For 38 of his 52 years, Oscar Cronk Jr., Maine wilderness trapper, has been spending most of fall and winter in the woods. Since 1968 he has been going to his camp in the vast wilderness waterway called the Allagash. Late every October he kisses his wife, Edie, goodby, throws his hound, Emerson, in the back of his Chevy pickup and drives 250 miles from his home in Wiscasset on the coast to the camp in northwest Aroostook County. The route takes him into Quebec, past desolate, windswept farms sculpted by snowdrifts. The truck leaps over frost-heave ripples on the road much of the way, and Emerson, from his dog box, yelps like a child on a roller coaster. They rejoin Maine at the remote customs station of Daaquam and drive the final 18 miles over a frozen logging road that leads to the camp just across the St. John River.
Cronk's cabin lies in a pocket of spruce trees 100 yards off the road. It measures 16' x 30' and has two rooms and is insulated. There are two easy chairs and a fine porcelain stove with propane burners as well as a hearth for wood. From inside the cabin the sun can be seen setting among the spruces through a window with a bear paw print on one of its frosted panes. The camp even has the luxury of an outhouse. Cronk calls the camp his mansion, and it is, compared with the old camp, which had a wood stove made from parts of a junkyard car. In the old place, on cold mornings, the cracketycrack of Cronk's drinking water freezing in its bucket would assure him of where he was.
Eight months of the year Oscar and Edie operate their store, Cronk's Outdoor Supplies, in Wiscasset, but for the other four Cronk runs his Allagash trapline—for muskrat, mink, fox, marten and coyote in fall, beaver in winter. His territory lies in the 1.25 million acres owned by the International Paper Co. Cronk pays an annual fee for his campsite. He is permitted to trap there, drive on the IP roads and cut as many dead and fallen trees as he needs for heat. Says Cronk, "I don't believe you could come into a bigger piece of wilderness than the Allagash here. It's just hundreds of square miles of nothing but woods."
The woods are mostly spruce fir, beech and cedar, and at their thickest, Cronk calls them "black groves." The local game warden calls the area "Mother Nature's vengeance." On a clear winter night it can drop to 40° below, and the black groves creak. The wind spins the snow into devils that whirl across clearings, and branches cry out in the dark with sharp cracks. No one stirs but the owls. "She's a cold, cold country," Cronk is fond of saying.
He is a sturdy and handsome man, six feet and 195 pounds, with broad shoulders and powerful legs from winters of chopping wood and snowshoeing. "I don't want to sound like I'm bragging, but I could still snowshoe with the 25-year-old Oscar Cronk," he says. His face is weathered and creased at the temples, but the impression it gives is of good health, not erosion. His nose is shaped like the beak of an owl. Sometimes he wears a beard and looks almost professorial, but when his face is clean-shaven, the chiseled features are striking and Indian-like. In fact, one of Cronk's great-great grandmothers was a full-blooded Indian—Penobscot, he believes. When he snowshoes hard, his cantilevered eyebrows catch the sweat from his brow like awnings, and the droplets form ice balls that dangle before his eyes like the long icicles hanging from the eaves of his camp.
Beaver trapping isn't an everyday winter pursuit at the camp. There are slack days because of weather or other jobs to be done or the beavers' disinclination to be trapped. On such days Cronk often goes bobcat hunting, which is where Emerson comes in. Emerson is a 'cat dog. Says Oscar, "If you want to go bobcat hunting, the first thing you need is a dog that hates cats."
They call the bobcat the "woods ghost." Men have spent their lives in the woods and have never seen one. Cronk himself will never know how many times he has snowshoed past a bobcat watching from a black grove. They are also called wildcats. They hunt both night and day but do most of their napping at midday, returning to one of their dens—more like favorite sleeping spots than any sort of formal home—if they can.
The bobcat, Lynx rufus, generally weighs between 15 and 30 pounds, though it can be as heavy as 50. Bobcats got their name from their bobbed tails and/or bobbing running style. They have a low profile and light step, on big paws that float on the snow. They prey on anything from mice to deer. A 'cat will pounce on a deer's neck and wrestle it to the ground for the kill, evoking the image of a wild ride through the woods and ghostly screeching from the black groves in the dead of night. Bobcat fur is brownish, spotted and tufty and periodically in demand by man, the adult 'cat's only predator. Bobcats are trapped and hunted for their pelts, which are used for coats.
The rattle of the old alarm clock in the dark chill of the camp wakes Oscar. He throws off his blankets and goes into the kitchen in his long underwear, his slippered feet padding on the cold plywood floor. He lights a gas lantern and restokes the stove to heat a heavy iron teapot. He scrapes some ice from the window with a fingernail, shines a flashlight out into the night and reads -19° on the thermometer mounted outside on a tree. Then he goes back into the bedroom and shadowboxes to loosen up, dancing in his long Johns and flicking jabs at the broad shadow thrown against the wall by the lantern light.
He makes himself a breakfast of grapefruit, bacon and eggs, baked beans, home fries, toast with jam and coffee. By the time the dishes are done Emerson has come out of his doghouse and is wailing hoarsely, his chain clanking on the frozen snow as he eagerly paces back and forth, sensing this will be his day out.