The lure of the North Maine Woods. I wanted to introduce my wife to that feeling – the wildness, the history, the remoteness that it seems you can only achieve from Northern Maine. I wanted the trip to be short, sweet, and easy, something that would instill the desire to return. I went through several options, the final three being accessing Allagash Lake through Johnson Pond, Churchill Lake via St. John’s Bridge, or the Upper Allagash River via the town of Allagash. I decided on the latter for a couple of reasons – first being that it was the easiest to drive to. For the Lakes the drive is pretty long on dirt roads and there are a lot of “if’s” ; if the road isn’t washed out or otherwise impassable, if the water level is high enough out of Johnson Pond, if the wind is right, and many other variables. Turns out the decision against the Lakes was good – we would have been windblown (unable to go anywhere) for a couple of days. So, we headed for the town of Allagash and entered the North Maine Woods headed for Michaud Farm and hoping to camp at Ramsay Ledges, thinking it would be easy to find someone to shuttle us from Allagash back to the campsite so we could paddle the last ~13 miles or so of the river, and we could see Allagash Falls along the way. I always enjoy the ride up Route 11 to Fort Kent, but I got a surprise when I got to the North Maine Woods gate. Apparently, fees have gone up since I was there last in 2006. I remember when I canoed the entire river, the camping fee was 6 dollars per person per night, very reasonable in my opinion, and on subsequent visits the fee had not changed. The North Maine Woods (NMW) fees have increased a lot apparently, and it turned out that between the Allagash Wilderness Waterway (AWW) and NMW fees that camping there now comes to 20 dollars a night for two people. For me, that is above a line that I’m willing to pay for camping considering what you are getting, which is a picnic table, fire pit, and place for your tent. That price is approaching what I can stay in a hotel for, in fact, when I went moose hunting in the Allagash region my friend Peter and I were able to get a cabin with shower, stove, and beds for 15 dollars per person per night from one of the local guides. It just seems to me that to pay that price for camping is too much – in paying that I would expect a stack of firewood, or a guarantee of no bugs or some other amenity. Speaking of bugs on our trip they lived up to their legend, clouds of blackflies, mosquitoes, moose flies, horseflies, and the especially awful no-see-ums. If you are camping in the Allagash region during spring or early summer, check your tent netting carefully and be sure it has no-see-um mesh. They were able to get through mine, and they attack in clouds often at 2 or 3 in the morning and there is nothing quite like the burning sensation of a no-see-um at that hour. So, be prepared to brave the bugs. We made it to Ramsay Ledges without incident, seeing a small moose on the way. I heard a bird calling on the river that sounded like an osprey to me, and I had assumed that it was until we went out for a paddle upriver towards dusk and I got to hear an eagle calling. Although I have seen many of them, that was the first time I have ever heard one call I think, tipping it’s head to the sky. The campsite had lots of rabbits (snowshoe hares) running around, and I so wish I had a video of the one hopping by the tent that paused to look and flick his ears at hearing the soft snoring coming from within.
I loved hearing the mergansers with their croaking cry flying up the river, and the light mist on the river in the morning. We drove down to the local restaurant to try to get a ride back up the ~11 miles to the campsite so we could paddle the upper river to the truck, but the only taker I could find said it would cost 60 bucks. I actually laughed at him thinking that it was a joke like some Mainers will do, but it wasn’t. That really soured me on our visit to the Allagash region…I was prepared to pay as much as 3o, but 60 is outrageous to me for an 11 mile shuttle. Just from my standpoint, in his shoes I probably would have done it for free and done some fishing on the way back. So, we headed back to the campsite and paddled upriver a bit and did some fishing. The bugs were merciless upon arriving back to the campsite, and being unable to do the trip downstream we wanted to, we decided to leave and head down to the The Passadumkeag River and stay at camp to salvage what we could of the time off. We had a whippoorwill calling at 4 in the morning which was awesome, and the game cam caught a fox wandering around camp that morning too. Fishing the next day on the river that got me thinking. Compared to the Allagash Region there were no bugs at all on the Passadumkeag and it is just as wild. There are many many wild and scenic rivers in Maine where very few people paddle, The Machias River for example, and the camping is free. There are less bugs, less people, and less commercialization in my opinion. So while the Allagash is a must paddle wilderness experience for sure, I think the next time I have the itch for exploring remote wilderness, I’m going to be looking closer to home. I can get the same experience, see less people, camp for free, and I’m sure I can find someone in a store or restaurant to shuttle me upstream for something more reasonable than 60 bucks.
Here’s a short video of our trip;