Before the first humans, came the glaciers. They carved great valleys before they receded. The Penobscot River Valley was a bay when the Native Americans began to populate the region. These early Americans moved throughout the area seasonally, following the game, fished for salmon, and made journeys to the Chert Mines to gather stone for arrowheads and other stone-age tools. To these people the simplest way of travel was the canoe. The central plateaus of Maine and New York provided this network of waterways composed of streams, rivers, lake chains which allowed travel by canoe. They remembered the easiest portages and their foot traffic kept them cleared. These were the highways, the network of waterways.
Early forays by the European trappers and explorers followed the trails and habits of the Native Americans, utilizing the canoe trails for transportation. One of the more famous expeditions into the wilderness of the region was the planning of the conquest for the takeover of Quebec City from the British. Led by Benedict Arnold, a gathering of troops set out from Cambridge, Massachusetts, went upstream on the Kennebec River to the Dead River, then carried the boats and belongings through the thick woods to the Chaudierre River and floated down to the St. Lawrence Seaway across from the new city of Quebec. A major undertaking in primitive conditions. You can read a great story about this in Kenneth Robert’s “Arundel”.
A couple hundred years later two canoeists come along. Doug Doremus and Matt Hopkinson. We started looking for a route that followed old trails and highways. Our goal was to start on the St. Lawrence Seaway and make our way upstream to the headwaters of the St. Francis River via the Riviere Du Loup. A five mile portage would take us to Lac a Charmand. Crossing this lake another short portage led to Lac St. Francis and the headwaters of the St. Francis River. We would paddle down this and the St. John River to the town of Fort Kent. The St. John River marks the boundary of Canada and the United States. A resupply was planned at Fort Kent before we headed into the interior of Maine.
The Fish River led the way into the heart of Maine. We could continue upstream to the town of Portage. Twelve foot long poles replaced paddles as we headed upstream. The plan was to stand in our canoes and push our way against the current until we reach a chain of lakes, where the poles become masts and we’ll sail across the lakes to Portage. Aptly named, that’s what we’d do to get to the Little Machias River for the downstream paddle. Upon meeting the Aroostook River, we’d once again break out the poles and make our way upstream to the ancient Chert Mines at Norway Bluff.
The Native Americans came here to gather this stone to chip into arrow and spearheads. From this point there are two options. The first option is to float back down to the La Pomkeag and pole up to Snowshoe Lake to the Seboeis River through beautiful gorges and finally ending up on the Penobscot River. The second option is to head west through Munsungan Lake and into the chain of lakes which form the upper Allagash, down the West Branch of the Penobscot River. Either way, this river would lead to the Atlantic Ocean where, given enough time, we could switch to kayaks and begin down the coast following the Maine Island Trail to Cousins Island. All told we had the month of June, soloing our own boats outfitted for paddling, poling, and sailing. The route would be 400 to 500 miles in length.
March 14, 2000.
The First Journal Entry
After several years of planning, starting with multiple switching of routes and rivers, Doug Doremus and I have settled on a route and a time frame. The years of abstract planning gave way to the final winter season of gear selection, map buying, gear making and food preparation. Two days ago, I started the “weekend countdown”, with all the chores to finish, places to go, and things to accomplish before I leave. Our trip will start this June 1st, and last the month. Doug arranged for a driver to take my 93 Caravan to a small town in Quebec, called Riviere-du-Loup. This town of 17,000 sits on the southern bank of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Our intention is to get our boats wet in the “Fleuve St. Laurent”, paddle for a mile to the mouth of the River Loop, where we begin the first upstream leg of our journey.
But today, I sit amongst my gear and begin to pack. Doug has chided me for not having done this sooner. He is right, of course. For in packing, one discovers all that is missing or broken. My first piece of gear is the Skitikuk Pack, a rectangular zipper-lidded bag made for carrying the bulk of my gear. It has shoulder straps, big meaty handles for hefting into and out of the boat. The pack was hand-sewn by Mike Krepner in his solar-powered shop, “Igas Isle”, in Waldoboro, Maine. Mike is the founder of Native Trails, an organization dedicated to retracing ancient canoe routes of indigenous people. Today is the day I finally get around to sealing the seams of the pack. I asked Mike for a tumpline, which he supplied for free. He says he never uses them. I wonder if it will prove to be properly sized. Doug opted for a couple of Duluth Packs, which are traditional, made of leather and canvas, and have quite a few zippered pockets and compartments.
I first heard of Mike Krepner when Doug sent me a clipping from a newspaper from Lubec, Maine. The article was about the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, conceived by Mike and his partners. The 700 mile trail starts in Old Forge, NY, crosses Vermont and New Hampshire going up and down stream, and finally ends up in Fort Kent, Maine. We got pretty excited about this, as it would be easy to plan, and cheap, with no airfare. As we got into the particulars, it became apparent that there wasn’t enough time to cover the whole route, and it covered some pretty heart-breaking stretches. It was then we realized there was a whole universe of routes we could take if we were willing to go upstream and portage over land in addition to paddling.
I met Mike in person at the Maine Festival of the Arts in Thomas Point, Maine. Strolling through the exhibits and craft booths, I spied a yert in the grass, set apart from the other displays, a canoe sitting beside it. I stepped inside, and there was long haired, bearded Mike. It wasn’t long before I had bought my Skitikuk Pack and paid my dues for a Native Trails membership. Mike was thrilled to have real canoe tripper stop in. He felt uneasy selling zippered map carriers and cell phone packs to the yuppy crowd.
Mike has proved to be a wealth of information, and he sent me info on the Maliseet Trail, from the St. John near Fredericton, over to the headwaters of the St. Croix and the Mattawamkeag. He sent me info on the “Wawenock Awangan”, which is a coastal route from Penobscot Bay to Casco Bay, using portages across headlands to avoid the rough waters of the exposed seas. But most important, he supplied me with some 100 year old texts on routes between the St. John Watershed and the St. Lawrence.
Another terrific source of information was a book called “Above the Gravel Bar” by David S. Cook. Mr. Cook lives in Milo, Maine, and you have to call him up and order it. This book covers the Indian canoe routes of Maine, particular attention to the Penobscot River as a starting point. For flavor, I read “Arundel”, by Kenneth Roberts, a story about Benedict Arnold’s assault on Quebec City. His small army ascended the Kennebec, the Dead, over the “height o’ land”, and down the Chaudierre, in wooden boats. I also read “Penobscot Man” by Frank Speck, who lived summers with the tribe when he was a youth in the early 1900’s. During this research, I came to review how land ownership had been transferred to the British. Early on, the Penobscot gave all their land east of the river to the Crown. Then, later, it was all the land west of it. But never did they hand over the islands and sandbars within the river proper. This of course, presents an interesting situation for us, as we normally rely on assumed rights dating back to the Magna Carta. These are the rights of navigation. These rights allow anyone to use navigable waterways for travel, without toll. These rights extend to all accessory uses to navigation, including using the land below the high water mark for camping, carrying around obstructions, and scouting. Our game plan relies on this for passage through unknown and built-up areas, for it would be impossible to secure campsites for the whole month, strung out over 400 miles, and us not even being sure of the route at that.
So I wrote to the Penobscot Nation, on Indian Island, next door to Old Town. I found that I needed to appear before their council to get permission to use their turf. We have a spot on their agenda for April 3. This will make a perfect opportunity to stop at the Bangor Public Library to further research the Canadian section, check out the museum at U Maine in Orono to see the prehistoric Indian exhibits. I heard of a diorama of Norway Bluff, where chert deposits were mined for the production of arrowheads and other tools. Then perhaps we’ll kill some time at the Old Town Canoe factory before our meeting. I don’t really know what to expect, I guess I’ll throw together a short presentation for them. Well, the seam sealer must be dry by now, so I guess I’ll get back to packing.
The Put-in, Riviere-du-Loup, Province Quebec
The drive up was pretty good. We neglected to declare the vodka that we packed. Of course, they did a thorough search, found it and confiscated it. Nice lesson. Once in Claire, NB, it was 4:30 instead of 3:30, or actually 16:30 since they use a 24 hr. clock. Not to worry, we’ll get our hour back before the end of the day.
There was a bit of culture shock when I went into the bank right there in sight of the US and no one spoke English. So I proudly said: “Je voudre changer cat cen dollars, sil vous plais.” To which the teller replied:” Booly vooly hooey dooey la la la?”, which I took to mean she was asking me for a date and I shyly said “no” and pushed the money across the counter. The women sure are fast in Claire.
We drove to town, past a lovely Lac Temiscouata, and scouted the Riviere-du-Loup on our way to the shores of the St. Lawrence. Sea weed clung to the rocky, muddy shore. We skipped a few stones, put our boats in and poled downstream into the wind just so I could say:
“We began our trip on the vast and mighty Saint Lawrence. As we ascended the torrential Riviere-du-Loup, we took a break and dined on a delicious local dish called brouchettes and drank local biere on the banks. One o’clock the next day, we found ourselves putting in to Lac St. Francis, fairly drunk with the effort.”
Which translates to “We saw little opportunity to float a boat in that river, so we stopped at an excellent sidewalk cafe, had a fine brouchette (shish-kabobs), and tried both “Trois Pistoles” (dark, 9%, delicious) as well as “chambly” (light, 5%, delicious). Then we motored up to a campground and spent the night. In the morning, we loaded up and drank all the beer so that Graham and Brendon wouldn’t be tempted on their drive home.
Put-in on Lac St. Francis to Whitworth
We are on the Ruisseau Castonguay, that drains Lac St. Francis. At Lac St. Francis, we couldn’t find a public put-in. We picked a house under construction, reasoning that there would be no one to complain. As with all good trips that include good old Hal (my trail name), the rain moved in and we loaded our boats in the wet. As we were bringing our gear down, I noticed the workers (who were away at lunch) had left all their tools out. I covered stuff up as best as I could and put their tool aprons inside. They arrived just as we were ready to put in and thanked me (I think).
Ruisseau á Castonguay drains Lac St. Francis and doesn’t become Riviere St. François for about five or ten miles when it hits another stream out of Lac Long. Castonguay is a lovely gem of a run! Meandering through marsh, then a rocky chute and lovely current. It is a pleasure to paddle. We maneuvered through floating dri-ki at the inlet of an eight foot diameter culvert under the railroad grade. There was a one or two foot drop both into and out of the pipe, making for a great run. Soon after we passed under the road in Whitworth, which I have to assume is a non-town. Only one car has passed by since we’ve been camped nearby on a handy abandoned roadbed jutting out into the vast marshes. So far, I’m loving this trip.
St. Francis River to Logger’s Camp
Wow. Yesterday was some adventure. With all the meanders, its hard to tell where we are on the map but I think we covered 12 or 15 crow-miles. We went by a developed campsite almost right away (of course), and proceeded to paddle down one of the nicest rivers I have been on. It started wide, deep and with good views. Then it dropped into a mile of class II. We passed under a bridge during this section. I poled down the rapids and had the time of my life. I think the bridge is shown on the map at the (county) line as we entered Municipalite de Ville de Pohenegamook. If so, we have about three miles to go before we hit Lake Pohenegamook. [wrong!]
The Pine River prepared us for what we hit next: around the corner a massive log jam blocked the river. The first of several. The banks were lined with alder thickets so we cut a hole through the debris and passed the gear through. This section was also characterized by low foot bridges, built with no consideration for the paddler.
This night we found a developed campsite like Mike Krepner described when asked about the etiquette for using them: “Leave as many beer bottles and trash in the fireplaces as possible.” Yes, there was a lot of garbage but it was nice for two tired boys to set up with a clear space for the tent and tarp and a fire ring ready-made. The country around here is heavily forested and, like everywhere, ATV’s travel the forest roads. Very few planes pass overhead.
It was here that we hacked a couple of ~ four by six foot pieces of heavy guage black plastic from some of the trash at the site. We used them throughout the trip, as rain covers, ground clothes, etc. Very handy.
Plage des Rosiers on Lac Pohennegamook
It’s 4 AM and I sit before the percolating coffee pot and look out across Lake Pohenegamook. Frost covers our boats, rigged in tandem for sailing the ten miles down the lake.
As I got up, I heard the call of an American Bittern in the adjacent swamp. Sort of a combination of a plunk and hitting wooden sticks together. I think I drove him off with all the ruckus of getting up. Later I watched a muskrat swim by the sandy beach, 10 feet off, then get out and run up into the poplars.
Yesterday, the upper St. Francis River brought us a mile or so of Class II rapids. At least that’s my guess, as nothing is rated up here. There were a couple of real nice drops. After stopping for a photo op, I got complacent and didn’t see a small rock that thwarted my about-face. That screwed me up and I broached on a rock, dipping my gunwale and dropping my paddle. I recovered and even found my paddle ten minutes downstream, but it was a real anxiety attack watching first the water pouring in, then the wood paddle disappear under water and then go out of sight around the bend while I extricated myself. Regardless, that whole stretch was a blast.
When the river entered the swamplands again, it was a long struggle with tight meanders and occasional heavy gusts of wind. The wind seemed to be coming from all directions but it was really us going all ways in those meanders. Now and again we could see the tree-covered ridges that parallel the valley. The hardwoods were still in their spring colors, punctuated with the dark spruce points. No sign of the logging seen on the previous day.
Eventually the river became wide, deep and sluggish. We knew we were approaching the lake. It was early afternoon with a strong, gusty wind when we hit the sandbar that gave us our first view of the lake. In the foreground was a motor boat, and a PWC was going by further out. Knowing the lake had a well-populated south end gave us some fodder for discussion. We talked about going back upstream and look for a camp, but really no one wants to cover the same ground two more times with tired muscles.
We entered the lake, went around the point on the left, and discovered Plage des Rosiers, a perfect little beach-front campsite waiting for us. Well, not quite perfect. Soon after we got there, a mess of folks arrived on ATV’s and spent the next couple of hours hanging around and putting up and down the beach.
We ignored them while we assembled our boats into a catamaran for tomorrow’s sail. They seemed quite put out that we occupied this little patch of sand at the far end of the beach. After they left, it was a tranquil little spot again. We rigged the catamaran together with three cross bars and set up all the sailing gear. After dark we paddled around on the now-calm lake. Handled pretty good, turned well.
As I watch the frost melt off the boats and gear, I sip my coffee and think it’s gonna be an interesting day. Well, I hear Doug rummaging around in his tent so I better get another pot of swill going.
Saint Franics River: Pohennegamook to Sully
Well, sailing the catamaran rig was a bust. We had the calmest, sunniest, windless day you could ask for. We paddled our rig for a while, waiting for the wind to rise, but it never did. Eventually we pulled over and disassembled the cat. As we worked, we looked across at St. Eluthiere. St. Eluthiere is a post-card pretty town. All the towns have magnificent churches, but perhaps not as nice as Trois Pistoles. From our vantage, the town looked like a little playset, with a train wending through the fields, past the red barns and white houses, all lit up in this crisp spring day.
At the end of the lake, we stopped in Estcourt Station, the furthest north point in Maine. We said “Hello” to the customs agent, and had to show him our route on the map he had on the wall. Not for any official reason, he was just plain curious. The first interested person of the trip, I think. Estcourt Station is one of those one-stop shopping towns, everything within walking distance for the through-paddler. You just need to know how to order in French. We bought fresh fruit and other supplies, then ambled down to the diner for some hamburgs and fries.
We paddled down the now-bigger St. Francis. Lots of simple class I’s. We continued past the fly-fishermen, who rattled off questions in French, to which we could only shrug and say “Tronte Jours a la Mer Atlantique”, which I hope crudely means “thirty days to the Atlantic Ocean”.
We found a nice campsite down past Sully. After climbing out of the sack at 4AM in the frosty frozen morning, and covering a lot of miles, I crashed at 4:30. I slept for two hours and when I woke, every muscle was stiff and my fingers felt like hot sausages. This must be what it’s like to morph from Desk-boy to River-man. Quite painful, actually, but worth it.
After my nap, we shared the bottle of wine we picked up in Estcourt, chilled nicely to river-temp. It went well with our dinner of tomato-basil bread and noodle soup. It was one of those nights to stare at the fire while the day faded to black around us.
An 8:30 start on Tuesday and we hit Riviere Bleue, sent postcards, made collect calls and stuff. The mile upstream on Riviere Bleue was against a stiff current and certainly winded the both of us. We have determined that poling chaps your hands severely. Thanks, Mom, for the giant tube of Udder-Wise hand balm. That was a life saver.
The afternoon was filled with a few mild rapids, big meanders and a stiff south wind. The wind died and we looked for a campsite at the top of Beau Lake. We didn’t see much so we paddled into the lake under a cloudless blue-green sunset. It was so mirror-calm in the approaching dusk that we stopped for soup and continued the seven miles to the outlet. At times, I watched the wake of Doug’s canoe spread out in a V across the water, making the reflected trees do an undulating dance.
We were anxious about continuing past the outlet in the waning light. At 8:15, I spied a mere opening in the alders. Sure enough it led to a passable site. The site looked as if it were used for cooking the day’s catch over a fire. We squeezed my tent in a corner and had a little campfire before turning in. I had found a huge 2 foot by 6 foot piece of birch bark earlier in the day. We fed strips into the fire and watched it burn like a blast furnace.
It was a long day, a good day, and we made a lot of miles. I had made a travelling schedule, but left it behind so we would never feel rushed. We decided a long time ago the trip is the thing, not the getting there. We’ll end where we end, and that’s the end of the trip.
Last Day on the St. Francis River
I sure am glad I took the time to learn a bit of French. Between the language tapes and practicing with Amy, I was able to get by. I think if I holed up in a town for a week, I’d be speaking fluently. As it is, we’ll soon be passing out of Canada and back to good old English-speaking USA.
Today (Wednesday) was a great day. We broke camp early, due to bugs, and floated on down the Saint Francis below Beau Lake to look for a sandbar to perc some coffee. The bugs were just as bad there and everywhere since. It did seem kind of odd that there were no bugs. We ate supper with headnets on and now we’re each in our own tents. I expect Doug is writing in his journal, same as me. I wonder what names he’s calling me, that bastard (just kidding). Wind days and “bug-thirty” make the time to write good memories.
Anyway, I was saying what a great day today was. We’re finally in a stretch of river covered by the AMC river guide. Mid-morning, we pulled it out over coffee and read it. To our amazement, we had already completed half of the first class III that we planned to portage around. We were supposed to go down Cross Lake and find a half-mile portage. The run was easy, some big haystacks to do “wheelies” over, no more. I can’t figure out this classification system.
The day got better after blowing through McPherson Pond. We pulled over and set up our sail rigs. The wind was kinda mellow, but we crossed four-mile Glazier Lake and a mile of river in an hour, with very little effort. We then had several more sets of class III’s before we stopped for the night. Again, we danced through them without a hitch. They were actually a lot easier than the rock dodging we’d been doing. I don’t want to get cocky, I think we just happen to have the perfect water level to run them.
We camped early, so as not to hit the St. John today. Blackflies are out big time, so we’re hoping for another cold night, which seems to slow them down. I have my alarm set for 4AM, so I can pack up and wizz down to St. Francis and hopefully call home before Nancy goes to work. St. Francis is only a mile down from here. I can’t believe I forgot my telephone credit card number!
Boy, it’s been seven days of paddling and we’ll have the St. Francis under our belts. That’s about the length of a normal trip. But it’s only just begun! Every day I’m sore, but every day gets easier and we seem to cover more miles. Cooking , cleaning, pumping water and all is just becoming a routine. So far all the river miles have been easier than expected and we’ve made great progress.
Saint Francis and Fort Kent
I got up at 4:20 AM, left by five and paddled down through the early morning fog. At the mouth of the river, I paddled through a maze of islands in the fog, no idea where the channel was. I hit the St. John, still in a dense fog, looking for St. Francis Town. The river guide mentioned a nice take-out a short distance upstream.
Since I had inadvertently left behind my telephone credit card and Nancy’s phone number at work, I was trying to get to a phone before she left for work. The current and the fog conspired against me. I mistakenly entered the St. John at the lowest point below the islands, making the take-out about a mile upstream. I couldn’t tell this because of the fog. I fought the current for a little while, but gave up after making scant progress. I drifted back down to a couple of camp trailers on the bank. I pulled out and walked through the dew-laden fields, past the cows who came out to greet me and into someone’s backyard.
Standing in the middle of the road, I looked left. I looked right. Both directions revealed a straight road disappearing over the horizon. I turned and started back to the boat when a nice old woman called out through the window to ask me what I was doing. I explained and she let me in to use the phone. In the house, they spoke English to me and French to each other. I took my wet shoes off and stood in the doorway to the kitchen as she served up pancakes to her grandchildren. The kids were all geeked out by the stranger making a phone call. As I figured out the procedures for a collect call, the toilet gurgled and out came Grandpaw holding the newspaper. I was feeling a mixture of awkwardness at being in a stranger’s home and a comfortable homey-ness at being in the middle of the morning hustle and bustle of preparing for school and work.
Hoo-boy. I got through and everything seemed fine except seven year old Robin was missing me terrible. She got on the phone, croaked out “Hi Daddy” and began to cry. I tried to console her, but it was tough when I was only one-fourth of the way through the trip. Made me want to leave my boat on the bank and take the next plane home and give her a big hug.
Now I’m sitting in the chilly sun drinking cowboy coffee and waiting for Doug. It’s beautiful out now and the sun burns off the fog, revealing the green hills beyond. It’s beautiful, but I feel kind of empty, wistful and guilty. I guess you just can’t live in two worlds at once. Somehow, I think I’ll have to fit more 2-hour trips in and do less camping trips. I do miss my little family an awful lot.
After the call home, I met up with Doug who had landed the exact spot we ended the Allagash Trip, in St. Francis. We rigged sails and flew like demons down the St. John. Never before have I sailed in six inches of swift current, effortlessly dodging through rapids by merely ruddering. Apart from the visibility problems with a sail, ruddering was an extremely effective means of avoiding the rocks and holes of the rapids. We covered 18 miles in two and a half hours, including a short stop for lunch.
We parked under the international bridge and walked up the bank to the Customs House. This time it was more like a Spanish Inquisition. The officer seemed to suspect we were illegal aliens or something, tried to stare us down. Failing that, he half-heartedly came down to shore and looked at our boats. We said good-bye and floated down to Fort Kent Blockhouse where the Boy Scouts keep a campsite for canoeists.
We shared the Fort Kent campsite with a group of four Quebecois who paddled the St. John from St. Pamphile. We traded stories and I picked up the very useful phrase: “Le Christe moesh noir!” which translates to “Christly blackflies!”
We stayed two nights at the site. It has several casual areas in a grassy picnic spot to pitch a tent and costs $4 per person. We stayed 2 days, ate the local food, did laundry and got on the internet. It was Friday when we brought our duffel to Dinah’s combination Laundromat and restaurant. Good combo. We started our laundry and had a short conversation with a guy there. He told us we could cross the street to the university and get free internet access. We did, checked email, posted our progress to the Northeast Paddlers Message Board. Back at the laundry, the wash cycle was done, so we loaded the dryers and went down the hall to the restaurant. Man! Everything was home-made and we had a terrific meal. It was all served cafeteria style and the lunch lady’s eyes lit up when I ordered the blueberry cheesecake. After lunch we went back to the laundry and began folding our stuff. Promptly at 2:00, a stream of Hispanic men came pouring through the doors with their duffel, chattering madly in Spanish. After all the French, this new language seemed way out of place. They filled the place, each to their own washing machine. They were full of exuberance, but Dinah ruled with an iron fist and they stopped short of horseplay. I think it was a game with them, bowing and scraping before Dinah.
Ascending the Fish River
The current of the Fish River was awful strong. We could do it but it would have been like the Mattawamkeag last spring. Instead, we asked the manager, Lee Theriault if he knew anyone who could take us. He did it himself and we did a “Rob-Roy” carry around the steepest section of the Fish, to the boat launch at Soldier Pond. Heck of a tailwind, quite an opposing current, and we headed upstream. We found a snug site under the cedars to camp. We pulled the boats up into the bushes and strung the campsite out along the shoreline, in small openings in the thicket. I made a half-hearted proposal to forego the fire tonight and enjoy the moonlight, to which Doug replied: “Yeah, but fires are good.” Or some such non-answer. There was no fight in me, so I let him kindle a nice cheery cedarwood fire. It felt like we were in a room, with all the twiggy brush lit up around us.
Saint Froid Lake
We covered 18 miles upstream today first by poling, then by sailing the length of Eagle Lake, then by poling again in the Nadeau Thorofare. We stopped in a campground to see if we could buy a cup of coffee. Turned out to be a private campground, but “Karen” offered us coffee, in exchange for our story. It was instant, but tasted good just the same. Karen also took a picture of us with a twelve pound togue and promised to email us a copy (she never did). Then her father showed, who actually owned the trailer. They knew Lee Theriault, babysat his nephews. Small world up here, I guess. The dad gave us some pointers on our route and mentioned slim pickings for campsites on St. Froid Lake.
The folks up this way all have French accents, but I think it was Dinah that said they all speak a bastardized French on the US side of the border.
Anyway, the afternoon wore on as we hunted for a campsite along the Nadeau Thorofare. It was really nasty shopping. The terrain varied between steep slopes right into the water to vast wet marshes. We poled the current, a nice gravel bottom right to the Rte 11 bridge below the lake outlet. I saw one spot possible for a tent. But we opted to continue into the lake.
We had to pole up through a sharp drop. I went first, lost my purchase, and swung downstream. I ended up doing a ferry from left to right, then completing the drop with a lift over a log. Doug did just about the same. Not wanting to repeat that, we felt committed to camping on St. Froid or keep moving.
Houses, houses. Yes, and everywhere in between them seemed to be an alder swamp. Then we spied a long gravel beach on the right. We got out, walked into the scrubby poplars, and there was an ancient picnic table hewn from giant slabs of pine. Next to the table was a fire ring made from a truck rim. We practiced our stealth-camping and pulled the boats into the brush before unloading. We set the tents among the willows. Even the fire was hidden from view. Before we made ourselves at home, though, we wandered down the beach to the nearest house to ask permission. It was a summer camp and looked as though no one had been there in a long time.
POOF! Picture yourself on a beach of smooth flat pebbles, using a driftwood log for a pillow. In front of you, the waxing moon floats with the stars. The horizon of pointy firs is backlit by a light blue horizon and reflected perfectly in the smooth lake. Suddenly the loons begin calling. One vociferous one with a complicated fluting and two others at different spots returning a muted call. The echoes die before the next round begins. And so on in the still moonlit night. That is the wilderness I seek.
I stayed up late this night, reveling in the peace and beauty. I’m beginning to realize that lakeside campsites are generally superior to riverside campsites. The view is better. The water is nicer both for drinking and swimming.
Campsite on the Upper Fish River
ME, SOLO TRIPPING AND WILDLIFE
After crossing the rest of St. Froid against a slight headwind, we entered what we thought was the thorofare to Portage Lake. Instantly on entering, I knew this was rich in wildlife. Snipes chased crows across the marsh, pecking and calling their “loo-loo-loo”. A deer faded into the brush. A muskrat glided past and dove. Four little ducklings peeped away in confusion as their mother flew off and acted hurt.
Herein lies one of the social dynamics that prevents me from viewing wildlife that I so desire. First I had to switch lenses on my camera if I was going to get any photos at all. So, I stopped for that and let Doug cruise on ahead. Of course that means I’ll have the camera all ready, and he’ll see all the wildlife. Which is exactly how it happened. Doug managed to take a snapshot of a cow moose with his compact camera. I took the lead at that point, with him close on my heels. I stopped, and he stopped. We had some lunch, and I started to write in my journal. Doug moved on, I wrote for a half hour to give the wildlife a chance to settle. I packed up and started upstream. There was Doug about 500 yards ahead, waiting for me. He had seen another moose. So giving him a large lead didn’t seem to work. Determined to see a moose, I poled like a demon to get ahead. Doug took up the challenge and poled for all he was worth to keep up. After poling furiously for about two hours, I managed a decent lead, but was poling so hard and clanking the aluminum pole so much that there was really scant chance of seeing anything. And JS, the poor bastard, tried like hell to keep the pace too, ending up pulling a muscle in his back. So in the end, it didn’t work and I still don’t see how to get some serious wilderness time while teamed up with other people. It just doesn’t work.
Next day, JS says to me: “Why don’t you go on ahead for a while and see if you can see a moose.” What a jerk I’d been. I should have just said something. Anyway, it worked and soon enough I had a photo of a cow and her calf.
On the ride up the Fish, I saw many big grassy fields along Rte 11 and the banks of the river. According to Lee, these are old potato fields, where the farmers have sold their rights to grow crops to the government. What would happen to them was that they’d get deeper in debt every year until they couldn’t afford to hang on to the land any more. The only option was to sell the rights to pay their debts. Lee said there used to be forty five potato farmers living along Rte 11 between Eagle Lake and Fort Kent when he was a kid. Now there are none. So who does grow potatoes? Big business.
DRIVEN TO OUR TENTS
After a grueling 5 miles, up the Fish River from St. Froid Lake, we arrived at a halfway point campsite. As is the way with maintained, grassy fields, the blackflies were horrible. Worst I’ve ever seen them. Doug said “Oh great, now it’s starting to rain.” But it wasn’t, it was only the sound of thousands of blackflies whacking into the tent in their frenzy. We set up the tents in a hurry and dove in. Like a wind day, it gives me time to write.
Took us two days to reach Portage from Saint Froid Lake. After five miles of tough going our fly-infested campsite, there were only a couple of rips before the river calmed down. Portage Lake is pretty enough, starting with an extensive reed marsh with a mess of brushy islands. Terns nest there. We also saw a moose and a couple of young otters. I tried to catch up with them so I could get a photo. They’d go under and I’d paddle like mad. Then they’d pop up, just as far away!
We arrived at town, pulled into the Ranger Station because it had a nice landing. I stopped in and checked with Ranger Justin to se if it was OK to leave them while we checked into a motel. He gave us directions to the motel, store, post-office, all within spitting distance of each other. For the first time on the trip, we unfolded our portage carts and wheeled our boats into town. How appropriate, our first portage in Portage!
Coming out of the restaurant/office, some lady made a crack about our “little wheels”, so I made her come over and see how easy it was to push. Thought nothing of it at the time. At dinner, the waitress came over and told us to stay, because Jim and Betty Dumond were coming to see us. The names meant nothing to us, so we shrugged.
Turns out Betty was the lady in the parking lot and Jim, her husband was the retired Game Warden. When she told Jim about us, why, he was so tickled that he had to come meet us. Jim presented us with a little wooden paddle with a sketch of Portage Lake burned in. That was all it took and after that we were minor celebrities in the town.
John Robertson was another retired Game Warden, senior to Jim. He took us out to his house to show us the 20 foot Old Town he’d just finished. I was surprised to see he replaced the canvas with fiberglass, but that is the style in Portage: a twenty foot work horse with a motor mount. He had some beauties. Six or seven all told, plus an old “chestnut” mold. He showed us his collection of pick poles, his favorite being one of ash, with a conical shoe on one end.
Jim Fahey was the current Game Warden. I’m afraid we put a bug in his britches about this kinda trip. I could see he was already musing on it. He grew up in Bangor. He pointed out that we passed by his new house on Portage Lake and were going to pass by the one he grew up in down in Bangor.
Little Machias and Aroostook to Ashland
Over breakfast at Dean’s Diner with two of the wardens (poor Jim Dumond couldn’t make it, had to work), John Robertson offered to carry our gear to Ashland for us, and Jim Fahey called ahead to the local Rod and Gun in Ashland, who had a log cabin on the river bank. So, our day was planned and we set out with lightly loaded boats for Ashland.
The route began with a four mile portage to Little Machias Lake, then down Little Machias River to the Aroostook, then upstream about a mile to our goal. Jim said there were some blowdowns along the way and he wished he’d have known we were coming, because he would have cleared them for us. What a nice guy.
The day was physically demanding. After the portage, we paddled directly into a stiff headwind out of the south for two miles down the lake. There was an immense blowdown at the outlet of the lake, and no water. I found the first mile disheartening with having to step out, drag the boat, step back in over and over. Then drag the boat over a blowdown for variety.
After that first mile, the river picked up a little depth and meandered through alders for a long way. Getting my pole tangled in the alders was a relief compared to the shallows. At the confluence with the Aroostook, there was another series of shallows. We stopped and bailed enough alder twigs to start a fire.
THE AROOSTOOK, 5 PM 6/14/00
It was Doug’s turn to get frustrated as we plowed into the headwind and strong current. It was difficult to get a purchase on the rounded river rocks and pole-stumbles were frequent. That mile took us about 45 minutes. Waiting for us on shore was Jim Fahey, his wife and his beagle, plus a passle of old timers from the cabin. I was awful happy to end the day, see my gear on the porch and share a cup of coffee with the guys. Gawd Damn! What a character builder.
Jim left, they were on their way to Bangor. Then he came back with a 6 pack for us. Nice guy. I already said that once, didn’t I? John Robertson stopped in, to check on “his boys”, then moved on. John had managed to trap two beavers.
Up the Aroostook to Masardis
Well, I woke up, thought it was 6. Wanted to get an early start to beat the wind, but this south wind just blew all night and it probably won’t make a plug of difference when we leave. Looking forward to about 30 miles of upstream on the Aroostook, before we go upstream some more to the Penobscot Watershed. We’ll need to get our last share of provisions in Oxbow, before we dive into the woods.
Doug is not as enthusiastic about going upstream as I am. Amazing. As soon as I wrote that, JS came around the corner telling me he didn’t like the idea of going 50 miles upstream. The river got much easier after we left town. Good for poling. Unfortunately, the wind turned to the west, keeps building and now it’s 1:30 and we’re wind bound on an island. Masardis is just around the bend.
|John worked the last log drive down the St. John. It was 1969. His job was to blast the log jams. According to John, the huge pine logs floated low in the water and were the first to hang up. He would tape a stick of dynamite to an alder branch. He’d run up to the jam in a boat, stuff the dynamite in there, light the fuse, and get the hell out. Sounds like a good job.|
|Jim told of a fellow in the ranger business who was heading down Beaver Brook, out of Portage. “The guy came around the corner and smelled something awful bad.” Jim stuffs his nose in the crook of his elbow for effect. “Anyway, not much further down and the guy comes across a set of dentures. Back home, about two in the morning, he put two and two together and sat bolt upright. He couldn’t sleep anymore, thinking there was a body there in the woods. He called the FBI and they took over. They stumbled around in the woods but never found anything.” Later they found a bunch of other gear and figured someone just fell in and lost their stuff.|
The Aroostook gets smaller and meaner as you ascend it. So do the towns along the way. We didn’t see much of Ashland, just the lodge where we camped in the yard. The guys we met were all mill workers and such. Sheldon Casey was interested enough to hang around while we set our tents up. We got to talking about local accents. I mentioned that each watershed divide brought a new local flavor. He said he could pick out what town a person was from, just hearing them talk. One time he was in the Chicago Airport on a layover when he saw a man in an armed forces uniform, back-to, at the airline counter. When he heard him talk, he came up behind him and said, “Now what the Heck is a Moosetowner doin’ way out here?” (Moosetown is a local term for Allagash Village.) Sure enough, the guy turned around and was astounded that someone recognized him for that.
Sheldon had fourteen days until he retired. After I blabbered about how great wet pigskin gloves are for poling, he went and fetched us each a new pair to finish our trip up the Aroostook. He said there’s a big barrel of them at work, and every one could take as many as they wanted. What a nice fella.
We poled upstream from Ashland, and the current abated a bit, but the headwind was as strong as ever. Doug was Hell-bent on getting to Masardis for some reason, perhaps for a diner. After seven miles of slippery round rocks, strong current and ferocious headwind, we got out at Garfield Road and set up the portage carts. We wheeled three miles along the shoulder into town. We found no diner, a closed general store, and a ghost town. We parked the boats at a small put-in on St. Croix Stream and walked a couple more miles looking for the Ranger Station.
We were stumped as to where to camp. The only person who didn’t run indoors and hide was a fellow named Don Whipple. He had canoe for sale out in the yard and we felt a sliver of kinship. At his suggestion, we camped a little further down from the put-in on the St. Croix Stream, next to a broken down picnic table, overgrown with grass. He said nobody would care.
Bunker Hill Day on the Aroostook
Friday morning I walked up to the general store/post office for a coffee. Masardis is basically a string of houses and the store, strung out along Route 11. The only pay phone is out front of an abandoned building. Log trucks blow through town so fast that they’ll take the hat right off your head. They travel loaded, both directions, all night and all day. On the right just before the stream sits a mediocre white house. Over the window is a sign that reads: “This house is guarded by SHOTGUN three nights a week. Guess which three…” As I passed, the window slammed open and Vincent Molina called out: “How was the camping last night?” I turned and headed toward the window, not sure whether I was going to get chewed out or just have a chat. Vince is disabled veteran, had his legs cut off in the war. I lied and told him it was fine. I reached the window and saw he was in his briefs at the breakfast table. His dog, a husky with one blue eye and one brown, joined the conversation with an occasional round of barks. Vince took time to call him a few names and we’d resume our conversation. He was awful interested in our trip and wanted to help out. Well, we didn’t really need a ride to Oxbow Flats, so I begged off.
One last trip to the general store, and we were ready to go. We bought the only tomato, one of the four loaves of Wonder Bread and a couple of pounds of coffee. We packed in mind-numbing muggy heat and a cloud of blackflies. We poled upriver about an hour. We were both so spent from the previous two days, we pulled in and called it a holiday. Matter of fact, I think it was Bunker Hill Day back home. Viva la revolution! We took baths, washed clothes, baked pizza and biscuits and just plain loafed around. These were the things we needed most today.
We camped in a sandy site under dense spruces. Soon after we had our tents set up, the ants invaded. They came into our tents and carried off every last blackfly carcass that had accumulated on the floor. Then they left. It was truly a pleasure to be a part of the food chain today.
Above Oxbow Flats
Greatly refreshed, we made an early start, determined to beat the wind. We paced ourselves and had hourly snack breaks. It was a real pleasure to pole up without the wind. As my skills improved, I found myself gliding into and eddy, then powering out at just the right time to ferry to the next higher eddy. Like a couple of pinballs we bounced upstream for long stretches without ever feeling the full brunt of the current.
At ten o’clock, we stopped for lunch at Houlton Brook campsite, one maintained by Forest Rangers. Low on fuel, and heading into the wilderness, we built a fire and cooked soup to go with our hummus sandwiches. After lunch break, the wind began to rise and we were soon battling again. No more eddy-hopping: the wind would blow us out, turn the bow, do everything to mess up a good maneuver.
After quite a few more rigorous miles, we found a nice sandy bank on the left, under some cedars. The roots made nice sitting spots and we made a small fire ring in the sand. With my folding saw, we cut short eight or ten inch logs and with Doug’s hatchet we split them. Nothing beats 1″ sticks of cedar for cooking!
Last Day on the Aroostook
We figured we were somewhere above Shepherd’s Rips and below Pine Island. Another early start to avoid the wind and we were having a good time. Soon, the river became deeper and slower and we were able to paddle for a stretch. About the time we came to the Oxbow, I spied a moose feeding at the edge. Having camera at the ready, I was able to get a couple of good shots (I think). We skipped the oxbow in the river that went past Oxbow Flats, but saw some houses up on the hillside.
Soon we came to Junkins Island. “You take the left and I’ll take the right,” I said to JS. The right side was a twisty little channel with good current. A couple of bends up, I heard a clunk or two and at first glance, thought I saw JS coming around. No, it was an old man, square-jawed white beard under a cap with a red bandana to keep off the bugs and sun. He had a short wooden pole that looked like a well-worn closet rod, a brown Grumman and an old white paddle that looked home made. Beyond that, he had a fly rod and a stained knapsack. A thin man, not too tall, and dressed in a workshirt and pants like every one else we met in Aroostook County.
“Rudy Michalka is my name. I’m eighty three years old and hope to see ninety.” Rudy was a retired Maine Guide, like everyone else, and owned about a half a square mile of land, the last before the Forest Gatehouse. Well, I pestered poor Rudy about all sorts of info. His news was as grim as everyone else’s: “Years ago, you could go up La Pomkeag Stream to Carry Brook, then on past Archie Junkin’s place to the deadwater at the top of Grand Lake Seboeis. Archie used to have a camp up in there, and kept the trail clear. Not any more though. After the Spruce Budworm got in there, they cut the whole area. Nothing but brush and alders the whole way. And o’course, after they did that, there was nothing to hold the water back. Carry Brook is all dried up and La Pomkeag is only a trickle. No, you can’t get through there,” he laughed, “unless you really want to rough it. You’ll be dragging your boat through ten miles of alders with nothing but mud sucking at your feet!” He tilted his head back and gave another hearty guffaw, just thinking of it.
“I took my tractor once, with a boat and motor on a trailer up in there, but I’d get in trouble helping you, as that’s what guides are supposed to do. No sir, you can’t get there.”
I wanted desperately to take his picture, just backed into an eddy, standing there in his old boat, arm draped over his pole. He was as relaxed as if he were leaning on a fence post. Alas, I had the wrong lens on my camera and he seemed itchin’ to go. I bid him good day and headed on up, as he headed on down.
Well, his dire news was consistent with everyone else’s. It was also obvious that the Aroostook was dropping fast; there was scarcely a chance that the side streams would have any water. So things were looking pretty bleak for ascending La Pomkeag. I talked to enough locals and heard them all agree, and realized it would be foolish to even try.
When we got to the forest gatehouse we met Lester Junkins. Lester looked to be a school mate of Rudy’s and turned out to be Archie Junkin’s nephew. We sat in rocking chairs by the woodstove and told him of our plight. Well, Lester sat there and pondered. As a matter of fact, we all sat there pondering for a while. After a spell, some folks came through and had a cell phone. Lester asked them if we could use it, and then he suggested we call a Maine Guide by the name of Donny Whipple.
Don Whipple! He was the guy in Masardis three days ago. So we did and Don agreed to take us the sixteen miles to Grand Lake Seboeis. He covered the same ground from Masardis in fifteen minutes. He drove us through a maze of logging roads into Wadleigh Deadwater. We never would have found this place on foot. We would have spent days and days wandering around.
For the rest of my life, I’ll never forget my grueling pilgrimage up the Aroostook, the white-bearded wise man at the top, and his timeless Maine wisdom: “You can’t get there from here.”
Grand Lake Seboeis
GRAND LAKE SEBOEIS is probably the most beautiful lake I have ever visited. We paddled the Wadleigh Deadwater against a strong headwind. A saw a moose grazing the bottom up to his neck. When he saw me, he grunted and took off into the scrubby cedars. All around me, it felt like I was on top of the watershed. It was pretty neat.
On the 18th, we had entered the lake against a real strong wind. The waves jostled my boat side to side as we crossed to a small hunting camp. We turned downwind and headed to the first campsite we came to. Don had described this campsite on an island in the narrows. A couple of sport’s boats trolled by, but otherwise the lake was ours.
After cooking dinner over a cedarwood fire, we took one boat and paddled tandem up the lake. We flew. It was then that I realized how strong we seemed to be getting. Hefting portage packs and canoes was getting a lot easier.
I had been chafing for a solo overnight all along on this trip. I had dreamed up elaborate plans for safety checks on the rivers, but the right night never seemed to present itself. This evening, on a remote lake, and no obvious hazards, we finally hatched a plan for Matty’s Solo. Doug opted to hang out at the camp the next day while I got up and moseyed on down to a campsite near the outlet of the lake. The two sites were almost, but not quite, within sight of each other. He would catch up the following day around noon and we would continue.
I struck out on the 19th. Heading south, with a light breeze at my back, I set sail and cruised at a lazy clip. I hadn’t ordered topo maps for this section, so was forced to rely on the Delorme Atlas for navigating. Their “campsite” symbol occupied the entire half-mile long peninsula that contained my destination. So I sailed along and covered the whole west shoreline before I ran out of peninsula and had to drop sail and paddle back. This section was full of huge boulders lurking just below the surface. I was glad to have a leeboard that could swivel up when I hit a rock. I was anxious to find the site and hoped dearly that it wasn’t occupied. I found it soon enough, right at the tip of the peninsula, having passed within a few hundred yards of it the first time.
From the water, it was just a long narrow pile of rocks jutting out into the lake and a path into the woods. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to see the water from camp. I pulled in and began to unload. A fifty foot walk in led me to a sprawling site with a picnic table, huge stone fire ring, comfortable chairs hewn from trees and a supply of cut, split logs. There was also a trash barrel, it’s contents spread across the whole camp by the local squirrels. Two folding chairs, one of which was destroyed.
Having carried all my gear in, I began setting up the tent. It was a hot, dry day and I soon found myself enjoying the camp chores in naught but my river shorts and sandals. I picked up the trash, paper goods by the fire, and put the rest back in the can. I took the smallest of logs and a few pieces of birch bark from the supply, but foraged my own for the rest, as most of that wood was too large for my intended cowboy fire. I couldn’t fathom why there were no bugs, but was grateful.
It was a beautiful day for washing and swimming, so I gathered up all my dirty laundry and washed it in Doctor Bronner’s. A few trips back from the lake with the bucket and they were clean and fresh. Now it was my turn. I started the stove and warmed up some wash water. I got out the medicated shampoo and started with my hair. I had given up trying to shave my face, but I managed to shave my neck and let the rest grow. Clean and rinsed, it was a good time to go for a swim, and wash my boat out too. I was a little wary of those sports in their boats, as they were pretty quiet with their trolling motors and I imagined a boat full of old ladies coming around the corner with me standing there buck naked.
I took the boat, sponge, and bailer and gave the old boat a good scrubbing inside and out. Rinsed off, I dragged it up on shore and left it to dry. Then I swam out into the lake. I floated on my back and watched the lazy clouds ripple in the afternoon sky. Just me and the universe.
I finished my swim and laughed at the cheap “camp towel” that I bought at Wal-Mart. I used a small cotton hand towel to dry off. I swept off the table with a fistful of branches, planned dinner, filtered water and assembled the kindling and tinder for the evening’s fire. I looked at the paltry supply of booze and thought how I had to make it last all the way through the Seboeis Gorge and the East Branch of the Penobscot to Medway. “Hell with it!”, I said, and declared it a holiday.
I set up the lawn chair, propped my leeboard across the arms, poured myself a generous drink and sat down to finish a sketch of good old Rudy Michalka before his image faded from my mind. In total comfort, I droned away in the afternoon sun, feeling good, clean, and at peace with the world. I made a mental note to myself: “Get out in the total wilderness, totally solo, a little more often.”
I tried not to think about it, I wanted this afternoon to last, but finally my stomach won and insisted I do something about supper. When we parted, Doug kept the grill and the coffee pot. I figured there would be some sort of grill at the site, and I was right. There was a variety to choose from. I picked a small one and set the rocks up so my little cooking fire was perched at the edge of the large bon-fire sized ring.
I picked freeze-dried wild rice and mushrooms for dinner, augmented with a few pieces of jerky. As the water heated, I found some pieces of dried inner bark from a birch tree, I broke them into small slabs and propped them against the sides of the fire. They concentrated the flames into a little blast furnace right against the center of the pot. The water boiled in no time and I was soon enjoying my meal down by the lake under the washed out afternoon light.
Still hungry, I remembered a friend named Rob Robertson made some pretty tasty stewed fruit from dried fare on one trip. I added dried apples, apricots and raisins to a little bit of water and heated it for a while. Then, to thicken the “broth”, I added a couple of spoonfuls of lemonade mix and stirred. I dropped a handful of almonds at the last moment, just for kicks. Down at the lake again, I tried my concoction. Wow! Was that ever a taste sensation. That lemonade really made me pucker.
I sat and watched the last orange and purple ripples leave the clouds, listening to the loons and the silence. I marveled at the complete lack of bugs, as I was still in my skivvies. At last the cool invaded my being and my drink was empty so I walked the now-familiar path once again to the fireplace, where I dropped some kindling and a few big (two-inch) logs on the fire. I lit my candle lantern and set it on the table with all my white buckets and water bottles behind it to reflect the light. I discovered that one of the hewn chairs was positioned perfectly to sit and stare at the flames. What a day. Possibly the best I ever had.
I fed the nubs into the fire until the flames petered out. I nudged the coals into the fire ring. I blew out the flame from the candle lantern and was plunged immediately into black night. “I wonder where my flashlight is,” I thought to myself. I rummaged around and found it, then crossed the twenty feet to my tent and crawled in. I fell asleep listening to the coyotes, wondering if I should be getting the willies.
Seboeis River Gorge
Doug was to meet me at noon. I ambled down to shore, cup of cowboy coffee in hand, about 8. A decent breeze was already starting, blowing right in to shore. As I enjoyed the view up the lake from the comfort of the lawn chair, I caught a glint of red. “No way! That’s him already!” I could see my plans to hang out and write more in my journal were about to change. Sure enough, the wind blew him into camp around 9:30. He was quite jealous of my site. “You even had a lawn chair, you Bastard!” Haw, it was great.
In no time, I was packed and off we went in search of the outlet. We paddled out a hundred feet from shore and hoisted our sails. It was pretty exciting, with the wind blowing directly into shore, and us sailing parallel to it. The wind quickened and a loud hum emanated from the rigging as we left white wakes down the lake.
We found the outlet at the bottom of the east side of the peninsula. It was pretty sheltered from the wind. I tried sailing further while Doug dropped his and began to paddle. He soon overtook me and I followed suit. The Seboeis River was no more than a stream at this point, and low on water at that. On the run down to Snowshoe Lake, I saw that someone had taken the time to clear rocks from the center of the flow, making it a nice little channel just big enough for a canoe.
We poled down that garden path and soon entered the lake. Doug had the map so I let him navigate to the outlet. I’m not sure what he did, maybe read the scale wrong, but we followed the east shoreline looking for the outlet and not finding it. Then he saw a boat ramp that was on the map and said it had to be beyond that, so we paddled across a cove and kept following the shore. After we had paddled about three quarters of the shoreline, we entered a stinky little stream. Each paddle stroke stirred up a cloud of fetid muck, followed by huge bubbles of nauseating swamp gas. He led for a while, then I led for a while. After we got up a few hundred yards, I studied the weeds and determined we were going upstream. So he tossed me the map and turned around.
Following Doug, the water was all stirred up. I got hung up on a log because I couldn’t see it and fought for a long time with my pole to get free. There was no way I was going to step out in that mire. Eventually I reached the outlet, but Doug was already out retracing the shoreline back the way we had come. By now the wind was pretty heavy and I had no desire to waste any effort out there. I studied the map, found the stream we were in, and took a compass heading for the outlet. Sure enough, I could see a low point on the horizon that was the river valley.
I was pissed at him for getting us into this, dumping the map in my lap and taking off. So when I got out into the lake, I vented my anger on the paddle and pulled hard across the lake in a beeline to the outlet. He soon abandoned the shoreline and trailed me to the outlet. We reached it, and it was the one cove we skipped when we headed past the boat ramp.
The stream was still very low, and no one had cleared the rocks from the channel. We hit bottom a lot, and had to get out and drag the boats in places. There were many pond-like openings in the stream, and seemed very remote. I would have liked to camp along this section. I was very happy to see Whitehorse Lake. The lake is a small, nondescript thing, but it had enough water in it. I figured every time we hit a lake, the water level had a chance to get better.
We drifted and lunched, then crossed the lake and started the Seboeis River in earnest. The Seboeis River, at low water, was a lot of chutes and rock dodging until we got to the gorge. Scared the crap out of a couple of fly-fishermen, coming around one of the corners. We stopped and talked, one of the guys had tried the gorge and lost a canoe. It was tough to stop and look at the scenery, as the walls rose around us and we descended into the gorge; snubbing down through the drops took all my attention.
We came to a gorgeous spot, decided it must be Godfrey Pitch and set up camp. We started a fire about two feet from the water’s edge, which would normally be under water. Finding a tent site was a neat trick, as the whole area was either bare rock or steep slope. I finally found a spot that passed as sort of level, but far from flat. I set up my two-man tent and we both had to level off our sleeping pads by stuffing whole sacks full of clothing under the hollows. It was a beautiful spot, but the roar of the water and having to shout made me weary. I slept real well that night.
Grand Pitch Portage
The next morning, the pitch got steeper and what water we had abandoned any channel and instead found it’s way under and between the rocks. We did a lot of lining and dragging. As we lowered our boats over a particularly large drop, we realized that this was Godfrey. I couldn’t imagine the maytag in there during spring flood. Godly beautiful in there, sad to think I’ll probably never lay eyes on it again.
We poled, dragged and swore our way down through the rest of the gorge. The volcanic rocks were like cheese graters; it sounded like a zipper as they peeled long strands of Royalex off my boat. Once out of the gorge, we began to look for a place to stop, camp, or just rest. The atlas showed a campsite next to a bridge. We got there and found it full of strange misfits in RV’s. Sorta like the cast for “Deliverance”. Too creepy, we moved on. Not too far though, we stopped under the bridge and had lunch. I got out the hummus that had been hydrating in my dinner tub for the last two hours. “Where’s the last two hamburg rolls?” I asked him.
“Oh, they’re buried!” he replied. I have learned over the years that that means Doug has no inclination to get said object out. So we ate hummus with a spoon, under a bridge, third world fashion.
After that “delicious” meal, we moved on downstream through thickening clouds. Rounding a corner, we met the New Messiah. A tall and broad, bearded blond man stood high and mighty on the bank, wearing a long woolen robe of mute Mexican hues. Cuffs together, his hands were hidden in the opposite sleeves. Behind him trailed a family of Indians (from India), peeking from behind his robes. I looked him in the eye and felt a bolt of lightning pierce my soul. Okay, well, he at least gave me the willies.
Soon after, we came to Grand Pitch, where we made our first foot-portage. Low on energy, we tandem carried each boat first, then went back for our gear. Came to four trips each, which took a lot of time, but saved any upset on the steep slope down to the end of the trail. We met Jerry and Lisa on the portage trail, the first and only canoe-campers we’d meet the whole trip. They were just starting their trip and took off from the end of the trail. We stopped and camped. The rains came and we spent our first rainy night in a long time.
East Branch Penobscot to Whetstone Falls
The next day, the water picked up enough that I didn’t have to get out too often. Once again, Doug was on a mission to get the hell off the Seboeis. I felt reluctant. After all, once we hit the Penobscot, it would just be funneling back into civilization. After about ten of the sixteen remaining miles on the Seboeis, we stopped for some hot soup. I still had two instant soups left. I put one soup in my mug and held out my hand. As Doug poured, he accidentally sloshed the boiling water onto my hand. I dropped the cup and ran to the river and stuck my hand in. I held it there for five or ten minutes and he gave me most of his soup. He was all afire to go, so I let him paddle on ahead as I finished my soup.
The rain was gone and the day was slowly becoming hot and muggy. I soon noticed a distinct change from a spruce dominated forest to gracious overhanging red maples everywhere. Felt very southern all of a sudden. I was in no hurry to move along, so I stopped to take a bath. The water was pretty warm now and it was actually pretty refreshing to go for a swim. I came close to getting a leach, I looked down to see a little one inching across my foot.
I paddled out onto the East Branch Penobscot into a wealth of water. Wide and deep, but little current. I came to the first maintained campsite, to find Jerry and Lisa camped there. They had seen Doug a while ago, so I moved on to catch up. I caught up and we were both happy to have enough water to dip a paddle into.
There was some tailwind, so we decided to set sail. As soon as we did, the wind got flukey and we ended up fighting the sails, hauling in, letting out, tacking, jibing, everything but moving forward. The worst part was that I had my hands full of sail, and inside of 200 yards I saw a black bear run out of the water and into the woods, then two moose in a logan with an osprey circling overhead. A photo of the moose and osprey would have been real neat.
We kept looking for the campsites that were shown on the Delorme Atlas, especially the Wassataquiok Stream one. We found out later that the campsite was against a stiff upstream current a few hundred yards. We saw another campsite with symbol on the left bank, in a dirt lot by the dirt road, next door to a house. I said “No way” to that one. I’d rather paddle all night than stay in that spot. As the possible sites dwindled, we found ourselves heading for Whetstone Falls, where there was a site. I didn’t relish camping by the road. But when we got there, we found a site with picnic table on the right, at the head of the “falls”, nice and secluded.
That was where Doug discovered the leach on his foot. While we were unpacking, I heard a loud “Oh, Gross!” and a yelp of pain. He had taken off his sandal and there was a huge leach right under the strap, sucking away. He pried the thing off with a knife, which he immediately regretted. Bled all over the place. Coulda been worse – coulda been me!
I was spent. It was a thirty mile day, starting with that miserable dry run on the Seboeis. We trudged back and forth up the sandy beach, draining more energy from me as we unpacked. Then it was firewood time, clothesline time, tent set-up, and on and on. I was so happy when Doug offered to cook supper. We were down to the pain-to-cook stuff like the pesto pizza. Good old Doug went to task on that, I started the dough, I think, but he did all the cooking. We ate that in about one gulp and he went on to make biscuits, with garlic and parmesan cheese in them. Oh, they were delicious too. By the time he was done, it was dark out and I was a useless lump sitting by the fire.
We got an early start, 6AM. We ran Whetstone Falls right off the bat, about a mile of easy class III, but with a surprise hydraulic under the bridge. By the time I saw it, there was no option but to run straight through it and let the momentum carry me. That thing looked as though it would latch on and spin any one that tried an angled line through it. I remember seeing a mess of people camping near the bridge, on the banks. Glad we didn’t stop there. Looked pretty crowded. Next was Grindstone Falls, which has to be the most technical thing I have ever run. I have to say it was two miles of solid class III. It was wild. What an adrenaline rush.
We stopped at the town of Grindstone and wandered up and down the road. No store. We had been misled once again. A little further down, we stopped at Pine Grove Campground. Surprised the heck out of them, because they didn’t hear any one drive up. We had heard there was a store here too. No such luck, but they did have a couple of things to buy. We each bought two Snickers and a Gatorade. Wow! What a calorie blast! I felt like I could run up a tree.
Ledge Falls was the last big set of rapids for the day. It wasn’t as difficult as Grindstone, but it had a serious ledge drop into a hydraulic at the very end. By 1 PM, we had covered 23 miles. We pulled over at the town boat ramp and loaded the canoes onto the portage carts. Our goal was Katahdin Shadows Campground. It was about 2 miles to the campground. We stopped first at a diner, parking the canoes in a space by the front door. They didn’t have what we were looking for, so we headed on down the shoulder of Rte 11. We stopped at a convenience store, then headed on down the road to the campground.
Dominated by huge RV’s we turned in the driveway to the campground. Rick Levasseur, the owner, just happened to be mowing the lawn. He shut off the mower and walked over. “You guys gotta have a story to tell.” He said. We probably talked for a half hour, right there on the edge of the drive. The Winnebagos had a hard time squeezing past our canoes, parked in the narrow drive, but Rick didn’t seem to notice. Rick used to guide river trips down the East Branch Penobscot, and helped portage around the upper falls. He wants to get back into it.
He gave us a discount on a “hutnick”, which turned out to be sorta like a doghouse for people. More important, he loaned us his Suburban to go grocery shopping, and trailered us back to the boat ramp the next day. Dozens of tame rabbits roamed the campground. Everyone in the campground was fat, roly-poly. I couldn’t get the Beatles tune “Look at all the little piggies” out of my head.
As a matter of fact, I was busy humming the tune at the beer store, when JS, in the lead, rounded the bend on the way to the Budweiser cooler. He nearly collided with a woman who was unseen because she was bending over to get a thirty pack. Her butt was about three times as wide as Doug and he would have drove her head right into the cooler if he hadn’t stopped. Like a couple of giddy schoolboys, we had to leave the store real quick so we could burst out laughing.
Penobscot River to Five Island Rapids
At this point, we figured we could still make the coast if we had good wind. We’d shoot for Lincoln, then Ruth Jewell’s island to camp. One last public campground in Veazie, then out to the coast. Soon after we put in, a headwind began to build. Shit. We passed the West Branch almost right away, and thus entered the broad Penobscot River. The headwind wasn’t that bad and we made good time down the eight miles of deadwater to the Mattaseunk Dam.
We were, however, waylaid by this old olive green power boat. As we approached the dam, it motored full speed down the other side, made a big arc and headed for us. I thought maybe it was an official boat, except that the loud tunes thumping away didn’t fit the picture. Turned out to be Todd and Todd, or “TNT” as they affectionately refer to themselves.
Todd was pretty proud of his boat, a vintage thing, looked like it came out of a war movie or something. Being a motorhead, he had squeezed every available horse out of the motor. We rafted up with them, and they offered us a couple of Buds. Seems beer isn’t the only thing that flows free around here. Todd lost his license for “driving under the influence” and so commutes to work in his boat (Makes ya feel safe, knowing that). He said he practically lives in it too, his wife prefers it that way. And so Todd and Todd cruise the Medway waters of the Penobscot, fishing and drinking and checking out the through paddlers.
Poor Todd seemed to get the worst of it all the time. Living up to their nickname, he got in trouble once for being along with two chiefs of police who were fishing with dynamite. The idea is you drop a charge in the water and either stun or kill all the fish, then go fetch them with a net. According to Todd, one of the chiefs blew his hand off and Todd got blamed for it, being a bad influence or something. I said “Maybe it was your sunglasses”. He was wearing a pair of little mirrored ovals. He grinned. Perhaps the name TNT is a good one. At any rate, we determined it was best to get the hell out before we exploded or got run over or something. We said goodbye and thanks for the beers. They took off, chased by a monstrous wake.
Maybe it was the hot sun, or maybe I was getting dehydrated, but it was certainly my turn to act like an idiot. TNT’s parting words were that we ought to just paddle right up to the dam and lift over the right end. Well I believed them and headed over there to investigate. Meanwhile, Doug had checked out the huge “Portage Trail” sign and found a nice cartroad to use. I still don’t know why I was so insistent on making my own trail, but the dense, untracked brush finally convinced me that it might be possible that someone else could be right once in a while. So we backtracked to the real portage and followed an easy path to the bottom of the Mattaseunk Dam. Doug must think of times like this when he rolls his eyes and talks about having to put up with Matt.
Our loads were the heaviest they’d been, because we carried our own water ever since Medway. Local reports of mercury in fish and dioxin from the paper mills were enough for us not to trust filtered water.
I was surprised how pretty and pleasant the Penobscot is along this section. Below the dam the current picked up and we floated through riffles to Winn. We camped at Five Island Rapids. In amongst the islands, we found a great little site. We didn’t have a fire, just ate good freeze-dried food and crashed. The all-time favorite freeze-dried food was the Beef (flavored) Stroganoff for four. We rehydrated unspiced venison jerky and added it to the dinner. The all-time worst was the chicken fajitas. I still have a package of it, neither of us could stand to eat it.
Through Howland to Passadumkeag
I woke early to a pink sunrise behind the tall pines. I heard the cries of a raptor in one of the trees, then watched as a bald eagle flew out of it. Quite an honor to “roost with the eagles”. Eagles were everywhere on this stretch, probably saw a dozen as they dropped out of riverside trees and flew off downstream, then circling around.
Howland, Maine: A place not to visit.
The pink sunrise was a harbinger of the dreaded weather, the nasty, heavy, south headwind. We paddled valiantly as it built throughout the day, but it got just plain ridiculous eight miles above Howland. Digging in for all I was worth, I watched the little whirlpools spin off my paddle, each one advancing the canoe about a foot. I knew there was scant profit in that.
I spied a sidestream on the right, with a bridge over it. The sidestream was out of the wind. I pulled in and Doug followed, close behind. I didn’t need a crystal ball to see he was ready to kill me if I didn’t stop. We decided to do yet another “headwind portage”, like we did in Masardis, only this time it would be eight miles, not three.
We ran the gear up to the road, turning to see a “No Trespassing” sign posted by the road. We chose to ignore that and continued running gear up, in preparation for a long walk. As I dropped the second load, along came a Ram-van with a ladder rack on the roof. With a grin, I stuck my thumb out. Damned if the guy didn’t stop and agree to take us and all our gear to Howland.
Dennis was a short, dark-haired solid guy with tattoos of grim reapers and stuff all over his arms. He wore little mirrored shades. He obviously worked hard at his landscaping business, and would be a formidable opponent in a barroom brawl. But his manner was mild and he loved to talk about fishing. By his knowledge of the area, he must have grown up in Howland. All the landmarks were fishing landmarks to him. He took us to a good fishing hole behind the American Legion, where we could put back in below the dam.
We left all our gear strewn around the way it came out of the van and headed for the local store. It was windier than ever so we went to the local store and bought a sixpack. We also tried to stock up on some food. The best cheese they had was orange American. We went back to the river, an access we never would have found without the help of Dennis, and hunkered down on the log-strewn sandy beach to outwait the wind.
I noticed that as we traveled down the Penobscot, there was a gradual but definite transition from sporting camps and clear water to failed industry and floating garbage. The inhabitants seem to get their cues from the river and become all the more derelict. The kids of Howland, already bored with summer vacation, migrated through, chucking rocks and picking through the flotsam. First to visit us was four boys, ten or twelve years old. After quietly sitting on a log twenty feet off, one finally asked us what we were doing. When I told him, he was dumfounded and asked “Why?” as if it were the stupidest thing in the world to do. I had to wonder how it compared to the exciting life of milling around Howland.
Soon after, another ten year old boy silently drifted up behind us and quietly perched on a log. Josh wore khaki and camo, with a big knife strapped to his thigh and carried a pellet gun. “I just shot another kid in the arm and the neck by accident.”, was his first words to us. He also explained that the first group of kids thought we must be gay and wanted to shoot our gear full of holes, but Josh wouldn’t let them. We thanked him for his restraint. Soon, a group of girls showed up and told Josh he better go home, he was in trouble for shooting that kid. No shit.
Next in the procession was Henry and Noel. These guys were about fifteen or sixteen years. Noel worked for his dad in the roofing business. He hated it but figured he’d work up to running it one day. They both sported the little sunglasses that were all the rage ever since Medway. Henry’s were small, blue and octagonal, and went nicely with blond-tipped and greased down hair. He was multiply pierced, had the huge shorts that started half way down his boxers and ended just above the ankles.
Henry went camping once but got “unjustly accused” of selling fireworks to the other kids at the campground. Then he got in more trouble because they tied him to a chair and he cut himself loose with a pocketknife. Poor kid. Just when I was starting to feel sorry for him, he offered me a pack of firecrackers.
To round out the experience, Noel pulled out his new dope pipe he bought in Bangor. “Yes, that’s a beauty.” I told him and handed it back. From where I sat, I could see the Route 6 bridge over the river. I looked up and said “Is that a cop car?” They confirmed it was and suddenly stood up, getting antsy.
Doug’s years of experience working in the human services was putting his hairs on end and he finally said “Let’s get the Hell outta here.” And we did, in spite of the unabated wind. These guys had clued us in about a diner across the river so we headed for that and had dinner. Still, after that, the wind continued to howl into our faces. We strenuously put Howland behind us.
No way were we going to make it to Cummings Island. It was amazing we had come this far in the screaming face of old man headwind. About eight o’clock, exhausted, we pulled ashore just below the mouth of the Passadumkeag River. We carved a small campsite out of the thick woods and slept.
After a short night’s sleep on rough ground, we put in again, no coffee or breakfast. We began paddling by 6AM. An hour brought us to Cummings Island, where we had permission to camp from Ruth Jewell, one of the Penobscot Indians we met in April. A couple more miles brought us to Sugar Island, where Thoreau stopped on one of his journeys into the Maine woods. By 8AM, I was looking for shade. It was windless and the temperature rose to 94 degrees. The dead glossy calm reflected the gray haze. Muggy.
Still, there were eagles everywhere. Not much else moved that day, except maybe deerflies. We made our way between all the river islands, remarkably isolated for a place we expected to be heavily built.
We made it to the first dam in Old Town. In full view of the Old Town Canoe Works, there was no place to take out. Steep, slimy banks and vertical brick mill walls. Old tires and rotted trash. We paddled up the right bank, under the Indian Island bridge and pulled out in some one’s private yard. JS asked if we could pass through on our long trip. A teenage girl and her boyfriend were swimming in the pool and said OK. In the time it took for us to load our gear onto our boat carts, we had John Paul, the Dad, helping us out. John had been known by his family as a kook for all the home-made gear he wanted to make for his canoe. John wanted to make a rudder for the front of his eighteen foot canoe so he could steer it while paddling solo. I felt obliged to assemble my sailing rig for him.
I can’t remember exactly, but I think his daughter’s name was Stephanie. She told us he’d be in the shop that afternoon working on a rig like ours. She was totally incredulous when JS told her we just pulled over along the river and camped where we pleased. She also asked “How do you eat? Do you, like, shoot things?” Too cute, she obviously never heard of such a thing as canoe tripping, living there in the shade of the Old Town factory.
Like so many folks we met on the trip, John offered to truck us around both dams and put us in a side stream. Of course we accepted. Shawn, the boyfriend, took our gear and John loaded the boats onto his roofrack. He dropped us at a sidestream on the east bank below the second dam. Oh, Gross! The paltry flow was warm, brown, and smelled of manure. We thanked him and pretended we were used to that.
Ever since Medway, we’d been buying jugs of water, but I would still dip my hat in the river to cool off. Not anymore. Below Old Town, I was afraid to let my paddle drip inside my boat. Honestly, the whole river below this point was quite skanky and industrialized. No more eagles. The only “wildlife” we saw was pigeons, grackles and rats.
That night we camped in Veazie (actually Eddington), at Greenwood Acres, a crappy, dirty, little campground. It was a mile or so to the nearest store. I got blisters from walking to the store in my Tevas, that didn’t peel until August. I hate those things. We showered for a quarter, camped in a field and made our phone calls. Doug called Chris Wentworth (“Canoebuildah”) and we settled on Hampden as a pickup point to end our trip. Not quite salt water, but it was tidal and the weather called for fog, haze, thundershowers and a small craft warning. To me that translated to “nothing to worry about except that God damned headwind”, so we decided to keep our distance down to 15 miles.
Take-out: Hampden on the Penobscot
We portaged down the road to a put-in behind the Eddington Salmon Club and continued through wide, shallow riffles. In Bangor, they had removed the dam about five years earlier. My guidebook, about thirty years old, didn’t have this info. We were pleasantly surprised and made it to Hampden about 10 AM. We could have gone further, but probably not the extra 20 miles to Sandy Point.
The shoreline was dominated by docks and piers. Working men would stop their labors to stand up and ask where we came from. They waved and grinned, seeming satisfied to have witnessed a grand adventure.
It was odd, pulling out at the ramp. Seemed like there ought to be trumpets blaring or something. Instead, there was a marina full of distrustful yachtsmen who couldn’t care less. Locals on lunch break sat at the picnic tables studiously ignoring us and stared at their lunches. We walked a couple of miles to a store and bought some prepackaged sandwiches and went back to wait for our ride.
Sounds like a dismal ending, but my grin just would not fade. Trip of a lifetime, worth every instant. All my gear worked great, every challenge overcome. And I did get a chance to explore a whole new territory: that of human nature. I never bothered to go there, all my trips were always designed to avoid anything human. Somehow, putting myself at the mercy of strangers put me in good company with a lot of very interesting folks. I’d do it again tomorrow if I had the chance.