Joe Knowles and the legacy of wilderness adventures
By Paul Mills
My last column featured Joe Knowles’ famous adventure into the Maine woods. It’s one that just a century ago ignited the imagination of millions of Americans who were riveted by Knowles’ vow to spend two naked months alone in the wilderness in an attempt to prove that 20th century “man” could survive without modern amenities.
It’s a story also made timely by the recent arrest of the central Maine man who spent some 27 years alone near North Pond and like Knowles’ has inspired its own share of both fascination and contempt in the process.
My last column showcased the massive adulation that greeted Knowles both in Maine and throughout the nation immediately upon the completion of his two month wilderness experience. His story has also, however, been clouded by a sustained controversy over the bona fides of his supposed endeavors.
Just in recent days this columnist has been approached by two relatives of a witness from the Knowles excursion, Maine Guide Allie “Tripe” Deming. Both recalled stories passed down to them by Deming, who died in 1966. According to Deming’s grandson, long-time former Philips Selectman and retired farmer Charles Wilbur, Deming recalled observing that Knowles had matches and food in his possession. Wilbur also recalls that Deming told him that Knowles had Deming inflict blackberry bush scratches on his back in an attempt to trump up evidence of Knowles’ interaction with the wilderness.
Wilbur’s recollections of what Deming reported were echoed in an e-mail this columnist also received from Deming’s nephew, Roy Deming of Strong.
Deming’s observations are both supported and contradicted by another contemporary source: Helon Taylor. Taylor, then only 16 but who would go on to win fame decades later as the long-time Baxter State Park superintendent - Katahdin’s Helon Taylor Trail is named for him - recalled for a 1973 Sunday Telegram story that his faith in Knowles was shaken by an episode he shared with Knowles two months after the venture ended. This was when accompanying Knowles the two came across a Lost Pond site that Knowles had earlier claimed been one of his primary encampments. When Knowles didn’t recognize a highly visible camp on the pond Taylor concluded that Knowles had not in fact been there and that Knowles was a “fake.”
But Taylor in an interview eight years later with the Maine Paper, stood behind Knowles. According to the original 1981 tape recorded interview recently reviewed by this columnist, when Taylor was asked by reporter Lawrence Sturtevant, “Was he [Knowles] able to do what he claimed he did?” Taylor replied:
“He was able to do it and I believe every word of it. I looked up to him as an American god almost as a kid.”
Whether Knowles was for real or not the impact of what he purported to do remains significant. As Gary Ferguson’s 1997 book The Sylvan Path observes, “More amazing than what Knowles did or didn’t do was the amazing effect the mere thought of such an adventure had on millions of Americans…eagerly awaiting headlines about the wild man, sipping dreams of the woods with their morning coffee.”
The Knowles experiment is of course by no means unique even though few have attracted the kind of public interest that attended his 1913 event. Hermits seeking refuge from civilization have existed in every generation. Most have pursued their regimen privately. Some, as in the case of the North Pond Hermit clandestinely, but nearly all with more accouterments than Knowles claimed to have.
Among the more posthumously celebrated was 24-year-old Chris McCandless. McCandless was a recent college graduate from a well-to-do Annandale, Virginia, family who gave away his last $25,000 to charity and ditched all his other worldly possession before venturing out alone into the Alaskan wilderness in 1992. After four months he died of starvation. His tale was rescued from obscurity by Jon Krakauer’s best selling 1995 book, Into the Wild.
Many broader and contemporary implications for the message Knowles and his promoters were attempting to send resonate today. A paramount question remains: can people “get by” or “make it” if deprived of the civilized support structure to which they’ve become accustomed? The question has assumed more urgency by the recent multitude of shocking episodes that have wreaked havoc: the 9-11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the subprime mortgage lending crisis, the Asian tsunamis, swine flu epidemics, Sandy Hook shootings and the specter of more bombings like those at the Marathon last month.
The mindset by which America prepares for even more significant catastrophic blows is exemplified locally by Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) organizations. Funded primarily through the federal Department of Homeland Security, “CERT” teams are set up in most of Maine’s 16 counties. They are also established in at least four Maine municipalities. One of the few town CERT’S is in Mercer, a community coincidentally in the shadow of the North Pond Hermit.
The Mercer program is headed up by one of the more ardent exponents of survivalism in Central Maine, Jesse Crandall. In an interview with this columnist a few days ago, Crandall spoke of the importance battery-operated radio communications will have in the event of a sustained emergency. Text photography and e-mail will also be deployed through non-electronic means.
Oh, and the North Pond Hermit? Crandall, a former selectman who for many years operated one of the area’s leading convenience stores, said he had heard “talk of him for many years.” Having now become aware of how well shrouded he was behind the hemlocks and boulders by which he was concealed, Crandall says he’s not surprised that the hermit went undetected so long.
The simple means by which the hermit was able to conceal his whereabouts for so long are a reminder of a larger issue that continues to haunt society at large: what other undisclosed perils are lurking in the wilderness? It’s an enigma that Joe Knowles a century ago ostensibly sought to determine and which remains a challenge today.
Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached at email@example.com.