Monday, June 28, 2010

Allagash, Chamberlain Bridge to Allagash Village

Day I

It’s been a week since I returned from my trip to the Allagash with my son Brad. It was my gift for his tenth birthday in April, after school ended on Friday at noon I picked him up and we headed north to Millinocket, stopping for a mid afternoon dinner at Bob’s Clam Shack in Kittery. We had our first moose sighting just off the interstate south of Medway.

We woke early the next morning for the long drive to the put-in at Chamberlain Bridge, 60 miles, first on the Golden Road and then on the Telos Road. We stopped at the North Maine Woods checkpoint, paid our fees and tolls, and an hour and a half after leaving the motel we finally arrived at the put -in. It must be a good year for snowshoe hares because we saw several on the drive up and more along the waterway. Brad fished while I unloaded the car, deposited it in the parking lot, and loaded the canoe.

Under overcast skies and little to no wind we headed up the thoroughfare to Chamberlain Lake. Out of respect for the lake’s reputation we traveled northwest up the shore making steady progress. Brad worked on his paddling skills.We saw several loons including one covering her eggs on a small rocky island. My original plan was to stay along the shore until we were opposite Lock Dam thinking that if there was an issue with the wind we could camp on the western shore and cross in the early morning. We reached the cove opposite Chamberlain Farm when what little wind there was disappeared so we decided to cross there. It was probably a two mile open water crossing, my biggest source of anxiety of the whole trip, and as it turned out the water was like glass without a puff of wind.

We had a shore lunch on the little point near Chamberlain Farm and soon were headed north again, this time on the east side of the lake. It seemed like it took us forever to reach Lock Dam and the short carry to our first moving water of the trip. Brad fished where the water flowed out of the culverts below the dam while I carried the canoe and gear. We both spotted fish trying to jump into the culverts and swim up stream, neither of us had any luck but I had a good strong bite. We floated down the stream scratching on a few rocks as we approached Martin Cove. We saw several moose as we made our way towards the main section of Eagle Lake. This cove is a really pretty place and perhaps on a future trip I could spend more time exploring it. We got to Pillsbury Island around 5:00 and stopped at the Thoreau site for the night.

Brad immediately proceeded to fishing while I unloaded the boat and set up camp. He caught several fish while I cooked a fine dinner of sautéed vegetables and Ramen noodles with cream of chicken soup as an appetizer. We were joined by a very tame snowshoe hare who dined on a locally grown fresh greens salad. Brad did some more fishing while I cleaned up and filtered drinking water for the next day. We both enjoyed the beautiful sunset and were in bed shortly after the sun went down.
Day II

I really don’t set goals for each day but I do like to rise early and get a good start on the day so I was up by 5:30, made coffee and got a start on packing. I woke up Brad at about 7:00 and let him rise at his own pace. I didn’t want to have him feel rushed. Since we had no firm itinerary I felt it was OK to have a leisurely morning so we didn’t get paddling until 9:00.

Miraculously we had another day of no wind. Our first goal was to find and take a look at the trains at the east end of the tramway carry. I paddled while Brad fished and looked for more moose. We saw a moose or two in the distance and Brad caught some fish, eventually arriving at the end of the Tramway Carry. We cruised through the iris lined inlet to the landing and had a super time exploring the old cars, tracks, tramway parts, and trains.

I took a bunch of pictures and we set off north across Eagle Lake passing Hog and Farm Islands. We talked to some fishermen who were camped for a week and really enjoying themselves. Another pleasant, windless paddle up Eagle Lake and into Round pond soon had us at Johns Bridge and eating lunch. We watched a loon dive repeatedly in the water above the bridge while we ate prepackaged tuna salad on crackers with slices of sharp cheddar.

After lunch the sky cleared and we headed downstream towards Churchill Lake. We saw several moose here including one that just stood in the middle of the river while we paddled by. It was probably here that the novelty of the moose began to wear off and we began to point them out with less enthusiasm. We probably saw 50 on the trip; it was more surprising to us if we went for more than a couple of hours without seeing one. Still, it’s pretty cool to see so much wildlife so often. In addition to the moose we saw lots of bald eagles, hares, a deer and a fox.

The songbirds were great. Because of the lack of wind we could hear the warblers and other nesting birds calling constantly throughout the day, it’s the peak of the mating season for most of them so they were very vocal. I recognized many of the calls but couldn’t remember what bird they went with. I used to do a lot of birding years ago and it seems I’ve forgotten much of what I used to know.

We decided to spend the night at High Bank site about a mile from Churchill Dam. We stopped at 3:30 after about 15 miles form our previous campsite. The sky was increasingly threatening so I set up camp in preparation for rain. Brad went fishing and had a swim both before and after dinner. We were again visited by a snowshoe hare and a hummingbird that showed a lot of interest in the red top of a Nalgene bottle. An immature bald eagle flew over our campsite.

After our dinner we were in bed by nine, we looked at maps and I read to Brad out of Thoreau’s “The Maine Woods”, particularly about the sections we had paddled the previous couple of days. This was a great interest to him and we discussed the differences between our two trips. I was kept awake much of the night by the incredibly loud bull frogs in the shallow water behind the campsite. Brad slept soundly, I don’t think there is much that can wake him up. I woke up to go to the bathroom at some point and the stars were fantastic.


I awoke on the third day to a gloomy sky. Brad was not feeling well, had a slight temperature, felt weak, and looked a little pale. He felt good enough to paddle so I made breakfast and broke camp. We paddled the mile or so in a mild drizzle to the dam where he needed to urgently use the bathroom. While he was doing that I waited for a guide and his clients to load up their gear. The ranger came and I decided to bypass Chase Rapids because Brad was feeling poorly and there were only two of us, I would have felt more at ease if we had had another boat with us to go through the rapids. Brad began to feel better almost immediately after he got back from the outhouse. Still, I decided to be cautious and we took the F150 portage around the rapids, It'll be there next time.
The ranger was a very nice guy and we had a pleasant talk while we drove to the put in below the rapids. While I unloaded the truck and reloaded the canoe Brad caught his first brook trout. This made him feel almost as good a new, there’s nothing like the smile on the face of a ten year old who has just caught a fish. This is a beautiful section of river; it was probably my favorite of the whole trip. Almost immediately after we started paddling we passed a moose that ran away down stream. The river alternates class one water with smoother sections, lots of curves and surprises around each corner. You need to pay attention but not so much that you can’t enjoy the surroundings. In my dreams I could paddle that type of river for days on end. There’s a beautiful section of water where the Allagash flows into Umsaskis Lake. We watched a bull moose feeding in water up to his shoulders, he ran away as we started to get closer. The wind picked up and it began to lightly rain as we progressed so we hugged the western shore of the lake to stay in the lee of the wind. Steady paddling soon had us at the ranger’s house at The Thoroughfare where I left a note saying we had passed through.

We had lunch at the Thoroughfare Bridge and headed into Long Lake. Several more swamp donkey sightings as we paddled north on the lake as well as two or three bald eagles. The front that was bringing us the unsettled weather, wind, and rain passed through and the rest of the afternoon we paddled in beautiful sunshine with a blue sky. After a couple of hours of paddling and six or seven miles Brad, who was the official navigator and keeper of 3 different sets of maps and the GPS, sighted Long Lake Dam.
We landed and Brad immediately ran up to find a campsite while I unloaded the canoe. One site was taken but the other was open so we carried our gear up to the picnic table. As soon as that was done Brad headed down to the pool below the dam to fish and I set up camp. The weather was now clear, dry and breezy so I set up a clothes line and dried our wet gear. The tent was set up in a field with a view of the river; the grass was thick and about six inches high which made for a perfect bed. I carried the canoe up and over the short trail to the put-in and filtered drinking water while Brad did some fishing.

The folks from the other site came up and invited us down for fresh baked carrot cake with creamy frosting, not wanting to be impolite I accepted. It was great, really great. It turns out they were from a town just south of us, a group of seven with mom, dad, two children their spouses and a grandchild. The father and son were very experienced on the Allagash and had done it several times before. Unlike Brad and I who traveled fairly lightly they had all the amenities and were camping in luxury. I was impressed with how smoothly they worked together. There’s a lot to be said about that style of canoe tripping and I’m seriously thinking about adding a folding chair to my equipment list.

We were into bed early again. Our procedure seems to be that we would get into the tent at about 8:00, read, look at maps, and then go to sleep at about 9:00 or 9:30.

Day IV

After a very good nights sleep on the thick grass I woke up early to try and get some pictures in the morning light. I was surprised to find frost on the pack outside the tent door. There was a nice mist coming off the river and the birds were singing loudly. This was great morning for hot drinks and hot cereal. After breakfast I packed up and Brad did a great job helping me get the gear down to the river and into the canoe. By the time we got going the swallows were swooping and diving over the river taking an advantage of a stonefly hatch for thier breakfast. I took some pictures of the dam and we headed downstream in calm waters, this was soon to change.

We sighted our first moose of the day as we passed Cunliffe Island; the wind was beginning to build. As soon as we rounded the next corner we were face with a STONG up stream wind, blowing steady with stronger gusts. I needed Brads help in order to paddle this next section into the waves being blown up river. After a couple of miles of hard paddling the river turns and heads east for two or three miles as it heads toward Round Pond. For this section we had a tail wind and the paddling was very nice. There were some fun class one rapids before the newly rebuilt Henderson Brook Bridge and Brad’s navigation and rapids scouting were excellent. We passed the beautiful elm trees that seem to be in everyone’s pictures of the river and entered the islands that lead to Round Pond.
I was a little worried about what the wind was going to be like when we got to round pond and took the turn and headed north again. Sure enough there were whitecaps on the pond but we were able to hug the western shore and make good headway towards the Round Pond Rips. What a beautiful spot, on a future trip it would be a great place to spend a night.

As we neared the outlet we lost any and all protection from the wind and had to face its full force at the outlet of Round Pond. It took us three or four tries to get down the class one rapids. Every time we got even a little bit sideways to the wind a gust would blow us back upstream into an eddy. It was very frustrating getting sent back upstream while trying to paddle down a set of rapids, but hey, it sure was a beautiful day and I was thankful we weren't out on the big lakes.Eventually after several setbacks we mastered the Sisyphean task and reached another section of east flowing water and made decent progress for a mile or two.

When we reached the Musquacook Deadwater I knew we were in for some hard and frustrating work. There were 18 to 24 inch rollers with whitecaps headed up stream as we made the turn to the north. This section of river was headed straight into the wind. By staying right up against the western shore and occasionally getting out to walk the canoe down stream into the wind we made slow progress. We got blown back upstream a couple of times and had to work hard to re-paddle sections we had already done. At a small rapid I had to get out and track downstream and we decided to call it a day at the next site. We stopped at 2:00 at the Hosea B campsite. Brad did a great job in the bow and I doubt that even a stronger paddler could have done much better.

I did some reading and Brad alternated building dams in a little feeder stream and fishing. It was a relaxing afternoon for both of us. Eventually the wind began to abate. At one point in the early evening a moose walked along the opposite shore for a couple of hundred yards passing our campsite. The site doesn’t have a level spot for the tent so I spent some time stuffing the underside of the tent with our PFDs in order to keep us from rolling down the hill.

Day V

I woke at 3:30 to go to the bathroom and the eastern sky was pink, at about 5:30 a moose crossed the river right to our site. We were up early and out of camp by 7:15. Brad and I had gotten into a rhythm in the morning and he knew when I needed help and when he was free to play. The river was so calm it was hard to believe we were in the same spot where we landed in the wind yesterday afternoon.

We paddled steadily north on quiet water which gradually began to pick up some speed as the gradient increased. The rapids were only minor. We stopped to look at the Lombard Haulers, one of which is fenced off because it contains asbestos which let to a long conversation about toxic materials. After a stop at a nearby campsite to use the outhouse we headed on north to the rangers station at Michaud Farm.

The ranger saw us coming and went to get his clipboard. We made an ugly approach to the landing by choosing the wrong channel and grounding the boat 20 feet from shore. The ranger was polite enough to not laugh at our efforts as I got out and dragged the canoe to deeper water. The bugs were incredibly bad at the landing so after a quick check of our documents we headed out toward Allagash Falls. This was the only spot that the bugs were bad on our hole trip, kind of surprising for mid June.

The river widened out as we paddled to the portage at the falls and we had to do a bit of dragging in spots but were soon at the start of the portage. I order not to kill ourselves we did the carry in three trips although we could have done it in two if I carried the small pack along with the canoe. This is a pretty easy portage by our standards and does not deserve the reputation it has as being very difficult.
We met a nice man from Florida who was doing the trip by himself. He had seen the thin green line of the Allagash on a map when he was previously in Maine and decided to do the trip. He was having a wonderful time and was a pleasure to meet and talk with on the portage trail. I admired his curiosity and determination to do a trip in such unfamiliar territory. After the usual picture taking and a leisurely lunch we were on our way again.

The rest of the river was shallow and we ended up having to drag the canoe over rocky areas, a real pain in the butt. Next time we do the trip I hope the water is about 2 inches higher, it would make a big difference. The Class 2 Twin Brook Rapids were a perfect finish for the two of us. Brad did a great job in the bow, his draws and rudders had gotten very good. He did an excellent job scouting on the fly and smiled as we rode out the wave train at the end.

We chose to camp at the first site we came to and it wasn’t nearly as nice as the AWW sites we had stayed at previously. We paddled down stream a little bit to look for a better site but couldn’t find one so we returned. It was adequate and since it was now raining it was a good choice. After dinner we did some fishing with no luck and got into the tent early to avoid the rain.

Day VI
We got up at about six and decided to pack up and head into Allagash for breakfast. There were a few fun rapids along the way and after about 5 miles we saw our first signs of civilization in 6 days. The car was where it was supposed to be and after loading everything up and eating a big breakfast of eggs, potatoes, and toast we were on our way south for the 10 hour drive home.

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