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Thread: Allagash Light (part one)

  1. #1
    Senior Member blaze's Avatar
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    Thumbs up Allagash Light

    On Sat. 9/12, six Maine Outdoor Adventure Club members made the long drive from southern Maine to the great north woods, to paddle & camp on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. We were on the river 4 days and 3 nights--a “light” version of longer Allagash trips, which can take a week or more. We packed a lot of good times into our little 45-mile paddle from Churchill Dam to Michaud Farm. Here is our story.

    Day One – Southern Maine to Allagash Village

    The drive to Allagash is 350 miles and takes about 7 hours. Tim & I pick up John in Portland before 6 AM, and the three of us meet Kevin, Kathy and Foster in Augusta around 7. We drink lots of coffee and point our vehicles northward.

    The drive is long but scenic. For some of us, this is our first time north of Baxter State Park. We have a picnic lunch at a roadside rest area on route 11, grab Subway sandwiches for dinner in Fort Kent, and arrive in Allagash Village mid-afternoon. We get set up in the large, comfortable cabin where we’ll spend the night. We enjoy a last hot shower before entering the wilderness. Cold beverages are procured to be sipped as we pack and discuss our plans. Numerous dry bags are carefully packed with food, clothing and gear. We meet Sean Lizotte, our outfitter, who advises us to take out at Michaud Farm rather than in Allagash Village, due to low water.

    After dinner, we stroll down to the river, watch the sun set, and chat with Evelyn Pelletier McBreairty. Evelyn is 91. She owns land on the Allagash near its confluence with the St. John, and charges paddlers a small fee to park there while they’re on the river. She was one of 11 children. Her father used to ferry people across the Allagash, before there was a bridge. She walks with a cane, but she’s got a twinkle in her eye, a ready laugh, and many stories to tell. I wish we could have spent more time with Evelyn.

    Day Two – Churchill Dam to Grey Brook

    We are up early. After coffee, breakfast and hurried last-minute preparations, we are ready to roll. Sean, with his helper Roger Kelly, show up at the cabin to load our gear into their van for the three-hour drive, on unpaved private roads, to our put-in at Churchill Dam. In our own vehicles, we follow the van as far as Michaud Farm, our take-out point, where we transfer into the van.

    Roger Kelly drives the van and entertains us with stories of his life in the woods as a lumberman (until he retired from the “rat race in the woods”) and then hunting guide. Roger has twelve siblings, all still living, and he started working in the woods when he was eleven years old. He has built log cabins, skidded logs with horses, and guided “sports” looking to shoot “Alaska-sized moose.” But he has never paddled the Allagash River.

    We drop our gear at Bissonette Bridge so we can run the two-mile Chase Rapids in empty boats. Then we proceed to Churchill Dam, where we unload the boats in a steady rain. We fix bow and stern lines, slip into our rain gear and PFDs, give some last minute paddling instructions, and head out into the rapids.

    The Delorme map describes Chase Rapids as being a “sharp” class II. For our group, with little prior whitewater paddling experience, they are challenging but fun, and although we all bump, rock and even spin our boats, we emerge exhilarated but upright. Kneeling in the canoe keeps your center of gravity low, and makes the 17 foot canoes feel stable, even in fast, shallow water.

    The rain has stopped when we grab a quick lunch at the bridge, load our gear, then head on down the river, through a few last rapids then onto Umsaskis Lake. Though it’s not nearly as large as Chamberlain or Eagle Lakes farther upstream, we still get a feel for how difficult it is to paddle a heavily laden boat into a stiff headwind. We spot our first moose and get into a little impromptu race with the “Fast Coots” (as we named them), another group that’s headed downstream and wants to beat us to the “Pine” campsite. We have already told them they can have the site… but apparently they still want to get there before we do. We give them a good run for their money.

    We arrive at our own “Grey Brook” campsite, on Long Lake, in time to gather and cut up a heap of firewood, cool off in the lake, and enjoy a variety of tasty dinners. We have split into three pairs of two for gear sharing and meal preparation. John and I dine on ziti in tomato sauce with olives and artichoke hearts. The group breaks out merlot, zinfandel, cabernet, scotch and rum to compare and share. We sleep very soundly!
    Last edited by blaze; 09-19-2009 at 07:02 AM.

  2. #2
    Senior Member blaze's Avatar
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    Allagash Light (continued)

    Day Three – Gray Brook to Tower Trail

    Jonathan is up early to watch the sunrise from a canoe.

    Kathy & Kevin are soon out in a 2nd boat, and we watch 3 moose, a cow and two calves, swimming across the lake. They spot us, turn, swim back to shore, and then crash off into the woods. One of the calves raises a great ruckus when it briefly gets separated from its mother.

    It’s a sunny morning, a pleasant surprise given a forecast of mostly cloudy skies. John makes breakfast burritos. We are loaded up and under way fairly early, but not early enough to miss another strong headwind on Long Lake, which is called Long Lake for a reason. After much hard paddling we are back in the river.

    We decide to unload our boats and carry them around Long Lake Dam, an old log structure. Running the dam is not considered safe (there are metal spikes in the timbers). We watch a few fly fishermen gracefully casting below the dam before we continue downstream.

    We have a pleasant lunch stop on the river. We are almost to our campsite on Round Pond when it starts to rain. Some of us have rain gear within reach, while others just get wet on the final paddle across the pond.

    The shower is brief, and we are grateful not to have to set up in the rain. Still we put a tarp up quickly, just in case. Several of us decide to wait until later to pitch our tents, in hope that the ground will dry somewhat. A few of us swim before dinner. John and Jonathan eat a Thai chicken and rice dish with coconut milk and peanuts. Tim gets a fire going and we enjoy more of Foster’s Seven Layer Bars, as we sip our beverages and enjoy the fire before retiring. Tim tries sleeping outside by the fire, but another rain shower has him setting up and occupying his one-man tent in record time.

    We chose the “Tower Trail” site so we could hike Round Pound Mountain the next day. But the site has little else to recommend it. Not enough flat ground for our four tents.

    Day Four – Tower Trail to Five Finger South Campsite

    A leisurely morning. Tim fries up some crumpets in a cast iron skillet, and we eat them with preserves and maple syrup. Very tasty, and there’s plenty. Nobody goes hungry on this trip!

    We hike Round Pond Mountain and (for the most part) heed the signs stating that the old fire tower is closed. After a snack break and a group photo, we head back down to camp. No views, but still it’s a nice five-mile walk and a stretch for our canoe-weary hips and legs. The leaves are just beginning to turn.

    Our stuff has dried considerably while we hiked. We prepare a quick lunch, pack up, and are soon back in the canoes.

    We encounter more headwind, both on the little of Round Pond that remains to be paddled, and on the river itself, which for the most part is deep here with little current to help us on our way. We spot our 5th moose, a cow feeding in the river, our longest and closest moose-viewing opportunity so far.

    The sun is in and out of the clouds, but it’s breezy and cool. It’ll be cold tonight.

    We push through occasional shallows. We’d originally thought to go as far as the Bass Brook campsite, but we decide to call it a day at Five Finger South, a large flat site with plenty of room. In short order we’ve pitched our tents, hung the tarp, collected and cut up a heap of firewood, pumped water, and changed into dry clothing… we’re getting good at this! We also spot our sixth moose, calmly fording the river a short distance downstream, and gawking at us while we photograph it.

    John and Jonathan enjoy John’s shrimp and salmon chowder. Outstanding. The scotch and rum are gone, but we still have red wine.

    After dinner we enjoy another big hot fire, thanks to Tim, whose river name has become Fire Breather. Before retiring, three of us lie out under dark, clear, starry northern Maine skies and contemplate the cosmos. Tim sleeps outside, atop an overturned canoe. It’s the coldest night of the trip.

    Day Five – Five Finger South to Michaud Farm, then home

    We awaken early and enjoy a pancake breakfast, after which we break camp once more and are on the river before 8:00. There are some deep pools and deadwater, but also some wide shallows where finding enough water to float the canoe is challenging. We all get out and do some dragging. Jonathan tries emulating “Stand Up Guy” (a guide who we saw on the river) by standing up in the stern to get a better view downstream. He does not fall in the river, but neither does his technique entirely prevent his boat from grounding out in the shallows. Route-finding is enjoyable and we have all gotten better at it.

    We are out of the water by 10:30, happy and yet also disappointed that our trip is over. We find a few cold beers in a cooler and drink a toast to a successful trip. Group shot

    We enjoy a hearty lunch in Fort Kent before hitting the road for the long drive home.

    Whether you are out for three nights or ten, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway is an outstanding resource. In addition to numerous moose, you’ll see eagles, osprey, mergansers, kingfishers and herons. Yes, you may hear a logging truck or a harvester at work while you’re on the river. But if you listen a little harder, you will also hear the echoes of the men and women who lived, toiled, and raised families in this harsh and remote wilderness, when logs were harvested by men and animals, and not machines. Some of those men and women are still living and working in this beautiful border country, and we were very fortunate to meet them and hear their stories.

    Thanks to Kathy B, John G, Tim G, Kevin P and Foster S, good friends and strong paddlers all, with a can do attitude, no matter what the weather, no matter how strong the headwind.

    John G organized the trip, retained the outfitter and made lodging arrangements, and we are grateful to him.

    Thanks also to the numerous MOACers who shared their knowledge of the Allagash River.

    Additional resources –

    - DeLorme’s Map and Guide – Allagash & St. John
    - Nine Mile Bridge: Three Years in the Maine Woods – by Helen Hamlin
    - Allagash Guide Service, http://www.allagashguideservice.com/

    Photos

  3. #3
    Senior Member PETCH's Avatar
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    Nice trip report and pix. I'm an Aroostook county boy, and despite never have canoe'd the Allagash, I have visited several times and believe it is one of the less visited gems of our state. Really like the Moose pix.
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    Senior Member Tuco's Avatar
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    Excellent report and pix, thanks. We were in Baxter on the day you got there and met a couple of men who were heading up there- also mentioned the low water. Sounds like a great trip.
    Eric

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  5. #5
    Senior Member blaze's Avatar
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    Thanks Petch and Tuco for your kind remarks.

    It was a great trip.

    We knew we might have low water to contend with, but still went with a September trip for a number of reasons.

    I have no frame of reference, because I've never run the river before. But that said, I would go in September again. Low water is a potential challenge, but in the plus column, we have far fewer bugs, fewer people, cool temps, and yet warm (enough) water to still go swimming.

  6. #6
    Senior Member Tom Rankin's Avatar
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    I had an Allagash White this weekend. Is that close enough?
    Tom Rankin
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  7. #7
    Senior Member blaze's Avatar
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    Here's the five-day trip condensed into a three-minute slideshow, with music.

  8. #8
    Member Kath's Avatar
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    Well done! Your slide show is outstanding. Have done the Allagash trip several times and I don't think I could ever tire of it. You've captured the beauty of it perfectly.
    ---Kath

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