Tuesday, September 21, 2010

NFCT - Stratton, ME to Grand Falls & Return

Last Wednesday, after leaving work, I drove up to Stratton, Maine and launched onto the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) with plans to paddle and portage my way 28 miles to Grand Falls on the Dead River.
However, I started my journey by detouring off of the NFCT and heading up the North Branch of the Dead River to Cathedral Pines Campground.  In doing so, I would be following the route taken by the Arnold Expedition which traveled from Cambridge, MA to Quebec City back in 1775.  I tried to imagine the site of approximately 1,000 men and their few surviving bateaux disappearing to the sounds of fife and drum as they headed north towards the Canadian border, some 25 miles distant.  They were said to have left Pittston, ME with 220 bateaux, and only 7 made it into Canada.  The rough and rocky conditions chewed up the rest.  Near the entrance to Cathedral Pines Campground is a stone marker commemorating their expedition...
The marker was moved to this spot from its original location in Flagstaff Village when the Dead River was dammed back in 1949, flooding the valley.  Flagstaff Village was named for a flagpole erected there by Arnold's men.  It left me to wonder which early version of our flag was flown upon it back in October 1775.  While they were in the area, Arnold dispatched an officer named Bigelow to climb the 4,000 foot high ridgeline to see if Quebec City was in sight.  Unfortunately, it wasn't.  Today, the ridgeline is named the Bigelow Range and forms an impressive backdrop along the south side of Flagstaff Lake.  The fate of Arnold's expedition wasn't good.  After months of enduring cold and wet conditions, their ultimate New Year's eve assault on Quebec City was repelled and many men were killed or wounded.  The expedition is, however, given credit for buying our fledgling nation some valuable time to better prepare for the long fight ahead.
On Thursday morning I left Cathedral Pines and paddled down to the west end of Flagstaff Lake rejoining the NFCT.  The weather forecast predicted rain arriving before day's end so I paddled east trying to get as far down the lake as possible.  Hurricane Island became my second night's campsite and I had it all to my self...

Made camp, cooked supper and just finished cleaning up when the rain arrived at 5pm, as promised.  It was quite a soaker and the morning found much of my gear on the damp side.  After breaking camp and launching, I paddled safely above what was once known as the Hurricane Rips.  This spot may have broken the back of a bateau or two.   A lone loon approached me and repeatedy called.  Each call was echoed back from the trees behind me perfectly.  It occurred to me that the loon might think I was answering him in his own tongue!
After rounding the point where the lake swings to the north I approached Long Falls Dam...

The mile long portage starts to the dam's left and I decided to first carry my pack and then return for my boat.  The portage trail was fairly rugged as this photo shows...

At the end of the portage I reached the Big Eddy campsite and had the good fortune to encounter other people there.  A woman name Tina offered to help with my boat but I graciously declined her help explaining that I needed to experience the portage on my own.  Returning for the boat, the nearby dirt road was used rather than the portage trail and it made for must easier going with my portage wheels.  Long Falls is pictured here...

Just as I prepared to launch into the Dead River, Tina informed me that the power company had a dam release of 3500 cfs scheduled for Saturday morning and explained what effects it would have on the river.  The local knowledge she shared with me would later prove to be invaluable. 
Heading down the river from Big Eddy required dodging a few rocks in the first quarter mile or so, and then became flatwater for the next 4 miles.  This skull, possibly of a moose, had me concerned I might be entering hostile territory...

Because of the impending release of water, I decided to make camp at Philbrick Landing 2 miles upriver from the falls. The campsite was in a little meadow atop a high riverbank.  This was my view looking downriver...

Waking before sunrise on Saturday morning, I went to pull the boat up from the small beach at the foot of the riverbank and noticed some whitish stuff on the boat's black hatch cover.  Upon closer inspection, I found it to be frozen water droplets, my first sight of ice this season!  With the boat safely atop the bank I returned to my tent for a little more shut-eye.  When I emerged a few hours later, the small beach was under water and the river's current was substantially stronger.  The level continued to rise even higher so the thought of paddling to Grand Falls didn't seem like such a good idea.  However the sun was up and a beautiful day was in the offing, so I decided to hike the 2 miles to the falls.  Walking to the falls via logging roads was very pleasant and once I got to within a half mile of the falls I began to hear the sound of its roar.  Standing atop the overlook this was the view down to the cascade...
Truly, this was a location the Indians would have attributed great manitou!  The trails here were well trodden from many centuries of human footsteps.  The mist rising from the falls proved ideal for the growth of 'Old Man's Beard' moss in the trees...
My destination had been reached but before leaving the area, I hiked the portage trail paddlers heading further downriver would use.  At one of its steeper points some folks had built this handsome stone stairway...

Near one of the possible put-in locations I espied this small nook that's unfortunately being used as an impromptu trash receptacle...
I removed what I could carry in my two hands.  Hopefully, some others will pitch-in to help erase this desecration over time. Back at Philbrick Landing I now had the whole afternoon with nothing to do but relax, read, and occasionally torture the wildlife with my harmonica playing.  Oddly, while at home in Massachusetts, I enjoy reading of the northern woods.  Now, here in those northern woods, I found myself reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's Old Manse  with its descriptions of the Concord and Assabet Rivers.
I should note at some point that sanitary facilities (aka outhouses) were not in the best shape along this section of the NFCT.  The one at Hurricane Island had a caved-in roof, at Flagstaff Village I never saw one at all.  Here at Philbrick Landing, however, this beauty was there for folks who like things right out in the open...

By sunset, the river level had dropped considerably and the moon was getting fat and bright in the eastern sky. At 2 am, I awoke to the sound of coyotes howling.
On Sunday, I broke camp once again at sunrise and began the trip back upriver towards Big Eddy.  On the way, Halfway Brook proved too tempting and I soon found myself paddling around 'just one more bend'.  Following a beaver up the brook I stopped to take a photo when I heard the sound of wood cracking and thought to myself, "someone must have a campsite nearby and is preparing wood for a fire".  A few more loud snaps followed by equally loud snorting and groundshaking footsteps had me retreating to the far side of the narrow brook.  When things quieted down, I turned my boat around and headed slowly back to the river.  Just as I reached the mouth of the brook, I heard splashing and came upon these 2 moose as they swam to the river's other side...
They turned around, swam back across and then stood on the shore where the larger moose seemed curious as to the nature of my business...

This was at around 8:15am and other wildlife were active in this area as well:  belted kingfishers, a blue heron, and several sleepy mergansers.
As I neared the Big Eddy I lined my boat through some of the shallow quickwater spots before pulling up on the gravel riverbed.  Now the dread of the mile-long portage laying before me began to be realized.  It would take the better part of 2 hours and my back would feel it for much longer than that.  Then I saw Tina, the woman who helped me two days earlier.  Tina Cyr was vacationing here with her family and enjoying some fishing in hopes of landing some land-locked salmon.  When not vacationing, Tina is a whitewater rafting guide for Magic Falls Rafting Company and also an EMT.  Again, Tina kindly offered to help me with the portage of my gear and boat.  This time I gladly accepted her help and about 20 minutes later my boat, gear, and I were cruising the mile or so to Flagstaff Lake aboard her Toyoto Rav-4.  I learned that Tina has been guiding rafting trips since 1995 and that the trips she does on the Dead River, starting at Spencer Stream, cover one of the longest stretches of continuous whitewater in Maine.  To find out more about rafting on the Dead River check out Magic Falls web site.
Here's Tina at the Flagstaff lake boat launch...

I thank you!  My back thanks you!  My weary arms thank you! Now, with all kinds of extra time I could make some good progress to the south and west.  These loons reminded me to slow down a little and enjoy the scenery...
At Hurricane Island I stopped for a short lunch break and pushed on to the west reaching the site of Old Flagstaff Village by 3pm.  There are 2 nice campsites here and both were vacant.  Scattered about are remnants of the small community that existed here until 1949 such as this piece of machinery...
The site also afforded this view of the Bigelow Range across the lake...

And that fine Sunday came to a close with this sunset...

The weather forecast for Monday was predicting some strong gusts out of the northwest induced by Hurricane Igor's passing off of New England.  So, with that in mind, I broke camp early and began the 8.5 mile paddle to where my car was parked.   I hugged the northern shore to stay in the lee of any wind that might develop.  Not too far from where I had camped, an eagle saw me before I saw him and swooped down and up before I could fumble for my camera.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed his majesty and being briefly in his presence. Near the final part of my journey, I would end up paddling on some of the calmest water of the trip...
 Since returning home, I've done more reading on the Arnold Expedition and its interaction with a Native American named Natanis who lived in the Dead River valley.  Natanis secretly watched the expedition's approach without ever being noticed.  Much later when he joined up with the army of men, he shared how he had watched them all along.  One of the men asked why he hadn't revealed himself and Natanis answered "because you would have killed me."  Good enough reason for me!

*Note...clicking on any photo will enlarge it up 2 times.

3 comments:

Rob said...

Poetic descriptions of your adventures. It's calming to come here and read your posts. Thank you.

(Globe article got me started following you).

Chris said...

Great report, I'm planning on doing the Dead River section this fall as an overnight and this is a real help.

I suggest you read Arundel by Kenneth Rogers is you haven't already done so.

Chris Gill
http://gilltrips.blogspot.com/

Suasco Al said...

Chris, Thanks for the tip concerning Roger's book Arundel. I plan to read it soon.

Most of my info on Arnold's Expedition was found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arnold's_expedition_to_Quebec

Info on Natanis found at http://www.nedoba.org/bio_natanis01.html

I visited http://gilltrips.blogspot.com/ and enjoyed reading your account of the Mud Pond Carry.