Borne on the wings of a nine-day nor’easter, we retraced the ancient canoe route used for travel between the Saint John River in New Brunswick and the Penobscot River in Maine. Obscured by disuse, shamans’ curses and waterfront cottages, the trail has all but disappeared from the landscape.
Before there were roads, the trail was a major route from the old Maliseet village of Meductic near Fredericton, over two heights of land and on down to Indian Island, Maine where the Penobscots still reside. Indeed, early settlers traveled from Maine to the Woodstock area by way of this waterway. John Gyles wrote of his capture by the Maliseet and his transport to Meductic over this trail. Joe Polis suggested to Thoreau that they paddle down the St. John and then take this route to return from the Allagash region. More recently, the trail was retraced in 1964 and 1994, using automobiles to cross the land sections. The 1964 trip failed 6 miles short of Old Town, due to “high winds and dysentery”. The travelers of the 1994 have kept their tale of the trip a secret.
Needless to say, the notion of traveling by canoe is all but forgotten in this day of car shuttles and downriver trips. But the canoe was designed for travel, and what goes down must come back up. Dino Kubik of Fredericton was the lead planner and scout for the trip. Even though the trip starts with an ascent of the Eel River, there are falls and rapids in the lower sections and unrunnable by canoe. So the first 5 miles of the trip begins on foot. Dino reasoned that the Maliseet would have left canoes stashed at Benton, a practice that has been documented at many other pre-contact sites in the region. And so we followed suit, leaving our canoes and paddles near the boat ramp in Benton. We camped near the bank of the St. John River. After breakfast under darkening skies we broke camp and headed up the trail. The trailhead off Old Trans Canada Highway is well marked and maintained and is a pleasant walk up to Hays Falls. I would recommend the first campsite be established at the upper end of these falls. Beyond the falls, the trail gets considerably less attention and foot traffic. We soon approach Rte. 2, the new Trans Canada Highway. Fortunately, the Maliseet Trail had garnered enough attention before the highway was constructed and the design engineers were compelled to provide an underpass for foot travelers.
Once through the tunnels, the trail soon peters out. Signs of the original trail have been obscured by logging and skid roads. The earliest map of the trail was drawn by John Neptune on a piece of birch bark for Joseph Treat. Unfortunately, all that was needed when the trail was in it’s heyday was a beginning and an end. The rest of the trail was obvious; just follow the worn path. Many of the old-timers in the area still remember parts of the trail. Anecdotes and historical texts all help to establish an approximate location, but there are discrepancies and our route leads us through swamp and alder.
As we trudge, I allow myself to descend into an hypnotic meditative state. Left-right-left-right… Out of the blue, my senses sharpen and a feeling steals over me that I am close to treasure. Legend has it that all 500 Maliseet traveled over the trail to visit George Washington’s Lieutenant at Machias. They had in their possession a golden idol in the shape of a newborn calf. Along the trail, it occurred to them that General George might confiscate it for the war effort and so they undertook to cache it. (Secretly, I imagine good old Chief was getting tired arms, as the thing must have weighed a couple hunnert pounds.) The chief and his paddle partner went into the woods somewhere along the trail and buried it. Later, as they crossed Chiputneticook Lake they foundered in the wind and waves, taking the secret of it’s whereabouts to their watery grave. Myself, being ruled by logic, I ignore the superstitious feeling and continue hiking.
Finally we bust out into the grassy fields behind someone’s house and make our way to the Benton boat launch. We put in above a low dam and head upstream. The northeast wind gives us a warning to prepare for a lot of rain. To reinforce this notion, a cold drizzle descends. Our destination is Molly’s Rock, where we will regroup, check the time and see how everyone is faring. Molly’s Rock was a traditional stopping point for travelers of the trail. The First Nation people would stop for tea and to rest. Even then, they did not drink the river water without first boiling it. It is possible that they also camped at this location, but it is cramped and rocky, making a poor candidate for a campsite. Nevertheless, we have had a full day of rugged terrain in poor weather and are ready for a break. Not knowing if there is another suitable campsite further up, we decide to call it quits.
Craig MacDonald hails from Ontario, where he works for the Temagami Park. An ethnographer and personal friend of the late Bill Mason, Craig is a mighty handy fellow to have along when it’s time to start a fire on a ratty windswept day. Having smuggled his ax onto the airplane, he goes to town preparing firewood and lighting the fire. Back on the foot trail, his daughter Nancy had spied some delicate wild mushrooms known as morels, and it was now time to sauté them to go with our evening meal. I always suspect anything someone calls a delicacy. It usually means it’s composed of some disgusting piece of anatomy and goes down the throat in a most disagreeable manner, after which you fight down the gag reflex and make some sort of polite compliment. Not so morels. They are undoubtedly the finest tasting mushrooms I have had.
Beyond having downed a few beers with Dino once, I knew not a soul on this trip before we started, including my paddling partner and tent mate, Tony Reader. We all spend time tossing peanut shells in the fire and getting to know each other, but weariness soon overtakes us and we turn in. Up at dawn, I check the fire, which was no match for the spitting rain. I carve some shavings and make a “feather stick” and get the fire started fairly quickly and put the pot on for cowboy coffee. Dino and Mike seem to be the other early risers and we start the weeklong habit of sharing the first pot of coffee between the three of us before anyone else is up. I adopted a morning habit that I read about in a book by Robert Kimber. When making cowboy coffee, one measures the coffee by handful, and each one is named for someone or something. One for the nor’easter, may it be kind; one for Molly, upon whose soft rock we slumbered and one for 10,000 years worth of Maliseets who passed this way. We pack and set out for our first full day of upstream travel. Just before we leave, Dino takes a last puff off a Cuban cigar and leaves it as a tobacco offering to the spirits.
Still flooded from the dam, the river was a hedge maze of false channels between alders. The trick was to divine the old riverside levies and paddle between them. The great spirit of the wind watched us pass the first challenge, took a long puff on that Cuban cigar and exhaled a misty gale up the river, sending us on our way like dry leaves before a gust.
The beneficial effects of the dam soon deserted us and we began to ascend the current. The insides of the turns always had the slackest water and we set a pattern of ferrying to the inside of the turn. We all broke out poles for the faster currents. Mine was an aluminum one typical of the polers from the ACA in New England, the rest were using home-made wood poles. Craig had added a “split jacket metal tip” of his own design to his that morning.
Ascending rivers is a skill in itself. The insides of a turn have the slackest current, sometimes there is even a narrow eddy that climbs part way up the turn. In a nice meandering river it is often a simple task to follow the eddy, build up speed, then ferry across the opposing current and hit the next eddy on the other side.
Seeing our easy progress, the spirit of the water seemed to step up the pace, placing a narrow, shallow section before us. The current sped up and there was no room to dip a paddle. Time to break out the pole, standing in the stern and pushing against the river bottom. Tony continued to paddle, doing draws and cross-draws to keep the bow pointing upstream.
As the sets of rapids got trickier, we responded in kind. I found that letting my partner walk the shoreline while I poled the gear-laden boat was much easier. In some instances, we found old portage trails along the river and carried our gear up, and poled empty boats. We pulled out at Stafford Mills and portaged even our boats around a set of falls about a half mile, the logical final technique to employ in an ascent.
Dino’s plans to ascend 20 kilometers of river and cross 4 klicks of Eel Lake were discarded and we camped with 5 km still left on the river. Despite the continuous rain, we cooked every meal over an open fire for the whole trip. Tonight we added a side dish of fresh fiddleheads to the dried stroganoff dinner. The morning fire was the same, doused by overnight rain, I rekindled a blaze with birch bark. By the time I had the water boiling, Dino and Mike were up. Dino added the coffee. One for Dr. Peter Paul, friend of Tappan Adney and a Maliseet from Woodstock who traveled the trail in 1964, one each for Martin Paul and Ty Polchies, who ran the trail in 1994, and of course I made him toss in a half handful for himself for pulling this trip together. Another half a cigar for the spirits and we were on our soggy way once again.
We lunched at the outlet of the lake on Beartrap Point and were driven by the strengthening wind across Eel Lake. After discovering that we had collected our river water a short distance downstream from a dead moose, we took the first opportunity to replace it with tap water from a friend’s hose. We made our way around Frog Island, which is owned by the DNR. I spied a nice campsite tucked in there on the western side. The take-out was a private concrete boat ramp off Arthur’s Way, conjectured to be at the original trail location. Dino had made previous arrangements for permission to use this. We landed in big waves, blown by the wind. The trick was to get out of the boat and haul it up before it filled with water.
We hauled our gear up to the road and set up the portage carts. We took a little side trip, as someone had said the original trail followed a property line into the woods a little north of our location. We poked around but found no evidence of the old trail. Back to the boats, we headed south along the road, coming to Eel River Baptist Church & Hot Dog Stand, where we took a right onto Route 122. After 3-1/2 miles we found ourselves at North Lake. Tony had made up some portage trail signs from cedar splits with burnt-in images of a person carrying a canoe. He installed one here and we took off around a point of land to the left and pulled into a closed campground located on DNR land. We enjoyed the picnic tables, flat tent sites and the outhouse.
Tuesday morning, we went through the usual blessing of the coffee and tobacco for the spirits. The routine varied a little though because we planned to pass Customs today and Dino couldn’t be bringing Cuban cigars across the border. So all the rest of the cigars were left, in hopes of carrying us through in good graces. We rode the wind across North Lake, heading for a seemingly unbroken forested shoreline. To the right was a well defined channel that looked tempting to me. Tony pointed out that was Monument Brook, the international boundary. We were looking for the thorofare into West Grand Lake. We got quite close to shore before Tony spotted the small opening and we made our way to it, broadside to the mounting waves. As soon as we entered the thorofare, we entered a calm, quiet world out of the wind.
I couldn’t figure out how we got sunshine in the middle of a nor’easter, but there it was. We followed the slackwater channel past a few houses and camps and arrived at Customs near the outlet. We took advantage of a boat ramp on the left and headed across the bridge in twos and threes to check in and declare goods. We snacked and gabbed and watched Dino tear his gear apart looking for his passport. He couldn’t find any ID whatsoever and finally Paul convinced him to just try and sweet talk his way through. So off he went. He ended up showing the agent his Canadian-made Blackberry PDA, which seemed to prove his citizenship.
We returned to our boats and headed out across West Grand Lake, staying to the east shore where the wind and waves were low. We stopped at Spruce Point campsite, which can be identified by the nice stand of cedars there (go figure). From this point we had to make a decision whether to continue across open water or not. We lunched, consulted maps and cast our seasoned snouts into the brisk winds. While it didn’t really look too bad from there, it is a common folly to head out with the wind on a lake crossing. The longer the crossing, the bigger the downwind waves get and people often find themselves in real trouble partway across and too late to turn back. Like maybe our friend with the golden calf.
Casting our qualms aside, we headed out to cross the lake. The fetch would increase up to 3 or 4 miles. The waves did increase as we passed Bob and Nan Islands and headed down to Birch Point and then Norway Point, both sporting nice campsites. Our destination was Davenport Cove. Paul explained that there is a spot known as Shining Rock in the cove. As one approaches the cove, two spits of land appear to nearly touch almost blocking the cove. When one is directly opposite the entrance, the rock is in view. The Anishinabi (Native Americans) used to have bonfires on the rock, signaling anyone who was traveling the trail where they should come in. The fire would only be visible directly opposite the cove. We spied the rock and headed south deeper into the cove, past a row of cottages and then a swampy inlet to a private dock where reports indicate the original take-out was. Other travelers could make use of the boat ramp at a marina a short distance north of Shining Rock.
From here we split up a bit. Paul took his canoe on his shoulders and he and Beth headed across fields and woods on what they figured was close to the original trail. They followed a ski trail for much of the way. The rest of us loaded up our canoes on carts and did the old wheel-barrowing through. We took a right onto Route 1, then a quick left onto a gravel road. Dino and I parked our canoes and took a quick walk north to a small store. We bought beer and Dino made a phone call. We returned to the canoes and followed the cart road across to Bancroft Road and turned left, towards Danforth. We found our right turn into a gravel pit owned by Elmer Faulkner II, locally known as Junior. The esker which formed the gravel deposit was believed to be the original put-in. Though a little ratty, the pit provided us with a decent camp for the night with easy access to Baskahegan Stream.
Plagued by rogue sunshine, we busted out the headnets to ward off the blackflies that finally made their debut. I couldn’t figure out how we got sunshine in the middle of a nor’easter, but there it was. After a good stew, we all turned in. Wednesday dawned with our good old friend, the rain. Craig, Mike and I took one the boats on a cart the 2 miles into town for resupply. We found the Thriftway and bought what we needed. We filled several cardboard cartons with food, filled all our jugs with tap water and loaded up the boat. We wheeled through town and put in by the bridge. It was a quick paddle back down to the campsite.
We divvied up the food, packed and put in about 11:30 AM. Maine time. I was the only one to reset my watch, these guys all kept to New Brunswick time. Anyway, the Baskahegan is a nice run, a little frothy this day and a couple of nice rapids. One of the most remarkable things about it is that the water was flowing WITH us, a sensation I had almost forgotten about. We arrived at Bean Falls in South Bancroft and scouted. The riverside woods were filled with nasty hawthorns throughout. We finally gained the outcrop beneath the big pine and saw a major 4’ drop, with all the water funneling into one slot. It looked to be about class IV so we opted for yet another portage. We took out at the logging bridge, carted up the road and down to the first old farmhouse on the left. A previous trip report I read involved this same house. No one was home and we carted across the green lawn and down to the river below. While on the road, we passed Bean Falls Cemetery. I had to wonder if it was full of all the folk who decided against the scouting.
Sometime in the afternoon we spilled out into the Mattawamkeag. Ah, sunshine. Such a treat after days and days of rain. We floated down the river and cracked a few beers, toasting our good fortunes. We mosied on down to Wytopitlock (pronounced “pitlock” by the locals), and looked for a campsite where the river parted from the road. We carved a camp from the riverside and harvested a mess of fiddleheads. We had dinner riverside under a red sunset. That was about the extent of our sunshine for the trip. After dinner the clouds rolled back in and it rained hard all night.
Thursday morning we entered the dreaded Wytopitlock Deadwater under sullen skies and driving rain. I paddled stern and finally caught on to Tony’s rhythm. 20 strokes, switch, 20 more, switch. I found if I counted the strokes I could anticipate the switch and do just a little correction before I swapped sides. But my mind wandered and it still caught me off guard most times. Usually I just paddle on one side forever. We came across two semi-developed campsites on the left. We stopped at the second one and ate hand-food for lunch. Craig offered to build a warming fire but we wanted to move along, get this deadwater over with.
The end was signaled by some big-water rapids and we ran river right under the 170 bridge in Kingman. I was surprised at the size of the rapids, not having remembered on previous trips. I was to find out later that we were riding a big bubble of water fed by the nor’easter. We ran the 2 class III rapids above Mattawamkeag Wilderness Park and pulled over to scout out the campground. I knew from before that they don’t open until Memorial Day, this being just one day before opening.
There just isn’t any raingear that will keep you dry under these conditions, but my raincoat did admirably, with the collar turned up and snapped around the lower half of my face. A broad brimmed wool felt hat topped my head and shed the water fine. (My rainpants, on the other hand, displayed not one shred of evidence of being rainpants. The first thing I did when I got home was to make them into a pair of stuff sacks.) I knew I was cold when I hadn’t the strength to grasp a zipper pull and zip my pack shut.
We soon came to the first lean-to shelter. A roof! I could take my hat off for a minute! We all marveled at the great invention, the roof, and declared this lean-to the kitchen. Before we were done, we had moved into 4 of them. Off on a foray, Mike, Dino and I roamed the campground looking for amenities. We came to the restrooms. The door was unlocked. We went in. “I wonder if the water works,” said Dino. We each turned a knob, out came the water! “I wonder if there’s hot water?” said Dino. “No way!” said I, and we both turned on the hot. The water turned ice cold but we let it run. “HOT WATER!” O boy, showers all around tonight! It was then that we also discovered the clothes driers. We kept them running until late at night. We did actually find the manager, who graciously charged a per-person rate and let us spread out all we wanted. He also mentioned that it was good thing we were a day early, because those primo waterfront shelters were booked solid long into the future.
Back at the kitchen shelter, a welcome fire had sprung from the wet wood and Beth was getting out the evening meal. One of the things about packing the food for the trip: the better organized and simple, the less the foodpacker has to do. Beth wasn’t interested in cooking all the meals, so she made it easy to find the right meal ingredients and the recipes were pretty simple. Pretty darn delicious though and stew on a cold wet night really hit the spot.
The canoes were stored above the rapids overnight. The talk over breakfast was about whether to run the rapids or to just carry them down the trail. Nancy was dying to run them and I agreed to run them with her in her Explorer. After much scouting by the whole party and vivid descriptions of all sorts of mayhem, we ran the near side on the edge of shore. It was rather anticlimactic and we ran it without incident. Before we knew it Mike was out running it solo, followed by Paul and Beth.
It’s fun to imagine how the Maliseets, Penobscots, Micmacs and Passamaquoddies would be traveling through. The Pitloc deadwater was no doubt a relief when traveling upstream (BTW I now know this first-hand). The rapids we just ran had to be a portage on the way upstream but any signs of a trail would have gone beneath the bulldozer when they built the park. The current manager of the park wants to buy it from the town and has visions of turning it into an ATV park. Well, you can’t save the whole world so we left him to his daydreaming, loaded up the boat carts and headed on down the access road. We found the pull-off for the Slewgundy Heater in time to watch Beth and Paul run it. They took on some water but were none the worse for wear. They loaded up and began the walk along the riverside portage trail. They carried down past Gordon Falls.
Craig began to scout for a put-in and found the ancient footpath that was used for thousands of years down to the water. It was a little grown in and covered with moss. My neoprene shoes were transformed into moccasins as I trod down the natural ramp into the first calm pool below the falls. While we were handing down the boats and gear some of us wandered down the trail further to find the upstream portage take-out, which was below some fast water. The spot was a natural gravel beach just asking to be landed at. Indeed we floated down to it for lunch. The place was perfect, even had a big outcropping rock to fish from. Tony put up a portage sign and we looked around for ancient campsites. We found no hearth stones or other signs of encampment but it sure would make a nice spot. Back down at the beach, Craig and Dino found some flakes of quartz that were definitely from tool knapping. Next time I’ll probably camp here (whenever that will be…)
Back on the river below Lower Gordon Falls, we encountered some fun rapids. Water levels were high and there were scarcely any rocks to avoid, just a few errant lapfuls of water. This section of the river was new territory for me, as I had always taken out at the park. Paul ran it once a long time ago but could not remember whether there was a falls down by the Penobscot. I seemed to recall something about it from the river guide, and so kept a vigilant eye out. If there were any falls, they were washed out this day. Not surprising, as the Penobscot was in full flood stage. It would peak at 55,000 cfs. As a comparison, in recent years they staged a couple of artificial floods on the Grand Canyon at 45,000 cfs (though Hal the Flood Magnet ran that at 90,000 cfs in ‘82).
We stopped at Mattawamkeag for a resupply. This was the first town along the way to offer a canned beer darker than Bud. Just imagine all those poor Canadians forced to drink cheap American beer. I took photos strictly for blackmail purposes.
The flow in the Mattawamkeag was nothing compared to the Penobscot. It was like a freight train passing by. We paddled straight across and hit the main current, which whisked us away downstream. Dino pulled out his gps unit and measured our speed at 11.2 km/hr. or about 7-1/2 mph. Rapids in this stretch were big and tough to miss; we were upon them before we had a chance to react. Fortunately, there was nothing technical about them and we just breezed through.
Along about 4 we started to look for a campsite. “Just past the four big pines on Hersey Island,” says Craig. That’s where we camped. Nice, high and dry site with plenty of wood and plenty of flat tent spaces. One bad thing was that we found an ovenbird’s nest only about 20 feet from out kitchen area. We put up a brush barricade so people wouldn’t walk through the spot and disturb the ground nest. We weren’t really sure if it was OK to camp here but we’d heard the Penobscot Reservation only went s far up as Lincoln. At any rate, it wasn’t posted so we moved in. Mike and Paul gathered river rocks for the hearth while Dino and I gathered firewood. Craig oversaw the setting of the stones, just far enough apart for his fire irons. He placed stones across the back but left the front open. This proved useful in the morning when Beth made pancakes, dragging out some coals to fry over. Despite the 9 days of rain during this trip, we cooked every meal over an open fire. Did I say that already?
In regular form, I was up at dawn on Saturday. I set the fire irons aside and laid down a few handfuls of birch bark followed by a generous armload of spruce twigs that Nancy collected the night before. We had a generous supply of split maple which went on next. I had a big cheery flame going in no time in spite of the rain. One for the tail wind. One for the current. One for the owner of the island, whoever that may be. The smell of brewing coffee wafted through camp before anyone else was up. I had a glimpse of zombies converging on me in the morning fog, as if pulled by the coffee mugs in their outstretched hands. But it was only Dino and Mike and they still had a pulse.
After three hours of coffee and porridge and packing wet tents, we were ready for another day of paddling. We had 40 miles left in our 120 mile trip, with one last portage around the West Enfield Dam. We figured we could knock off 25 miles and the portage today, if the deadwater above the dam didn’t bog us down too much. The river was swollen and hurried us along. The water was so high that there was no dead water and we were at the boat launch above the dam in no time. We could have taken the “Runaround” to the Piscataquis River and portaged that dam instead. There is a take-out right next to the bridge above the other dam and would have saved some portage distance but the put-in was a little rough on this date. We made the right decision and took out at the boat launch, carted down the road to the fenced off area by the West Enfield Dam and put in just below it. Overtopped, there was a tremendous flow over the dam. We paddled at a lazy pace but the miles just clicked on past.
We passed the mouth of the Passadumkeag River but opted to keep paddling another hour. We stopped at a point of land on the left, opposite Fiddlers Island. We had a reasonably dry night and Sunday morning dawned warm. For the first time we saw the moon, half gone now and on it’s way down. You never would have known we’d had a full moon during the trip. We got on the river at 7:30, probably the earliest start of the trip. We wanted to cover the 18 miles quickly as we were actually a day late. They had arranged for the shuttle driver to meet them at 5PM and didn’t want to be late.
The nor’easter finally blew itself out. Anyone who reads my other trips reports would, of course, already know this would happen. There seems to be a scientific correlation between the start and end of my trips coinciding with the start and end of nor’easters. Other paddlers consult my trip schedule and go either before or after so they can enjoy peaceful blue skies. But what the heck, I always say “what don’t kill us makes us strong.” Further proof of this occurred once we got to town. All I had to do was approach someone and they fell away in a faint before I even touched them.
So Tony and I led the way around Indian Island, through some more rips and took out at the boat ramp in Old Town at 1PM on the ninth day of the trip. We did it. The first non-motor-supported trip across the Maliseet Trail in 90 years. Like all really great trips, for weeks I would wake up in the morning and find myself dreaming about it.