Earlybird in the Allagash

By Reinhard Zollitsch
May 2006

After yet another night of rain in my little Timberline tent, it felt good to hear it finally stop pelting on my rain fly. I was camped at Allagash Falls along the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in northern Maine. It was early May 2006, and I was cold and wet. But when I stuck my head out my tent door, I wasn’t all that happy any more; the rain had changed to snow and was coming down at a good clip.

What was I doing here in sub-freezing temperatures all by myself? This trip was going to be an early bird special, a fun trip, beating the usual onslaught of bugs and tourists. But I was not quite ready for this.

First one down the Wilderness Waterway in 2006

Trying to beat everybody, canoeists and bugs alike, I had entered the park on the first day it opened on May 3, had driven over the Golden Road from Millinocket, ME and then Telos Road (dirt) to the bridge between Telos and Chamberlain Lake and had pushed off from there for a six-day 123-mile venture north to the town of Allagash and beyond on the St. John River to Fort Kent.

This early in the season, the Golden Road was everything but golden; it was full of potholes, which, after days of rain, threatened to swallow my low-slung little VW Golf. The raised culverts in the last 25 miles of dirt road, I felt, were also viciously reaching out for my muffler and anything else protruding from under the car’s belly, or were trying to mar and scar the belly itself.

Each time we touched bottom, my wife Nancy winced, knowing that she would have to drive the 50 miles of logging roads back to Millinocket all by herself. But she assured me she had brought an extra blanket, water, some crackers, a shovel ... and spring would have to come eventually, while I tried to convince her that the car would ride much higher without me, my boat and my gear. Thanks, my dear. You are a brave woman! Helen Reddy, eat your heart out!

Wilderness Waterway
Allagash Wilderness Waterway

The put-in was swift. I made my X on the ranger check-in list and noticed I was the first one in the Park this year attempting to canoe the entire 95-mile stretch. The wilderness waterway was empty, except for the rangers of course and a few fishermen in powerboats on the larger lakes.

As I pushed off, two veteran fishermen insisted I was headed in the wrong direction; they truly believed it - this was not a joke. I, however, always trust my charts, my compass, and in this case also my own memory from two previous trips (years ago) starting at this point. I do not let other people talk me out of what I think is right, nor do I tell them they are wrong. I just pushed off. Poor guy, they must have thought. He’ll be back, if he does not get lost doing so. I for my part wonder how their fishing trip went.

Stowing gear
Stowing gear

"Thoreau Slept Here"

I was pretty sure I had to turn left under the bridge into the narrow river-like arm, swing right and then left. And all of a sudden, there it was, the magnificent, wide open, 16-mile-long Apmoojenegamook, Chamberlain Lake, just where I thought it would be. The big lobed lake to the right of the put-in was not Chamberlain, but Telos Lake (Paytaywecomgomoc).  Chamberlain was calm, a rare sight, and I was delighted and instantly crossed over to the north side, where I would eventually find Lock Dam and the outlet stream into Eagle Lake.

My first overnight site was on Pillsbury Island in Eagle Lake, where Henry Thoreau had camped on July 28, 1857 on his famous trips through the Maine woods (see Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods, Ticknor& Fields, 1864).

"Thoreau slept here"
After a night filled with the varied calls of the northern loon and a myriad of peepers, thick fog greeted me that morning. Breakfast tasted great though, since I do not mind navigating in fog. I had done plenty of that around Nova Scotia and along the Maine coast on past solo canoe trips. Ever so slowly the fog eventually wafted over the surrounding hills and mountains, and it became quite pleasant on Eagle and Churchill Lake.

Fog on Eagle Lake
Fog on Eagle Lake

Bony Chase Rapids

After a mercifully brief portage over Churchill dam, I was having an early lunch stop when two rangers appeared and checked me out. With only one floodgate open, they said they could open some additional gates to flush me down ChaseRapids, a 6-mile rock garden to Bissonette Bridge.

But 12:00 noon was their quitting time, just about now, and anyway, it would take the water quite some time to get down there. So they suggested I pitch my tent and continue my trip tomorrow, maybe around noon - not what I had planned.
Checking out the flow and the rocks from the first corner, I decided to go for it now. I had a nimble solo canoe and was used to maneuvering in whitewater. I only wished I had brought a Royalex, instead of an old, brittle fiberglass boat with all my gear in it.

It was marginal, a no-mistake situation, which gets me all pumped up. I scraped a little here and there and had a number of close “OH-NO” situations. My advice is: “please do not try this at home, unless you are an expert”, not with only one flood gate open, solo, and with all your gear in the boat, on the edge of winter.
The whitewater run-off ended in an extensive lowland at Chisholm Brook, where I hoped to watch moose from inside my tent. Tracks were everywhere, but the moose must have been meeting at another mushy meadow.

Soon I was on a string of lakes again, Umsaskis and Long Lake. At the narrows between the two lakes, the American Realty Road crosses over. This spot would be a great put-in place for families who would like to avoid most of the whitewater as well as the often very windy bigger lakes. From here to Allagash is only 50 miles, half the distance, with all the real family fun yet to come. My wife and I did this trip in 1984, with our two younger kids being aged 4 and 7, and still remember it fondly.

Long Lake Dam

At the end of Long Lake is an old log dam which you can run real close to the left bank after careful scouting from that side. Only a few feet towards the center, though, you can see the criss-crossed old logs and mighty spikes that could rip your boat open in no time.

Log dam on Long Lake
Log dam on Long Lake

If you start your trip at Umsaskis, this is a great place to camp. So take out on the right, just above the dam, and next morning put in below the dam, completely avoiding the thrills or spills of running the dam with all your gear. If you are not quite done for the day, Cunliffe Island could be fun to explore with youngsters, who always need something extra to do while you relax with some good reading or bird watching.

Then comes a lovely remote-looking elbow into Round Pond. Look for moose in the lowlands just before the lake. Of the three arms, the left will get you there the quickest. I saw my second moose here, then pulled out at Outlet, with a noisy hawk guarding his nest high up in the tall spruces. Five ravens were also enjoying the thermals, circling higher with each loop. More eerie loon yodels at dusk, an eight-hooter owl and lots and lots of peepers, this being early spring.

The stretch straight north down the Musquacook Deadwater to Michaud Farm had just enough current to push me along and let me enjoy the remoteness of this region. As I see it, this is the essence of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, not the often stormy big lakes, the bony whitewater or the spectacular Falls, but the quiet solitude and tranquility of the deep northwoods.

I enjoyed not seeing any other boat with its often exuberant but noisy passengers, not hearing any man-made noises, and not having to slap black flies or mosquitoes or see the world through a greenish no-see-um head net. This felt good, very good indeed, but I knew that for every exceptional moment in life there is hardship to endure down the line.

Snowy Allagash Falls

Before I reached the ranger station, I was back in Gore-Tex. I approached Allagash Falls very carefully on the right, took out and scouted the river to the rim of the Falls. Being a confident paddler and having done this before, I marked the second take-out just above the whitewater entrance to the Falls with a blue tarp, and went for it.

Allagash Falls
Allagash Falls

This is a no-mistake situation, and you better know what you are doing and not miss the take-out - that would not be a pretty picture. Allagash Falls is a very rocky, fierce-looking 40-foot drop. If you have even the slightest doubt about making this last-minute take-out, go for the standard, longer portage! Two people carrying a canoe would be a cinch compared to doing it solo. Since portaging is hard on me, I usually cut them down to the barest minimum. But I am not saying you should do it.

After taking pictures from the various very good viewpoints of the Falls, I scouted the put-in and decided to carry my boat down right away and the gear tomorrow morning. The campsites were on the right of the portage trail, about halfway down, and looked awfully wet, but had to do.

However, tarps under and in the tent did not manage to keep me dry in the heavy rain, and the temperatures again dropped to near freezing. I was back in polys, polar fleece, as well as my Gore-Tex rain suit with wool socks and hat, and I was still cold in my 20-degree mummy sleeping bag with aluminum survival blanket over it.

And it rained profusely all night till about 6:00 a.m., when it seemed to stop pelting my rain fly. Good, I thought, but no, the rain had changed to SNOW and increased till about 10:00 a.m. My little propane stove heating my coffee water in my tent was a welcome heat source and did some overtime, even after it had warmed my water. That felt good, and not having to change into paddling clothes and rain gear was also welcome, because I was already wearing everything.

I broke camp quickly and stuffed everything into waterproof bags as fast as possible. It took three long gear portages to my boat at the put-in below the falls. The shortcut to the left was too steep and slippery and thus for a solo person all alone in the park not advisable. To boot, visibility in the snowstorm was pretty bad - so bad, as a matter of fact, that I had to laugh.

Into the mighty St. John River

It felt real good being back in my boat again, paddling, and letting the fast run-off push me along to Allagash proper. The town looked wet, gray and forlorn, and passed by me in a wink, as I flushed into the mighty St. John River. It is distinctly larger, flowing with much more urgency. But I always liked this remote stretch with its wonderful grand vistas from here to Fort Kent. The occasional short whitewater stretches were all of the straightforward, bouncy, fun-type of waves, where you stay right in the middle and enjoy the ride.

At St. Francis, just before the confluence with the Canadian Meduxnekeag River (there also is a namesake near Houlton, ME), my distance was up again, and I lucked out in finding a nice level grassy spot for my tent near the river’s edge. Higher up the field towards the road was a picnic area with outhouse. I even got most of my wet gear dry.

Along the St. John River at St. Francis
Along the St. John River at St. Francis

The night started very windy, but eventually calmed while the temperatures dropped. The local weatherman reported 24 degrees for the early morning hours, which I could believe, as it was definitely a tad too cold for spring camping. My tent and boat were covered in heavy hoarfrost - so were the fields and shrubs around me. My stove worked even harder and longer to warm my one cup of water for coffee - and it felt good.

Last Day On The River

This was going to be my last day on the river, and I was eager to get to Fort Kent and my high noon rendezvous with Nancy. My only objection to this last stretch of the river is the four-mile section above the International Bridge in Fort Kent. From Kennedy Island to here, I saw more than fifty compressed old cars dumped over the edge, maybe as a way to shore up the banks and prevent river erosion.

This is an environmental disaster and a visual offense. By the way, I had noticed the same despicable practice in a few other places along the St. John River all the way to Florenceville (on previous canoe trips), as well as on a few other rivers in our northwoods in Maine. I told myself that I would mention it to the town manager and the environmental board of Fort Kent this time and not let it go by as I did when I paddled this stretch a number of years ago.

After slipping under the customs bridge that connects the US and Canada, I had to paddle hard against the fast current up the Fish River to the old blockhouse fort. Nancy had beaten me by a few minutes, driving up from Orono. But since the area was flooded out and the road down to the landing blocked off, we opted to take out at the new river park just below the confluence.

And this is how my early bird trip ended: 123 miles in 6 days, not to mention the 600 miles of car shuttle with a second driver, for which I am again very grateful. Thanks Nancy!



1981 fiberglass solo whitewater racing canoe by Jensen/Wenonah
My regular camping gear and food
Marine radio telephone and sat phone
Long 600-mile car shuttle, some on dirt roads, by Nancy – thank you, thank you!

© Reinhard Zollitsch