Day 3 On The Allagash River
Six summers ago when we first went into the woods, Chris was an 11-year-old who had complete faith in what his father was doing. Since that summer he has grown older and wiser. He’s gone from never having been in a canoe, to running rapids, from never having been in the woods, to finding his way at night in a pathless forest. He was once frightened by noises in the night. Now he roams the woods, fishing pole in hand at dusk seeking out spots to float his fly and coming back into camp after dark with his dinner already filleted. He has grown up and some of the most important lessons he has learned didn’t come from a book.
Over the past six summers he has assumed more responsibility. No longer do I make all the decisions. More and more I defer to him and we’re usually in agreement with his choices. Even when we’re not, I’ll go with his decision on something just to see how it turns out.
The point is that he is confident enough to make the decision in the first place. With the canoe rushing toward loud, splashing, white water, he’ll pick a course, quickly point it out and then lay into his paddle. There is never a chance to change your mind. You have to make a choice and then live with it. For the most part when it comes to the rivers and the woods, he makes good decisions.
Last year I thought might be our last summer together as he was growing up and would want to do other things. No, he made it clear; he wanted to go back to Maine.
Our third night on the river was another cold one. By 6 o’clock I was up cooking breakfast. I woke Chris at 6:30. It was chilly enough that we could see our breath in the still air. A big breakfast, hot coffee and hot chocolate and we were ready. We carried our gear down off the bluff to the canoe and pushed off the rocks from our Five Fingers campsite.
When we paddled the six and a half miles between Five Fingers and Michaud Farm three years earlier it was shallow and boney. We ended up dragging our canoe far too much. As we had expected the water was again low, but this time we did a much better job of following the channel.
About 10 o’clock we pulled our boat ashore at Cunliffe Depot on the east side of the river. The only marking visable today from the river of the once thriving depot is a small sign at the top of the bank. We pulled our canoe ashore and climbed the bank. Even though nature has reclaimed the site, there are still reminders of the past. Scattered and rusted old machine parts litter the ground. A walk to the right along wooded trail leads to a small log stream crossing. On the other side are the remains of Lombard Log Haulers.
One of the log haulers was powered by steam. In this earlier version the driver sat in front of the engine as he hauled a train of sleds piled with logs. This was particularly hazardous going down hill on icy roads.
The other Lombard was a later gas powered machine that allowed the driver to steer from behind the engine. The Lombard which ran on metal tracks was the forerunner of the bull dozer and the army tank. Only a few scattered sections of track remain scattered in the woods.
In some places are scattered an array of parts, possibly the site of a storage shed or machine shop. Beyond the Lombards there is evidence of what was once a clearing where possibly the residents kept animals or grew vegetables.
The river remained boney all the way to Michaud Farm. In a few spots we were forced to drag the canoe. There is a rock bar that stretches in front of the landing at the farm, but if you paddle along the left shore the water remains deep.
Throughout the 19th century and into the early 1900’s several small communities were established along the river to support the logging industry. A lumberman named J.T. Michaud built a farm on a bend in the river above the falls shortly after the Civil War. By the mid 1920’s Michaud’s Farm became a base camp for lumber crews.
Michaud grew grain for the workhorses and vegetables for the crews. He kept animals and ran a store. Attracted by Michaud’s farm, others moved to the area and by the end of the 1920’s there were as many as 13 families living in the area around the farm.
In the 1930’s the St. John Lumber Company failed, so did Michaud and the farm fell into disrepair. All the buildings, which even included a small hotel for travelers, with the exception of one are gone now. The lone remaining building is used as a ranger station where all travelers along the river are required to stop and sign a register.
The river from Michaud Farm to Allagash Falls is flat water. Islands fill the river leaving paddlers a choice of route. We floated along enjoying the scenery and let the river take us. About halfway through the maze of islands, we chose to paddle down a back channel. Here to our surprise we found a beaver dam in the process of construction. The dam stood no more than six inches above the river’s surface and stretched about 40 feet across the channel. Left with no other option, we paddled hard toward the lowest spot and floated easily across the dam.
Our plan was to camp at the falls somewhere along the portage. Arriving at the portage trail, we elected to carry light loads and find a spot before hauling the canoe. We hiked about two-thirds of the way along the 150-yard portage trail. The trail is wide here as horses and wagons were once used on it to portage large loads of supplies headed up river, a relic of the towboat days.
We chose a spot as close to the far end of the portage as possible. We then went back for the canoe and carried it the length of the portage and put it into the river on the far side below the falls.
Allagash Falls is about 40 feet high. Large rocks guard the entrance to the falls offering the only chance to stop for anyone who may miss the portage. The swift water would make it difficult to grab one of the rocks and a tumble over the falls has proven not to be survivable.
We explored the falls, climbing out on the rocks above and following a trail that led to the foot of the falls.
I started to set up camp while Chris pumped water from a spring he had found running out from beneath some rocks on the side of a hill. I unpacked a late lunch and laid out the tent. It was only 2:30. We had completed the portage in less than 30 minutes. It promised to be a beautiful afternoon. When Chris came back with two full water bottles, I suggested that rather than camp there, we continue on the river for a few more hours. He wasn’t ready to stop for the day either.
Below the falls we noticed an old man sitting on a rock near a canoe, eating a sandwich. We walked over to say hello. He had a large belly and wore a stained white t-shirt, and bib overalls and had a massive white beard. His baseball cap was dirty to the point that I couldn’t read what it said over the tattered visor. He explained, as he chewed on his bologna and cheese sandwich on white bread, that he was 70-years-old and was going to do some fishing. But his grandson, who had carried all their gear and the canoe across the portage, needed a rest. Lying on his back in the bottom of the canoe was a boy about 12-years-old fast asleep. He said the river below the falls was low and rocky. We talked about muskie fishing and the weather for a few minutes, and then wished him luck before saying goodbye. We were back on the river by 3:15.
Boulders littered the river and staying in deep water proved to be difficult. Whenever we saw the splash of white water we aimed our boat for it hoping for a push. Sometimes we missed the channel and ended up dragging the canoe.
After an hour of paddling among the rocks, we reached Big Brook and decided to camp on the bluff on the eastern shore. We were more tired than expected. There was a small spring running down the bluff into the river and we took turns pumping drinking water and water for dinner. It was cold and refreshing.
Chris walked up the river about 100 yards to some rocks and took a bath. He found a spot where the water was too fast for leeches. I was next and splashed my way over to the same spot. Our biodegradable soap is in a squeeze battle. I positioned myself with the rocks behind me and squeezed out a handful of soap to wash my hair. As I was raising my hand to my head, my foot slipped on a rock and as I stumbled I slapped the handful of soap into my eye. The burn was fast and my eye was stinging. The bottle of soap was floating away. I crashed between the rocks into the river chasing the soap, all with one eye. My water shoes continued to slip on the rocks as I made my naked dash down river in about three feet of water.
Finally catching the soap, I washed out my eye as best that I could. It burned really bad. I gave up on the bath and with blurred vision headed back to camp. That eye still burned a day later.
After dinner we were standing on the bluff watching the sun set to the west and were startled by a shattering crash. Somewhere on the opposite side of the river a large tree had fallen. In the stillness it was very loud.
We watched the sun set and sat as the stars slowly began to appear. The heavens filled and we sat for just a short while longer before heading into the tent for the night.
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