Select Page

July 2009. The Wawenock Ahwangans

June 27, 2009.  Veazie Salmon Club

Looking upstream from the Veazie Salmon Club and the dam that ruined the salmon fishery.

It’s good to have friends in high places.  And when you’re out in the boondocks of Maine, a Game Warden is pretty much at the top.  We met Jim Fahey in Portage, Maine on our way down through the State O’ Maine in the year 2000.  Back then he was the new Game Warden for the area, had a new wife and a new beagle pup.  Nine years later I looked him up, his old email worked and long story short he’s raising a couple of boys in Bangor.  He set me and Doug up with permission to camp in the yard of the Veazie Salmon Club, just below the Veazie Dam.  What’s more he also gave us the chance to help send the Atlantic Salmon on their merry spawn up past the hydropower dams into the upper reaches of the Penobscot.

Little did we know that the Veazie Salmon Club had a tradition of giving the first salmon caught each year to the President of the United States.  We also were totally ignorant of the fact that in the year 2009, Atlantic Salmon were added to the Endangered Species List.  While we were busy setting up our tents and not knowing (a frequent pastime of ours – not knowing), we enjoyed a peaceful campsite on the lawn under a tree on the banks of the Penobscot River.  In the dark we could hear the subtle roar of the water over the Veazie Dam.

Up early, I fired up the Svea 123 but before I could finish my first cup of instant, one of the club members showed up and made a pot of coffee in the club.  He invited me in, coffee was 25 cents and I was probably into debt by a dollar before Scooter showed up and raised the ante.  More members showed up, more coffee was brewed, and they set about playing cribbage in earnest.  Who gets up at 5 AM on a Saturday to go play cribbage?  Fishermen who aren’t allowed to fish anymore, that’s who.  It was like poking a wound, asking them to recount their tale of woe.  Salmon fishing was just this year banned.  The very people who championed protection for the fish and their habitat were being cut off from their life’s passion.  And they had a point; the number of fish they pulled out of the water every year was not the problem.  The first problem was the Veazie Dam, which blocked the upriver spawning of the Salmon.  The second was the off-shore by-catch from huge factory ships in the Davis Straight off the coast of Greenland where the Atlantic salmon spent their sea phase feeding and growing fat for the next big life-depleting push up the rivers to mate and die.  No, the club members would lose their purpose and wander off to other pastimes, and the fish would lose yet another advocate.

This is not the first time folks have been deprived of their salmon fishing privileges here.  Before the dam, this was the head-tide pool where the salmon would gather before making the push up through the rapids.  The name Penobscot actually applied to this spot, not the whole river.  The year the dam was built, the fish gathered below in numbers so great that they filled the river wall-to-wall and there they died en-mass, consumed with the drive to spawn upstream.  Upstream at Indian Island, the river had no fish to catch and the drying racks sat empty.  An ancient tradition and source of food came to an abrupt halt.

There is a fish ladder of sorts in the dam, and a few fish do get through.  So here we were, two guys who didn’t even know which end of the hook to get caught in your thumb, sipping coffee amongst the fallen titans of fishing.  I felt honored to get a first-hand education on the subject, one that made a big impression on me.  Anyway, we had an appointment to keep with Kevin Dunham, State O’ Maine Marine Fisheries at the dam.  We walked up and met the guys, they handed us hard-hats and invited us to step into their boat.  The boat travels a route parallel to the crest of the dam, close enough so you can peer over at the frothy mayhem below.  The boat was attached to a pulley, which was attached to a cable that ran from shore to the fish lift midway across the dam.  These guys seemed pretty comfortable with it but I kept picturing what would happen when that sole cable broke; we’d have about three seconds to react before the whole boat would be swept over the dam sideways and our mangled corpses would tumble over the rocks below, no doubt for the fish to nibble on.

Well that didn’t happen and we tied off to the fish lift.  The fish lift is sort of an elevator.  The salmon swim in below and get caught in a cage.  The cage is raised to the level of the headwater behind the dam.  One would think that the fish are then released to be on their merry way.  Nope.  They are scooped into an old piece of truck inner tube and transferred into a large bait well in the boat.  Here they are weighed, injected with a transponder chip, and a paper punch is used to collect a small flesh sample from the dorsal fin, which also marks the fish as having a chip.  Then the fish are transferred to a tank truck that makes the 10 mile journey to Old Town and the fish are released above the Milford Dam, thus bypassing three dams.  Seemed like a lot of work to me, considering they could transport maybe a hundred or so fish at a time when fish count used to be in the hundred thousands.  This year they were up to about 900, and figured they could allow fishing again when they reached 5,000.  It’s amazing what you can learn on a canoe trip, almost makes you want to become an activist or something.

We thanked the guys for the tour, headed back to the club and hucked our gear and boats down the long path to the river’s edge, anxious to be on the water, pulling on a paddle.  As happens all too often, I hopped into a boat poorly loaded and far too front-heavy, and paddled across the eddy into a strong current.  I was immediately whisked downstream through standing waves, all sideways and out of control.  A short ways down we pull over on the left bank at the Eddington Salmon Club landing, where I believe we had put in on a previous portage around the dam.  We regrouped and repacked and had some food.

Sailing under the Verona Island Bridge at Fort Knox.

Too bad we didn’t get to see Jim, but he was on his way south for a Jimmy Buffet concert.  As I set up my sail rig, I noticed the river was rising.  “Well, they must be letting more water out upstream.”  I was chewing on jerky and musing on our morning lessons in fisheries when I spotted, of all things, an old fashioned pop top among the pebbles and rocks of the riverbank.   Well it looks as if Jim was sending good vibes from the Jimmy Buffet concert.  I still have that pop top as a souvenir.

We paddled and sailed downriver through Bangor before we started to look for a campsite for the night.  We got a late start and 12 or 15 miles was plenty.  We found a nice sandy beach on the right, complete with huge log for sitting on up near the tree line.  At the tree line the ground sloped up steep enough that one had to grab onto small trees and pull himself up.  I found a reasonably flat spot a ways up the slope and hung my hammock.  We set up camp, made dinner and were well into our aperitifs, after-dinner drinks and nightcaps when I consulted the Tide Tool on my Palm Treo.  “Hey Scooter, it looks like the tide is gonna come up another few feet.  I think the whole beach is gonna be under water.”  Since there was no place to relocate, rum logic prevailed and he declared I was full of shit and decided to risk it.

 

June 28.  Winterport to Sears Island

 Croc Hunting After a Morning Bath 

A Hennessy Hammock is made for camping, has a bug net sewn across the top and has a rain fly suspended over that. The only entrance is through a slit in the bottom, between your feet.  To get in, you push your head and torso up through the slit, turn around and sit down.  Then you pull your legs up through, the slit naturally closes and you are sealed off from the bugs.  Easy enough until you add a sleeping bag and pad to get under you.  And don’t forget you have to take your shoes off.  Once you have your outer clothes off, your feet in the sleeping bag, it’s probably another ten minutes of shuffling around to get the pad positioned just so and the bag pulled up and your head higher than your feet.  You wad up a fleece jacket and use it for a pillow.  There.  All settled in.  That’s when you realize you have to take a leak.

Scooters First Night on the River is a Wet One

I woke up in the cocoon of my hammock at first light.  I wriggled into my clothes and slid my feet out and into my shoes that were lying on the ground where I had shed them.  I was a fair distance down the steep brushy slope and so I packed everything up a brought it with me down the hill.  Scooter already had coffee for me.  As a matter of fact, he was into the third or fourth pot of coffee.  He sat, in his boat, swaddled in rain gear with the stove merrily flaming the bottom of the percolator.  There was no beach.  His tent was open both ends and river water flowed freely in one end and out the other.  Not like that tent on the Pemmigewasset that collected a layer of sediment about 6” thick and was immovable.  It’s probably still there today, unless another 18’ flood scoured it loose.  He had rescued most of his gear from the tent but his Crocs managed to float off in the excitement.  He had found one but the other was long gone.  I offered to go for a look and poled down the shoreline while he boiled up more water for breakfast.  I found it and proudly returned it, proclaiming to be “Hal the Gullboy, Croc Hunter”.  I think the yin of his returned croc was balanced out by the yang of my smirk.

A sodden mass of sleeping bag and other gear festooned the big log.  Poor Scooter didn’t know whether to cuss me out, cry about everything or just buzz right into the atmosphere with all that caffeine in him.  Emotions raced across his face like the storms of Jupiter, with eyebrows moving up and down, first one, then the other, then both at once, while his mouth opened in a silent sob and his eyebrows dove into a scowl, nostrils flaring.  He’d bare his teeth but then his pupils would dilate and his eyes rolled and then he’d emit a plaintive mew.  I was too far away to slap him so I helped him get a handle on his warring emotions by laughing at him, which helped him settle on just plain rage.  Hey, what are friends for?

Now, you have to realize that Scooter is the most hydrophobic person you ever met in your life.  If his tent has a little dew on it in the morning, he can and will talk all day about setting it back up so as to dry it out.  Irrationally, he sets a tarp over his tent to keep the rain fly dry.  Ironically, he packs a dozen changes of clothes, all cotton, so as to never run out of soggy, wet dunnage.  Without them, he would not be able to describe in detail how he will keep setting up clotheslines under the 8 X 10 tarp until it looks like the bag house at the sanding mill.  AND with the expectation that they will dry in the 100% humidity of a downpour.  So you can imagine the demons romping around in his head, his lower lip trembling and his forehead starting to bead up as he sat there in his wet clothes in his wet boat staring at his soaking wet sleeping bag and tent.  When he got a tic in his eye and started bleating I knew enough to keep my distance.

So a quick look at the map showed us Bucksport was maybe 10 miles downstream which shouldn’t take more than 2 hours with an outgoing tide.  Me whistling a tune and enjoying the scenery, Scooter with his jaw set and a mask of determination hastening him toward the imagined promise of a clothes dryer.  It turned out Bucksport was a one-stop-shopping sort of port.  Everything, including laundromat, was within walking distance.  It even came with a couple of old farts down by the water telling old worn out tales of youthful enterprises combined with new reports of the shit they had that morning.  But there was some useful info as well; we were in for a Nor’easter starting right about now.  That was good news for the wind direction, bad news for the amount of rain.

We weather the storm in comfort at Sandy point.

With gear and outlook restored, Doug joined me in hoisting sails and we took full advantage of the tailwind and outgoing tide.  We were headed almost due south under a fresh breeze when the skies closed in, darkening by the moment and the clouds undertook to race us to shore.  We beached at Sandy Point.  I grabbed my sail, still hoisted, mast and all out of the mast step and together we lashed a third pole to the foot and erected a makeshift lean-to in about 30 seconds.  We laughed at the wind and the rain from under our dry perch and toasted our luck with the ice-cold beer that somehow made it into our boats back in Bucksport.

The rain stopped and we sailed again down the shoreline, with a strong northwest wind to help us on our way.  For this trip we had upgraded our sails from worn-out tarps to “Snark” sails.  For the mast we use a poling pole and for the boom either a bamboo rod or another broken off pole.  A leeboard mounted straight to the hull by drilling a hole and reinforcing it completes the rig.  I defy anyone to produce a sail rig that can perform as well that only adds eight pounds on the portage trail.  Sailing a canoe takes a bit of trial and error and I had managed to get both my leeboard and my butt balanced about right.  The idea is to use as little effort on the paddle/rudder as possible.  I was able to sail on a broad reach along the shoreline and was ripping right along.  With all the trials Scooter had faced today he had overlooked his leeboard and could only sail downwind.  He sailed as close as he could to the landing for the portage trail but had to finish with the sail down and paddle into the wind for a bit.

This was to be the first Ahwangan of the trip.  It was the Ooniganissek.  At first glance one might wonder what is the point of portaging over a neck of land when one can just paddle around.  Well as is often the case on coastal routes, the way around comes with exposure big waves and high winds.  Traveling the coast is different than river or lake tripping where there is one established route.  There are likely times that it’s easier to go around Fort Point and Sears Island but remember that a northwest wind would have a fetch of several miles between the two islands making for a hairy crossing.

Finding the carry trail can be difficult at times, especially for those who are a bit wary of trespassing in people’s back yards.  But we did find a modest boat ramp of mowed grass that seemed welcoming enough and began the task of disassembling the sail rigs, loading the canoes onto the boat carts and refilling them with all the gear.  As per usual the trail followed the road and we found another spot to put in where the road crossed a small brook leading to Stockton Harbor.  We paddled across to Wassumkeag (Sears Island), meaning Shining Sands in Abenaki.  We paddled the north shoreline looking for a campsite.  Nothing.  Around the east end we found a snug clearing in the woods away from the water’s edge.  This seemed prudent given the strong winds and threat of rain.

Sears Island Shelter, Two Sails and a Tarp

Settling in for a night of wind and rain, we set up a pretty cool shelter.  We leaned the two open sails together to form half a pyramid and used one of the poles for a ridgepole to a nearby tree, to which was strung a 10X12 tarp, with one edge staked to the ground.  The ridgepole was supported by the two triangular sails, which formed the sides of the shelter.  We had a modest campfire out front but cooked over the stove.   We had covered a lot of miles and endured some trials so it was an early night for both of us.  The storm raged and the surf pounded, but I was snug in my hammock and cared not at all.

 

June 29.  Wassumkeag to Warren Island.

Sailing Into the Void

Now at this point, dear reader, you can make a choice.  You can continue to ride along with Scooter and Hal past the islands of Penobscot Bay to Rockland and take the Katawamteag carry trail to the lower Saint George River, or you can turn back the clock to 2005 to a previous trip in which I ascended the Passagassawaukeag and portaged over to Quantabacook Lake at the top of the Saint George River.  {Link to come}

Another damp day and everything was wet whether under a tarp or not.  Wet hands opening my wet bucket, water dripping off the brim of my hat into the bucket I’m rooting through.  Sometimes it’s a muggy damp but today was a clammy damp.  Welcome to Maine!  Hot coffee is the cure.  Somehow a coffee in my hand tugs me down to the shore and I find myself contemplating the crossing to Turtle Head 2 or 3 miles down the bay at the top end of Isleboro.  The wind has abated a bit but the fog has settled in and I can’t make out our landfall.  I contemplated hugging the shore but in the end we agree to head out across the open water.  A GPS fix agrees with the map & compass and off we go side-by-side into a world of gray nothing over dull leaden water.  We were suspended in this bubble for a time with nothing but each other’s boats to provide a bit of color.  There was a headwind, more than I would have chosen, but keeping the waves coming at just the right angle helped with navigation.  Some people think a long stretch of flatwater is just plain boring.  I find it meditative, the steady rhythm of the pull of the paddle, the gentle rocking of the boat from the waves.

Turtle Head eventually faded into view, confirming my confidence in the GPS.  I have done these crossings with just a compass and map but I don’t know how to compensate for the currents in a tidal bay where the mighty Penobscot flows in.  We got out, peed on it, and continued down the western shore of Isleboro.  Our next landmark was tiny Ram Island, which Ray Wirth had told me about.  It has a cabin on it, free for the overnight visitor.  We stopped to check it out.  The cabin had not seen any maintenance in some time.  Inside, the woodstove was missing it’s pipe and multiple jars and cans of nails, nuts and bolts were dumped on it, as if a passerby needed a part for his shrimp boat and had no time to tidy up.  There were beds with unmade mattresses.  Everything was covered with mouse turds and smelled of piss.  We moved on, staying inside of the other small islands and out of the boat traffic.  An

Ram Island Cabin.

occasional yacht would ghost past in the fog.  We sailed as well, enjoying the quiet creaking of the rigging as we followed the shoreline, eventually passing the ferry terminal at Grindle Point and across the short interval to Warren Island, our destination for the night.

Warren Island is apparently the only state park without road access.  That also meant we had to actually pay to camp.  It was a little pricey but came with unlimited firewood, so a bargain on a ratty night.  We kept a cheery bonfire going from the time we arrived until late at night when we went to bed.  Probably 9 O’clock.

 

Warren Island glamping.

 

June 30.  Warren Island to the Saint George River.

The Bonds That Fray

We awoke to more fog and prepared for a 2 mile crossing to Ducktrap through the shipping lane with zero visibility.  I determined that, although we could ride the outgoing tide all the way to Rockland in the same amount of time, Doug gets mighty agitated when he gets too far from shore, and so we set our course to go directly across, and then to follow the shoreline south to Rockland.  I didn’t know the ferry schedule but I did know we would cross its path soon after departing from Warren.  I began to think of that Bert & I episode where they were out in a fog and could hear, but not see, the Bangor Packet going full steam and getting louder.  Well of course “the Bangor Packet smuck the Bluebird amidships and went right through her like green corn through the new maid.”  I was busy putting Doug at ease by retelling this story when, out of the fog, comes the bellowing horn of the Isleboro Ferry.  We paddled like hell to get away, having no clue whether we were going in the right direction.  Unlike Bert & I, we escaped cleanly while they “were up to our necks in water before we decided to swim fer it.”

The pea soup did not abate and I watched the little boat symbol on my GPS angle about 45 degrees upstream as we ferried across that great current.  We then followed the shoreline past Camden to Rockland.  Some of the old maps of native canoe routes show a network of routes up the Ducktrap River and through Megunticook Lake and back down to Penobscot Bay but we had a day ahead of us and did not have the urge to explore.  Rockland was known as Katawamteag, or “Great Meeting Place”, and was the beginning of the traditional portage over to The Saint George River in Thomaston.

The fog had cleared and the sun was peeking out from behind clouds as we approached Katawamteag.  Then I spied a mile-long breakwater jutting out from the shore.  It was a heartless, cruel joke on us.  We could stand up and see across, but the surf on the slippery granite riprap was just too risky.  Tired, ready to be done with paddling, we sighed, turned and headed out the mile to the end, rounded the tip and headed the mile back to harbor.  It was actually quite scenic as the sun began to peek out and we enjoyed talking to the folks along the quay as we passed but we were damp from the fog and mist and tired from the 16 miles of paddling in uncertain conditions and a bit irritable for it.

Doug wanted in the worst way to find a motel for the night.  He said “Let’s stay in a motel for the night, my treat!”  I said “Let’s wait and see.” Which was apparently the wrong thing to say.  If I had been a little sharper-witted at the moment I might have said something like “This waterfront is too hoity-toity.  Let’s get past it and then look for a place more welcoming to a couple of smelly bilge rats.” Because I too was in the market for a roof between my head and the rain for a little bit.

We pulled out at the local boat ramp, loaded our carts and struck out to find Route 1, conveniently located on top of the 12,000-year-old carry trail to the Saint George River.  As is often the case, a couple of folks pushing canoes on wheels through the city streets attract a bit of attention.  We smiled and waved to the tourists as we zig-zagged a few blocks to Route 1.  Almost immediately we came to the Navigator Motor Inn right there in Downtown.  Doug scowled at me, his desires plainly evident.  I looked at it, surrounded on all four sides with streets and tried to picture us loading all or wet bags and boxes through the front door then trying to figure out how to secure our boats for the night.  I didn’t like it and, using the same form of language, replied with a curled lip and a shake of the head.  We continued in silence.

We came to the Hampton Inn the outskirts of town and it looked far more appealing than the last place.  I suggested it but Doug surprised me by saying “Let’s just get the damn portage over.” and continued on down the shoulder.  I didn’t argue.  As you can imagine, this ahwangan is a far cry from the typical rock and root filled path though the wilderness, it is instead a paved shoulder along a busy highway through an industrial area.  We passed a sprawling concrete plant and soon encountered a tributary to the Saint George.  We turned left onto Fish Street to find a put-in but it was down a pretty steep bank and the water snakes through mudflats at anything but high tide.  We stayed on the road until we came to the main river.  Lo and behold there was the same Waterfront Market I had begged free water from on my 2005 trip.

When we put in the tide was coming in fairly strong so instead of fighting it and attempting to stay at the old Fort Saint George, we drifted upstream and found a hole-in-the-wall campsite.  Doug disappeared into his tent with a twelve pack, not to be seen until morning.  Down by shore I found a couple of boulders placed just-so to resemble a recliner and settled in with my own after-dinner cocktails and enjoyed the crickets and fireflies amongst the riverside marsh grass.  Far into the night.  Like, probably 9:30.

 

July 1.  Saint George River to Ames Island, Muscongus Bay.

 Out of the Fog

I awoke to another foggy day.  Instant coffee, instant oatmeal and we were off, down the river with the tidal current in the fog.  They say that if a fog is going to clear, it will do so by 11 AM and about mid-morning I could see the queer light and almost feel the warmth of the sun as it burned through the moisture above us.  About the same time a light wind sprang up from the north and we decided to try sailing.  My spirits were hoisted along with my mainsail.  As we ghosted along in this muffled quiet I began to hear voices and was sure I was hallucinating when a Viking vessel appeared out of the fog, it’s sails furled and it’s sweeps out, rowing against wind and current toward us.  Nay, not Vikings, it was a Hurricane Island boat full of young souls seeking adventure and hardship.

The fog shredded and the sun smiled it’s warmth.  The wind continued in our favor.  The river became a sound, the land lowered and flattened, and we had an easy time of it navigating by map and landmark for a change.  It was time to look for Pleasant Point Gut on my right.  The term “Downeast” is of course derived from sailing days when the prevailing wind made it easy to go east or seemingly downhill.  So we were blessed to be sailing “upwest” with a northeast wind.  Pleasant Point Gut allowed us to avoid the rough seas out around the point.

Doug is dwarfed by the moored boats in Friendship.

Sailing is way more fun than portaging.  Especially with a nice tailwind, not to strong, not too light.  It was a lot of fun winding our ways through the boats, each taking our own route.  Being low tide, the channel was only a foot deep and I began to wonder if we could get through at all.  But then it opened up again as we approached Friendship.  We planned to stop and stretch our legs, but the landing was way up Hatchet Cove and we didn’t feel like covering all that extra ground.  The gut opened into Muscongus Bay and we continued around Martin Point.  Somehow, even as we followed the shoreline around and headed more or less north, we still had wind enough to bring us to Ames Island, one of the camping spots on the Maine Island Trail.

 

We employ the ages-old “beach knot” method of securing our boats while we scout the camping.

The Maine Island Trail is less a trail and more like a series of campsites and picnic spots strung along the coast.  When I’m in my sea kayak I love to get out on the open ocean with horizon all around and camp on the more remote islands off the coast.  But for this trip we are sticking to the protected, inland waters in our open canoes.  I sailed right up to Ames Island and beached before dropping sail.  I can do this because the leeboard will swing up out of the way when it hits, the rudder is nothing more than a paddle in my hand, and the sail, having no stays or shrouds can swing around all it wants.  It was a rocky, bouldery shoreline.  Perhaps it was a bit of abuse plowing across the barnacles but my boat was an old royalex model that owed me nothing.  Sort of a grinding thump, let go the mainsheet so the sail could spill the wind, step out and stretch.

 

July 2.  Ames Island to Fort Island

Fire, Wind and  Water

In 2005 I had crossed Muscongus Bay and headed for New Harbor, which slices deep into Pemaquid Neck, where one can start the portage of the same name.  This time I want to try a different route so we loaded up and headed northwest across Muscongus toward Turners Corners where I thought we might be able to find our way to Pemaquid Pond.  The plan was to continue north and into Damariscotta Lake and so on down the Damariscotta River.  But the wind was against us and I thought that perhaps the spirit of the ahwangans was to take the path of least effort and we were soon headed across the bay for my second crossing of the Pemaquid Ahwangan.

The wind built and was as fluky as it was strong.  We had to round under Bremen Long Island and it taxed my ability to point into the wind high enough to clear the top of Hog Island.  Heaven forbid I should have to paddle.  Doug got tangled up in the kelp beds for a moment but he managed it too.  We turned south and sailed on down Muscongus Sound, lulled by the protection from wind in the lee of Hog Island and Louds Island.  The peaceful bliss came to an end at the southern tip of Louds where the only thing blocking the wind was England or Iceland or something.  I had all the wind I could use and then some, letting it spill rather than getting all heeled over.  At the same time the ocean swells got pretty big.  Sailing along and trying to keep an eye on Doug made for a busy time.  The swells were big enough that there was very little sensation, more of a rising and falling of the horizon.  In the trough there was nothing more than water all around; at the crest one could see the lands far and wide.  What made work of it was that the force of the wind varied from crest to trough as well and I had to continuously work the rudder and sheet to compensate for it.

While I was certainly not contemplating a nap at this time, poor Doug must have been ready to climb out of his skin.  He hates the open water and prefers to snug right up to shore when traversing it.  I thanked Gluscap that he had the good sense to stay offshore, since the large swells steepened and reflected back on themselves closer in to the cliffs.  We had a little over 3 miles of this and were probably doing 6 knots so we weren’t out there THAT long but boy it seemed an eternity before Doug spotted the calm and welcoming entrance to New Harbor.  The quiet and respite from the wind was like closing the door on a storm.  Everything about the harbor was snug and inviting.  Private piers and lobster boats crowded in and there was scant room even for a canoe to wind through.

Loading up at the head of New Harbor for the Pemaquid Ahwangan.

I spied a waterfront restaurant on the right and soon we were enjoying lobster and beer.  Full bellies and senses restored – or diminished, depending how you look at it, and we began the 1-1/2 mile portage.  Conveniently, there was a convenience store at the high point of the portage trail.  Can you say Nutty Buddy?  Also, and I can’t for the life of me remember why we did this, but there was a little shed along the road selling campfire wood.  They were out of $5 bundles so we bought this monstrous $10 sack of wood – halfway through a portage!  Perhaps it was because we were headed for the heavily used group-access Fort Island, where firewood would fetch it’s weight in gold.

At any rate, blessed with an extra face-cord of dry splits, down we went to a little beach I discovered last time around.  It’s called Little Beach.  Our plan was to drop our gear then sneak cross-lots to the actual beach in search of a hot shower.  I have never seen such a forest of “No Trespassing” and “Keep Out” signs in my life so we walked around by way of the road.  No one bothered a couple of pedestrians entering the park intent on hot showers.  Well the park was closed due to the crappy weather.  Dang.

We struck out across Johns Bay to The Gut.  Sailing was again in fashion and we cranked!  Well I did, anyway. Doug lost the mainsheet out of his hands and the sail carried forward, in a position nearly impossible to retrieve in a high wind.  The winds abated when we entered The Gut and snaked through the mooring field.  We reached the drawbridge at the end, actually a swing span that spins on a turntable.  We didn’t know the password so had to drop our masts and paddle under.

We sailed again across Jones Cove and rounded Jones Point.  You wouldn’t know it by looking at a map but there is a long narrow eddy along the east bank of the Damariscotta almost two miles long.  Particularly on the ebb tide, the current flowing down the river is deflected by a point opposite Fort Island and shoots straight across the channel, almost all the way across.  We enjoyed the eddy and the favorable wind and, eddying out under full sail, plunged into the current that sped us across the channel to our destination.  Of course the downstream current won out about halfway across, strong enough to bend buoys right under, but the wind stayed true and we made landfall on a deserted Fort Island.

Fort Island is state-owned and open to camping.  It’s one of the few islands that will support large groups and more than one at a time.  We had the place to ourselves for the afternoon but it began to fill up later in the day.  The fire-ring, as usual, was sized for roasting a couple of oxen at a time so I set about downsizing it and creating a high side to windward.  It must have been a northeast wind because it came straight into the cove and stayed strong all night. This was to be the fateful night that Scooter lost his crocs for good.  The wind was angled just so and the fire was burning like a blast furnace.  Doug, being Doug, crowded his shoes as close to the fire as possible, so as to dry them out.  We were milling around doing camp chores when I spied the hot flames and black smoke; his poor crocs were aflame and burning like a pile of rubber tires.  Well there was nothing to do for it so he kicked them the rest of the way into the fire.

As funny as it was when Doug soaked himself on Day 1, it was definitely NOT FUNNY when my rain fly imploded and turned my hammock into a bathtub.  Well, maybe a little.  The wind was now coming from the south as I crawled out of my wet bag and through the exit hole.  In the blustery downpour I caught and roped in my rainfly and staked it out once again.  It takes a tremendous amount of patience and skill to climb back into wet sleeping bag inside a hammock.  I was to repeat this again this night.  I was a bit grumpy come morning as you might guess.  Doug reported our gear was floating in rainwater in our canoes.  Quite a storm.

 

July 3.  Fort Island to Damariscotta Lake 

In Which Douglas Feels His Oats

Salt Bay is at the top of Damariscotta River

I wanted two things.  First I wanted to head in a different direction than the last trip by heading up the Damariscotta River.  As you may recall my original plan would have brought us up to the lake and down the river to our present location.  The second was to find a laundromat.  The town of Damariscotta would have a laundromat and Doug looked forward to replacing his shoes.  So we made a plan: Let’s go upstream, see the giant shell middens at the top of the river, and make our way over to the Sheepscot River.

The tide was with us for a while, then turned on us but the wind was mild enough to make it a reasonably easy paddle up.  We got to Damariscotta where Route 1 crosses.  On the right was Schooner Landing with seaside dining and right before us was a Class II cascade under the bridge with no hope of paddling, poling or even footing for lining.  It looked like another portage.  We tied off and hit the streets looking for the retail establishments and a portage across Route 1 and through the parking lots.  I found a laundry right away but the only shoe store for poor Doug was a bargain shop called Remy’s.  He pawed through the fur-lined crocs and other tourist crap before finding a pair of slip-on leisure shoes with a mesh upper.  They looked like – well I don’t know.  Like nobody would ever wear them I guess.  Maybe that’s why Remy’s had them.  Errands done, we went back to the restaurant for some seafood.  I got the fish and chips, basically a huge chunk of haddock done perfect on a bed of soggy French fries.  Keep the fries, that was the best piece of fish ever.

As we sat on the picnic table eating and quaffing, I noticed the tide was coming in and drowning out the rapids.  At the same time, the wind was picking up and seemed to be funneling in under the bridge.  “Hey, let’s try sailing up the rapids!”  And so we did.  In the lead, I paddled downstream far enough to hoist the sail and get myself turned around.  Doug followed but turned before I did.  His sail got caught part way up, but with no time deal with it, he plunged into the rapids and passed under the bridge.  Here is his journal entry:

“We paddled down below the bridge and hoisted our sails and of course mine jammed about half way up.  The wind caught it and the current was pushing me hard so with some swearing going on I went for it.  As I approached the bridge I was looking hard at the top of my mast, the bridge, my mast, the bridge, my mast…OH FUCK, OH FUCK, OH FUCK, I kept repeating loud enough that I’m sure the folks on the restaurant deck could hear.  My mast was going to hit the bridge girders and all I could think of was the carnage and clean up of all my gear which of course was not tied in again!   The top of my mast, a piece of PVC rigged for the lines hit the girder but just barely and slid as the pole/mast bent backwards, thank god for aluminum.  THUMP, against the next girder, THUMP, the next and so on until I cleared the bridge. I think there were six or eight of the buggers, all I could do was pray!

I looked back and Hal was keeled over so his mast never hit once.  As soon as I rounded into an eddie and pulled on my line to raise the sail it went up smooth as silk, go figure!  I wonder what all the folks on that deck were saying watching us go through, I don’t think it’s everyday you see a couple of canoes sail up and under a bridge like that one.”

Ha ha.  I had a front-row seat for that little adventure, being right behind him.  His progress was considerably slowed by the mast-whacking so I let my sail way out and slowed to a stop.  It was pretty cool to find the balance spot between the wind blowing me forward and the current pushing me back.  It was kind of unstable though and the angle of my sail wanted to make me ferry into the bridge abutment, so I too went for it.  My mast is a few inches shorter, and leaning over as far as I dared, I managed to clear the bridge.  I came out of the shade of the bridge, crested the rips and lost my wind all at once.  We had ascended the Damariscotta Reversing Falls.

The shell middens are really not much to look at these days.

A short stretch of calm water brought us to Glidden Point at the entrance to Salt Bay, where we once again commando-camped.  Thousands of years ago when sea levels were just a tad higher, the salinity of Salt Bay was just about perfect for oysters.  When the Wawenocks weren’t fishing for shad, alewife, salmon or other spawning fish at the falls, they were camped all summer around Glidden Point, wolfing down oysters and dumping the shells in a big heap.  This shell midden occupied both sides of the river and was a couple dozen feet deep.  Photos from long ago were pretty impressive but today the middens are just overgrown lumps of greenery.

 

July 4.  Glidden Point to Damariscotta Lake

 Oyster Farms and Fish Ladders

Portage to Damariscotta Lake

We cleared out with sails up first thing in the morning and headed north across Salt Bay.  We passed under a railroad bridge and found a spot to take out in a parking lot.  Almost immediately a guy pulls up in his pickup truck.  I assumed we were going to get kicked out but this was a fellow tripper who wanted to chat.  Mark Becker and a buddy read about a canoe trip in Sports Illustrated of all places and decided to retrace the route from Fort Collins, Colorado to Sebasco, Maine.  This was like back in 1987.  Mark pointed out “Indian Trail” a dirt road plainly marked on the map from Damariscotta lake down to the tidal portion of Deer Meadow Brook.

We packed as we talked, and having our boats on carts and all loaded up, we said our goodbyes.  I followed a narrow pedestrian way between hedges and came out on the road up to the lake.  I guess it was a day for curious people because now one of the home owners came out and asked what we were doing.  Before I knew it Russ and Diane had invited us into their back yard to check out their fish ladder.  They were busy building stone-masonry pools and drops as the outlet stream passed through their yard.  They had 100,000 alewife spawn this year and they expected 400,000 next.  Eventually we got back to the task of pushing our boats up the steep hill to the edge of Damariscotta lake.

There is a small island a short paddle up the lake complete with bootleg campsites.  I set up my hammock and then dove into the water for the first fresh water bath of the trip.  I was due for a day of rest, a day to get everything cleaned up and dried out.  I had a couple of MRE’s (Meal, Ready to Eat) which I broke out and gave one to Doug.  He disappeared into his tent while I found a spot out of the wind and tucked into my MRE.  Now these things don’t taste all that great and weigh a bit but it’s kind of fun to open them, add water to the chemical heater and cook up the main entre.  While that’s heating you get to squeeze some peanut butter or jelly onto the stale cracker and chew like a cow, gazing at nothing.  Then you get to explore the chicklets, the tiny bottle of tabasco and stow away the matches and TP for later emergencies.  And as usual for this trip, a ferocious wind blew another storm in which was over as soon as it started.

 

July 5. Damariscotta Lake to Marsh River

The River to Hell

Boat-carting to Deer Meadow Brook

OK it’s on my head.  I spied Deer Meadow Brook on the map and it piqued my curiosity.  It seemed a shame anyway to take the trail that Mark Becker had pointed out two days earlier, as it would have been quicker to take it from there.  12,000 years of Native American experience couldn’t sway me.  So we found the recommended take out in someone’s yard and made our way up the highway and found the brook.  It started out winding through a pleasant grassy marsh.  When it passed over a beaver dam and into the woods it took on a whole new character.  It descended steeply over sharp ledges, under the thicket of overhanging hemlock branches and clouds of blackflies and mosquitos.  Did I mention blowdowns?  I was still draggin my boat over a logjam when Doug disappeared around the bend.  I soon heard him shouting and I hurried as best as I could through the obstacles.  I arrived to see him standing on the bank with a pile of gear but no boat.  Then I saw it; his canoe sat sideways across the river, settled into the trough below a short drop.  About an inch of water was pouring in the upstream gunwale and the same out the lower one, enough water to lock the boat into position.  I scoured the woods for a suitable log and used it to pry the upstream edge of the boat out, which unlocked it and we were able to drain it.

Our trials were just beginning.  There was typically just enough water to get in the boat a float a few yards before the next obstacle.  Sometimes we lined, sometimes we carried the 50 feet around.  We suffered the dreary, resigned monotony of the damned.  After countless repetitions I came to a steep ditch that I had to carry across because the river next to me was impassible.  I slipped, landed on my ass and in so doing wrenched my shoulder but good.  Doug laughed.  I threw my paddle.  “Why don’t you squat and fall back in it? Dorkweed!”  “Why don’t you stuff your face in the crotch of a dead pig, you chinless bedwetter!”  “Fork you!”  “Oh no, Fork YOU.  I insist.”  OK it wasn’t really that mild but you get the idea.  I experimented with being a one-armed paddler.  I found I could bear the pain if I used my hand to clamp the paddle to the gunwale and use my good shoulder to make all the motions.

We came to Sheepscot Road.  The brook entered a fast-flowing box culvert, through which could be seen some sort of drop.  The road was at the top of a good 20 foot embankment.  Doug went up and over to scout.  He reported that the brook just got steeper and worse as far as the eye could see.  What I didn’t know then is that the brook is tidal below that point and would probably soon be passable.  Sometimes ignorance is not bliss and we hauled our boats and gear up the embankment and set out to find a more inviting put-in.  We met more people, filled water jugs from a hose and put in on the Marsh River in exactly the same spot we would have if we had followed the “Indian Trail” 2 days back.

Once on Marsh River we soon found a passable campsite high up on the bank and called it a day.

July 6 and 7.  Marsh River to Castle Island

 Uphill Both Ways

The day was fairly uneventful.  Our start was a bit of a mess as we had to load in the thick mud at low tide.  We paddled down to the Sheepscot River and headed for Wiscasset.  Wiscasset, home of Red’s Eats and the biggest permanent traffic jam on Route 1.  I don’t know how it works but every year Red’s Eats gets reviews in Downeast and Yankee Magazine assuring the reader that Red makes the best clam roll anywhere, ever, and for all time.  I prefer to sit at Sarah’s across the street with a tall beer, home-made soups & breads and gaze from my air-conditioned comfort at the long line of sweating tourists waiting for their personal bit of manna from heaven.  But neither of these pleasures was for us.  We were on a mission to get more fuel, beer and groceries.  Despite the promise of one-stop-shopping I read in the cruising guide, we had to walk over a mile to the nearest grocery store.  And premium prices to boot.

A close look reveals a couple of horseshoe crabs mating in the muddy shallows.

We carried our petite $60 box of goods back to the town landing and set off down the Back River.  The joke was on us, the Back River always flows upstream regardless of whether the tide is rising or falling.  We should have taken the Sheepscot.  The sun came out and I saw a cool thing; In the murky shallows there were hundreds of horseshoe crabs mating.  The end of the day brought us to Castle Island in the middle of Hockamock Bay.  Castle Island is on the Maine Island Trail and is owned by Chewonki Foundation.  In the midst of a well-populated Maine Coast, Hockamock Bay is peaceful pocket of wilderness.  Doug declared his back was a mess and so we elected to spend an extra day at Castle.

 

 

July 8.  Hockamock Bay to Bath

 Storming the Gates of Hell

Doug presides over the cooking platform.

Heavy Rain.  Nothing like it to motivate a fellow to stay in his hammock.  Well we did have a cooking tarp up so I went over and fired up breakfast for the both of us.  That day of rest put my shoulder to rights but poor Doug seemed to be worse than ever.  He joined me for breakfast after summoning the courage to face another day.  We struck camp and headed for the mighty Sasanoa River.

The Sasanoa is an interesting river.  During Benedict Arnold’s assault on Quebec one of the ships missed the entrance to the Kennebec River at Fort Popham.  The army mourned the loss of these fighting men so early in the campaign but they had a schedule to keep and so kept going.  Imagine the look on their faces when that very same ship came gliding out of the Sasanoa River to rejoin the fleet.  They had rounded into Sheepscot Bay, through Goose Rock Passage to Hockamock and so on back to the Kennebec.

At the right tide, the Sasanoa has a hairy Class III in the middle of it, called the Sasanoa Gates of Hell.  Now we started out a little prematurely and the tide was still low, meaning there was quite a drop at the Gates of Hell.  The rain was coming down in buckets.  The smart thing would be to wait a couple of hours for the rapids to abate, then paddle up through in relative ease.  But that other fellow in that other canoe sometimes gets a maniacal gleam to his eye and I know better than to get in his way.  I vividly remember clinging to black seaweed-covered ledges by my fingertips, pelted by rain and the painter of my boat tugging at me as the rapids threw it about.  I inched forward.  I looked down.  The river roared past me a few feet below.  It looked plenty deep and I doubted that I would get hurt if I fell in, but it was a cold rain and I couldn’t bear the thought of a dousing.

It rained so hard we had to stop to bail.  Thankfully the river opened up and the current abated.  After the flatwaters the Sasanoa enters the Kennebec.  The strong tidal current of the Kennebec dictates which direction you will travel and at this hour that was upstream, toward the town of Bath.  We arrived early in the day, called Andy, my ever-helpful buddy, who promised to pick us up when he finished work.  We were soaked to the bone but had a good part of the day to kill so left puddles at the restaurant, in the local library and finally at a local bar.  We still had four days off left.  I pointed out that the weather was going to break and the next day would be sunny, but Doug’s back was done for.

And so we parted ways, to return again under sunnier circumstances.  It would be another 6 years before we picked up where we left off.