July 2015. Winnegansis
This report is a continuation of a trip that started in the year 2000 at Riviere-du-Loup on the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Doug Doremus and I began on June 1 and 27 days later made it 400 miles to Hamden, Maine. Later, in 2009, we picked up the trail again and canoed from Veazie Dam, past Hamden and through what I call the Wawenock Ahwangans, which are portage trails that connect an inland route along Mid-Coast Maine from the Penobscot River to Casco Bay. We made it as far as Bath before the rains and old injuries thwarted further progress. What follows is the completion of the trip some 15 years after we began.
July 25. Merrymeeting Bay
We put in at a town landing along the Androscoggin River in Brunswick, Maine. Our plan was to camp in Merrymeeting Bay and then paddle down past our previous end-point in Bath and make our way to my cottage on Cousins island in Casco Bay. The mouth of the Androscoggin and its myriad islands was a great way to start the trip. As usual, we enjoyed spitting rain but also a tailwind out of the west, a portent of better weather. We sailed, first individually, then we muckled up and sailed in tandem for a while. As we rounded one island we pulled into an open cove surrounded by sand and marsh grass. We stopped to toast our new adventure and were treated to a show; we watched a dogfight between an eagle and an osprey. We sailed some more to Bird Island, a MITA campsite. It was small, exposed and full of poison ivy. We opted instead to continue to Brick Island which is not on the trail but sports several well developed campsites and seemed welcoming enough.
July 26. Merrymeeting Bay to Winnegance Creek
Merrymeeting Bay is formed by a ridge of bedrock, with a narrow gap in it through which all of the Kennebec and the Androscoggin Rivers flows. This gap is known as The Chops. As the tide rises, it holds back the outgoing water like a kinked hose. Then as the tide reverses, they work in concert to send all the water out in one big tumultuous rush. We left Merrymeeting Bay at full ebb through The Chops.
Today’s wind was from the south, which opposed the current and usually creates choppy waves, so I was expecting to experience The Chops at its finest. As we approached the outlet, I noticed the current was building ominously along the shoreline. As the outlet came into view the boils and eddies grew and I paddled out away from shore. It was actually not so bad. The worst part, really, was the headwind and the insult of having to dig in and paddle hard when I knew the current was approaching 6 or 8 miles per hour. Still, we quickly covered ground and arrived at Bath in no time. I’ve paddled on this stretch of the Kennebec a few times and know that you go with the tidal flow.
We passed the Sasanoa River on our left, and this is where we pick up our 2009 trip. I could have taken that and experienced the Class III – IV run through the Sasanoa Gates of Hell, another reversing falls. But that is another trip. Down past the Bath Iron Works where they were in the process of building the strangest looking battle ship, which looked to be a giant floating pyramid. It was to be named The Enterprise and captained by James Kirk. Call me a liar if you want, but it’s true.
Soon enough we reached the mouth of Winnegance Creek. We had been enjoying the outgoing tide all this time but now it worked against us. That’s OK though because it was nearly low tide and not that strong. The bad news was that the creek had very little water in it and we had to play the sit-in-the-mudflats-and-wait-for-the-tide-to-rise game. In this manner we inched upstream toward Bridge Street. While we relaxed, we ate our lunch and shared a couple of beers. Eventually we made it to the bridge. Only it was not a bridge, it was a tidal dam. I bet that if we waited until high tide we could have dragged through but at this tide level it just wasn’t an option. The road was
built on a steep embankment armored with riprap. We traveled up and down the edge like caged animals and found no route through. I picked a spot at the eastern end of the causeway where it was slightly less steep through the shrubbery. The portage then went across the road, over a guardrail and down the bank into a wet marshy area. We tandem carried the boats across then Doug went for a walk down to the Winnegance General Store while I finished up. I slid his boat down the embankment. At the base there were a couple of narrow channels through the cattails to open water. The channels were too narrow for the boat to pass so I figured we’d have to drag them through the swamp a ways.
Well. As I horsed the boat sideways into the patch of water, I observed with wide eyes the cattail swamp moved away and made room for me. It was actually a cluster of small floating islands maybe 20 to 30 feet across. Once in the boat, I wielded my 12’ pole and proceeded to push the islands away and make room. Being careful not to punch through, I leaned with my full weight far out over the edge of the canoe and watched the barely noticeable movement, which built a little momentum and finally yielded a passageway.
So, what I thought would be a few paddle strokes under a bridge became quite an adventure. But we were now on open water in the calm of late afternoon, pulling on our paddles and nattering away. Following the map, we rounded a rocky outcrop on the right and …. no channel. We ferried back and forth across the river and no channel presented itself. I nosed into a few inlets and coves but they were all dead ends. Meanwhile Doug discovered a campsite on the far left bank. The campsite was at the end of an ATV trail and came with the standard compliment of motorized-access trash, abandoned Walmart tents and broken beer bottles in the fireplace.
I peeled a 2’ wide strip of birch bark of a rotted log and fashioned a hopper from it. Six “barkloads” of wet ash and broken glass later, I was ready to arrange the stones for a cooking fire. My fire irons need a perch on each side with just enough room for the small cooking logs under the pot. I was about to call out to Doug that he could gather some firewood instead of hanging his wet clothes on a line this damp, humid evening. Before I said anything I noticed his every breath ended with a cross between a gusty sigh and a moan- sort of a long, drawn-out “ugh”, peppered with various oaths. I employed my acute sense of the human condition and determined he was spent. I know him well enough and supply the answer myself: “Yeah, just a minute.” Instead, I went shopping for dry firewood and found a nice standing dead 4” cedar tree. I pulled it down and bucked it up. This one tree made for all the firewood we would need for the evening. I fetched water, boiled it, threw a tarp up and generally got camp ship-shape and we settled in. Sometimes it’s just your turn to do the camp chores.
“So what are we gonna do now?” The map showed a clear, wide channel, as did the GPS. I pulled out my smart phone and pulled up Google Earth. Sure enough it showed a clear route where we had looked earlier. We talked about turning back, or cutting through someone’s backyard to the road. Finally I said I’d like to go back and look harder for a channel.
July 27. Winnegance to Merritt Island
After a good night’s sleep I struck out and nosed in and out of each indentation while Doug stayed back to give me a verbal landmark so I wouldn’t get lost in the forest of cattails. I soon discovered that the way was packed with the same floating islands we encountered at the put-in. These were big brutes though and especially difficult to get wedged in between them. Then it took up to a full minute, leaning hard on the pole, to see if I could get anything to move. I finally gained a couple hundred feet through this constantly scrambling corn maze and entered a clearing of open water. OK, now what? I was surrounded by tall cattails and watched my entrance heal back up and disappear. Perfect spot for a Wendigo sighting. Non nom nom… gulp. “And they were never seen again.”
I crossed the “pond” and started wedging and pushing through more and ever-larger floating islands until I came to a true dead-end where nothing would budge. From here I could see over the cattails to a riverside (or rather swamp-side) cottage high up on the bank. A couple of old duffers were sipping coffee in their Adirondack chairs on this fine morning. “Ahoy! Fine day! Where’s the river?”
“Try that way!” one man shouted, pointing. There was evidence that someone had dragged a canoe through the reeds. But Scooter had tried stepping out onto one yesterday and it sank underfoot and he was up to his knees before he was able to flop back into his boat. Combine that with the fact that I could plunge my 12’ pole straight down out of sight without touching bottom just plain gave me the willies. Imagine punching a foot through one of these things and getting pulled under by them god-damned wendigos. No thanks. I retreated to the clearing and noted the feller on the shore had a dock and a boat launch, all blocked in by floating vegetation. I worked my way through this chess game of hidden channels and touched shore. Leo, the owner of the cottage, set us down for a cup of coffee. He explained that yes, the winds blow them floating islands all over and up and down “You never know where they’ll end up.” I asked why yesterday’s ferocious south wind didn’t clear them all out of the way. “Well, after they piled in here, the water level dropped and they sorta anchored themselves put.” He went on, “We tried cutting them up with chainsaws and towing them away, but they just come back.”
This coastal paddling is nothing like a river trip or a lake trip. Not only do the rivers flow both ways twice a day, and the winds can make or break a crossing, but the land even moves based on water level and yesterday’s weather! Well, we were skunked for upstream travel. Leo let us load up our carts and we wheeled our boats up the road for 2 miles. Bye and bye we reached the Winnegance Ahwangan, or Winnegansis. On our right was a private road “Indian Carry Way” and on our left was a corner of a mowed lawn with a cart track barely discernible beyond it into the woods. I had been trepidating about crossing this guy’s yard for a long time. By coincidence he pulled into his driveway. I grabbed my empty water jug and hustled over. “Hello there! Mind if we fill up at your spigot?” Dean said we could and we got to talking. Turns out he wasn’t sure if it was still a public trail or not. Either way he wouldn’t have cared. So we took a hike down to see where the take-out would have been. It would have been pleasant indeed.
Our 2 mile boat-cart portage up the road saved us about 0.2 miles of hand-carrying through the woods. Oh well, next time I’ll know the score. I turned and wheeled my boat down the Indian Carry Way to a rough high-tide-only dirt boat ramp. Nailed to a tree was a cash box asking for $5 to launch. It was near low tide and the mudflats were extensive. We skipped the ramp and carried everything down a decrepit wooden staircase to a shingle beach and continued our adventure. Back in our boats, we headed out through Winnegance Bay, around the corner and north to Merritt Island for the night.
Looking back and knowing what I know now, we could have used the tides and current by continuing down the Kennebec to Goat Island for the night. From there we could backtrack on a rising tide, hitting the Winnegance tide dam at high, dragging across that and taking our chances with the floaters. A snug campsite waits at the beginning of the Ahwangan trail, where one could wait for the proper tide at Winnegance Bay.
July 28. Across Harpswell Neck
Harpswell Neck is probably one of the longest necks on the whole Maine Coast. It separates most of Casco Bay from the area as far east as Small Point. There are three routes. The Merriconeag at the top of the neck, another described, but not named between Widgeon Cove and Wilson Cove about halfway down, and then the last out around the southern tip of the neck. I’ve always wanted to do the Merriconeag Portage. Somewhere I got the notion that absolute high tide is required. And indeed, a look at satellite images shows Maquoit Bay is all mudflats. It’s difficult to know exactly where to carry but it looks like the approach from east would be into a muddy inlet, take out where the channel meets some high ground. Like the Winnegance, the first half of the way is on private land. Gaining the road, one would be able to take a footpath through Skolfield Shores Preserve. On the private side, it looks as though there is a house plop in the middle of where the Pejepscots, the Wawenocks, and the Anasagunticooks would have camped, avoiding the mud.
Anyway, we started the day at Merritt Island and left at high tide so that we could paddle across the tombolo, and enjoyed slackwater most of the way as we approached Harpswell Sound. Knowing we were missing the Merriconeag opportunity, I suggested we head down to Clark Cove, which is a day-use area on the MITA and very close to the Widgeon to Wilson Cove Ahwangan. Our route would take us on roads to Lookout Point. I rode a strong current down Harpswell Sound and rounded the point into Clark Cove, where I encountered a long curving pebble beach with a short scramble up to a roadside grassy area.
Doug rounded the bend behind me and the grin on my face was all he needed to see and pulled into shore. We deployed the carts and headed up a long and steep local road up to Harpswell Neck Road, which traverses the length of the neck. It was deathly hot and the hill was so steep we had to occasionally help each other tote our loads up. Folks were out, mowing lawns and such, and we exchanged waves. It’s always tempting to purge extra water before the start of a portage, just for the savings in weight. Don’t do it. Portaging, especially on a hot day, is thirsty work and a gallon goes pretty quick. We got to the top of the hill and spied a scout hall. We decided to park out boats there and go look for the elusive store, which I have heard about but never saw.
Across the street, I heard a tap-tap-tapping; it was a fellow sitting at a picnic table opening “cocktail claws”. These are crab claws that come off crabs that refuse to let go when they’re pulled out of a lobster trap. If you know a lobsterman, he can set you up with a passle of them. They’re a lot like pignuts though: the shell is hard as hell and there ain’t much meat in them. More of a past-time than a meal.
Employing one of my favorite vagabond ice-breakers, I approached the fellow with empty water jugs. “Mind if we fill up from your spigot?” He didn’t mind and we did. Works every time. He also let us know it was OK to park our gear at the scout hall; he used to be a scout master. The sad news was that the store was about a mile south. He offered to drive us but for some reason I demurred, saying we were much too sweaty and smelly to ride in his car. All for the good of course, as this gave serendipity a chance to work its magic. I made the deal with Doug that if he carried the empty cooler to the store, I would carry it back, fulla beer and ice. He readily agreed. I found that on this super-hot day I did not mind the ice-filled soft cooler balanced on my head, providing both shade and “coolth”.
As will happen on a hot, muggy summers day, we returned to our boats in thickening air and darkening sky. A massive black cloud loomed over the horizon from the north, veins of orange lightning coursed through it’s underbelly. “Hey, maybe we should have a beer under this fine porch roof and wait this thing out.” So there we were, piously quaffing beers on the porch of the scout hall, enjoying a tremendous cloudburst. And I mean that; it was a thing of beauty. The Rain Gods spent their fury, the clouds retreated and the air became cooler and drier.
Then along came Ed Webster. Ed was one of the folks who waved to us as he mowed his lawn. Also, not only is he a decent mower of lawns, but he authored a book named “Snow in the Kingdom”, an account of his historic climb up a new route up Mount Everest without Sherpas or oxygen. He held up his hands so we could see he had lost all his fingertips. “It’s all in the book.”, he said. He went on to say Reinhold Messner bumped into him while he was convalescing and advised “When they amputate, make sure they file the sharp edges of the bone. That way it won’t hurt so much when you start to climb again.” Armed with that handy piece of information, we packed up our canoes and carted our way to Lookout Point (after we bought 2 copies of his book, which he just happened to have on him).
One of the most fantastic clam shacks in the universe sits humbly next to the put-in at Lookout Point. Not that I would know because I don’t care for clams but that’s what another buddy of mine declared on a different trip. We weren’t in the market for another meal so we shoved off and paddled the short distance to The Goslings, where we found a campsite for the night. For our last night of this adventure, the weather smiled upon us and treated us to a beautiful sunset and pleasant evening around the campfire.
July 29. The final leg to Madeleine Point
The sea has many moods and in the morning we were treated to a four mile crossing of glassy smooth water, and stayed comfortable in shorts and tee shirts. I grinned, paddled past Moshiers and Lanes on our approach to Cousins Island. I smile and waved to the beach-goers at Sandy Point Beach, thinking that they had no idea we were finishing such a momentous trip for us. We filed through the anchorages to Madeleine Point and landed at mid tide on my shingle beach. Done. It took us fifteen years to get here from Riviere du Loup. When we started, I didn’t know of any other polers, anyone who had rigged a sail in a canoe, or owned a boat cart. As I finished the trip I could count dozens of folks who had adopted screw-top 5 gallon buckets, made poles, carts and sails a permanent part of their tripping gear, and accomplished trips way more intense than this one. But by gorry, tain’t no one ever had so much fun, met so many characters, or learned so much about ancient canoe routes of Greater Maine.