An Allagash River Adventure, Part I: Surviving squalls, wind and bugs on an exquisite, 90-mile wilderness river

Resplendent with churning rapids, sparkling lakes, dense forests and panoramic views of distant mountains, Maine’s Allagash Wilderness Waterway embodies a paddler’s paradise — except when you step ashore.

There, squadrons of ravenous mosquitoes, black flies, horseflies, deer flies and no-seeums swarm in delirious anticipation.

“Get ready for more blood-letting. I think I’m down a quart,” I called over to my son, Tom, and our friend, Phil Plouffe of Mystic, during a five-day, 90-mile expedition last week.

We managed to avoid exsanguination by frantically donning head nets, long pants and gloves — a single square inch of exposed flesh set off a feeding frenzy — but still maintained good humor.

“Some delusional people get the wrong idea. They think you’re supposed to be doing this for fun,” Tom quipped.

It’s impossible, though, to despair for long on the Allagash, a riverscape of breathtaking serenity and majesty.

“Incredible,” Phil exclaimed late one afternoon as a bald eagle glided a few short yards overhead.

Earlier a moose, initially mistaken for a boulder, waded placidly and feasted on submerged plants. Wild rice and other grasses abounded in the water, while a predominant mix of spruce, pine, tamarack and maple spread out from the banks.

Henry David Thoreau may have encountered such a tableau when he and a Penobscot Indian guide canoed northern sections of the waterway in 1857.

“Here was travelling of the old heroic kind, over the unaltered face of nature,” he wrote in his journal.

Back then, though, large sections of the Allagash were far from unaltered.

Decades prior to Thoreau’s visit, the timber industry constructed dams and canals to float logs downstream, as well as an elaborate rail system to carry them on tracks. Some dams remain, while vestiges of the railroad, including vintage steam engines, are pre-served between Chamberlain and Eagle lakes at the northern end of the waterway as a National Historic Site known as The Tramway.

Today’s environmentally protected status of the Allagash dates to 1968, when Maine voters approved a $1.5 million bond to "develop the maximum wilderness character" of the river. Two years later, the federal government designated the Allagash Wilderness Waterway as a National Wild and Scenic River, protecting it from commercial and residential development.

Today there are 226 U.S. watersheds classified as wild and scenic, including the Eightmile, which flows through Lyme, Salem, East Haddam, East Lyme and Colchester, and the Pawcatuck-Wood, coursing through Stonington, North Stonington and Westerly.

The Allagash is a tributary of the St. John River, which forms a portion of the border between Maine and Canada before flowing east into the Bay of Fundy.

Years ago, two friends and I paddled 125 miles down a remote, wild whitewater section of the St. John from Baker Lake to the village of Allagash. I long thought about returning to paddle the Allagash, a trip many outdoor enthusiasts regard as one of the nation’s premier river adventures, but it wasn’t until last spring, when an older gentleman I met while giving a book talk at the Lyme Public Library, told me a canoe trip he once took there was his all-time favorite experience.

I soon began making preparations.

Initially, I planned for four paddlers traveling in two canoes, but when one of the would-be participants took sick, we switched to a canoe, paddled by Phil and Tom, with me in a kayak. An account of our expedition:

Day One (Monday, July 1):

After having driven 540 miles in 10 hours from Connecticut to the village of Allagash (stopping briefly in Fort Kent, Maine, to walk across a bridge over the St. John River into Clair, New Brunswick); spending a night in a rented cabin; and being transported another three-and-a-half hours by a driver in a van that carried us, our boats, and hundreds of pounds of supplies over paved surfaces and dirt logging roads, we finally arrived at our launch site near a bridge between Telos Lake to the south and Chamberlain Lake to the north.

“Make sure you go THIS way,” the driver joked, pointing to Chamberlain. The Allagash is one of the rare rivers that flows south to north.

It took more than an hour to cram a heap of waterproof containers into the kayak’s fore and aft hatches and to lash bulkier items, including a folding boat cart for portages, onto the canoe thwart.

At high noon, under sunny skies that raised the temperature to the 80s, we shoved off with a whoop.

“Wind’s not too bad,” I remarked with relief.

Because the waterway’s northern lakes are notorious for punishing headwinds that can churn up three-foot waves, most paddlers arrange to put in 30 miles or so farther north, where the Allagash River officially begins. We briefly had discussed this option, but Phil was resolute.

“We’re going all the way,” he announced.

To conserve energy and maintain speed over gusty stretches, we took turns drafting our boats, much as bicyclists do in the Tour de France.

Even though we weren’t in a race, most of the time we used bent-shaft competition paddles for the canoe and a featherweight carbon-fiber paddle for the kayak. The 17-foot fiberglass canoe and 17-foot plastic sea kayak, both fully loaded, were heavy enough without having to wield clunky, plastic paddles — except through rapids (more about that later).

After 10 miles of steady paddling, we reached our first portage, a lock dam between Chamberlain and Eagle lakes.

The wheeled cart worked like a charm, allowing us to roll loaded boats up one side of a hilly path and down the other alongside a berm sluiceway from which a torrent of river water gushed.

In no time at all, we were back in our vessels, as efficiently as a pit stop in the Daytona 500.

By late afternoon, we had covered 14 miles, long enough for the first day.

Tom checked the map.

“Good campsites on Pillsbury Island,” he said.

A handful of other paddlers, all planning to travel only a day or two, had already claimed a few sites, but on the west side of the island, we found a vacant spot, fittingly named Thoreau. It is one of 80 maintained by the state of Maine throughout the waterway, all equipped with fire rings, outhouses and picnic tables thoughtfully designed with horizontal posts for hanging tarps and gear.

After pitching tents and cooling off with a swim, we fired up butane camp stoves and cooked dinner. For the duration of our trip, we subsisted on oatmeal mixed with peanut butter for breakfast, peanut butter on flatbread for lunch, and for dinner, one course of bean and lime soup followed by a second of potatoes suffused with pea soup. Between meals, the three of us snacked on peanuts, raisins and energy bars.

Having cut firewood with a folding saw and hatchet, we watched crackling flames for an hour or so before retiring. The plaintive cry of loons helped put me to sleep minutes after I crawled into my sleeping bag.

Day Two:

Skies cleared after an overnight shower, and we paddled along the west shore of Eagle Lake in search of an obscure path to The Tramway.

We had just about given up — bushes and brambles grew over any semblance of a trail — when skies began to darken, followed by a rumble of thunder.

“Off the water!” I shouted.

We had barely reached shore before rain pelted down. Tom scurried for a tarp, which we draped over our heads while crouching in the underbrush.

Crack! Bam! A flash and thunderclap made us jump.

Tom began singing:

“As I was a-goin’ over Gilgarra Mountain

I spied Colonel Farrell, and his money he was countin’…”

We were mostly through the last verse of “Whiskey in the Jar” when the skies lightened. Soon after the final chorus, we were back in our boats. A visit to The Tramway would have to wait for another trip.

Any exuberance after surviving that first squall evaporated not long afterward, when the skies began to darken again. A short shower, then an even shorter respite, and finally a deluge as we passed from Eagle Lake, through Round Pond and entered Churchill Lake.

For some reason, I had taken off my spray skirt earlier so quickly became soaked to the skin. Phil and Tom, also unprotected in their open canoe, were similarly drenched.

A miserable end to another 14-mile day of paddling, but even in atrocious conditions, the Allagash radiated elegance. Raindrops splashed on the river surface with a soft hiss and glittered like diamonds.

At last we entered Heron Lake and soon arrived at the northern shore, where the roar of rushing water overpowered the sound of pouring rain.

Here was Churchill Dam, from which cascading water fed the most difficult challenge on the Allagash: Chase Rapids.

After camping near the dam, we would plunge into this roiling stretch of whitewater first thing in the morning.

Next week: Rocking and rolling through rapids, and a push to the end of a 90-mile journey.

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