A Ride On Eagle Lake
In August of 2007 my son Chris and I set off to canoe the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. We put in at Indian Stream; electing to bypass Chamberlain Lake for fear that we would begin our trip wind bound.
Chamberlain is the third largest lake in Maine and with a strong wind out of the northwest; the swells can reach a point that make canoe travel impossible. Some had been recorded as high as 15 feet on the lake. We were eager to get going and I didn’t want to sit out our first days stuck on shore.
I knew there was a very good possibility that we’d run into some big water as the lakes at the southern end of the waterway are big. Having skipped Telos and Chamberlain, we would only have Eagle, Churchill, Umsaskis and Long Lakes to deal with and planning early morning and evening paddles, I figured we’d be fine. We had spent a week on Lake Umbagog the year before dealing with rough water in preparation for Maine’s big lakes.
The four hour ride into the Allagash dropped us in what was in fact the middle of nowhere about mid afternoon. The driver wished us well and began his long trip back to town. Our canoe was loaded and in the water as the beat-up white ford van bumped down the overgrown dirt path leaving us alone.
For the past four hours we had only seen two logging trucks. We were now really alone with what we hoped to be a leisurely seven-day paddle ahead of us north to Allagash Village at the confluence of the St. John River on the Canadian border.
We climbed into the canoe, Chris up front and me in the rear, only to realize our fear that this being August, Indian Stream didn’t have the water flow to float the canoe with us in it. Out we climbed with Chris pulling and me pushing as we walked down Indian Stream, which at its widest was only about six feet. There were spots were it was too deep to walk and we hopped into the canoe and floated along until grinding to a stop. The stream was overgrown, with alders slapping at us, but we were both quietly taking it all in. It was one of the most beautiful places we had ever seen and we were at the beginning of what we hoped would be an adventure.
The sun sparkled through the canopy of birch and pine overhead and soon we could see the water opening up ahead. After a quarter of a mile we were in the boat and paddling out into Martin Cove at the southern end of Eagle Lake.
The weather was perfect, the temperature was in the 70’s and the big lake was behaving with calm winds under cloudless bright blue skies. We were like two little kids. As the lake opened up before us it was obvious this was a big body of water. The far horizon, while land, was at such a distance it was a blur of green across the blue water. We could see for miles in every direction as we paddled out onto the lake, and we had it all to ourselves.
After a couple of hours of paddling we pulled into an open spot on the southern side Pillsbury Island, the northern most spot visited by Henry David Thoreau during one of his three trips into the Maine woods. While the island visit was initially to be just a rest, it was too beautiful to leave. There was plenty of daylight left and the conditions were perfect, but the awe inspiring view of Mt. Katahdin to the south in the late afternoon sun was something we couldn’t help but want to sit in the warm sunshine and admire. Chris got out his fishing pole to make a few casts.
We gave in and set up our tent and went about gathering some wood for a fire. Hot dogs cooked over the fire and a breathtaking sunset were the perfect ingredients for a good night’s sleep.
The next morning we were up early ate a quick breakfast of eggs, bacon, hash brown potatoes, coffee and juice. We broke camp and hopped into the canoe. It was only seven o’clock when we pushed off from Pillsbury Island and our goal that day was to reach Churchill Dam at the northern end of Churchill Lake.
We were excited about the trip that lay ahead of us, but when we rounded the point of the island it became apparent that we would have our work cut out for us on this day. The wind stiffened and the lake grew choppy. Fair weather clouds raced by and spray off the lake dampened our clothes.
The impression we had of Eagle Lake being a big lake was dwarfed by what came into view as we rounded the last ledge and pine of Pillsbury Island.
It can be hard navigating a canoe through groups of islands. What looks like an easy passage on the map becomes a maze of channels and inlets at water level that can disorient any paddler. By the same token a broad expanse of water with distant undistinguishable landmarks and nothing with which to gauge distance can be equally as mystifying. It certainly wasn’t where we, with our 17 foot canoe packed with 600 pounds of people and gear and just six inches of freeboard to the waterline wanted to be.
Directly ahead there was no sign of white water, at a distance the swells couldn’t be seen, but once in the open the wind blew fiercely and the water began to splash over the side of the canoe. Our only option at this point was to fight the wind and water for what amounted to just over two miles to a place called Smith Brook and an area we hoped would provide some shelter from the wind.
Once behind Dunphy Ridge and out of the brunt of the wind we continued our paddle sliding up onto the beach at Smith Brook. Unlike most parts of the Allagash, Smith Brook has a sandy shallow warm water beach. There is a campsite on a small protrusion of land shaded by tall pine trees. The ground just above the beach was a carpet sweet smelling of pine needles.
We seemed to be stranded here, wind bound as it’s called. But what a spot to be stuck.
On the night of August 20, 1976 four men canoed across Eagle Lake and camped at Smith Brook. That night something unusual happened, but it took nine years for the men to learn just what it was.
That night the four friends piled into one of their two canoes to try some night fishing. Before they left camp they built a large bonfire to help them find their way back. As the story goes, when they were about a quarter-mile from shore, they suddenly saw a large, bright, pulsing spherical light rising over the treetops. The object moved silently towards them. They panicked and began paddling for shore.
When they reached shore they watched as the object hovered for a few moments and then winked out.
Their bonfire, which should have blazed for two to three hours, had inexplicably burned down to coals, although they had only been gone for what seemed to be about 15 minutes. What had happened to those two to three hours?.
In 1986 one of the men began having nightmares that slowly revealed lost information and memory about what had happened during those missing hours on Eagle Lake. It is said that his dreams contained the classic abduction characteristics and phenomenon; that the men were lifted from their boat into a UFO by some sort of beam of light, they were undressed and examined medically by beings not of this world, described as being spindly, thin and disturbingly insect-like. Their memories were then expunged leaving no recollection of the event.
Subsequently, under hypnosis all four men recalled the same event with few variations in detail.
Known as the Allagash Abductions the incident is recorded in a book called The Allagash Abductions, by Ray Fowler.
With little alternative we opted for a very early lunch during our unscheduled visit to Smith Brook.
By early afternoon I could wait no longer. I wasn’t eager to spend the night at Smith Brook when our intended destination was Churchill Dam. We expected to make about 20 miles that day, not two. With lunch finished and the canoe tightly repacked we pushed off, clinging close to shore and the cover of the trees.
Once we rounded the rocks of Dunphy Ridge the gale caught us and even fighting it as hard as we could the wind still drove our canoe onto the rocks. The trees grew close to the waterline here and left us no protection. Wading as far into the lake as I could I shoved the canoe off the rocks and together we managed to get back behind the shelter of the ridge.
Chris and I had handled three and a half foot swells before with whitecaps and wind. We studied the water in what we estimated to be a mile and a half stretch across the north of Pillsbury Island to the western shore of Eagle Lake. Our concern was what would we do if conditions worsened? The north side of Pillsbury Island is ledge that drops 15 to 20 feet to the water. There was no place to go ashore. We had to make it.
Frankly, neither of us wanted to go out in that kind of water, but we weren’t going to sit and wait for perfect conditions. Paddling as hard as we could we made a dash from behind the ridge using Bear Mountain in the distant as a guide.
Everything we had for the next seven days was in that boat; all our food, clothing, shelter, first aid kit, ax and matches. If we lost the boat, we’d have to deal with the vertical ledge on Pillsbury Island. If we lost the boat and all our belongings and did make it to the island, what then? As far as we knew we were the only to people for many miles.
The water worsened the further we paddled out onto the lake. The spray from the waves was soaking us and water continuously washed over the side into the canoe. We couldn’t stop to bail; to take our hands off the paddles at this point would certainly be disastrous. At times as we’d crest a wave, Chris was so far out of the water and up in the air in the front of the canoe he couldn’t reach the water with his paddle. In the troughs between swells we were below the water and would lose sight of the shore. We held our course aimed at Bear Mountain. In spite if it all we had to laugh as he’d ride high up a swell and hang in the air until the wave passed and we’d go sliding down the other side. It was like being on the ocean. Had the swells been all from one direction it would have been easier, but the wind gusted from the northwest, north and west making for a dangerous chop and the whitecaps danced all around us. Our intended direction was to the west, but we had to keep the bow in a northwesterly direction or we would have swamped.
At one point the strength of the wind looked like it might push us against the ledges of Pillsbury, but we fought it and managed to put about 100 yards between us and the rocks.
Crossing Eagle Lake, at probably the shortest possible place, in those conditions had worn us out. When we got to the other side, we pulled the canoe up on a small spot of gravel and just collapsed on the ground. We were exhausted. But, as Chris pointed out later that night, all we had done was cover about four miles in about six hours, while in fact at that point we were just a mile from the site where we had spent the previous night.
We rested only about 15 minutes. After bailing and sponging out the canoe we were back in the water. We had hoped for some shelter from the wind on the western shore of the lake, but the wind direction kept shifting. Now we were faced with a paddle up the western shore into the wind and swells and whitecaps that we estimated to be steadily reaching four feet with an occasional rogue wave that would really get our attention.
About a mile and a half up the shore the lake widens and a shallow area with tall grass lines the bank. Into the tall grass we went looking for smooth water, only to find ourselves getting pounded and whipped by the grass. Finally we got in behind Hog Island, a speck of land, but big enough to break the wind. The water quieted to a slow roll in the shelter of the island and there we sat catching our breath.
As soon as we nosed the bow of the boat out from behind Hog Island, the violent hand of Mother Nature once again began to slap us around. Now in the afternoon the wind had finally seemed to have decided to blow out of the northwest, but at the same time had increased. It’s hard to say how hard it blew, but the tarps over our gear whipped about in spite of being tied down with every bit of rope we had. Now we had no choice, we were going backwards. Rather than race across the water backwards, we spun the canoe around, which turned out to be an easy maneuver with the help of the wind, and took off like a shot. There was no need to paddle; the canoe was traveling faster than we could have possibly paddled. I just dipped the tip of my paddle into the fast moving water now and then to steer.
Chris spotted an opening in the shoreline ahead and we worked the boat in that direction never dreaming that we’d found something we had given up any hope of every seeing.
Our planned trip had become an unplanned adventure at staying afloat and making some headway. There were some things we had hoped to do on our way to Churchill Dam and one was to visit the sight of an old logging railroad built to transport logs from Eagle Lake to Chamberlain. Two locomotives, abandoned since the 1930’s remain as monuments to those bygone days.
The wind blew us right to the spot where logs were once hauled out of the water and put on the special rail cars designed to carry them over to Chamberlain, just under a mile away. We paddled behind a man made rock breakwater. The sound of the canoe grinding to a stop on the gravel was a welcome relief.
Less than 50-yards in front of us stood the two huge locomotives. The shed that housed them had long since burned down.
The locomotives and the cars and track had been carried across the ice in pieces and reassembled in the 1920’s. The logging railroad ran for just a few years before being abandoned.
Chris crawled around on the engines and I explored the overgrown track and abandoned log carriers. We took about a half hour rest, stretched our legs a bit and pushed off back onto the lake determined to make more progress.
As the afternoon wore on the wind slowing decreased. Heading up the western shore of Eagle Lake we were taking the swells head-on, but their ferocity had lessened. Whitecaps still surrounded us and for the first time we noticed how sore our shoulders and arms had become from fighting the lake.
For the next three miles we took what the lake threw at us in stride. The worst we knew had to be behind us and having done that, we could handle this. We pulled up at a small sandy beach for another rest and had a granola bar. We hadn’t had time for lunch. Back on the lake we once again pushed out into open water as we crossed the mile-wide opening of Russell Cove. We passed to the north of Farm Island, the lake’s second largest island after Pillsbury. It got it’s named from the fact that the logging companies kept a farm on the island to raise livestock and crops to feed the loggers during the long winters.
Smaller islands approached as we neared the end of the open-water crossing. The lake was quickly calming down as afternoon slipped into early evening.
By the time we rounded a high peninsula of land it became obvious that we were growing tied and we were going to lose the daylight in an hour or two. Rounding the point we approached an area called the Pump Handle with a nice grassy campsite and gravel beach. Without too much discussion we beached the canoe and stepped ashore for the night.
Unpacking the boat we set up our tent and unrolled our sleeping pads and sleeping bags. Dinner could wait. We were sore from a long day in the canoe and needed to stretch and take a deep breath. What looked to be a trail ran west from the back of the campsite. We could see from the map that we were on a peninsula and that the trail must climb what the map referred to as First Ridge. Grabbing a couple of granola bars each and a water bottle, we headed for the trail. We hadn’t gotten far when it became apparent that a strong storm had ripped through the area in the resent past as trees were down all around us and blocking the trail. Not to be deterred, we climbed over, under and around the maze of broken trees and in about a half mile reached a rocky lookout at the top of the ridge.
It was getting dark, but there was still enough light to see Mt. Katahdin in the distance to the south and Chamberlain Lake to the southwest. We learned later that several tornados had torn through this area of the Allagash earlier in the summer and this one had raced up Chamberlain and across to Eagle Lake striking this small peninsula doing considerable damage to the trees.
We sat silently on the ledge from where we could see most of the lake we had spent the day crossing. The Allagash had welcomed us with a test and a warning. We had passed the test, we were safe. The warning we took as a message to respect the lakes, rivers and the land and never underestimate them. We still had about 80 miles to go.
Later in our trip we would crash and tumble down Class II rapids, get hung up on an underwater ledge in quick water that required getting out of the canoe and pushing it off and still being able to diver back in. We paddled though driving cold rain, woke up with frost on the tent one August morning and had a large animal (moose) stumble into our campsite just before dawn and get spooked causing a world of confusion. Some days we carried the canoe more than we paddled and once we were chased up the west side of Long Lake by a single black thunderhead that was packing driving rain and slinging lightening bolts. None of that compared to our day on Eagle Lake.
That night Chris took out the maps after we finished dinner and figured that we had spent 12 long hours covering just seven miles. Sleep came easy.
Later we met a ranger, who in the course of conversation asked if we had been on Eagle Lake that day. When we said that yes we had, he paused, squinted his eyes as he looked off into the distance. Then nodding his head without turning back at us said, “Yup, betcha had a hell of a ride.”
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