Route to Quebec traces Revolutionary army’s wilderness march

AUGUSTA – Looking down from Fort Western, high above the Kennebec River in the heart of Maine’s capital, Stephen Clark visualizes the hustle and bustle that unfolded there 228 years ago.

Scores of hastily built wooden boats, called bateaux, were stacked along the shore as Benedict Arnold’s 1,100-man Revolutionary War army assembled for its epic march through the wilderness to the British stronghold of Quebec.

“You can almost feel the presence of these men,” said Clark, author of the new book “Following Their Footsteps,” a combined travel guide and expedition history. “If you listen hard enough, you can almost hear them hollering at each other around the campfire.”

Arnold’s troops left Cambridge, Mass., on Sept. 11, 1775, and arrived outside the walls of Quebec two months later. The ensuing battle, which began in a blinding New Year’s Eve snowstorm, ended in defeat for the Americans.

But perhaps more than the outcome, the 350-mile expedition is remembered for hardships the soldiers endured as they rowed and marched their way up the Kennebec valley, an ordeal popularized by Kenneth Roberts in his 1930 novel, “Arundel.”

On today’s high-speed roads, a motorist can race from Cambridge to Quebec in a mere eight hours. But Clark recommends a leisurely journey of a week or more to capture the flavor of the region and come away with an appreciation of what the soldiers endured.

Another option, which offers greater flexibility, is to break the trip into segments, a choice more likely to appeal to those who live in or near Maine.

As outlined in Clark’s book, the trip includes car travel, five canoe trips, hikes through woods and towns, and visits to historic sites that date back to the colonial era. Much of the landscape is essentially unchanged from the way it looked when Arnold’s men passed through.

During the summer, visitors can take time off to swim, pick raspberries, catch glimpses of wildlife and explore a region rich in scenic vistas.

“It’s more than just a trip following the expedition. It’s an adventure, and it’s meant to be that way,” said Clark, a retired teacher, longtime hiker and past president of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club.

While the trip can be made at any time of year, Clark suggests avoiding black-fly season, which hits in June and early July, and the dead of winter. The best months are probably May and August through October.

Arnold’s men began their trip on foot to Newburyport, Mass., where they boarded 11 sloops and schooners that carried them to the mouth of the Kennebec. There, they sailed past what is now Fort Popham, near the site of the English colony established in 1607 and abandoned a year later, a dozen years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth.

After swapping ships for heavy, leaky bateaux, the army rowed and paddled up the Kennebec and Dead rivers to the Height of Land and into Canada. An entire division was forced to retreat after being pounded by a hurricane that caused devastating floods. Some men succumbed to exhaustion or starvation while slogging through the swamps of Lac Megantic. Finally, after struggling down the wild Chaudiere River, about 625 made it to the St. Lawrence and Quebec.

One must-see location is the Major Reuben Colburn House in Pittston, which was home to the sawmill and shipyard operator who, on orders of General George Washington, built the 220 bateaux at breakneck speed.

The dwelling, now owned by the state, is home to the Arnold Expedition Historical Society. In addition to the main house and the carriage house, there is a barn with replicas of bateaux, some similar in size and design to Arnold’s.

A bronze plaque near the road commemorates the site that Arnold used as his headquarters when he stopped there during the march.

Fort Western, another key attraction 12 miles upriver, was the last supply point and final staging area for the march. It has been restored by the city of Augusta to showcase frontier life in the 18th century.

The main barracks and commissary is still intact; the block houses, watch boxes and stockade fence have been rebuilt. There also are displays of cannons, carts, muskets and a lake bateau. People dress up for re-enactments and other events during the year. Fort Western is open in late spring, summer and early fall.

Arnold’s men spent nearly a week there, loading up their bateaux and moving out at the end of September, just as the foliage was starting to turn color. Aside from a handful of farms scattered along the river, Fort Western was the point at which civilization ended and wilderness began.

To get the flavor of the expedition’s most difficult portage – the nearly 13-mile stretch from the Kennebec to the Dead – the book proposes various hikes of up to nine miles. The hikes, which include portions of the Appalachian Trail, run between the Carry Ponds in what became known as the Great Carrying Place.

After travelers cross the border into Canada, Clark recommends that they spend a day sampling the French culture of the Chaudiere River Valley before reaching the end point of the trip.

Once in Quebec, there is plenty to see and do. The author suggests spending three days there, mixing historic sights such as the Citadel and the walk along the fortified walls with some of the city’s other marvelous attractions.

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