Flagstaff Lake to Chesuncook Lake, Maine
This trip follows a portion of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail but intersects with many other important trails.
Our story starts with Natanis, a Montagnais from Southern Quebec who was driven out of his village as a boy during an Indian raid somewhere around 1770. Even as a boy, Natanis had a natural talent for communicating with the animals, coaxing prey from it’s hiding, tricking the blue jays or crows into thinking there was a fox out for their young, and so on. He traveled on foot several days, not able to take down prey for he had not even a knife. Eventually he climbed out on a tree branch over a deer run and waited for a passing deer. He dropped on its back and attempted to strangle it. In his weakened state the deer was able to throw him, and to his horror began to stomp him with its sharp hoofs. It was about this same time some settlers on a hunting trip from the Kennebunk area came to the glade where the poor kid was getting severely injured. This happened on the banks of the Dead River where it made a sweeping turn from southwest to north. Well anyway, that’s all according to the book Arundel, by Kenneth Roberts. That spot on the riverbank is today on the north shore of Flagstaff Lake.
As the story goes, Natanis was too beat-up to travel so they built a cabin for him, supplied him with what they could spare, and one of the Anasagunticook guides decided to stay the winter with him, as the hunting was good. Natanis had followed the route that Benedict Arnold would eventually take to Canada, through Coburn Gorge and down the Chaudierre to the Saint Lawrence.
Meanwhile, the hunting party’s route had headed north and crossed the portage from Maquoit Bay into the lower Androscoggin in what is now Brunswick. They passed through acres of wild rice in Merrymeeting Bay, stopped for a visit at Swan Island and ascended the Kennebec to what is now known as Arnold Carry, leaving Wyman Lake, following the Appalachian Trail to the west through three ponds and finally into the Dead a few miles east of where the two parties met. Arnold’s route was probably pioneered by the Wabanakis 10,000 years ago, and had been described by early missionaries long before he heard of it.
So while Arnold’s army followed the Dead River in boats, hikers can follow the Appalachian Trail which parallels the now-flooded river to south along the Bigelow Range. Slightly south of that, in the low lands one can follow the Maine Huts and Trails route from the Poplar Hut to the Stratton Hut.
The Arnold Carry is a tough one, starting with a very steep uphill grind, and covering a total of 13 miles. There are three carry ponds along the way, and it was always easier to drop the canoe in and paddle across rather than keep carrying. Today, with boat carts and dirt roads, it’s probably a toss-up. One might wonder why anyone would carry between connecting rivers when one could simply ascend the Kennebec until it meets the Dead in The Forks, then continue up that to the same point. The answer is simple: one must ascend continuous seething, frothing rapids, chutes and falls.
If one was to follow the Northern Forest Canoe Trail from New York to Maine, one would enter Flagstaff Lake from the west, passing the ghosts of Arnold’s troops that perished in the November hurricane that pinned them down in the crags and treetops along the swollen river in one of the worst floods imaginable.
The route we took starts at Flagstaff and follows the NFCT until we come to the end of all water bodies named Spencer, that being Spencer Stream, Little Spencer Stream, Spencer Lake and finally Spencer Rips on Moose River. Sometimes I wonder who this Spencer character was. At Spencer Rips we meet up with the popular Moose River Bow Trip that forms a 3 day loop. We leave that loop but stay on the Moose all the way to Moosehead Lake, where we pick up the trail that Thoreau followed out of Greenville. Over the Northeast Carry and on down the West Branch Penobscot, a popular trip on it’s own.
We end on Chesuncook Lake, a lake I have passed through in many directions on various trips. One can head north up Caucomgomac Stream and get to Round Pond and portage to Allagash Lake. Or go south and portage the Ripogenous Dam and stop at Abol Bridge to hike up Mount Katahdin, same as Thoreau, on the way to the Penobscot River. Or head straight across and up Umbazooksus to the start of the Mud Pond Carry. Such is the network of routes through Maine; the possibilities seem endless.
By rights, we should have started our trip on Flagstaff Lake and enjoyed the portage trail around the dam. But having a vehicle at our disposal, we chose to scout the lake and portage by car.
6/3/17. The Dead
Drove the portage trail around Long Falls Dam. It was mostly by road and would have made for a decent boat-cart but would also have taken a good part of the day and we were itching to get on the water. The put-in was at the base of Long Falls, across the road from a large gravel pit where RV campers like to congregate, fish, and talk to canoeists. For this trip, I had chosen a new-to-me Mad River Kevlar Explorer. I had bought a year before from a fellow in Greenville who’s Moosehead Lake caretaking business often saddled him with leftover goods too good to throw out. It was one of fifty Mad River Sailing canoes, with the pipe-smoking Confident Rabbit emblazoned on the sail. It had the appearance of a boat in which some well-intentioned novice had the confidence to try his hand at running the Kennebec alongside the rubber rafters. Then after bashing in the stem and stern, left it out to fill with water and freeze, so as to pop the float tanks. Using my best negotiating skills, I offered a case of beer and a hundred dollars but was unprepared for the shrewdness of the seller, who pronounced he did not drink and so he took the cash and I was left with the beer and the boat.
Anyway, no matter how much time you spend setting up a boat, there is always some last-minute tweaking to be done and we whiled away some time adding extra kneeling pads and waited for our shuttle. Finally, lunched and loaded, we shoved off in a nice eddy. Sean led, as is his custom, and plunged through the eddy line and into the downstream current and was off. I followed with the first paddle strokes ever in my new canoe. It was like paddling a log. I didn’t eddy out so much as merge with the flow. Which meant Sean was out in the main flow, bouncing through the waves while I was still in-shore at the edge of the eddy. Broadside to the current, I saw that the particular flow that I was in was heading straight for a monolithic rock taller than wide that wanted my boat to wrap around it in a loving embrace. To the right were alders and a lengthy fuckaroo, to the left was freedom. Paddling like I meant it, I got past the rock and into the open river. That rock would have meant a short trip.
Two hours of paddling down the Dead River gives me time to get familiar with paddling into headwind. Otherwise there is no challenge to the Dead and would be a relaxing flatwater paddle. We had been told of a take-out river left near the head of Grand Falls, but at this high water we had thought better of it and took the longer carry that starts on the right. It starts as a root-filled path suitable only for hand-carrying then starts to widen and flatten into a more cart-able path. Between scouting and lugging and checking out the falls, it took another 2 hours to get to camp. We camped at the point between the confluence with Spencer Stream across from the put-in for the whitewater portion of the Dead River. A short first day on the river is always a good idea.
Sean had a new reflector oven. Before the trip Nancy made up a batch of Cranberry Orange Scones using all dried ingredients. We mixed up half, plopped it in an 8” pan and sprinkled sugar on top. We let it cook an extra 5 minutes or so and it came out perfect. Beginner’s luck I guess. We had enough for dessert and a serving to go with breakfast, which made everyone happy, including the mouse that had a nibble
6/4/17. Going Upstream
Up the Spencer and Little Spencer was a real spanker. The water levels were pretty good, the routes through the rocks were challenging but I never stepped out of my boat. It was a lot of fun. This time I had exactly the same boat and gear as “He-Who-Is-Not-My-Son” and I could match his pole-plants, weight-shifts and maneuvers with the same result. I learned a lot. The river was at a level such that there was one, but only one, line up through each rapid. There would be an eddy of sorts on each side leading up to a chute, with or without a cross current. Pick up speed in the eddy, nose around the rock into the current, give a good shove and maybe climb up the pole to get past the fastest part. Then lean the boat or not depending on the current. I soon learned that the Kevlar Explorer is like on rails until you lean it, nearly gunwale-under, then it turns easily. I don’t think I would ever have attempted to lean so far over if I didn’t have Carp along to show me and keep telling me “You have to LEAN it”, as if I didn’t already feel like I was about to come out of the boat.
About the time my arms were becoming noodles we reached the top of the upstream run. There is a 20-foot dam nestled between vertical rock cliffs forming Spencer Lake above. Following the advice from a canoe tripping pal, we looked for the NFCT portage on River Left (our right). Up a steep 20 foot embankment through downed trees, brush and tangled vines, we scouted. And scouted. The we had lunch at a convenient picnic table with a view of the river and the dam. We eventually mapped out the trail, which consisted at times of a canal filled with deadfalls and not at all what you would consider boat-cartable. Sean had done this route a while ago and he pressed for the tried-and-true portage that he had taken on the other side. I agreed. This consisted of a take-out almost big enough for one boat, where one misstep would put you neck-deep in the water, then a steep fisherman’s path to the crest of a narrow rock ridge. It was so tight we had to switch boat direction at the switchback. Being Kevlar and not our usual royal rubber tubs, we were careful not to let the boats touch the ledge rock. Down through a gully, between trees tight enough that if you gave a good tug on your end of the boat you could lever your buddy right into the bushes. A great way to keep morale high during a muggy, sweaty, bug-infested grunt fest over the divide. Down a steep rock face and into a small cove filled with 6 inches of hot water over 2’ of sucking mud and we were done! Well, except for the gear. I only had to reach into the muddy broth and fish for my river sandal twice. Sean declared it time to swim and I didn’t hear any argument so I went along with it. There is nothing quite so refreshing as a dip in cold water on a hot day. Refreshed in about 30 seconds. Carp decided it would be a good idea to dry his Smartwool ™ undershorts by wearing them on his head and paddling “European Style”. I think it was the blackflies getting cozy with his gentleman vegetables that soon convinced him otherwise.
A few miles of pleasant paddling up Spencer Lake and we arrived at the free campsites provided by Hardscrabble Lodge. It was a nice beachfront site with a picnic table and a well-kept outhouse tucked into the woods. We moved things around a bit so we could get a tarp up over the picnic table in case of rain. We settled into the usual routine of camp chores, freeze-dried dinner followed by lounging and rumming down by the water’s edge or around the fire. That were a good day. It’s always the challenging days that are the most memorable.
6/5/17. Over the Height of Land into the Moose River
The day dawned heavy and dense. Only in New England can you get 100% humidity without rain. We packed up and hit the second half of the lake. At the top of the lake we spied a couple of moose. Not really sure where the outlet was, we stealthified up on them and took grainy photos with pocket cameras.
The air thickened. With moisture. With blackflies. With the leaden feeling of impending rain.
Where the maps and the GPS showed lake, there was actually a serpentine meander through the alders, punctuated by small beaver dams. Eventually we came upon the road and rigged our boats upon the carts in the steamy heat and started the 5-1/2-mile trudge to Spencer Rips on the Moose River. Dust from the road seemed to be magnetically attracted to me and every movement sent up another puff that immediately stuck to my soggy skin. The air was so laden with water I imagined I could stay hydrated by merely breathing the air and letting the excess moisture run down my throat. Steam. Deer Flies. Deer Flies show up en-mass when the temps climb above 85 degrees. And blackflies of course don’t give a crap and will bite you any time.
Suddenly! OK there was no suddenly but as my buddy Andy had warned me, the bridge over Whipple Brook has been removed in its entirety. The old bridge had been dragged up on the near side, the abutments had been torn out and the stream was allowed to run free. So we must cross a stream in a boat attached to a cart. We unloaded our gear, carried it across and ran our boats through the stream with the carts attached. Easy Peasey. Except the air was so thick with moisture and bugs that it threatened to crush us. Dang! Then it started to rain. We survived, got to the Moose River, and turned right down a cart path. Leaving our boats and gear strewn about the sucking mud put-in, we ventured a bit further and had lunch under the welcoming overhang of someone’s porch. Naturally we assumed we were the only occupants of the universe within a million miles but as we dined on peanut butter tortillas and other delectables, another group arrived from up the Moose. They were the picture of efficiency. Everything was in big plastic storage boxes. It came out onto shore, the boats were carried, and the boxes went back in. They were come and gone before we could stir from our lunchtime lethargy.
It was our turn and we laid down sticks, branches and anything we could find to keep from sinking knee-deep into the soft mud at the riverbank. Soon we were in the river proper and heading on down. As one approaches Attean Falls there is a portage left, followed by a short stretch of smooth river then a portage right around the falls. The box-toting party was engaged in carrying the first portage but took a quick break to watch us, no doubt with a pang, as we ran the first section. It wasn’t really that difficult but I suppose the consequences could be dire since the falls were coming up. We also ran the falls. This is where I learned that a Kevlar Explorer does not side slip no matter how hard you try. The idea is that you hug the right bank as you approach the main drop, then go out a smidge to stay left of two rocks in the current, then swing to the right again to run through the unobstructed outflow. I ran to the left of the two rocks, then attempted a draw to the right. Nope. Somehow, I avoided the prominent rock in the midstream and went left, running it clean.
Soon after Attean Falls one reaches Attean Pond. Normally there is a big blow from the left, the west, that taxes the endurance right out of you. This day, however, the wind was out of the East and our route was more or less protected. We made haste across the pond, forsaking our planned stop at Attean Falls. We camped that night at Sally Mountain, around the corner from the usual put-in/take-out for the Moose River Bow Trip.
6/6/17. Along the Moose River
Ahead of schedule, we paddled past the Attean Pond boat launch and followed the Moose River through Wood Pond and stopped in Jackman for an egg sandwich. Also on the list was fuel for the stoves. I underestimated how much to bring and the first “nearly full” can had petered out on Day 1. The specialized cans for my pocket rocket were not available. Sean had brought an alcohol stove “just in case”, but without a whole lot of fuel. So here’s a little lesson about alcohol: Ethanol is what you want, which is the same stuff that gets you drunk. Since the government wants to tax you if you plan to drink it, the industry adds poison to it and call it Denatured Alcohol. Sometimes they add toxics like methyl ethyl ketone in fairly large amounts. So you should try to buy “green” denatured alcohol, which is purest. Well, we couldn’t find any denatured alcohol at all. Next on the list then is “Heet”, a gasoline additive to get water out of your fuel. There are two types: Yellow Heet and Red Heet. Yellow Heet is methanol, OK but not the best. Red Heet is isopropanol, or rubbing alcohol. This burns in a sooty mess with both toxic fumes and toxic through skin absorption. Interesting that we use it on our skin, right? Anyway, all we could find in the whole town of Jackman was Red Heet so we passed on it and decided to rely on firewood.
While we were conducting this scientific research in the middle of the hardware store via smartphone, one of Sean’s repressed memories surfaced and he immediately began lusting for a pair of rubber boots, which his past-self had omitted from his packing list. Lucky for him, Maine hardware stores carry a selection of fine rubber boots for the discerning muck wader.
Full-bellied, I hopped in my boat and plunged into the fairly strong headwind. As the day wore on, I broke up the monotony with more scientific research. I had two paddles in my boat, one a Mitchell wooden whitewater paddle and the other an antique six-foot, 4-inch long narrow-bladed thing of some smooth-grained wood. My research involved paddling exactly a tenth of a mile as indicated by my GPS and count the strokes. Then switch paddles and repeat. After multiple iterations I decided that the Mitchel performed better than the lake paddle by a slight margin, but not enough to make a difference over the course of a day.
I also discovered that the last few hours had disappeared in my reveries and I was about to arrive at camp. I pulled into the campsite at Long Pond Narrows. Just another pleasant night in camp, we tried our hands at gingerbread from a box mix. It didn’t really firm up enough. But that’s OK, even eating raw gingerbread batter with a spoon would be pretty good too.
6/7/17. To Moosehead
In a way, I miss the days of divining the weather from the clouds, the wind direction and the color of the sunset. But that doesn’t stop me from pulling out the smart phone and checking the forecast. I was a little surprised to see that the wind had blown itself out and the next couple of days would be sunny, warm and calm. Knowing that, we determined to skip the next campsite and spend the next two days getting the 18 miles of open water on Moosehead Lake out of the way.
We covered the final miles of Long Pond under blue skies and pleasant weather. We paddled side-by-side in the gentle current of the Moose River, enjoying the day and nattering away about everything that needed nattering upon. The only shadow upon this halcyon moment was the upcoming portage at Demo Road. Previous reports indicated the official portage took out at the bridge, just above the rapids and continued for miles in a big loop that ended at the bottom of the 3 mile stretch of rapids. There had also been reports that the NFCT folks were working on a short carry trail around just the Class IV drop under the bridge. We arrived and found that the short carry was fully developed and ready for us. Psyche! What followed was a terrific run of Class II-III whitewater and more practice in the art of boat-lean. As difficult as it is to lean a boat to the outside of the turn, I overcame that fear and found I could make pretty tight turns when I needed to. Granted, I did take on a ton of water going gunwale-under in a few of the drops. I’m grinning anew as I write this.
One of those few precious moments in my life when I’m in harmony with the will of the water, and the boat and the paddle are there to translate my movements into a winding path through the tumultuous froth, spray sparkling in the sunshine. Time slows down so I can forever record the experience in the folds of my brain.
Abruptly and too soon, the last rock was passed and the current slowed to the deadwater of Brassua Lake. Sean pointed to river-left, “Look, there’s the end of the portage trail.” Thank you, river stewards for that short portage! We covered the miles across the lake to the dam at the outlet and carried around that into the remaining section of the Moose River. Soon, the river banks were populated with waterfront homes sporting a lot of fishing boats.
We entered Moosehead Lake on a calm afternoon and approached an island filled with sea birds. Out past the shoals and shallows, was visible the impressive bulk of Mount Kineo, rising out of a vast lake. Since time immemorial, Mount Kineo has been mined by the Wabanaki for the chert, or flint found throughout the Northeast in the form of arrowheads and spear points, as well as many other tools. Moosehead Lake is also known to paddlers as a place of strong winds and difficult crossings. But not today; we made the crossing over smooth waters then made our way to Hardscrabble Point. Hardscrabble Point campsite is spacious and grassy and has beautiful views to the north and west.
I occasionally describe the bug-du-jour at my campsites and this one, with all the grass, would qualify as a blackfly site. But what really bugged us both were the frogs. I don’t know what kind of frogs they were, but they emitted this high pitched scream, sort of like an American Toad, only half an octave higher, almost a chorus of coach whistles. At any rate, take a few hundred of these buggers and put them just outside your tent and you just might not hear me snoring for a change.
6/8/17. Over the Height of Land to the Penobscot
We woke to another beautiful day and decided to scamper up Mount Kineo after breakfast. We followed the trail for most of the way, then took a shortcut into the dense blown-down scrub spruce and emerged well buffed and scoured at the summit. From the top of the fire tower I watched the cat’s paws roughen the surface of the water across the twelve miles to the north where our crossing would end. Cat’s paws foretell of the beginning edge of a new weather system. I wondered then how much we would pay for this morning side trip but darn it, I always wanted to check out Mount Kineo.
I had a rough time with my old worn-out knee but the thought of the winds building out there put me into a bit of a hurry so I gimped and limped and hopped on one leg down the steep rocky slope back to camp. We made quick work of loading up. The little block in the bottom of the boat, called a mast-step, had come loose and Sean devised a rig involving the boat cart and yards of rope. The downside of the rig was that I couldn’t take my mast down. The water started out calm, in the lee of the island. As we left the island behind, we discovered that it was calm everywhere. And hot, like in the 90’s. My sail laid unfurled in the bottom of my boat and the halyard swayed from side to side with every paddle stroke. The halyard kept it’s hypnotic rhythm as we crossed the vast open waters of the 12 mile crossing. What? Hey! A bit of a breeze was springing up. I swiveled my leeboard into the water, hoisted the sail and began to pick up speed! It lasted all of 5 minutes. We stopped for a lunch break out there in the middle, the sails hanging limp.
The rest of the crossing was uneventful, just more even strokes of the paddle. Eventually the details of the things on shore grew is size and became recognizable. After 4 hours of paddling I stepped out of the boat and onto the beginning of the historic Northeast Carry. Which today is a well-traveled dirt road. We talked of Raymond’s Store, partway down the trial and mused about the goodies we might pick up as we hurried through the well-rehearsed task of pulling the gear out, unfolding the boat cart, and re-loading everything. There is actually no guarantee that the store will be open when you get there. But today, I walked through the screen door to find myself amongst several rows of fishing gear, hardware, and camp-style groceries. At the far end of the rows sat Raymond, on a stool behind the counter, between the pickled eggs, beef jerky and disposable lighters. Over his head, written in magic-marker on a cardboard square, a sign reads, “Yes we have Klondike Bars.”
Sean and I approached him. “Do you have Klondike Bars?”
“Yes we do. How many would you like?”
“OK, that’ll be 3.” He fetched them from the freezer and we all three of us enjoyed our ice cream treats right there at the counter.
Sean bought a 6 pack of beer which we started in on the moment we started pushing our canoes down the dusty road. By the time we got to the crossroads there was no more beer.
Took about 25 minutes for us to down it all. At the crossroads the Northeast Carry turns to a rutted muddy road frequented by off road vehicles of all sorts but never by road maintenance vehicles. We put the boats in the West Branch Penobscot and paddled downstream to Lobster Stream and on up that to Lobster Lake where we camped for the night.
After a good twenty mile day, neither of us felt like baking anything so we went straight for the freeze dried dinners. Did you know that Mountain House has discontinued Turkey Tetrazzini? Just another sign of the end of the world as we know it. It was a warm evening with a decent breeze off the water. We sat at the water’s edge sipping rum and watching the light fade. Inexplicably, the mosquitos were about the worst I’ve ever seen. I was reduced to pulling my arms into my bugshirt and sipping away from behind the screen.
6/9/17. Down the West Branch Penobscot
Up and at’em early. Why do we always pick June to travel through the woods of Maine? For one thing, there’s no crowds. Unless you count the blackflies and mosquitos, then it’s packed. I have honed the art of the smudge over the past couple of years and swear by it. Spruce boughs are nice but grass is just as good and this day required a morning smudge. No one wants to wear a screen across their face on a humid day.
We set out after a quick breakfast, retracing our route down Lobster Stream to continue our journey. The sullen skies and airless humidity mirrored my mood and it was a time for quiet reflection. I paddled noiselessly save for the dribble of water off the end of my beavertail paddle. I caught a scent in the air that tugged at my memory; many a year ago I was backpacking in the pouring rain on the flanks of Mount Katahdin with my brother when I stopped on a slippery split-log boardwalk through a swamp and looked around to see what made that strong aroma like a mixture of fermented grass and sensitive fern. Seeing nothing, I began to walk again. At my first movement, a huge bull moose, not twenty feet away, bolted. Scared the begonias out of me. Now, about the time I finished musing about that moose so many years ago, I rounded the bend to see a moose not twenty feet from me, chewing away and eyeing me warily. I spoke in a murmur, telling him not to get excited, I was just passing by. We saw three moose on that short stretch, all reluctant to disappear into the bush as they often do.
The spell was broken when a small motorboat came upstream from the nearby boat launch, heavily laden with fishermen, their tackle, coolers and big grins that come with the first day of a camping trip. We returned to the West Branch Penobscot and reminisced about a trip we co-led for the Sierra Club. I guess the size and length of rapids grew in my mind like the fish that got away because the one rapid of any significance was probably a Class I and about 100 feet long. Mostly we paddled deadwater.
As we paddled, a couple guys in red kayaks overtook us, said hello, and soon disappeared ahead. I read about these guys a couple of weeks later. They had paddled the length of the 740 mile NFCT in 16 days. Apparently they shuttled around the upstream sections and portages. I tried to figure what we saw that they missed. It would have been all of Spencer Streams, maybe they paddled around on Spencer Lake, but then their next vehicle-accessible put-in would be on the Moose River at Attean Pond. So, not my way of doing things but in my book the rules are simple: get in your boat and paddle wherever you damn well please. And they were out paddling for 16 whole days, which is more than I can say.
In the afternoon we began to hear the rumbling of thunder through the gloom. We had heavy showers off and on through the afternoon as the storms marched on. We pulled into camp about 3PM and realized our “short day” was 18 miles of mostly deadwater. We had initially thought about poling up nearby Pine Stream, but there was no energy for it.
We threw up a tarp, pitched tents and built a fire. Sat by the edge of the water while the jiffy biscuits baked. The storms passed on and we were treated to a great sunset that dazzled the rippling water and made me begin to doze. The air was crisp and clear and I looked forward to a good sleep and a short paddle down to our take-out at Graveyard Point in Chesuncook Village.