Day One Of Our 4-Day 53-Mile Canoe Trip
The thermometer read 44 degrees at 6 o’clock this morning on Cape Cod (September 21, 2010). It brought back memories from just over a month ago when Chris and I were camped along the Allagash Wilderness Waterway and the overnight temperature dropped to 40. When you’re in 40 degree sleeping bags, which are realistically more like 50 degree bags, it gets a bit uncomfortable. We had our mummy bags zipped over our heads, but it made little difference. By 5 o’clock we were up just so as to move around and try to get warm.
We were camped at a spot we had stayed at in 2007, the last time we paddled the Allagash. It is one of our favorites. The spot is called Sandy Point and is on the thoroughfare between Umsaskis Lake and Long Lake.
That morning, because of the temperature difference between the 40 degree air and the relatively warmer water, the fog was very thick. From the reeds on the sand beside our canoe, looking out over the water we could see about 20 feet. We were in no hurry, so we built a fire and started to warm-up.
I didn’t feel much like cooking. It was cold and damp. We just kept tossing wood onto the fire. Finally, I made some coffee and we had some breakfast cereal and broke camp.
We packed our gear as best we could; everything was soaked in the cold, morning dew. We put on three shirts each, but we both wore shorts and our water shoes. The thoroughfare was still blanketed in fog, but it had improved some and we figured once the sun got to work, the fog would disappear.
At 7:30 we slid the canoe off the sand and paddled out into the thoroughfare. It only took us about 30 minutes to reach Long Lake, and while we couldn’t see across the lake, the visibility had improved. With the visibility still limited, we followed the western shore. About a half mile up Long Lake the sun broke through and the fog vanished. The warm sun felt very good.
The lake was calm. The last time we had paddled Long Lake we had a tail wind and about one and a half to two foot seas that broke over the back of our canoe. The quiet and calm water made for a pleasurable paddle.
The lake is about five miles long. At the outlet the land squeezes the water into another thoroughfare of about a mile. This is where Chemquasabamticook Stream meets the Allagash. The last time we were here we paddled around the maze of reeds and inlets at the foot of the stream. This time we kept paddling on into Harvey Pond.
About two miles long, Harvey Pond is big enough to bounce you around in windy weather, but it was still early and we were enjoying our leisurely morning paddle. Some minor riffles at the end of the pond indicated that we were approaching Long Lake Dam where we’d have to portage.
Long Lake Dam was built in 1907 by the St. John Lumber Company to manage log driving in the late spring and early summer. The timber crib structure was made up of huge pine logs and cost a total of $50,000 to build. Original it was 700 feet long and held a 15-foot head of water. Each of the 18 gates was eight feet wide and when they were opened the force was felt more than 100 miles away at Van Buren.
The dam was remodeled in 1926-27 by Edouard “King” Lacroix raising the head to 17-feet and removing some gates near shore. By the late 1920’s its use was discontinued. Today, the dam is almost completely washed out.
It is still necessary to carry around the dam site, although some canoeists will line through the remains of the dam. There are still spikes just beneath the water that can damage a canoe.
By 10 o’clock we were at the portage and carrying our gear up and over. We didn’t have as much as the last time we were here as this was just a four day trip. On the third and final carry, which isn’t much more than 50-yards, we hauled the canoe across and reloaded it. Within 15 minutes we were back on the water.
There were some riffles and a bit of class I water to negotiate. About two miles down river we passed our old campsite at Sweeney Brook. This place we remembered for the great tasting water and the moose that walked into our campsite a few hours before dawn.
The part of the Allagash between Long Lake and Round Pond is remote and beautiful. We saw Blue Herron, a myriad of ducks and geese, some moose and could watch the fish swimming along beneath the water’s surface. In several places the water got quick requiring our attention. I was noticing that Chris was studying the river. As we would approach quick water, he’d haul in his paddle, put it across his knees and leaning on it reading the river ahead. Maybe he was thinking of three years ago and the way we would bounce off the rocks as the river tossed us around. It appeared that he was having none of that this time.
Before we ever got too close to quick water, he’d have our route planned.
“Let’s enter on the left near shore, and then cut quickly to the right,” he’d say. “When we get next to that big rock we’ll make a quick left and ride the white water down the middle.”
The first couple of times he’d plot a route like that I’d think, “this ought to be interesting.” But by about the third time I was looking to him to decide how to negotiate every stretch of quick water.
There were also a few stretches where the river got real boney. Chris managed to keep us in the channel most of the time, but every once in a while we’d grind to a stop in the shallows on the rocks and have to get out and drag the canoe.
There is a bend in the river along this stretch where on the left bank stands a majestic old elm tree. It survived the Dutch elm disease that raged through the Maine woods in the 60’s and 70’s due to its remote location. Today this tree stands alone along the bank of the Allagash a testament to the area’s rugged individualism.
Just after passing the elm we met Trevor O’Leary, one of the waterway rangers, headed up river. Trevor was standing in the back poling his canoe against the current. I reminded him that we had met three years earlier at Michaud Farm. He remembered that night we sat in his cabin and talked about fishing and the Red Sox. I told him that another ranger, Kevin Brown, had said that friend Mike Hafford had passed away that winter. Trevor said that it had been sudden, an apparent heart attack. He wanted to know if Chris was going to fish for some muskie below the falls as the Muskie Derby was going on in Fort Kent. Chris said he’d probably try and Trevor mentioned a few spots where he might find some fish.
About one o’clock we reach Round Pond and paddled up the west side. Round Pond is about three miles long and a mile and a half wide. It is remote and peaceful. The pond was fairly smooth, although we could see some white caps near the middle. The last time we paddle here we stopped for lunch at a pretty spot and thought we’d head there and eat again.
Near the rips at the lower end of the pond is a spot known as the Outlet. Here we landed and dragged the canoe up on a small sandy area that cut between a low bluff of about four feet. The flat area above was grassy and warm in the sun. We made some sandwiches for lunch and sat watching the sun reflecting off the water. The only people that we had seen all day, beside Trevor, were back at the thoroughfare below Umsaskis. We had all this to ourselves.
After having frozen the night before, we couldn’t resist naps in the warm sun. After we ate we took out our still soaking wet tent and set it up to dry. Then we laid down for a snooze.
Later Chris took a few casts off the shore, but the water is too warm and the fish are deep.
We had already paddled for nearly six hours, and after all our tent was set up. We decided to spend the night.
Refreshed from our naps, we were playing a game of late afternoon cards, when two jack rabbits raced out of the woods right to our feet. They were moving so fast neither one of us had time to react. The big jack was chasing the smaller rabbit and they didn’t look like they were playing. They ignored us and continued to race around the open area. Every now and then the larger rabbit would catch up to the other and they’d flip over on top of one another, rolling on the ground. This was a serious fight. All we could do was stay out of the way.
They eventually spilled into some bushes along the top of the short bluff that dropped off to the water. The thrashing around was intense. After a few minutes the big rabbit popped out of the bushes and looked at us. He then turned and dashed into the woods.
Chris climbed down the bank as I gathered up our playing cards.
“Hey Dad,” he said. “Come here and see this.”
At the bottom of the bank near the water was the smaller rabbit. It was terrified and possibly in shock. One ear was torn off and there were large tears in its side, where the other rabbit had bitten it. The rabbit tried to move, but fell over on its side. We knew there was nothing that we could do for it. We figured that our presence and our fire would keep predators away for a while, maybe giving it a chance. But from the condition of that rabbit, the future looked bleak.
We got our fire going and ate an early supper. At dusk the loons began to sing. To sit on the shore of a remote lake in the remaining warmth of the day, the only people, with the music of the loons as the sun sets is truly peaceful. We could see the large black and white, red-eyed bids floating on the shimmering surface of the pond and watched as they prepared for their nightly ritual.
We stared out at the water as the sun sank over the trees behind us. Every night we’d compete to see who would spot the first star. All was perfectly silent, and then suddenly we heard a large splash. It continued as if something big was wrestling about in the water. Chris walked to the water’s edge and looked down the shore. He waved for me to join him.
A cow moose had come out of the woods about 50-yards to our right. She was walking in the water up to her knees coming our way. Neither of us moved. When she was about 30-yards away she gave out a big snort. She had seen us. The moose stared at us. We didn’t move and neither did she.
But it was supper time for her and she wasn’t about to waste time in a staring contest with us. Slowly she resumed her course, splashing, snorting and grunting as she passed. About another 50-yards in the other direction she stopped in an area of pond grass and began browsing. Occasionally, she would lift her head while chewing and look back in our direction, probably hoping we had left.
Just after dark she passed us again, still upset with our presence. She splash loudly, grunting and snorting the entire time. We knew the area was frequented by moose, as we had found tracks in our campsite.
The stars came out and it was another unbelievable show. Chris saw the first star. We spent hours looking at the sky wondering aloud at such a grand sight. Later we read by our lantern in the tent. Nestled in our sleeping bags, fully clothed, we were not looking forward to another cold night.
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