about for the best place for a camp. So I proceeded at once, through the cloud, to that memorable stone ‘chunk yard’ in which we made our humble camp once, and there, after putting our packs under a rock, having a good hatchet, I proceeded to build a substantial house, which C. declared the handsomest he ever saw. (He never camped out before, and was no doubt prejudiced in its favour.) This was done about dark, and by that time we were nearly as wet as if we had stood in a hogshead of water. We then built a fire before the door, directly on the site of our little camp of two years ago, and it took a long time to burn through its remains to the ground beneath. Standing before this, and turning round slowly, like meat that is roasting, we were as dry, if not drier, than ever, after a few hours, and so at last we turned in.

  “This was a great deal better than going up there in fair weather and having no adventure (not knowing how to appreciate either fair weather or foul) but dull commonplace sleep in a useless house, and before a comparatively useless fire, such as we get every night Of course we thanked our stars, when we saw them, which was about midnight, that they had seemingly withdrawn for a season. We had the mountain all to ourselves that afternoon and night. There was nobody going up that day to engrave his name on the summit, nor to gather blueberries. The genius of the mountain saw us starting from Concord, and it said, There come two of our folks. Let us get ready for them. Get up a serious storm, that will send a-packing these holiday guests. Let us receive them with true mountain hospitality—kill the fatted cloud Let them know the value of a spruce roof and of a fire of dead spruce stumps. . . .

  “After several nights’ experience, C. came to the conclusion that he was ‘lying out-doors,’ and inquired what was the largest beast that might nibble his legs there. I fear he did not improve all the night, as he might have done, to sleep. I had asked him to go and spend a week there. We spent five nights, being gone six days, for C. suggested that six working days made a week, and I saw that he was ready to de-camp. However, he found his account in it as well as I.”

  This visit to Monadnock was the last of Thoreau’s excursions in which he camped out. The reasons which compelled the discontinuance of a practice in which he found such pleasure will appear when we resume the story of his life at Concord.

1 Atlantic Monthly, March 1865.
2 “Theo” Brown, a merchant living at Worcester.

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