Canoe Adventures

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Up the Mattawamkeag
2: The Reality
by: Doug Doremus
photos by Matt Hopkinson

  After a late-night drive, followed by an even later-night cocktail hour, the two adventurers leaped out of bed and hit the water at the Haynesville put-in. Their first task is to find the West Branch and head upstream.  The current is incredibly swift and their progress is painfully slow.  Scooter, inflicted with the Barley Corn Sickness, finds the river uninviting and painful.  Each stroke of the paddle is a pounding and painful experience.  Ahead lay 10 miles of upstream work in water that is flowing too fast to look at without getting dizzy.

Eddy by eddy and through the trees, the two make their way to the beginning of the West Branch. A comparatively restful stretch of flat water brings them to Class II water as the river narrows and eddies become scarce.  Hal takes the lead, first snaking his pole up through the overhanging cedar branches, then planting the other end firmly among the rocks under the current.  The 12 foot aluminum poles soon take on the temperature of the water and Scooter, having irretrievably stowed his gloves somewhere in the bow, finds his hands becoming little blocks of ice.  Despite the frosty fingers and the Spring chill of Northern Maine, Scooter begins to sweat profusely, while his mouth turns into a desert. Life is a paradox for poor Scooter. He begins to mutter something about the far side of the 30 pack.

Scooter has packed his boat so it is bow heavy, so instead of riding out of the current it buries in and wants to turn downstream.  Hal sees his partner struggling and finds a place to pull over.  Life takes on a surreal shimmering as Scooter gropes through the brush for a place to collapse. Hal breaks out some food and lets his partner sleep.

"Patience!" Hal says to himself. A cup of ten-year old chamomile tea and Hal settles in to enjoy the sounds of the forest. Today must be Apelliated Woodpecker Day, for he heards no less than four of the giant birds knocking their little brains out on the trees.

An hour passes and Scooter rouses and he enjoys the restorative effects of a cup of instant soup.  Scooter repacks his canoe so he can stand in the rear, and they take to the water again.  Sticking to the right bank Hal grunts his way upstream. Scooter starts to follow only to have the current yank his boat into the mainstream.

"NOOOOOO!!" screams Scooter,  "I'm not going to lose ground."  Dropping his pole into the boat he grabs his paddle and paddles furiously in an unplanned ferry across to an eddy where he catches his breath.   "Why the hell am I doing this?"

Up ahead Hal waits in his own eddy, contemplating his next move.  Faring better than his partner, he is still awed by the power of the current.  The overhanging trees impair his use of the pole and he constantly finds himself fighting with the tree branches, the rocks and the wind, all intent on making him turn back.  Across the river Scooter begins a string of swears as his pole slips on the rocky bottom, he almost does a header into the bottom of his boat.  Hal resists the urge to laugh knowing that at some point it may be his turn to be ass in the air while doing a face plant. The beginning of the rapids are just ahead and Hal makes a final surge to break over the line and into more placid waters, if there is such a thing on this river. Using short, powerful jabs with his pole Hal makes his way up the shoreline until the rapids are behind him.  Sweat stands out on his forehead. Poling is hard and rigorous work, and in this current not for the faint of heart.  Looking back on his partner he sees Scooter has made it past the rapids also and is starting another ferry across.  Puffing like a locomotive Scooter pulls up to the shoreline, sweat is pouring from him like a waterfall.

"Sweet Jesus, that was a bitch!" Scooter says. His legs feel like two hunks of rubber, bouncing back and forth on his pelvis. "Let's keep going for a while and then we'll take a break." replies Hal.  In Scooter's eyes Hal resembles some sort of wilderness Superman right now.

"How the hell can he keep going?" thought Scooter. Shaking his head he picks up his pole and follows Hals lead.  The wind comes whistling down the river in a blast and both boats start spinning out of control.  Poles jam into the river bottom and bend in their hands as they try to turn their boats in a correcting direction.  It's Hal's turn to pull a Yosemite Sam and a fresh string of off colored words flutter through the air, a little stronger than "Rickin Rassen Frassen".  Up ahead a camp appears on the opposite

Atlantic White Cedar.
shore and just above it they pull over and wait for the wind to die down. The first thing Scooter does is shed some layers of clothing.  The fleece undershirt he's wearing gets hung up on a branch.  It's soaked with sweat.  The temperature has taken a turn for the better and in the protection of the trees the sun warms them both.

Hal starts ruminating about his trip last summer in the Allagash.  The memory of the wind is as fresh this day as it was on that day a year ago.  Scooter, the novice poler, asks for some advice. Hal, being the supreme being that he is, stoops to disseminate the very basics of pointing your bow in the direction you want to go, and heaving mightily.

"Thanks Hal. Can I lick your boots now?"
"No, Scooter, I'm wearing sandals."

Scooter stores the words in his beverage soaked cranium and looks around.  Not really good camping with the water so high but could be doable.

"Think we'll find a good spot for tonight?" he asks.
"Hell, we'll find something, we always do." was the answer.
"Man, I am spent," says Scooter, "But, at least my legs have stopped shaking.  I never realized how hard poling was."

They banter on for a bit and then move on. The river becomes shallower and their progress upstream increases but Scooter is obviously done in.  Ahead lays an island, mostly scrub grass, and just beyond that a rock outcropping juts into the current.  A stand of old cedar compliments the shoreline with one bold tree hanging out over the water.  The roots of these trees splay out in curious patterns. Both paddlers mention this.  Hal pulls ashore and looks around.

"I've been here before!  Last time we came down river we camped here.  The rocks went out to there!" he says, pointing to the middle of the river.

A quick reconnoiter of the area provides good tent sites

The hearth, ready for a match
but all the normal spots for a fire are under water.  In quick time the campsite is established and Scooter finds some prize flat rocks for the fireplace. Those laid out flat, and a few generous buckets full of river sand, and the no-trace fireplace is ready for stoking. The two start to unwind.  Dinner tonight will be a stew Scooter concocted complimented with boneless chicken and homemade pita bread.

The night comes on and the partners relax around the fire. The aroma of cedar puts Hal in a good mood. "Man, I love that smell."  Hal gets into the cocktail mix and soon enough calls it a night.  Scooter banks the fire shortly after and lays in his tent looking out at the glow of the embers.  The wind has died, the birds are calling, a beaver slaps its tail and the river gurgles. So ends Day One.


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