Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Paddling in the Land of Moose & Indians

On May 21st, I left the SUASCO area and journeyed to the north woods of Maine to paddle another stretch of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT). Previously, in 2007, I had paddled the stretch of the NFCT from Rockwood on Moosehead Lake to a spot just above Pine Stream on the West Branch of the Penobscot River. In addition to following the NFCT, I was also following the route that Henry David Thoreau and two companions traveled in 1857. In fact, my last campsite on the NFCT, was on Thoreau Island in the Penobscot, so named for the fact that Thoreau and company camped there.

In order for me to get back to where I last left off, required driving 300+ miles to Ashland, Maine, spending a night in a motel, and the next morning, entering the North Maine Woods at the Six-Mile checkpoint. After some debate with officials as to whether or not my compact car would be able to get past road washouts, I embarked on a long drive over 77 miles of dirt roads that had suffered through a long, hard, Maine winter. I made it past all the obstacles I encountered, only to make a wrong turn at an unsigned fork 64 miles in. Because of this, I journeyed another 15 miles or so, seeing remnants of snowbanks in the shady spots and all kinds of wildlife. Several moose cows, one with calf, numerous snowshoe rabbits, either a red fox of perhaps it was a martin, and the bouncing rump of a black bear. Finally, realizing where I was on the map, I turned back and faced a "Road Closed-Washout" sign standing between me and my destination, Churchill Dam. I was already an hour late to meet the guide that was to provide my shuttle. So, with a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, I headed down the road and sure enough, came to a pretty bad washout. I scouted it out and believed my car was just narrow enough to skirt the edge of the deepest section and make it through. This would be the moment of truth. Into the washout we went. No turning back now. Upon reaching the middle, I pressed on the gas peddle and felt my wheels spin a little, then take hold, and up my little Yaris and I came to the other side. Elation! Relief! Shortlived, for next, I came to a tee in the road, and of course, turned the wrong way for another 15 minutes of wandering. Turned around again and finally, arrived at the Dam one and a half hours late.

I was pleasantly shocked to find that the guide had waited for me. Many thanks to Sean Lizotte of Allagash Guide Service for waiting much longer than most would have. After listening to my apologies and tale of woe, he helped load my boat and gear onto his vehicle and then transported me to a campground/launch site at Umbazooksus Stream. Along the way, he stopped at a point where the portage trail to Mud Pond crossed the dirt roadway. His pointing out the trail and allowing me to get a look at it proved very helpful a day later when it confirmed I was on the right track.

At Umbazooksus Stream, I set up camp, and then launched my kayak in order to paddle the approximately 8 miles across the north end of Chesuncook Lake to where I last left the NFCT near Pine Stream on the Penobscot's west branch. Arriving at a location known as Rocky Rips, there wasn't a rock to be seen. Last October, it was a minefield. Spring water levels make a big difference! Here, after turning around, I snapped a photo and began my 37 mile journey to Churchill Dam, where my car would be waiting. I paddled the 8 miles back to my campsite and retired for the evening, after studying my maps.

In the morning, I broke camp, loaded my boat and paddled to the end of Umbazooksus Stream. A short portage, a pleasant paddle up a winding stream around a beaver dam, another short portage and I found myself looking at a very windy, Umbazooksus Lake. Paddling NE against a strong N wind, I missed the take-out for the portage trail and ended up paddling to a spot where a backwoods railraod once brought timber down from Eagle Lake and dumped it into Umbazooksus. Once again, I turned around and headed back slowly along the east side of the lake. This time, I spotted some red ribbons tied to some branches and a small diamond shaped sign with an arrow on it. That's it. Nothing that mentions Mud Pond. This portage proved to be the most difficult I have ever done. The trail is nearly 2 miles long and more than half of it is either standing water, flowing water, mud or any combination thereof. In addition to the water and mud, there were between 12 and 15 trees down across the trail. It took me 3 hours to wheel, carry, drag and lift my 40 lb boat to the Mud Pond end. I then went back for some more gear and that took another 2 hours. With the time approaching 7 pm, I called it a day, and made camp at the Mud Pond end of the trail. The loons serenaded me to sleep that night, as they did on each night thereafter. There were rain showers during the night, and in the morning, after a cold breakfast, I made a third trip across the trail for the remainder of my gear (which included my cookstove). In total, I walked 11 miles to move my boat and gear 2 miles. This trail is ancient and has been used by humans for centuries, if not longer. It was on this trail, that Thoreau and his friend Edward Hoar, became separated from their Penobscot Indian guide, Joseph Polis, resulting in a long ordeal for all of them. Glad that I did not get lost, I was happy to now be in the Allagash Waterway and say goodbye to the Penobscot watershed!

After loading my boat, I paddled across a very shallow and aptly named Mud Pond, and then under the watchful eyes of a bald eagle, entered the pond's outlet to Chamberlain Lake. The short rapids here, required a hasty exit from the boat and subsequent lining of the boat around the rocks while wading down the stream. Very glad to be wearing a wetsuit and mukluk boots, for otherwise, I would have been very cold and wet. Once onto a very beautiful Chamberlain Lake, I paddled on a NE compass heading, again, into a strong wind out of the north, until reaching the Lock Dam and its nearby campsite at 3 pm. I had covered only 6 miles, but it felt like twice that due to the wind. The campsite was huge and all mine for the night. It made a great place to dry clothes, filter some water for cooking, etc., and just rest up from the previous day's hard work. A short distance behind my tent, on the ground, was a patch of snow! A little before sunset, an Allagash Ranger, Tom Coon, stopped by on his patrol of the lake and suggested that descending Lock Dam stream would be the easiest way to get into Eagle Lake.

The next morning, after breaking camp, I took his advice and soon was following the winding stream to a point where a large beaver dam required an up an over. This was another spot where my wetsuit proved useful. A headnet also proved useful, for while going through any fast moving water, the blackflies would swarm around my head, and try to fly into my eyes and ears, though they would not bite. If I were making this trip a few weeks later, I suspect that things would be quite different in that regard.

Lock Dam stream brought me into Martin Cove on Eagle lake. This cove feels and looks very remote. After paddling north a few miles, I came to Pillsbury Island and on its north end, Thoreau Campsite. This is where Thoreau and company took refuge during a thunderstorm in 1857 and also marks their turnaround spot, as they later paddled back down Chamberlain lake to Telos Lake where they passed through the man-made Telos Cut and ultimately the East Branch of the Penobscot River which they rode down to Bangor. It surprised me to realize that even as early as 1857, these waters had been so drastically altered by man. Because the Allagash flows north towards Canada, it could not be used by Americans to float timber towards Bangor. Solution in 1841? Build some dams, and dig a trench into another watershed, thus forcing the river's water to flow south.

At any rate, the Thoreau Campsite was occupied, so I paddled another 3 miles to a spot called the Tramway and went ashore there for some lunch. This was the location of a tramway that moved full lengths of timber from Eagle Lake to Chamberlain Lake before the railroad was built. A short hike up an embankment brought me to a clearing where two huge steam locomotives sit quietly rusting away in the great north woods. Back in the 1930s they hauled trainloads of pulpwood every 3 hours to Umbazooksus Lake. Leaving the Tramway, I followed the west shore of Eagle Lake and towards mid-afternoon, I stopped at the Ziegler Campsite. I'd paddled 8 miles and this left me only 9 miles from Churchill Dam. The weather this day had been the best of the trip. Plenty of sunshine and temperatures near 70 degrees!

On my last morning, a very tame snowshoe rabbit visited my campsite while I enjoyed breakfast. Shortly thereafter, I observed 2 bald eagles as I paddled away from Ziegler. More loons and mergansers were also seen. Then at Scofield Cove, I came across a moose cow feeding along the waters edge. She let me get fairly close. Each time her head was under water, I'd paddle a litle closer. Thinking I was close enough, I snapped a picture, but without a zoom lens, it ended up looking like a cat. A little further on, at Churchill Brook, another moose cow with a very small calf, was also feeding along the shore. This time, I stayed further away so as not to spook them.

I arrived at Churchill Dam under clouding skies at 10 am and after loading my car, visited with Kevin, an Allagash Ranger stationed there. He recommended that I visit the museum they had at the site and it proved well worth it. The museum had many artifacts from the logging days as well as some old and very ruggedly built bateaus. Recently, some arrowheads, spearpoints, and axeheads found in the area were added. A well on the site provided a great tasting liter of fresh water for the long drive back to civilization.

On that drive, I had numerous encounters with huge, wobbly legged moose and also a black bear that stopped in a meadow after crossing the road in front of my car. I stopped and the bear and I stared at each other for a few moments before each going our separate ways.

On returning home, I read the sections of Thoreau's Allagash and East Branch, where he described traveling through the same areas. Unlike his A Week on the Concord & Merrimack Rivers, where he tended to ramble far-a-field, here he stays on-point and records his observations of their journey as well as his observations concerning the Penobscot Indian, Joe Polis. His journeys in Maine must have had quite an impact on Thoreau, for it is said that his last two words were "moose and "Indian". What I wouldn't give to know what Joe Polis's thoughts were concerning the two gentlemen from Massachusetts that he guided through these woods so many years ago.

For more about Thoreau's trips to Maine, check:


There wasn't much trash to be found in these parts, but I did haul out one empty food container in addition to all I carried in.

YTD = 1124

1 comment:

orca wetsuits said...

"Very glad to be wearing a wetsuit and mukluk boots, for otherwise, I would have been very cold and wet."- ah, the joys of being well-equipped.