Paddle Trips

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Location of Trip: Mattawamkeag River, Maine
Class: Flatwater up to Class III
Length: 58 miles

Matty Gets Hooked

This was my first ever canoe camping trip.

This trip had no portages and apparently has adequate water most of the year. Every day on the river brought a taste of whitewater. Although it passed through a few small towns, they were hardly noticeable from the river and it was primarily deep wilderness with a variety of wildlife. There were no established campsites.

Dick and Matt Hopkinson, Bob Hubbard and Paul Tanner were the group. Paul was a replacement for Matt's wife Nancy Hubbard, who managed to get herself knocked up and didn't want to be pregnant in the wilderness. We started on June 6, 1987 with the intention of traveling to Old Town. Saturday night was spent in Birch Point Campground cabin on Pleasant Pond.

On the advice of the gas station attendant, the campground owner, the Forest Ranger and every one who seemed to know the river, an attempt was made to circumnavigate the two lakes at the start of the trip. A stop at the Forest Ranger Station resulted in some fine directions on how to get lost in the woods. We did a good job. After attempting to drive through and around every muck hole on every logging road we could find, the two canoes were finally put into the water around noon in the West Branch of the river about three miles upstream of the entry into the south end of the Upper Lake. It started as an easy mosey through lowlands and swamp.

As we neared the lake, the terrain became marshy and flat and we lost our protection from a heavy wind. By the time we actually entered the lake, the river was defined only by a wide channel through the reeds which did nothing to abate the heavy winds and high broadside waves. We quartered into the wind, paddling for all we were worth to keep from getting blown into the reeds. Dick and I were about fifty feet behind the lead canoe. We watched jealously as they rounded the tip of the point and paddled downwind. The wind was so strong that they were lost to sight by the time we traversed the last fifty feet.

We followed suit, rounded the bend and surfed down the thorofare" into the next lake. The wind stayed with us and we made good time down the lake. Although there were many camps along the shore, we saw not a soul as we made our way past a dozen or so islands and bars. We realized our folly, not putting in at the north end of the Upper Lake, since the wind would have sped us through in less than a half hour, whereas we spent the whole morning driving through the woods looking for a short cut. The wind was not all blessing. It came from about north and was the precursor of the Nor'easter which plagued us with rain for the rest of the trip.

The outlet of the lake was a bit scratchy and we almost had to get out, but our faith in the ABS plastic canoes allowed us the luxury of staying on board for a few bumps. We covered about ten more miles before we stopped for camp. We picked a spot from the river and pulled out all our equipment before hauling the canoes up. There was a bit of confusion with all the new dry bags, but we managed to get things set up and a pot of soup going on Bob's two burner propane stove. I used my jungle hammock while the others made use of a Eureeka Timberline and a four man dome tent of curious origin. The Bug-du-jour was the No Seeum, for which the netting in the jungle hammock was ill equipped. I was finally forced out of my three season down bag in the morning as I would alternate between awaking to suffocating inside my bag to the bugs biting my face off.

My favorite camping breakfast is a cup full of commercial brand granola, made into a crunchy oatmeal with a little hot water. That and a couple of cups of instant coffee, and I'm ready for the morning dump. The morning dump ritual consists heading out in a direction that you noticed no one else went, with a trowel, a roll of toilet paper and a bic lighter. A shallow hole is dug for dumping and the toilet paper is burned in the pit to leave no trace. A stick an inch or two in diameter placed under the heels make it easier to keep your balance at the edge of the pit.

Monday morning found us on the river in a neutral overcast. The river was a pleasant mix of slow water and short rapids. Headwinds and heavy rains were the afternoon weather. Gore-tex rain coats and pants helped, as did the tarp which was draped over the cargo, but the heavy driving rain finally won out and we were all soaked by the time we scouted for a campsite.

We used my ripstop nylon tarp for a dining canopy. A small stone was held in the center of the underside, then the tarp was bunched around the stone and a cord was tied around it. The cord was then looped through an overhead tree branch and the tarp was hoisted up, supported by the center. Then the corners of the tarp were pulled out and tied off in various directions. This setup worked well and shed the water efficiently. We set up some clothesline under the canopy, but nothing dried enough to notice.

After a dinner of canned ham and macaroni & cheese, I broke out a bottle of Southern Comfort and we had a good time discussing the days events and plans for the next day. The Bug-du-jour was the blackfly, and it should be noted that the strongest deets bug dope has no effect on these minions of satan. Each time the rain shifted, one of us would start to get a little rain on our back and move forward toward the center of the canopy. By the end of the evening, we were about touching knees. This night I slept in a tent. Snuggling into a warm, dry goose down bag after a day of navigating frothy water in a downpour, I realized we were all accomplished campers.

Providence stopped the rain long enough for us to break camp and pack the boats. This allowed us to shake off much of the water (and the weight) of the equipment and fold it neatly to keep the dry parts away from the wet parts. On the other hand, when I swung Dick's backpack into the canoe, the strap broke away clean and the whole thing landed in the river, replaced by a wave which continued the trip into Dick's waiting arms.

Having allowed a clean getaway, Providence lowered the boom and sullen, sodden rain continued on past lunch. This coincided with some lengthy deadwater stretches which seemed to go on forever. Suddenly, and for no reason, the sky cleared for about an hour. This signaled a paddle break which lasted the entire time. We all dozed and sunned ourselves as we floated in the moderate current. An occasional course correction was the only necessity. We covered about two miles in this manner. Then the rain resumed and so did we.

We weren't really sure of our location when we began looking for the next campsite. The rainy weather obliterated all of the mountain landmarks. Our location didn't really matter, we were more interested in supper and dry clothes. We scouted a couple of sites, including one on an island before we found one with enough flat space to put the tents. There was about two feet of muck between the water and solid ground to traverse which deteriorated rapidly under the foot traffic necessary to unload the canoes. The site was low and swampy, but it sufficed. Mosquitos, the Bug-du-juor, greeted at this site, but we were prepared with our bug dope.

There were some excellent rapids on Tuesday. We alternated between moderate to slow current, mixed with ample rapids. My arm muscles were about used to paddling all day by now and our supplies were beginning to lose some weight, even with all the extra water soaked into every thing. I took a bath in the afternoon. In spite of the rain, one tends to become rather fragrant after a few days on the river. It was definitely cold but enjoyable. After the usual floating lunch consisting of pepperoni, cheese, trail mix and the like, we entered the dreaded W Deadwater. We paddled for twelve miles through lush growth, swamps, marsh, and great blue herons, dripping, of course, with rainwater.

We camped along the first set of rapids before Kingman. Bug-du-jour: Deerfly. A decent campsite, but it would have been nicer if it wasn't raining. Our food was staying relatively dry. Except the box of Cream of Wheat that Paul grabbed out of my pack. The bottom of the box had turned to mush and emitted a graceful arc of white powder as Paul swung his arm and handed me an empty, bottomless box.

Now we entered the real rapids. Several miles of Class I and II whitewater took us through Kingman, where there were a few stretches of flatwater and quickwater. Then we entered the three Class III pitches that marked the end of our trip. These were probably the biggest rapids I ever ran, requiring several maneouvers within the rapids. We all chickened out on the third pitch and lined down.

During the day we had seen a cow moose and her twin calfs along the river and a bald eagle overhead. We arrived at Mattawamkeag Wilderness Park where Nancy and Barbara (my wife and mother-in-law) had left Bob's van so we could portage around the falls into the city. The campground was eight miles from the nearest paved road. Showers, bathrooms, leantos and even a phone made this place seem like paradise. We gathered round the Warden's fire and made phone calls to loved ones to tell them where we were. We were a day behind schedule at this point and voted instead to stay another day at the deserted campground and headed back upstream on Thursday for some exploration and to run the rapids without all the camping gear.

The wind was blowing upstream so heavily that we made a makeshift sail out of paddles and a shirt and sailed upstream. We tried the art of lining upstream through the rapids, but couldn't quite get the hang of it. Tying a line to each end of the canoe, we would point the front out into the current, the idea being to get the canoe to stay off the shore much like keeping a kite off the ground. But the light, unloaded canoe had no keel to speak of and just wouldn't catch the current. After sailing and lining upstream a few miles in the glorious sun and clearing winds, the wind took us up a side stream for quite some distance until we came to an abrupt end of the stream. We sat for some time making no noise or motion, waiting for some wild creature to rear his head, but to no avail. We had lunch and cheated the wind by hugging the banks of the river on the way back.

Running the rapids for the second time and without a load gave us much more courage and we had a blast. As Dick and I were preparing to line down the third pitch, we saw that Bob and Paul had scouted the far side and were making a run for it. That was all it took. We jumped back into the canoe and traversed the river, following their successful run. It turned out to be a long, straight and narrow run. Quite invigorating, and unfortunately the last paddling of the trip.

This remains one of my favorite trips, I've actually done it twice, and may even go back again. (Ha ha! 4 times by 2014)

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