Rapids, lakes and bugs: An Allagash adventure, Part II
This is the second of a two-part series
Uh-oh … big boulder, narrow chute. Not much room for kayak … quick brace! Phew, that was close … Yikes! Big standing wave! … Yee-hah! … Oh no! Rock garden ahead! Look out for “smoothies”…
As I plunged through Chase Rapids in Maine’s Allagash Wilderness Waterway earlier this month, I shot a glance toward the opposite side of the river, where my son Tom and our friend Phil Plouffe of Mystic were paddling.
Suddenly, their canoe listed at a crazy angle and veered to shore.
I swept into an eddy, back-paddled and shouted over the water cacophony. “Problem?”
“Sprung a leak!” Tom yelled back, bailing bucket after bucket of water. “Where’s the tape?”
“In the medicine dry bag!”
Half an hour later, the small crack in the bow more or less patched, the three of us resumed rocketing down the churning river.
Some Allagash paddlers bypass Chase Rapids, but we wanted some excitement on our five-day, 90-mile excursion. Rated Class II on a scale of I to VI, the whitewater was challenging enough to get the blood pumping but not so terrifying as to have your life flash before your eyes.
Like nearly everyone running Chase Rapids, Tom, Phil and I wisely chose to pay a forest ranger $10 to load more than 100 pounds of our gear onto a pickup truck and deliver it 4 ½ miles downstream past the hairiest stretch to Bissonette Bridge. Nothing worse than flipping over in a loaded boat and watching your gear float toward Canada.
“Best 10 bucks I ever spent,” I said, after we retrieved and reloaded tents, sleeping bags, food and other supplies, including a folding cart to help with portages, and relaunched into calmer water.
The Allagash, dammed in places and extensively used by the lumber industry a century ago to float logs downstream, was declared a National Wild and Scenic River in 1970. Today, it is considered one of America’s premier paddling destinations.
“Forget about all the other places,” Phil said, gazing at the stunning expanse of nature. Over the years, he and I have shared numerous adventures on land and at sea. “This is the best,” he added. “I’m already planning my next trip here.”
With sparkling lakes feeding into a fast-flowing river, resplendent with views of the northern Appalachians, moose, eagles and other wildlife, the Allagash would be perfect if it weren’t for a Pandora’s Box of black flies, mosquitoes, no-seeums and other blood-sucking insects.
I won’t dwell on this downside here, having discoursed on the matter in last week’s column, other than to say that head nets and bug repellant are about as crucial on an Allagash trip as food and water.
After Chase Rapids, the waterway widened to Umsaskis Lake, which then, after a rocky section known as The Ledges, flowed into Long Lake.
In late afternoon on that sunny, hot day, during which we covered 15 miles, Tom, Phil and I pulled ashore near the northern end of Long Lake at a campsite called Sam’s. Like the other 80-odd sites maintained by the state of Maine, it offered a flat area to pitch a tent, a picnic table, fire ring and outhouse.
After a swim, dinner and an evening’s entertainment that consisted of swapping tales of past adventures while tossing sticks into a campfire, we crawled into our sleeping bags. For the third night in a row, the mournful cry of loons lulled me to sleep.
“Happy Fourth of July!” Phil exclaimed after emerging from his tent, joking that it was too bad to be missing fireworks back home. The only sounds we heard were chirping birds.
It took about an hour to fold tents, eat oatmeal, and stuff supplies into kayak hatches and lash to canoe thwarts. Less than an hour later, we had to pull most of this gear out of the boats and carry it while portaging around Long Lake Dam — unfortunately, the trail around the dam was too rocky for the wheeled cart.
We then ran a short, gentle set of rapids and paddled through the calmer waters of Round Pond before surging through another fast-flowing section known as The Rips.
Rocketing along with such a swift current, we kept putting off looking for a campsite. Why stop paddling when conditions are so extraordinary?
But by early evening, the three of us began to feel like river rats.
Unfortunately, many campsites had already been claimed by groups on holiday outings — some outfitters offer one- or two-day river excursions — so we wound up paddling, paddling, paddling.
With the sun dipping toward the western horizon, we at last reached the Michaud Farms site — an epic, 30-mile day.
A century earlier, this property had been a logging camp run by J.T. Michaud, a lumber industry pioneer who also owned a small store and a farm that provided food for lumberjacks. Today, in addition to a campsite, Michaud Farms is occupied by the northernmost ranger station on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.
A ranger there loaned me a wrench and pliers so I could repair a jammed wheel on the cart, which we would need the next day for the longest portage of our journey, around Allagash Falls.
We could hear the thunderous roar of the falls long before we saw them.
“Let’s make sure we’re on the right side of the river — that’s where the portage trail is,” Tom said, checking the map.
You definitely do not want to miss this cutoff — the waterfall plunges 40 feet down a rocky gorge.
Unlike the remote, southern half of the Allagash, when we had the waterway mostly to ourselves, it became a bottleneck at the quarter-mile path around the falls. Several large groups were hauling in stages a fleet of canoes over the rocky, hilly and muddy quarter-mile path.
“This looks like the picture of climbers lined up on Everest, waiting their turn to summit,” I said.
It was a happy, friendly, polite crowd here, though, with shorts-clad paddlers carrying bags of gear stepping off the trail to allow those lugging canoes to pass.
Our wheels were for the most part a godsend, although we did wind up having to offload and hand-carry the boats twice in steep, boulder-strewn sections. After the hour-long portage, we took a break for a swim, snack and short hike before launching one final time.
By mid-afternoon, we reached East Twin Brook, the official northern terminus of the federally protected waterway, but Tom, Phil and I continued paddling a few more miles through a series of oxbows and one last set of rapids to the Allagash mouth at the St. John River.
There, a friendly store proprietor and guide graciously allowed us to pull our vessels ashore, and also offered us free camping on his property.
If we hadn’t stopped here, we could have kept going east a couple hundred miles to the Bay of Fundy.
After five days and 90 miles of paddling, we were elated but ready to get off the river. Camping one more night sounded much better than hopping in our car, which we had left parked in a nearby field, and driving 540 miles back to Connecticut.
At the suggestion of some paddlers we met a day earlier, we did make one short car trip before our last night of the trip, though — to a bridge over the St. John River in the tiny village of St. Francis.
As darkness fell, dozens of cars and trucks parked along the span. We joined a merry crowd that included families from both sides of the nearby Canadian border.
Finally, WHOOSH … BAM!
A rocket soared heavenward and exploded in a scintillating shower of sparks. Soon the sky was ablaze with pyrotechnics.
We all whooped and cheered, Phil the loudest. He got to watch fireworks after all.