Allagash Lake & Johnson Pond
Those cool August nights under a northern Maine sky lit by a breath-taking array of glittering stars had captivated us. The people of the North Country have a secret. They live in a magical place of tall trees, deep green forests, fickle crystal clear lakes and fast flowing rivers.
In 2008 Chris and I returned to the Allagash in August. This time we had found a place with no roads, a place accessible only by air, canoe or a long portage and again, a place where for the duration of our trip we knew we’d encounter more moose than people.
On a Monday morning we climbed into Katahdin Air’s Cessna 206 float plane on Ambajejus Lake eight miles northwest of Millinocket for our trip into Johnson Pond; a small body of water that offers a shallow, overgrown stream that leads to Allagash Stream and from there to Allagash Lake.
Our flight was 30 low-level minutes of some of the most glorious and exciting scenery imaginable. From just above the tall green pine treetops and even lower over the mirrored blue surface of some of the big northern Maine lakes we flew with the majesty of mile-high Mount Katahdin standing sternly off the right side. As Maine’s tallest mountain faded, the lakes, rivers and hills of the Allagash country took over.
From the air we could see that we were about to splash down into an area where people were certainly in the minority. Once on the pond we quickly unloaded our gear onto the shore. Jim, our pilot, waved goodbye and promised to meet us at the same spot in five days. The plane took-off and banked sharply to the right to avoid Poland Mountain. As the engine sound faded and Jim disappeared beyond the tree line, Chris and I looked at one another and smiled.
After loading our gear into the canoe we headed for Johnson Pond Stream which turned out to be about a half mile or more of crooked water never more than five feet wide, often less and at most a foot and a half deep. The entire way it was overgrown with alders that ripped the paddles from our hands, at times forcing us to pull our way along from branch to branch. About 100 yards from where Johnson joined Allagash Stream we portaged over a
well-built beaver dam, solid enough to walk across carefully leaping from slippery log to slippery log.
Some quick water at the confluence of Johnson and Allagash Streams we navigated without any problem and began about a two mile paddle into Allagash Lake. With the current pushing us along we slipped into Allagash Lake in just under two hours from the time we left Johnson Pond.
Opening up in front of us were 4,260 acres of deep cold water closely guarded by the State of Maine which prohibits any motorized transport of any type. Canoes and kayaks are the only mode of transportation and there were no other people. Having faced four foot swells and 25 mile-per-hour winds last summer we were prepared for the worst. But, unlike last year when we faced big water on Eagle, Churchill, Umsaskis and Long Lakes, this year we were greeted with calm water as we enter Allagash Lake and we had it all to ourselves. With dark thunder clouds on the horizon we found a campsite and set up our tent. Our first dip in the lake landed us back in our tent as I shaved leeches off my feet with my knife.
The next day, after a night of rain, we explored some nearby ice caves, about 70 feet or more down through a tight crawl space over rocks and mud as strong thunderstorms raged overhead. That night more thunderstorms passed with one frightening thunderous concussion nearly clasping our tent. In the darkness the violent storm raged hurling lightening bolts all around us. We were careful to stay on our self-inflatable rubber mattress pads.
The next day we explored our end of the lake before more rain sent us scurrying for the tent. On our third day at Allagash Lake the sun finally chased away the clouds. We hopped into the canoe early and paddled about three miles to the foot of the lake and the trailhead for Allagash Mountain. There we talked with the ranger and found we had friends in common from our trip the year before. The one-mile climb up the mountain was muddy, slippery and the last quarter mile
rocky and steep. Once on top it was clearly worth the effort. The views were stunning in all directions, from Mt. Katahdin to the south, the low rolling mountains of the Province of Quebec to the west and to the north and east the Allagash River and Chamberlain, Eagle and Churchill Lakes. It was nice to see these lakes again even though they had handled us so roughly a year earlier.
The next day we raced thunderstorms back up Allagash Stream and along overgrown Johnson Stream into Johnson Pond. That night we passed up a level gravel beach to camp on an island where we had our first good campfire in four days.
The next morning, after another night of rain, the fog was in the trees and the visibility was less than an eighth of a mile. Jim was supposed to pick us up at 10 AM. At 7 AM we ate our pancakes and the last of our bacon in the rain wondering if we’d have another long wet day and night ahead of us. We had food for two more days, but we and our gear were soaked and we hoped to get into Millinocket and find a laundromat to wash and more importantly dry our clothes.
As the fog and mist floated across the remote silent pond we loaded the canoe and paddled toward the gravel beach where we had considered camping the night before. It was gone. Johnson Pond is feed by several brooks and streams that with the heavy rain from the night before, their run-off had raised the water level an incredible six inches. Had we camped on the beach, we’d have been flooded out during the night.
With our gear wrapped in a blue plastic tarp the canoe floated in a grassy area with a loon silently swimming nearby, curious as to who we were. We were near the area in which Jim had said he’d pick us up.
I’ve flown small planes and it was looking like the weather was such that there was no way Jim was getting into Johnson Pond that morning. As I lay in the rear of the canoe staring up into the light drizzle and fog contemplating another wet day, thinking about how wet my clothes and feet were, watching the curious loon and dreaming of a hot cup of coffee, I told my son that there was a good chance we’d have to paddle back to the island for another night. I was explaining Visual Flight Rules, fog, rain, obscured ceilings, limited visibility and such things that might make it impossible for Jim to land, bracing him for another wet night, when he stopped me to say, “Dad, do you hear that?”
There was no wind, so I leaned into the milky-white fog and listened. I sat up. Was it a plane? If so, maybe he’d make an approach, but miss and leave us for another day.
In the absolute stillness, drizzle and fog, we couldn’t tell from which direction the engine sound came. We scanned the whiteness around us and looked at one another. It was a plane, but where.
“Dad, over there,” Chris’ outstretched arm pointed toward the east. As I turned less than a half mile away the float plane burst out of the blanket of fog and made a dive for the pond. In a splash Jim hit the water. He killed the engine and floated perfectly up to our canoe as if he had done it a hundred times; which in fact he has.
Without wasting a minute we piled our wet gear into the plane. Jim taxied to one end of the pond while making the understated remark that the weather was a bit poor. Spinning the plane on its pontoons as he applied the throttle he remarked how high the water was and that the beaver dam up a particular creek must have given way as he has never seen so much water flowing into the pond.
From the back seat, as the engine roared all I could see was the white fog. Jim got off the water and immediately banked sharply to the left; the wingtip appeared to trace the water as we race sideways between the shadowy tall pines of the fog obscured island and the opposite shore. Then instead of climbing we leveled off and Jim stuck the floats to the tree tops as we screamed across the pines over to Allagash Lake. Once over open water we had a better idea of where we might slip between the hills. Scud-running as it’s called, we made our way as far as Lake Chesuncook where for 22 miles we cruised beneath the drizzle and clouds down the calm, empty, steel gray lake. From our low vantage point we saw moose and some beautiful rugged, wild remote country.
The weather to the east was better and although we couldn’t see Mt. Katahdin through the fog our approach to Ambajejus Lake was smooth. Jim slid the plane gently onto the water, keeping the power up as we sped toward his dock. At just the right moment he cut the engine and the Cessna stood up on its pontoons and slowly floated alongside the dock exactly where he wanted it.
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