Maine author Laurie Apgar Chandler's new book, "Through Woods & Waters," details her solo trip down the Penobscot River to the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Authors Publishing

Journeys. That’s what life is about, right?

When it comes to venturing out alone, perhaps you should keep the words of Amelia Earhart close by: “The most difficult thing is the decision to act; the rest is merely tenacity.”

This is what Laurie Apgar Chandler has been doing for the better part of the past 10 years — tenaciously pursuing her own journey of exploration.

First, she navigated the 740-mile route known as the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, becoming the first woman to solo thru-paddle its entire length from Old Forge, New York, to Fort Kent, Maine. She wrote about that experience in her first book, “Upwards,” published in 2017.

In her new book, “Through Woods & Waters,” Chandler tells us about her most recent accomplishment, a 220-mile solo journey beginning at the upper branch of the Penobscot River, down its East Branch, into and through the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

Chandler arrived in Maine in 2003 with her two children. Marrying in 2005, she spent her honeymoon canoeing the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. That trip she believed at the time was a “quiet” turning point for her. Tragically she lost her husband in 2009. That Christmas her father gave her a kayak, cementing that relationship she found on the Allagash. Chandler is a former forester who today, when not out hiking or canoeing, works in special education.  

When Chandler decided to set out on her journey, the newest monument in the U.S. — located in the North Woods of Maine — was only two years old. Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument spans more than 87,000 acres of mountains and forestland in northern Penobscot County. The place is home to a landscaped fabric of history and natural wonders. Thoreau, reflecting on his three visits to Katahdin, wrote: “The narrow intervals on the rivers, the bare tops of the high mountains, and the lakes and streams, the forest is uninterrupted.”

For one to travel through unknown territory for the first time is daunting; to do so with both determination and a pensive obsession for detail is striking.

Chandler’s pen does not disappoint. She transfers to the page those moments her senses are seeing, hearing and touching. Her words illuminate both a time and a place. History seeps from the banks of the river and climbs tall trees in a wild setting that elicits an emotive response to it all for the reader. That is what great writing can do.

“But, no, I turned again, and the sky had exploded in a blaze of apocalyptic color, perhaps beyond the craft of words to capture. From two angles, like giant spotlights, the yellow-orange ember glow of the setting sun shone up upon billowing towers of cloud, purple-gray in the shadows at that moment, a barred owl began to call from deep in the forest, the notes finding their way straight into my soul.”

People, too, as Chandler points out throughout the book, were important on this journey. For some, their words appear at the beginning of every chapter. For others, their influence on her — this journey and her life — are striking because their influence is clearly in the actions they took for her; and for still others, their influence lies deeply rooted in the history of this place.

Frost, Thoreau, Emerson and Longfellow and many others guided Chandler’s thoughts with their words. Chandler’s parents, with their words and deeds, are her constant companions as she navigates life. Even Roxanne Quimby, the person responsible for why the national monument even exists in the first place, is integral to the journey and story. They are all present in the moment. Because of that, Chandler’s own journey is made better because of those who came before her and her knowing what they experienced along the way.

Yet still, amid all these voices, Chandler sets the tone of her narrative in real time. With every stroke of the paddle we are there with her. As she hikes from one granite ledge to another we are there, seeing what she sees in both flora and fauna. And we are there when she settles down for the evening, watching the setting sun, conversing with the stars as they whisper back, all while embracing the song of an owl perched out there somewhere.

This book is filled with intimate observations made by a seasoned explorer, one confident in expressing herself in words. These singular moments on a stream or deep in the woods I am certain seemed huge for Chandler as she faced them alone and seemingly vulnerable. She adeptly captures the awe of the experience with an unerring eye for detail, and, as she so eloquently states at the end, her memories of this last trip will sustain her until the next one appears around the bend.

“As we part ways, until the next river beckons, the tale will go on. One memorable summer, I went in search of serendipity and found it in abundance. Along the winding way, I heard voices of those who had gone before, and they stirred my heart and soul. One flowed into another, centered in this land that shelters in the shadow of Katahdin. It is humbling to think that my voice may join that flow, to become part of the story that will last for as long as the mountains stand.”

“Through Woods & Waters: A Solo Journey to Maine’s New National Monument”

By Laurie Apgar Chandler

Maine Authors Publishing, 2020, softcover, $18.95

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.