Up River and Down – A Classic of Maine Woods Literature

I was somewhere in my fifties when I first read a book for the second time. I can’t remember what the book was now, maybe Huck Finn, or Tom Sawyer, or The Maine Woods, but I guess I’d put enough years between the first time and the second that I forgot most everything about it but that it was good.This book here, Upriver & Down, by Edmund Ware Smith, is an exception to what I just said above. First, I didn’t discover it until my late fifties, but since then I’ve gone back to it a couple of times, not because I’ve forgotten it, thankfully, but because it’s such a good read.Mr Smith, whose writing heyday was the 1950′s and 60′s, was one fine man and fine writer and a person I would have liked to have known. He was not a Maine native, but was born in Connecticut, and disappointed his father by dropping out of college and proclaiming he wanted to be a writer. And he did just that, and from my perspective at least, lived a dream life of spending time in the woods and earning a comfortable living writing about it. He became a writer of national renown, and his company was sought out by the likes of Chief Justice William O. Douglas on an Allagash canoe trip, and President Dwight David Eisenhower for a weekend of trout fishing.

Up River & Down is a collection of twelve stories and they are filled with humor, compassion, keen observation, and pure enthusiasm for the woods and the people who lived in them. One of my favorites in the collection is “The Last Hermit of the Maine Woods” where Smith warmly recounts his acquaintance with Fred Harrison, a loner who lived alone on Hudson Pond, a remote pond now within the boundaries of Baxter State Park. Fred lived in a time when a man could go back in the woods and build a cabin and no one would bother him, a far cry from the regulated forests we have today. But Fred’s life was not altogether a happy one. He shot his own dog for running deer, and years later, still full of remorse for taking his best friend’s life, decided to even things up by taking his own. Other stories are lighter, “Death of a Haunted Tent” still makes me laugh after several reads, as does “Fly Choice By the Omen Method.” Here’s an exchange between Ed Smith and fishing partner Bill.
“Any luck, Bill?” I called.
“No. I don’t expect any.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Haven’t seen ‘The Sign’ yet.”
“What sign.”
“How do I know?”

At one point in his life Smith and his wife built a log cabin on the roadless north shore of Lake Matagamon and lived there for ten years. He was a social fellow. In all his stories he’s with a companion, often several, in some ways they portray the archetypal gang of guys getting out of the house and up to camp for some fishing or hunting and a nip or two of something at the end of the day. Smith’s angle is the human presence and experience in the wilderness seen through a lens of sociability and humor. He’s not a naturalist, or given to pondering the place of homo sapiens in the realm of nature, but he is a superb story teller, and in the time of year when the wood stove is purring and the dark night presses on your window panes at 6:00 P.M. Mr. Smith is apt to keep you going until at least 8:00 P.M.