Allagash Log

by Don Elliot

 The Allagash Waterway is a 98-mile stretch of water that has been set aside for water recreation by the State of Maine. It starts in North Central Maine just north of Mt. Katahdin and flows north nearly to the Canadian border at Allagash Village. The first half of the waterway is mostly large lake. The remainder of the waterway is mostly a river run. The entire waterway has a rich history of lumber yore and Indian lore and more recently, has become a Mecca for canoe/camping enthusiasts. For a long time, I have dreamed about taking this trip 

Sunday August 6, 2000 

At 8:30 AM, I left the Kaminski’s house in Kinnebunk and I arrived at the Telos Check-In Point at 4:30 having spent 2 hours in Millinocket with final provisioning. A $5 per night fee is charged. This is the official gate into the North Maine Woods. By 5 PM, I arrived at the Chamberlain Bridge Ranger station at Chamberlain Bridge. The ranger is Gwenda Kelly who gave me some advice on campsites that might be available. After unpacking the car and packing the canoe, I was underway. 

Gwenda had suggested the High Bank site on Round Pond but both sites were taken. I continued a few miles down to the Fields site on Telos. It was getting dark and the site was available. The site was off the water and enclosed by tall spruce. A thick bed of pine needles covered the area. The site is very clean and kind of cute. The furnishings include a 12 foot table, a well constructed fieldstone fireplace about 8 feet off the end of the table, and a well-maintained privy. A tarp rail runs about 20 feet over both the table and the fireplace at a height of 8 feet. (It turns out that all sites on the Allagash Waterway are so equipped and many have two tables. I was not expecting these conveniences to be at every site. They really added to the camping experience.) A tarp measuring 18 feet by 24 feet would have been perfect. 24 by 24 would be better for a group. Mine is 18 by 12 but does not cover both the fireplace and the table. Setting up the camp in the dark took a long time. After cooking over a campfire, I was in bed by 11:30. The temperature was in the low 60’s, overcast, no breeze, no rain. 

Monday August 7 

Up at 7:30. The next morning the skies were threatening to rain. Throughout breakfast a bird was making a weird noise in the bushes not more than 50 yards away. It sounded like a large bird but I have never heard this call before. I then heard the same noise from the other side of the lake. The cooking, eating, break down, and packing took me past noon. There is just a lot to do for one person. The water temperature was about 68 degrees. A swim felt great. The water is tea colored, maybe 68 degrees. Feels real good. 

On the way down to Telos Dam, the southern extreme of the Waterway, I saw deer, loons, mergansers, gulls, and kingfishers along Telos shores. From the dam east, water spills into the Penobscot River drainage. From here west, water moves through the Allagash/St. John’s drainage. The dam area is very interesting with old iron gears and old huge rafts. 

I paddled back to High Bank, which now had one open site. I stopped for lunch at 3 PM. At the occupied site were 3 teachers from the Albany area - two women and one man. They’ve been camping on the Waterway for many years. Their intention is to spend 7 days at High Bank and then go home. High Bank really is a nice site. It is open and has great views of the water. They recommended the sites Thoroughfare, Donnelly Point, and Pillsbury Island, all places that they had enjoyed in the past.  

I paddled to Ledges Point by 5:30 PM. There are two cells here. There is a rocky point that affords great swimming, views of Katahdin to the south and views of Chamberlain Lake to the North. I saw a little red snake in the grass and an Osprey overhead. Ravens and terns are nearby. At 8:30 PM, 3 canoes from the Vermont Adventure Camp show up 2 counselors and 5 boys. It is dark and I was able to help them find the privy and some decent spots for tents. Later, the tent nearest to mine, two boys were talking. One was from California and one from New York. One boy said “I’m kinda Jewish. My mom is Jewish and my father is a Methodist.” The other boy said in a routine manner “Me, too.” 

Tuesday August 8 

Up at 6:30. The sun was rising in a narrow band of blue just below thickly clouded skies. I heard some splashing noises along the shoreline. It was a big bull moose. The boys are getting up and I signaled to them to come look. The moose had seen me so that by the time the boys clattered over to the shoreline, the moose was gone. I heard that big bird call again. This time I saw them - blue herons. I had never heard their call. I didn’t even know they possessed a call. The call is somewhere between a crow and a turkey, and very loud. There are two of them high in the treetops near shore. There are tons of large blue and black dragonflies by the water. They have some yellows on the thorax and two white spots on the head. Their wings are jet black. They are about 4 inches long. One landed on a branch holding what looked like a larval dragonfly that was about 2 inches long. Big Blue frantically chomped up his prey in about a minute. Little pieces were dropping to the ground as he munched. When finished, he immediately flew to the top of the trees as if to get the next course. About 8 AM a group of 9 canoes with both boys and girls past and said hello. The Vermont Adventure Camp took off around 8:30. 

The weather became wild. Early morning winds have been calm but now partially sunny skies are filled with fast clouds whipping from the west. Two light sprinkles have past. Thunder is in the distance. After collecting some convenient firewood for tonight and taking a second swim, I left Ledges Point at 10:50. Just after shoving off, winds shifted to the south (I am traveling north) and stiffened through the afternoon. A 30-minute squall forced me to take cover in the lea of a small island. Around 3 PM winds make progress impossible even with a kayak paddle. Just when I decided to stop, the sign for the Gravel Beach site appeared. All 3 sites were empty. I had traveled only 3 or 4 miles today. I decided that the next morning I would get an early start. Another squall passed through just after I flew the tarp. A short distance behind me, there was a sudden commotion in the brush. About 25 yards away, a black bear was running through the brush next to my site. He was not very big, about the size of the biggest dog you ever saw only fatter. He was probably a little over a year old. He ran through the empty sites and disappeared into the brush. He was really fast. Now I kinda wish there were some others here - human types, maybe some noisy boy scouts.  

The gravel at Gravel Beach is finely textured and pleasant for swimming. Along the beach, some one had built many rock towers in an Andy Goldsworthy style. The winds stayed strong throughout the evening. The skies cleared to a beautiful sunset with magnificent puffy white clouds.  

Wednesday August 9 

Up at 4:30. It was still dark but light was on the horizon. Today’s sunrise is like yesterdays - a thin band of blue sky on the horizon topped by a huge mass of clouds. I made only one cup of coffee and filled my thermos for later medications. I packed a dry breakfast for later. Feeling very organized, I managed to get on the water by 6:50 having had my morning dip. Winds are light and perfect. They pick up and stay perfect. Wow! I was making up for yesterday. I made it to the old railroad bridge at the mouth of Allagash Stream by 11:30. I went into Allagash stream where the view is dominated by a crumbling railroad bridge of yesteryear. In the mouth is a marsh in which kingfishers, blue herons, cedar waxwings, and killdeer are active. The stream is very low. I had to drag nearly half of the distance. After about an hour and a half, I progressed about 1/3 of the distance to the falls. I turned around, went back down the stream thinking that this stream should be really neat to run in higher water. The southerly wind is now in my face as I paddled back through the marsh and by the RR bridge. I stopped at the Crow’s Nest site, which is back off the water but opens up into an area big enough for about 10 tents - a nice spot. 

It has been pouring since about 1 PM. The rain broke just enough to set up the tarp and unload the canoe. Then it poured and poured. I ate in the rain without a campfire. About 8 PM the weather broke. I finished setting up camp and then noticed that the stars were out in force along with a big waxing moon. What an amazing day. 

Thursday August 10 

Up at 4:15. A penetrating mist has soaked everything that is not in the tent or in plastic. The winds have changed. At 4:30 they are strong. After breakfast and a swim, I was on the water by 8 and set a course for Lock Dam. The winds are getting high and are running 45 degrees off my course. In the Mad River Guide, this makes for a very fast exciting run with nearly all effort put into maintaining the course and nearly no effort towards forward paddling. The canoe planed. It was a lot of fun. The waves were getting big. The shallow V hull cuts them well. I arrived at Lock Dam at 9:45 and after a carry of about 50 yards, I was ready to go again at 10:30. I came across a terrific spot for gathering firewood and filled my canoe above the gunnels. A short stream soon opens into a marsh that leads into to a bay of Eagle Lake. The winds are stiffening but maintaining their direction. They were about 25 mph steady. My course to the next site took me directly across the wind. In this blow, crossing the wind is dangerous. It is best to quarter the wind hoping to make enough forward progress to counteract the backward sliding caused by the wind. The bay is round and about a mile in diameter. Even in that short distance, the waves have gathered to a foot and a half. Then I moved out into the main part of Eagle Lake. Now the winds were head on still strong and the waves were up to 2 ˝ or 3 feet having an open 6 or 7 miles to build. Out came the kayak paddle, which works well when the wind is head on. Pillsbury Island was not far. After about a mile of tough paddling the canoe moved into the lea of the island, the winds and waves diminished. For the last 50 yards or so, a small but steady wind eddy actually pushed into shore in the opposite direction of the prevailing wind - a nice way to finish. 

Pillsbury Island is a spectacular campsite, the best I have yet seen. Henry David Thoreau camped at this very spot and it was the northern most point of his trip into Maine. He had not left a message for me. A large area is open to the water with great views of the water and puffs of fresh air that keep the bugs away. The grounds are mostly grass covered or pine needle covered. Trees are tall with little undergrowth. 

It was 3 PM. The sun was out and the winds were blowing. Laundry time. 

At about 4 PM a red Old Town made the crossing. Mike and Victor paddled up and took a site about 100 yards west of mine. Mike is about 35. Victor is his father. Mike has paddled on the Allagash Waterway many times but this is the first time for dad. They are from the Boston area. At about 6 PM an Old Town XL Tripper, a 20 footer, approached with a family of 4. The 2 kids are very young and I am surprised they made the crossing in the heavy winds, as the waters were even rougher now. At first I thought the kids were crying but as they came closer they were making animal imitations. The young mother explained that they were making deer noises. They asked if I had seen the deer. There is supposed to be a tame 6-point buck that visits campsites on Pillsbury Island. They have stayed here before and have seen the buck. The father had on a strange hat that I guessed to be a deer hat. This family is having a good time in their canoe. They did not land on Pillsbury but continued on to nearby Smith Brook site, which I had read is a very nice site. 

Campfire. Dinner. Dip. Writing. The nearly full moon reflecting across the water. Wonderful breeze. No bugs. Lots of stars. Loons. Sweet dreams. 

Friday August 11 

Up at 4:30. Skies were clear. The air was cool and I felt the need a jacket for the first time. There was no wind. Sunrise came up right in front of the site. Its warmth was wonderful. A large group of 15 ducks were swimming. These ducks were entertaining. Smaller than mallards, their heads are reddish brown and their bodies are brown. Their heads are flat, even for a duck. I do not know the name of this species. They all move in unison. Their heads move back and forth in unison. They dive for minnows in unison. They change directions in unison. One behavior is not in unison - the young ones all get excited from time to time and skim across the water helter-skelter making a huge racket with no attempt to fly.  

I reluctantly broke camp and managed to get on the water by 8 AM. Mike and Victor left just before and were less than a mile in front of me. In the distance the two of them looked like a weird mechanical toy. Their strokes were synchronized and the sun is brightly reflecting off their white shirts, metal paddle shafts, and red paddle blades. A gentle breeze began to puff in my face. 

A bit later, the family in the XL Tripper began to overtake me. I veered towards them to give them a greeting. Randy Gifford is the father. His deer hat is not a deer hat. It is a fish hat that is discolored from years of wear on the Allagash. What I thought were horns were a head and a tail protruding from the hat. The winds picked up. Randy said that they were in 4-foot waves yesterday. Yesterday was their first day having started at Indian Pond. They plan a 5-day vacation on this their favorite vacation spot. They have done the entire waterway but lately have been ending their trips just after Chase Rapids, which they would never miss. Caroline is the mother and is in the bow with a fabric spray cover velcroed to the rental canoe. Ricky is 6 and is mid-canoe. Lisa is 3 and alternates between being the bow sprint and sitting behind mom. She moves around a lot and likes to crawl under the spray cover. She would pick up the cover and become “boss of the canoe”. “Pull up anchor”, she would bark. (There is no anchor but she wants to go faster.) “Daddy, slow down, I’m getting wet!” she commands as the wind kicks up some spray. She waves her hands to direct traffic. (Traffic? In the wilderness?) Her mind keeps going and going, entertaining herself and everyone else except, of course, her older brother. Ricky is attempting to splash her with his paddle, a high-difficulty maneuver because mom is between them. I wait for mom to explode but Ricky manages without detection. I was really impressed. He must have been practicing. Lisa is only mildly annoyed, as she seems occupied with the obviously increasing traffic. Dad is busy paddling and talking to me. 

I seemed to connect with this family from the start. Randy is interested in talking about computer education as he is on the board of education of a Christian school that he attended in the town in which both he and Caroline grew up. This conversation is just the beginning of our talks about computers, children, discipline, marriage, working, canoes and quarks. He is not a computer user. The board of education is considering a major cash infusion to equip lower grades with technology. He is concerned as I think he should be. Randy is very interesting. He is a thinker and a doer, but fits no mold. He claims to be a “jerk” but I really like him. He talks about his school days and seems proud of his poor academic performance and being in the bad crowd. He has successfully started a cement finishing business, which he merged with a partner’s excavating business and is prospering. The scope and content of our talks just do not fit in this journal. I leave the topic of Randy only to say how enthusiastic he was to learn the Newton Square Root Algorithm. He said he knew there was a way to figure square roots by hand but no one could ever show him how. He uses square roots frequently in his work and hates the dependence on a calculator. We spent an hour or so the next morning running through what is one of my favorite math topics. Randy was so excited. He promised to practice it until he could do it well. 

The winds have picked up and are directly in front of us but not nearly as strong as yesterday. I switched to the kayak paddle again. Caroline paddled more frequently now. I was making better progress. We have entered Churchill Lake. 

Caroline is a nurse and works nights in the E.R. (or was it O.R.?). She really loves the canoe trips. She has sewn special equipment for their trip including the splash cover. Throughout my talks with Randy, Caroline injects comments and clarifications. She also works for Randy’s business - her “third job”. When Randy said that “he was a jerk to work for”, Caroline agrees. When Randy describes himself as overweight, she said “But you hide it well, dear.” Her paddling is broken up with her attempts to keep Ricky and Lisa actively engaged. She does very well with them. Caroline has been a vegetarian all of her life and runs her kitchen accordingly. 

As we approach land, Lisa takes out a special hat seemingly for the occasion of landing. I asked if it were her landing hat and she gave me an impatient look as if I were a bad student. “No, it’s my Minnie Mouse hat. On land, both Lisa and Caroline take off their big sunglasses. They have the same captivating big blue eyes. 

We decide to camp together at Scoffield Cove where they have camped before. We arrived at 1:30. It is another wonderful campsite, with open views of the lake like Pillsbury. It has a well and a hand pump. It is close to a great moose viewing marsh. There is a great beach for swimming and sitting. Lisa and Ricky immediately get to work and come up with a dead fish and a couple of dead frogs. They provide a proper beach burial and continue their adventures interrupted only by requests from the other world to help unload the canoe. While swimming and diving, I came across a huge metal spoon with holes like a giant pasta spoon. It was at least 2 feet long. It was galvanized so it was in good condition. I wondered how old it was. Maybe a logging camp cook had used it in the days of Paul Bunyon. Certainly there must have been a fight on board the cooks raft. “Your pasta stinks, Cookie!” and then the flying 2-foot spoon glanced off the head of the offender into the water where I found it. I think I remember reading about that in US History I. Anyway; I kept the spoon to show to the next ranger that I came across. Ricky loved it. I told Ricky and Lisa about the plentiful freshwater clams on the bottom of the lake. At their insistence I brought them a few samples. I squeezed in my first nap of the trip. Caroline invited me to a spaghetti dinner. Grace was given. Dinner was great. A fresh salad hit the spot. The spaghetti was plentiful and, as usual when I am around, no leftovers. After dinner, we went to see the moose in Thoroughfare Brook. Randy and I had talked too much at dinner so we were too late for prime time. We saw one moose. Randy was disappointed as they had seen tons of moose here on previous trips. Whatever tonnage we missed in moose was made up in flying bugs on the marsh. I could have used the head net that is back at camp. Fortunately, they were mostly non-biting bugs. The very best sunset lit the western sky. When back at camp, it was dark. Ricky has built a master campfire and was eager for dad to start it. Ricky used a tee-pee design. One match started a big blaze. Ricky said, “The Indians are running out.” referring to the blazing tee-pee. Earlier, I saw Ricky sharpening a knife on a smooth rock. He knew what he was doing and showed respect for the tool and his own safety. I reminded myself that Ricky is six and hasn’t started school yet. I like this boy. He gave me a clamshell as a gift. The kids toast marshmallows and we all go to bed. 

Saturday August 12 

A moose sloshing in the cove about 30 yards from my tent awakened me. Thick growth was between the moose and me so I could not see him. I stumbled around trying to find my camera and stumbled some more on the rocky beach. By the time I got to the little cove, the moose was gone. The camera idea was a mistake. 

Lesson in Life: never favor capturing the moment to savoring it. Forget the camera. Spend your energy etching the memory into your brain. 

A large group of those little ducks were playing off shore. Randy said he didn’t know what they were called but they call them “Moogs”. I wanted to get started by 8 AM but. Randy and I got talking about canoes and quarks. The Giffords are laying over at Scofield. I am finally ready to go. Ricky offers a handshake and Lisa wants to be pulled up into my arms. She gives me a little kiss - my first of the week. Randy and I had talked about the Hackensack Meadows and he asked if we could get together to paddle in them. I loved the idea. We agree to communicate and exchange addresses. I pulled out at 10:45 into a stiff breeze. It has been a special time with the Giffords. 

I stopped at the Jaws campsite for lunch. It is a nice campsite, too, but not as open as Scofield Cove and Pillsbury. I arrived at Churchill Dam about 1 PM, too late for the white water release, which normally allows passage from 8 till noon. From the very beginning of the trip, I had planned to spend two nights here so that I could run Chase Rapids several times. The hour is early. I must stop. This has been the first easy paddling day of my trip. 

Churchill Dam has a touch of civilization about it. There is a boat dock with several official boats, a ranger station, a well, a dirt road across the dam, and some historic buildings from the logging era. Lumber trucks cross the Dam. Fishermen with guides are leaving in huge canoes for a few days on the lakes. There are several campsites north of the dam, not spectacular but very clean, with mowed grass, and a view of the river below the dam. Raspberry bushes have been well picked over but yield a few treats. At the dock, Nick and Brady greeted me. Nick is about 13 and is proud to say that he is a friend of the ranger. Brady is 4 and is the son of the ranger. Brady is named after a former park ranger, Nick explained. They are friendly and helpful. Nick saw the big spoon from Churchill Lake and identified it as an ice scoop, used by ice fishermen to keep their ice holes from freezing over. At the ranger station, Kelly Coos, wife of ranger Tom Coos, talked with me in that easy North Maine way. She explained the history of the area and of the 2 large buildings. There had been a village here with a population of 2000. One building was a bunkhouse for lumbermen and the other was an equipment barn. The equipment barn is open and has many artifacts from the 19th century, snowshoes, stoves, horse drawn wagons, and large riverboats. Kelly is looking forward to spending this their first winter at the station and doing some home schooling with Brady. When I first met Tom, he was talking to the driver of a Pelletier Lumber truck. It was a hot sunny day. From the dock, there is about a 200-yard carry around the dam to the campsites. In the course of the afternoon, some other groups trickled in. The four sites filled up. 

Sunday August 13 

Up at 5:30. Today I get to run Chase Rapids. I will camp here at Churchill Dam tonight and run them a third time on my way out in the morning. After my first run, Kelly was at the take out to shuttle my blue canoe and me back to Churchill Dam. Brady and dog Satchy are in the truck, too. On the bumpy ride back, Brady spotted a black bear. I asked Brady how old he is. He said 4. I then asked him if he thought that I was ever 4. He looked at me for a moment and said “No”. 

The French Canadians 

Near the put in ramp for Chase Rapids, 6 French Canadians pulled up in 2 cars with 2 canoes. They are a very friendly, laughing group. They were here to run Chase Rapids. I asked them where they were from. “Quebec”, the older man replied while others pointed to their license plates. They asked where I came from. I said “New Jersey”, and they were happy because they were very familiar with Atlantic City and Cape May. Tom drove up and recognized them and referred to some small infraction for which he had to admonish them nearly ten years ago while Tom was a ranger on Eagle Lake. The senior French Canadian, in his fifties, was surprised that Tom remembered him and more surprised that Tom recognized him because he now had a full beard. The man then looked closely at Tom’s nametag and says with delight, “Tom Coos, yes, yes. I remember now.” Tom goes on to say that they are the LaCroixs. Now the whole group of Canadians is surprised and delighted. 

Two of the French Canadians are not paddling. One of the two is injured and the other is filming with a video camera. The filmmaker behaves as if he is hired. Only 2 in the group seem to speak English. The senior man speaks well. He mentions his office building and his secretary. One of the Canadians is a strikingly pretty young woman somewhere between 17 and 22 years old. She has her hair beautifully arranged, up, as if she were going to a prom. She stands with the Senior LaCroix. She does not talk to the other Canadians. We started the rapids at the same time. The girl paddles with senior LaCroix. They are soon far behind me. At the take out, I waited for the shuttle. Nearly a half hour passed before the Canadians arrived. Senior LaCroix explained that they capsized early in the rapids and, gesturing towards the girl, probably because the girl has never canoed before. He quickly interprets his remarks for the girl who shyly smiles with the sunlight in her face to produce an expression that could well be on the cover of any fashion magazine in the world. Despite the upset, her hair is still perfect. We all go swimming. After about 10 minutes, her hair is still perfect. The filmmaker is getting all of this.  

Tom Coos arrived. Senior LaCroix explains that they are making a family film and wanted to include canoeing the Allagash. He wonders if Tom wants a copy of the film. Tom is very interested. Senior LaCroix will have his office send a copy. Tom and I then drove back to the top of the rapids. Tom started to talk. He’s been a ranger 17 years, mostly on Eagle Lake. This is his first year as ranger of Churchill Dam, which he considers to be a promotion. Tom starts talking about the LaCroixs and how this group are the grandchildren and great grandchildren of a LaCroix who is well known is the history of this region, famous for bringing in the first heavy machinery for the lumber business.  

Chase Rapids 

Chase Rapids is a wonderful Class II+ run. It is 9 miles long but the first 4-˝ miles contains most of the action and is the stretch over which the rangers operate a shuttle service. The run can be done in an hour but takes longer if you take time to play the eddies, currents and waves. Tom said he usually does a 450 cubic feet per second release which is enough to raise the river level one foot. Because Churchill Lake was low, the Head Ranger for the Waterway has issued an order to shorten the release. Normally 7 AM is opening time with first passage at 8. The order is to hold back 1 hour. The release always ends at noon so that the last run has to finish by 1 PM, though it is possible to run the entire stretch with no release, but slow water and dragging would be certainties. The shortened hours will be enough for only 2 runs and the shuttle between. Tom had said that 3 runs are possible with normal hours. 

I think that Chase Rapids is a great place to learn and perfect white water skills. The rapids are non-threatening and contain opportunities for practicing all basic white water skills. One can camp at beautiful sites at the top of the rapids for several nights and run the rapids 2 or 3 times a day and explore Churchill Lake during the rest of the day. The road permits access to other parts of the North Maine Woods. The location is not as remote as the rest of the Waterway but 2 or 3 campsites on Churchill Lake are far more remote than the Dam sites and are only a short paddle away. 

Thousands go down these rapids every year and most have no white water experience: Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, families, friends, novices and experts alike. Very few go over. I saw no floatation equipment. I saw no helmets. I saw no throw bags. Most use big expedition rental canoes not well suited for rapids. Still, there are few mishaps. The ranger says that the dangers of the Waterway are not here at Chase Rapids but rather on the open centers of the large lakes. These rapids are far easier than the Lehigh and the Monguap yet have a very nice spirit of their own. At my intermediate skill level, they let me play the rapids looking for the most interesting water rather than the safest water.

Maine People 

The Maine people I have met in the North Woods are warm, helpful and friendly. In conversations with perfect strangers, they are vocalizing their 4th or 5th syllable about the same time that a New Yorker is saying, “Gotta go now.”  They linger in a way that suggests that they have exactly the amount of time for you that you have for them. I am not totally at ease with this low-key talk with strangers and have to fight the urge to split. One time I did the “Gotta go now” trick, realized it a couple of minutes later, and noted my mistake. I like these people. 

Monday August 14 

At 9 AM, I made arrangements with Tom to portage my equipment and then had another fun run down the rapids. A group of girl scouts from Vermont went down the rapids with me in 5 Old Town Discovery 169’s and had no spills. 

I had heard that the Ledges on Lake Umsaskis was a nice campsite. Tom said it would be perfect for me because I wanted to do the Priestly Mountain hike. There were many groups passing through the rapids in the last few hours and I never thought that the Ledges would be available. It was available. I took one of the sites even though it was only 1:30. Ledges is on a peninsula that juts into Lake Umsaskis. The trees are tall. There is no view of the water, though nearby there are some rocky ledges that are fun to climb and that have great views. There is an excellent swimming spot. The fishing here is supposed to be good though I did not bring my gear on this trip. Before stopping, I crossed the bow of a man trolling in a canoe with a small motor. He had caught 3 Lake Trout in 35 to 40 feet of water. Regulations only permit keeping one so he had released all 3 hoping to catch a bigger one to take home. Later that evening, I watched him from the rocky ledge fishing into the darkness. 

As I approached the beach, several pairs of big bullfrog eyes were watching from behind shoreline rocks. About an hour after I claimed my site, a group of 7 arrived in two canoes, an Old Town XL Tripper and a Mad River Revelation. From the start, it was easy to see that this was a fun group. Poppy Charret is 65 and is from central Vermont. He has adventured around the world, his latest adventure being to the 19,000-foot Khumar Ice Falls on Mount Everest. His son is Ted Charret and is about 40 years old. His sons are Fred, 9, and Jackson, 6. Ted’s boyhood friend, Tom Burgess lives in Massachusetts and seems like one of the family. His son is 8-year-old Peter who plays incessantly with the other boys stopping only for short fights and food. Tom’s brother Richard is the seventh person. He is from the Philly area and works in NJ. The others have had many similar outings but this is the first for Richard. Throughout their friendship, Tom and Ted had done many adventures together. Both wives are presently climbing Mt. Ranier in Washington State with a group of women. Ted planned this trip so that wouldn’t “get stuck in the house with the kids.” 

Ted bought a reflector oven for $1 at a garage sale and was prepared to bake bread. The oven was missing its middle shelf but Ted figured he could figure a fix. After mixing up the dough and letting it rise, he attempted baking. After it fell in to the fire twice, I offered my reflector oven complete with a center shelf. Ted accepted the offer. The bread came out great. Jackson brought 3 buttered slices to my site. They really were good. Ted and Tom also invited me to share a rum cocktail and refilled my glass twice. 

After dinner, the 7 neighbors ventured off shore to catch fish. Everyone caught a little chub or two except Peter. It is getting dark so everyone else wants to go back to shore. At the shore, Tom senses Peter’s disappointment and takes him out again, just the 2 of them. In his theatrical style, Tom says “It’s getting cold out here, Peter. Catch that fish soon.” Just then, Peter caught a big chub, the biggest one yet, all of 6 inches. 

Tuesday August 15 

It was a rainy morning and I just felt like writing. It was already 11 AM. The Charrett/Burgess group have left. I planned to do the Priestly Mountain Fire Tower Trail today then do some baking this evening. This must be the last layover day for my trip. I had hoped to be off the water by the 17th and home by the 19th for Mary Beth’s birthday, but that will only happen if things go very well up the river. 

Priestly Mountain Hike 

Crossing Umsaskis Lake looking for the trailhead, there were two openings in shoreline vegetation in the vicinity indicated by the map. I went to the right opening that had a furnished but unoccupied ranger cabin. It took me about 45 minutes to find the trailhead, which turned out to be the left opening on the shoreline. There was an unmapped tapped spring at the trailhead and a great supply of easy-to-gather firewood. The map shows the one-way distance to be 3.6 miles. I signed onto the trail at 2 PM. The first mile is over a low muddy trail overgrown by NJ/NY Trail Conference standards but still easily trackable. Bear and moose tracks were plentiful and fresh. No human prints were visible. Sharing the forest with bear brethren prompted me to make noise using my Nalgene bottle and a stick. The bottle has a pretty good tone, kind of musical. The rain had stopped but spruce sapplings on both sides of the trail were soaking my clothing nearly to chest level. After 2 miles, I came upon pristine Priestly Lake. A large patch of blueberries was by the trail - both good and bad news. I love blueberries but so do bears. The Nalgene beat picked up a bit. The trail seemed to end, but 10 minutes of searching and studying the map showed that the trail crossed the outlet stream over numerous stepping-stones. The next quarter mile of trail was beautiful. It ran along the lake among tall trees that had provided a pine needle carpet on the open forest floor. The trail turned away from the lake and started the steep ascent of Priestly Mountain, a climb that I would estimate at 8 or 900 feet spread uniformly over less than a mile. At the summit, the fire tower hut was no longer in place, but the metal frame was sturdy and easy to climb. A panoramic view included Chamberlain and Eagle Lakes to the south and Round Pond to the north. 

On the way back to camp, I picked the blueberries and began singing loudly stream of conscious lyrics to the tune of Janis Joplin’s “Bye Bye Baby Bye Bye”, while the bottle provided a percussive backdrop. The lyrics went something like this: 

Bye Bye Black Bear Bye Bye

You dont really want to be around.

Berry pickin’s better on yonder shore

So its time to be movin on.


Bye Bye Black Bear Bye Bye

I hope you have a very nice day

But please just have it far away.

Your pals are over there

So Bye Bye Black Bear. 

The bottle was now half empty and sounded better. Three sticks gave produced a kinda jungle beat sound. For the remaining 2 miles, I really got into my new song. I think Janis would have applauded. It worked well. The bears were a perfect audience. Back at the trailhead, I signed out at 6 PM. I collected a boat full of firewood and paddled back to camp. 

Dinners over open fires were becoming enjoyable. Cooking fires work best with small pieces of dry softwood being fed into the fire constantly while cooking is in progress. It takes a lot of time. I am getting the hang of it. 

The Night Life on Ledges Beach 

Just before bed, I needed to rinse some dishes so I went down to the beach. The moon had not risen yet. It was very dark. My headlamp’s beam fell upon glowing eyes at water’s edge. There were 5 or 6 pairs focused on me. Bull frogs. It was a clear windy night. I went for a swim and went to bed. At about 1 PM, I awoke to the sounds of winds through the trees. The moon was very bright, lighting the inside of my tent. I was wide-awake so I got up. The air felt light and fresh. I went down to the beach without my headlamp. Those glowing eyes were now moonlit had moved up onto the beach near the grassy border, probably for mosquito hunting. They were hopping - big fat blobs jumping 10 or 12 inches at a time. Back to bed. In the morning there were no frogs to be seen anywhere. 

Wednesday August 16 

In the morning, I baked a blueberry bannock in the reflector oven and did a smaller piece in a fry pan like a big pancake. I had read about this recipe in Paul Mason’s “Song of the Paddle” and had tried it at home several times. The blueberries from Priestly Lake were a new touch. The fry pan piece had crispy edges. 

The weather was cool, clear and breezy. Good! The winds were from the north. Not good! My goal for the day was to camp on Round Pond and it time permitted, scramble up the short Round Pond Fire Lookout Trail. I fell far short of my goal. Long Lake went by fairly well but then I hit the low water stretch after the Long Lake Dam carry. It was not easy to find channels and often I had to back track to find a channel. Sometimes I had to drag. Progress was slow and tiring. Concentration was a must. Slipping out of the channel was easy to do and the consequences costly in time and energy. Darkness was coming so I stopped at the Sweeney Brook site at 7 PM, the next site being quite a distance. I was not in a good mood. The site was not one of the best and the swimming accommodations were poor. I forced myself to make a campfire and cook. The food improved my mood. The bannock was great with the applesauce that I brought just for the occasion. After cleaning up and sitting in the river to cool and cleanse, it was late. 

Thursday August 17 

Slept in until 5:45 and was on the water by 10. I baked biscuits today and it went well. I had pre-mixed the biscuits and only needed to add water. I didn’t think to pack extra flour, so it was hard to form the biscuits on the preparation surface. You need to keep your surface and your hands floured so they dough doesn’t stick to them. I ate 2 hot ones off the oven. So good! I love baking with the reflector oven. 

My plan was to lunch at Round Pond and then paddle to the 3 sites at Five Fingers Brook, paddling until 7 PM if necessary. Progress on the river was slow all the way to Round Pond. Winds from the north prevailed. It was 2 PM when I came to the Pond. I was doubtful about making Five Fingers Brook. I filled my water containers at the free running spring. The spring water was so cold. Round Pond is very pretty and I would love to stay here but time considerations make that impossible. At the outlet of the pond is the Round Pond Rips, a mile or two of rapids. I lunched at the Round Pond Rips campsite with the roar of the coming rapids in my ears. 

At the top of the rips, I encountered a long-red-haired ranger motoring a canoe up the rapids. He handled the boat very well. The rips were easy Class II and were fun. The river beyond narrowed and became deeper. The winds diminished. This is a beautiful section of the river. I saw 11 moose: 3 sets of cows with 2 calves and 1 cow with 1 calf. No bull! Again, I took to singing a song that seemed to spring from mind head, this time to the tune of Dylan’s “BobDylans Dream”. 

Moose Dream Blues 

While paddling north in my blue canoe

I met a moose that I once knew.

She said she’d loved a bull named Raff

Who played with her then left her with a calf.


She asked me how I had been.

I said I’m here today, I’d come back again.

But the roof is leaking while I roam

Any my wife won’t be there

If I don’t hurry home.


She said Raff had been pretty good kin

Just had to move on near river’s end.

He’d come back to be with them

Calf days would be over, but she would be glad to see him.


A moose’s life is a lonely way,

See no one from day to day.

Just keep lookin for cress so green,

Livin’ the life from my moose dream. 

Bald eagles and ospreys were common on this stretch. While snacking, my canoe drifted within 6 feet of an unsuspecting and very fat beaver on the shore. I startled him and he made his escape into the river, his fat rippling as he plunged into the water. He was so fat that he bounced along the shore rather than ran, like a seal might travel. Progress on the river was much better and I arrived at my destination at 5 PM. The first two sites were taken. After a short rapid, there was a deep pool with a third empty site called Five Fingers Brook North. It is a great site. Open views of the river, an open forest floor behind and plenty of red raspberries. The site had been raked, the table scrubbed, the privy had been cleaned and had a fresh roll. Some birch bark was placed next to the fireplace almost as if it were a greeting gift. I think the red-haired ranger had spent some time here earlier. After camp set up, a pair of birds flew onto the table under the tarp. I had never seen this bird before. They seemed tame as if they expected a handout. They had various shades of gray and their heads were fluffy looking. They were a bit larger than a NJ blue jay. It had become very windy and the tarp seemed ready to rip away. I weighted its edges with water bottles, backpack, hatchets and buckets – anything heavy. Some gusts must have been 40 mph and would lift the entire sheet off the ridgepole but the tie downs held. 

Friday August 18 

I awoke to loud noises in the river. I opened up my tent window. A bald eagle was in the treetop across the river quietly waiting for breakfast in the deep pool below. The noise was from a large family of Moogs doing their playful act. They are very likable ducks.  

The goal today is to get to Allagash Falls. The paddling is again hard and not at all memorable. At the Michaud Farm Ranger station I met Hope Kelly, the 50ish ranger on duty. Her duty is to sign in all travelers and warn them of the dangers of the falls 3 miles ahead. She was able to tell me that the gray birds were Canadian Jays, locally known as Moose Birds. The campfire bird is the Pine Grosbeak. The red berry I had seen so much of is the Partridge Berry and is edible but not tasty. I forgot to ask her about the official name of the Moogs. I asked about the red-haired ranger. She spoke glowingly of Frank Henry and his hard work on that long stretch from Umsaskis to Michaud Farm. 

The 3 female ranges I had met all had Kelly as part of their names: Gwenda Kelly, Kelly coos and Hope Kelly. 

I left the farm at 4 PM and after a particularly slow section of river, arrived at the portage trail above the falls at 6:30. I carried the canoe over the trail and then carried the other equipment to a campsite. The 5 canoes of girl scouts from Chase Rapids were on one of the sites. They had laid over here yesterday.  

Allagash Falls are truly magnificent. The best ever-swimming hole is below the falls. It has a fine gravel beach with a pool so deep that even with the crystal clear water, you could not see the bottom. All night I would hear the noise of the rapids above the falls and also the deep roar of the falls. 

Saturday August 19 

Today is Mary Beth’s birthday. I really wanted to be home today. With a little luck, I will be able to make a phone call from Allagash Village this evening. Before leaving, I paddled up near the falls. The currents are safe. There is no visible keeper hydraulic. 

The next 8 miles is a blur of shallow channels. Even in good water, this section is known to be shallow. Suddenly, right where the sign “Official End of The Waterway” looms on the bank, a great set of Class II rapids develop with an exciting 2 foot drop in fast water, even better than the Round Pond Rips. There are 2 campsites here. The 5 canoes of girl scouts were in one of the sites. The other site is taken, too. Then slow water came again. 6 more miles of the shallows were traversed before Allagash Village appeared. My instructions were to take out near the bridge. With the bridge in sight, a farewell set of Class I+ rapids swept me toward the take out ramp. With a final stroke scraping the gravel, the blue canoe finished its voyage. 

Allagash Village 

Allagash Village is located at the confluence of the Allagash River and the St. John’s River not far from the Canadian border. The village is about a mile and a half strip of homes centered on the bridge over the Allagash River. Many homes have signs such as “Mechanic. Outfitter. Guide.” or “Mason. Fishing Camps. Guide.” Every sign, maybe 15 of them, has a reference to the canoe, fishing, hunting or snow mobile sports. The nearest gas station is about 3 miles away in the town of Dickie. The only recognizable business is the Twin River Café. The café has the only electric sign in town. Cell phones don’t work here. Pay phones have long been taken out. The road is paved. It is the first paved road I have seen since Millinocket, more than 100 miles south. When I arrived, no person could be seen. West of the bridge is a narrow peninsula between the rivers. The first house west of the river is Mrs. Mc Bride’s place. Mrs. McBride lives alone. Her husband is dead and had been in the lumber business. She was a Pelletier, a big name in the history of this area. She says the Pelletiers are French and the McBrides are Irish. The Pellitiers had owned this river frontage for several generations and formerly operated the ferry across the river where there is now a bridge and the canoe landing. It is near dusk. I knocked on her door as instructed by my shuttle service. Mrs. McBride’s is probably in her late 60’s. Her hair is in curlers. Tomorrow is church. Everyone in town goes to church, she says. The local outfitters park their customer’s cars on Mrs. Mc Bride’s property so that the cars will be near the landing when customers finish their trips. She charges $1 per day for parking and $1 for landing. She speaks of the days when the village was bustling with lumber business. Now the high school is closed. Young people must get work elsewhere. Mrs. Mc Bride seems to know everyone in town and to be related to most of them. Hope Kelly, the ranger at Michaud Farm is her sister in law’s sister. Gwenda Kelly is some distant relative. She weaves stories about the Haffords, Gardiners, Kellys and Pelletiers. She invited me right into her kitchen and volunteered that she never locks her door. She showed me photos of the old ferry and of people in town. She offers helpful information. I paid her the fees and went out to start my car. It started right up but the gas needle was slammed on “E”. The car stalled in about 200 yards, which is just far enough to be going down the dirt ramp towards the river. Somewhere on the dirt roads from Millinocket to Allagash Village, my 1985 Ford wagon sprung a pinhole leak in the gas tank. The tank must have drained in Mrs. Mc Bride’s lot. I walked back to Mrs. Mc Bride and explained my plight. She said the gas station in Dickie wouldn’t be open till after church tomorrow. Mrs. Mc Bride gave me permission to stay with the car that night and didn’t even collect the $1 fee for an extra day of parking.

I walked up the road to find Sean Lizotte of Allagash Guide Service, who provided the shuttle service for my car. I needed to pay him and I also thought Sean might be able to arrange for some gas and for me to make the all-important phone call to Mary Beth. Still, the main street was empty. Finally, I came upon a bear-shaped man standing next to a van labeled “Allagash Guide Service”. His name was Lee. Lee explained that he was not affiliated with Allagash Guide Service but had just purchased the van from them. He offered the use of his phone to call Sean. We went into Lee’s house. He explained that he never locks his doors. He gave me Sean’s phone number and the phone. Sean answered and explained how I could get gas from The Dickie Trading Post tomorrow and then gave me walking directions to his nearby business location where I could use the phone to call NJ. He said the no one would be there, that the phone was in the kitchen and the door was open because he never locks the doors. I don’t think Allagash Village has a locksmith. 

Lee looked like a lumberman and his home looked like the home of a lumberman. He brought the image of Paul Bunyon into my head. I believe he lived alone. He looked content and was very congenial, gladly answering my questions about his logging days. He had been a hauler and had worked in the Round Pond area. He is not working now because there are no lumber jobs available. The Irving Land Company has bought up most of the forest and is not hiring the old timers or even children of the old timers. Lee said that Allagash Village now only supports the sports businesses and wonders if lumbering will ever come back to this town. Lee has time for me. His calm friendly demeanor is comforting to this stranger in town.  

At Sean’s place I was able to call home. No one answered. I left the 3 part message: I’m off the river, car doesn’t work, happy birthday. 

It was dark now. At Kelly’s Twin River Café (and outfitter … and guide service … and bear hunting camp headquarters) the electric sign was on. It is a short walk from Mrs. Mc Bride’s place. The café had an old-fashioned party phone line, something I had not even thought about in decades. Two rings meant the cook should pick up the phone. The phones were not up-to-date- but the coffee maker was. They have their priorities straight. There were two ladies behind the bar/counter and two men sat at the table closest to the kitchen - one was Lee. The other was Wade Kelly. Wade was a wiry man of average size, maybe 50 or so. He owned the business but acted more like a customer than an owner. Immediately it was clear that the bear hunting part of the business was his main concern. Beyond the bar stools at the counter was a larger dining room darkened for closing. About 10 tables were ready for morning customers. The walls were pine paneled and completely covered by pictures and trophy mounts of every game animal living in the North Maine Woods:  Deer, moose, bear, coyote, duck, pheasant and other game birds I could not name. The pictures were of Wade, his customers and there successful bags. His son Tyrone was in the pictures and named on plaques for various hunting accomplishments. Tyrone came into the café. I was beginning to look at the pictures. Wade turned on the lights and gave me explanations for some of the photos. Like Mrs. Mc Bride, he, too, was related the Hope Kelly. For three and a half bucks, I had homemade soup and a grilled cheese sandwich on thick homemade bread. The food was good. 

I spent the rainy night in the back of my station wagon. The next morning I was up at 6, just in time to greet Mrs. Mc Bride who walked down the hill to see how I was doing. She was dressed for church and her hair looked very nice after a night in curlers. We walked back to her kitchen where she gave me the phone number of The Dickie Trading Post. It wasn’t opened yet. She wished me well as I left for the café. The atmosphere in the café was lively. A group of 8 men and a second group of 4 men are ordering breakfast before meeting their guides for canoe trips on the Allagash. After breakfast, the café ladies permitted me use the party line phone to call The Dickie Trading Post. When I picked up the phone, someone else was on the line so I had to wait to make the call. The Trading Post was now open. Within 10 minutes a driver brought 5 gallons of gas and helped me fill the tank and prime the carburetor. The car sputtered and then ran smoothly. After settling up at the Trading Post, I was on my way home. Driving back through town, Mrs. Mc Bride was in the door, waving goodbye.


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