Posts Tagged ‘rural life’
All my life people have been telling me you shouldn’t travel alone. But it’s interesting; I’ve never been told that by anybody who’s ever done it. - Bill Mason
Years ago there was a large tract of land that I liked to hunt – I liked it in part because it was bordered on all sides by woods roads, so one could effectively never take a wrong turn, as long as you could walk in a straight line, you would eventually find your way out. It allowed me to wander rather aimlessly without having to worry about sense of direction. However, I began to notice that invariably I would walk past the same places each time I was there. Deliberately I would enter through a different location each time, and yet once my mind wandered a bit I would begin noticing the same areas once again, which taught me about funneling. There are lots of studies and evidence that says in the absence of sun, landmarks, blindfolded, or in darkness people have a tendency to walk in circles, and while that may be true (I have certainly experienced that on a boat in the fog) I believe that if you turn someone loose in a vast tract of wilderness, they tend to walk along “funnels”. And wildlife do the same thing – which is why there are typically particular “crossings” where you tend to see the most wildlife.
When I asked a friend of mine who has professionally trapped marten for much of his life how I could spot a crossing or funnel his answer was that he couldn’t describe it to me, but he could show it to me. His journals show that the landscape naturally lends itself to certain routes of travel, and that these routes have held true over many years, even if areas were logged. There is a good story that he tells; he will sometimes take out of state people out on the trapline so they can experience what it is like, and one time he had a fellow from New Jersey riding with him, who said that he wanted to chose the spot where they next put in a set. Jerry said no problem, and in short order the guest said that he wanted to stop and make a set. He asked Jerry if he thought it was a good spot, and Jerry said that it wasn’t, but the guest said he wanted to set it anyway, and they did. Jerry, with a caveat to the listener that he was just having fun with the guy at this point, drove 200 yards down the road and said “this is the spot”, and set the location. And sure enough, when checking the sets the next day, Jerry’s spot produced a double of marten, a mere 200 yards from where the guest placed his sets, and upon this discovery the guest said that never again would he ever doubt Jerry’s word. And that’s how legends are formed. It’s interesting that if you walk a certain stretch of woods each day, you begin to notice the subtle changes that happen – bent grass or perhaps a bit of fur on a branch that wasn’t there the day before. I think our ancestors were much more in tune with the world, and used the natural lay of the land for ease of travel before the days of epirbs, cell phones, gps, or even compasses. That’s why the Native American names for places were much more meaningful than those of today – such as Passadumkeag, which means above the gravel bar, and describes the section of the Penobscot River where it meets the Passadumkeag river. And wildlife know them too – I came across an otter track once in the middle of nowhere, far from any source of water. I took a couple of days and followed it in both directions, finding the water where it came from, and where it was heading too, a distance of some 10 miles apart. I think the old ways of the woodsmen are somewhat lost today – being able to extricate yourself from any sort of situation, knowing where you are, and relating that to the surrounding country around you. I enjoyed seeing the old barely discernable marks on the trees whenThe Old Man from the sand pit took me along the old hunting path – a path my Grandfather used, and his grandfather before him. In those days people knew where they were in the woods, much as people today know where they are by what road they are on. It’s just a matter of learning the subtle clues and signs of the path you are traveling.
I think Maine is especially unique, and that uniqueness has always been what has drawn me to this state and instilled my desire to live here. Maine has always been a state of rough wilderness with people known for their self reliance, individuality, ruggedness, and a sense of independence. Over the years however, Maine has become increasingly divided along many avenues. I tried to put forth some of it, or at least a microcosm of it in PO Box 311 but I’m not sure how successful I was in getting the point across.
I like that things are different here, and that we don’t fit into any of the big box thinking that happens in more urban areas. It makes me feel unique. For example, when the Federal Government mandated reservoir water filtration in the early 1990′s, the town I live in got a waiver because in all seriousness..having an expensive filtration system was just not necessary here. I like that Maine by and large still represents individual freedoms, one example being that despite threats from the Federal Government to withdraw funding for certain things, Maine still extends the middle finger their way when it comes to motorcycle helmet laws. I’m not going into citing all of them here, but the statistics back up that a large percentage of motorcycle accidents happen during the first year one has a license. Therefore Maine has a mandatory helmet law while on a learners permit, and for the first year you have your license. And while when I had a motorcycle I often chose to wear a helmet, I dearly loved those sultry July nights riding with the wind in my hair and no one else on the road but me and I’m so thankful that I had the freedom to experience it.
Maine has been slowly dividing for some time and there is always the occasional smattering of secession brought up here and there. If you took a random sampling of Mainers, and asked them where the dividing line was I’ll bet that the general consensus would be Bangor. Therefore most people would already be in agreement as to how to divide up the state along north and south lines – which I would think would be a major issue already overcome. I doubt that it will ever happen, but sometimes it’s fun to think about. I don’t think someone from Portland has any business at all voting on something that will effect someone that lives in the Allagash, and vice versa. I would suspect that a good percentage of the Southern Maine folks are originally from another state and carry with them the big box thinking they were brought up with. The dilemma is spelled out eloquently and beautifully in essay form, in a series of books beginning with First Person Rural by Noel Perrin.
It details the dilemma of folks from away moving into rural Vermont for the “charm” and then trying to change everything because they don’t like the smell of the neighbors pigs and some of the other finer details of rural life. As Noel says you should have to live here for 10 years before you’re even allowed to vote…amen. I’ve never been much of a political person, other than voting for who I wanted, but that all changed over an issue that divided Maine along it’s Bangor North/South boundary in 2004. That issue was the bear referendum. Funny thing is, I didn’t and don’t even hunt bears (other than trying for two seasons when the referendum came up)…I just don’t really have any interest. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, and it is extremely emotional on both ends of the spectrum, hear me out, and let me tell you from experience that it isn’t easy. The specific issue was hunting over bait, with hounds, and trapping. This incensed me because by and large, voters would be voting on emotion, and not common sense and the opposition, which was largely from out of state, played on that emotion at every opportunity. This is an exact parallel to what Noel Perrin was talking about in his essays. When the referendum came up I had never tried to harvest a bear before, by any method. But, when I realized that I may lose the freedom to chose whether or not I could, I bought my license, and the proper gear and tried to trap one before I couldn’t anymore. Now this wasn’t just some half cocked plan. Although I don’t go much anymore, I do have almost 10 years experience as a trapper, and I do know what I’m doing. I contacted some folks that do go, and learned their techniques. I gave it a shot…and I failed. Two seasons in a row. So, if perhaps part of the issue for you is unfair advantage, it’s just not true.
In any event, I was incensed that a group of people and outside interests wanted to take away something from the people of Maine. Something that makes us special. In my opinion, and I suspect Noel Perrin would agree with me, if you disagree or have a problem with hunting methods – live in a state that caters to your beliefs. Against trapping? Massachusetts and Colorado agree with you. Why can’t there be just one place left where you can do those things? Why is it some people always want to try to take away something from others just because they personally have a problem with it? I got involved in the process as much as I could including writing the following letter to the director of the Sportman’s Alliance of Maine.
My beloved grandfather instilled in me the desire to live and love the outdoor life, back when a woodsman and a hunter were considered to be a special person. I guess I can’t put it into words better than “special person” but I think you may know what I’m talking about. Hunting, fishing, trapping, camping and canoeing stories were always being told in the garage, where my grandfather went to get away from everyone, smoke, and drink “apple juice” (whiskey). Everybody loved him and he was what you would call a character here in Maine. My grandfather grew up in a time in this state when there was little work and if you did not get a deer in the fall you did not eat well, and for some, a fur check meant whether you had christmas or not. Unfortunately he was too old to take me hunting but his stories and my imagination took me afield as a boy. He died shortly before my seventeenth birthday and I recieved his present in the mail – a new mackinaw plaid hunting jacket, with $20 bills in each of the pockets. I inheritited his Winchester lever action .30-.30 and when I was able to get a hunting license I took it aflield. I had to learn a lot by trial and error, but eventually the day came when I was on the track of a big buck. I tracked him for hours and I knew I was close, and I asked my grandfather for help to get my first deer. Shortly thereafter, he broke from cover on my left. Had he gone left I never would have seen him but he went to my right in a semi-circle around me and I had time to steady myself aim and fire. When I realized he was down I began to shake uncontrollably from the excitement and I thanked the deer for his life and my grandfather for his help. He was 8 points, and 230 pounds. I will never forget that day. I saved the shell and in the spring, buried it at my grandfathers headstone.
I always believed the media when it came to trapping- I thought it was cruel as they told me it was, yet one day I decided to give it a try to see for myself. I got a trapping license, joined the Maine Trappers Association, and learned how to trap, and immediately learned that the media was wrong. The reason I am writing this to you is I am terrified of the upcoming referendeum. I have never previously had the desire to hunt or trap for bear but I understand the implications should this referendum pass. I have given as much as I can afford to the coalition, and explained the facts to those that want to listen. I wish the general public realized that the foot snares used on bears is the same device used by the state to perform research studies and does not harm the bear. In closing, I read in today’s paper about the possibility of a constitutional amendment that any voter initiatives related to hunting, fishing, or trapping must pass by a 2/3 supermajority, and I think regardless of what happens with the referendum Maine needs that amendment.
I still shake my head to think there are actually people in Maine that want to take my rights away as a hunter. I wonder what my grandfather would think.
There are a few things left out, but essentially that’s the brunt of it. I received a nice reply from their office, asking for permission to put it in the newsletter, and that I had made them cry in the office. Thankfully the referendum did not pass, and the amendment requiring issues surrounding hunting, fishing, and trapping never made it anywhere either which is too bad. Most people these days live so far outside of the “basics” that they have no idea what it would take to survive on their own any more.
There are some great thoughts on the issue of bear baiting here.
Things have calmed down since then, and the outside interests have moved on. I know this because after a certain op-ed appeared in the local newspaper I searched for the author and had a lengthy email discussion with them. The person moved here specifically for championing the referendum, and left shortly after it was not passed, as did the others. Particularly infuriating, and thankfully most of Maine voted on the science. However, this is just one issue. There will be others coming down the line you can be sure of that. And I think something needs to change – Portland has such a high population of people, folks in Northern Maine can be easily outvoted on issues that are important to them. Northern Maine retains the self reliance, individuality, ruggedness, and a sense of independence, whereas Southern Maine has only vestiges of its former history, and neither Northern or Southern should be voting on issues that are regionally specific to one another….The two Maines.
I long to awake in the morning, and put on an old flannel shirt and corduroy pants that are mended and moccasins covered with dirt – I care not a cuss where the place is, nor how far away it may be, so long as its up in the open where I can unleash and be free.
I remember a line in a book I was reading years ago that said you could blindfold someone and put them on the tarmac in any city, and all they would be able to tell you is where they weren’t. If you think about that for a minute you’ll realize it’s true. Everything looks the same, there is no uniqueness or individuality. As much as people complain (yet still go) to Wal Mart, as Americans we’re essentially living in one to some extent.
It always surprised me at the University of Maine when a student from an urban area of a different state would exclaim that there was nothing to do here. It’s true that you can’t go hit a few comedy clubs at 11pm if you want, and there is a small part of me that misses that too. But had I gone to college in an urban setting I would have said there is nothing to do here too. We had a great time in college – we hunted, fished, explored, snowmobiled, and canoed. I’ll always remember cutting classes on the first day of partridge season to go hunting in the warm October sun, and hanging out in the (now defunct) Rams Horn and Oronoka listening to live music in an intimate atmosphere.
Kids growing up these days aren’t exposed to the “other “ side of life that much anymore, and it wanes with each passing year. As Aldo Leopold aptly said – “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is supposing that food comes from the grocery store, and the other is that heat comes from the furnace.” I would propose that his quote has more meaning today than ever. With the unstable economies around the world, food prices being jacked up out of site because our nation’s corn is being converted to ethanol, and fuel prices never going back to the levels they were before, I think it behooves all of us to revisit the skills of our past. There is a fantastic book called “back to basics” that pretty much has everything in it you would ever need to know on how to take care of yourself and become independent again.
Land in rural areas of this country is still cheap to buy. When I built my cabin I had very rudimentary carpentry skills and yet with some determination was able to clear and stump a spot, cut, peel, and lug out of the woods each cedar log, and build it from scratch using hand tools. Imagine no mortgage, no utility bill, and a small food bill. Imagine the satisfaction of being independent, of not being tied to the latest woes of the economy. Imagine no longer being a beast caged in the heart of the city.
Here is a video of camp going up. I started harvesting the wood in 2003 and 2004. In the fall of 2004 the cement piers went in – 2005 it got build, and in early 2006 I finished the inside.
I knocked on the door, and the old man opened it and seeing the big ham I had for him said “what’s that for?” “You” I replied. “Jeez, you didn’t have to do that” he said in his downeast Maine drawl. You didn’t have to show me how to get to that pond either” I said as I handed him the Christmas ham. “Now we’re even”. “Ha Ha, ok then, we’re even” he said as he shut the door.
I wonder if that term came from the Great Depression, or even before, when people did a lot of bartering and trading instead of just outright buying things. It certainly has persisted here in Maine. “Making it right”, “settling up”, and “we’re even” are still used quite a bit. Often times a passer by will do something to help someone out, for example, a few years ago my truck slid off the road during a snowstorm and one of the people in town that was driving by helped to tow me out. A few days later I bought him a bottle of rum. I “made it right”.
The old man owned a sand pit where he would crush rock and then sell it. He had a big front end loader and a dump truck. It appeared that he did all the work himself. There was a small road going through the pit that led to a very large tract of woodland that I was using for hunting and fishing. I was always thankful when he wasn’t there when I drove by, I had the impression that he was ornery. It appeared that he had been irritated by the ATV’s that had been accessing the same woodland that I was, so he went up there with a back hoe and dug a big hole so they could get through anymore. In addition, he took a chain saw to one of the old wooden logging bridges up there as well. I didn’t want to cross him.
I was on vacation for a week from work, and was up there each morning. And each morning he would drive up near where I was, and then loop back around to where he was going to work for the day. I thought it was a little odd. So, one morning I walked up to his truck as he was looping around. He rolled down the window, and showed a bit of surprise when I asked him if I was in his way where I was parking. “Hell no” he said sticking his head out the window. “What are you doing up in there?” he asked, looking me over. I replied that I was doing a little hunting. “Do you ever hunt coyotes?” he asked. “Sometimes….” “Well”, he replied, “the state ought to give you a medal for doing that.” I laughed. We actually talked for some time, and I could tell that he thought I was OK. Finally he put the truck into drive, and as he was pulling away he told me to park there any time I wanted.
We would see each other on and off when I would go up there – now he would wave from inside of the cab on the loader. He was a Mainer, tried and true. An old cap jaunted to one side, with a black lab that was always with him. Pierce blue eyes that had energy in them, and looked younger than the rough skin surrounding them. The inside of his truck had probably never been cleaned, and had a layer of dust, receipts, and other flotsam and jetsam within it.
There was a pond up there I had spied on a map that I wanted to get to. I looked at the layout of the land surrounding it, and tried to make it in there on a couple of occasions without success. One day I was talking with the old man and I mentioned I was trying to get in there to check it out, but I couldn’t seem to make it. “What do you want to go way up in there for?” he said and without waiting for a response – “you can’t find a place like that on your own, someone has to SHOW you….c’mon hop in”. It wasn’t really a question, so, I hopped in. As we rode down the woods road he was telling me hunting and fishing stories, and reminiscing about what it was like there when he was a kid. Finally we got to where we couldn’t drive anymore and we got out and started walking. The path was barely discernible and quickly faded out as we headed deeper into the woods. He told me it was a very old hunting trail, and showed me the faint axe marks on the trees made many years before by the people that hunted in there to mark the way. Eventually, he seemed to be lost, and started swearing. I was a little nervous that he was going to have a heart attack from the exercise, or that we would end up spending the night out there, lost. But eventually after much meandering we found a couple of the marks on the trees and pushed on, eventually making it to the pond. It was beautiful and remote, just as I hoped it would be. I looked down and found a giant moose antler there near the bank. We looked around a bit and then made our way out.
I wonder why the gruff and ornery old man decided to show me how to get to a place that was obvious a place that he considered “his” . Perhaps he was showing me because he thought I would use it “right”, or perhaps because he couldn’t get up there much anymore. Regardless, he was passing information to me that he considered secret and sacred. So, when Christmas came a month later, I bought a big ham and delivered it to his house for him and his family.
We were even.
I could hear the roar of the falls in the distance as we paddled closer to them. This was the part of the race I had been dreading – my first time over 6 mile falls, in front of a throng of spectators, and captured on local television for a myriad of other watchers, all of who were waiting for the same thing – watching people in The Kenduskeag Stream Race tipping over at 6 mile falls.
Refreshed from paddling the 100 mile trip down the Allagash river that previous summer, I felt exhilarated. Paddling the wilderness river had taught me a lot about how to handle whitewater and fastwater, a stumbling block for me up until then, and I had felt confident about paddling the Kenduskeag race. As the falls approached closer, I could feel nervousness building in my body, the adrenaline making my hands shake a little as we paddled onward. The current enveloped around us and perpetually led us closer to the brink. There was no turning back now. We held back as much as we could, wanting a clear path without other canoes in our way. 6 Mile falls is aptly named – it’s 6 miles up Kenduskeag Stream from the Penobscot River. The race itself is about 16 miles – I’ve always wished the whitewater was the first part of the race, but it’s the last, and you have just finished racing 10 miles of flat water when you get to the fast water sections. The most important thing about 6 mile falls is to be lined up properly before you take the class III plunge over the drop. As we got closer I didn’t think I was ready any more. I subconsciously spoke what I was thinking at the moment – “just don’t dump on camera.” Fred, my paddling partner for the race laughed and said “some times you watch the entertainment, and sometimes you ARE the entertainment.” I for one, didn’t want to be the entertainment. As we rounded the last corner of our route in the upper falls, the spectators came into view. It was a lot different seeing things from a river view than a television view. There were people everywhere! The river grabbed my attention as we headed river center and approached the falls. When I felt the moment was right, I pushed with the paddle to get our bow headed straight down over the falls and into it’s throat. There was a drop, and a couple of big bumps and then suddenly, as fast as it began, it was over. We had made it, and Fred twirled his paddled over his head in victory. I’ve run that race many times since, and the falls are always the part of the race where I still worry about dumping over in front of the crowd. Knock on wood, so far it has never happened.
Maine has a healthy and vibrant canoe racing circuit with no shortage of rivers, stream, and lakes to race, and largely organized by the Maine Canoe and Kayak racing organization or Mackro. Races take place from the last weekend in March until October. Their website and the updated race schedules, pictures, and race results can be found here;
6 Mile Falls during race day;
The other highlight of racing here in Maine for me was Souadabscook Stream. I had a few years of racing under my belt when I decided to give it a shot. I was immediately discouraged from other paddlers I knew because it’s a tough stream, which is why I wanted to try it. I worried a little about what I was hearing, but it eventually only increased my resolve to give it a try. I raced a lot that spring, and I had gotten in shape over the winter in the gym. Race day came, and I was nervous and antsy to get on the river. My paddling partner and I decided that if we got to the Emerson Mill bridge and we had encountered problems getting to there, we would just stop and pull out there. There were two places on this river I was concerned about – the first being Emerson Mills, which is a three foot drop that has to be run “just right, or you will certainly swamp”. The other was just downstream of that and (depending on which map you have) is either called the Hairpin turn, or Crawford’s drop, a Class III pitch. Described as “technically demanding”, “rock littered chute” and “excruciating hairpin turn” gave me pause to look the area over carefully before doing the race. That year, Hammond Pond, which is a small part of the race was still frozen before race day, and a channel was cut through the ice so a canoe or kayak could negotiate through to the stream. That’s when things get interesting. I had never encountered current that was quite as pushy as that was, and the first turn we went around had different currents on the bow of the 17′ canoe then were at the stern, and I remember thinking that this stream was going to test my mettle and take all the skills that I had. Negotiating that first turn wasn’t pretty, but we made it. The class III ledge drop above Emerson Mill was a bit of a surprise, I could hear it coming, and then as we rounded the bend, there was a horizon line that worried me, but we were committed at this point, and made the drop just fine. The current then took our full attention and I could see in the distance the bridge indicating that Emerson Mill was approaching. I headed to river left to take the extreme left channel that I had read about in the river running description – here’s a pic of us going over the drop that day.
We pulled off to the side to bail the water out of the boat that we took on doing the drop, and I remember my hand shaking as I bailed out the canoe. We decided that we were doing just fine in the race and continued on to Crawford’s drop. There was a small crowd here as we started down the rock littered chutes. My paddling through here was far from elegant, and was probably the equivalent of over-correcting when a car is skidding, but we dodged where we had to dodge, and turned where we had to turn, and negotiated our way through the pitch. Having just enough time to recover from that, we were at the drop underneath the next bridge. Had we not had airbags in the boat, this is the only place during the race that we would have swamped. There was just too much water there, and it poured in over the bow and flooded the boat. The airbags worked though and we stayed afloat enough to paddle to the portage take out, swaying dangerously from side to side as we did so.
Here’s a pic of us right after that drop, on the first “bounce” after burying the bow in the wave, and the stern underwater.
We finished the race without tipping over, and I felt a huge sense of accomplishment at having negotiated the stream. In fact, we even got third place in our class that year.
For me the canoe is a fascinating way to go across water, because it is never a perfect craft. Everything in canoe building is a compromise. If you want a flat-water racer, it’s not going to be good in whitewater, and conversely a whitewater boat is not going to do well at all on the flat-water. Compromises between the two extremes are innumerable and life long arguments exist for which is best. Although it’s popularity is soaring, I’ve never liked being in a kayak. The canoe is preferred for me, and it’s just more of a romantic craft I guess. There is something to be said for negotiating a Class III in an open boat, and being able to stand up to visually inspect a rapid before you are in it. Being able to add enough gear and food for a week or more expedition is a plus as well. It’s also interesting for me to think about the history that I am in a sense repeating when I paddle down a spring snowmelt raging river. Before there were roads, there were waterways. One of the old canoe travel routes has been “revived” in recent years as the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, a 740 mile route from Old Forge New York to Fort Kent Maine. Take a look at topo maps of Maine and imagine the blue ribbons of water you see as highways, as that’s what they were. Native Americans used them for travel, and I’m sure raced one another to see who was the better canoe builder or paddler. After trapping for the winter months, early trappers used the waterways to get their furs to market on the spring freshet. In those days the faster you got your furs to market, the more you got paid, and they raced each other to get there as fast as possible. Here in Maine for years and years there were river drives that brought winter harvested logs down river to the mills. The practice of running logs down rivers started here in Maine and ended with the last drive in 1976, on the Kennebec River, a river that I paddled with my father. My great uncle worked for Great Northern Paper, and was present for some of the log drives. It was a way of life for so many people. Please take the time to watch the video here. Look at the sheer rivers of logs, and the huge booms of logs that went across Moosehead Lake. I wish I could have done it once, or at least witnessed it. So, when I race a canoe down the rivers of Maine, I am a Native American proving my worth, I am a fur trapper racing to get my furs to market, and I am a river driver on the spring drive to the mills. I am living history, and that makes an amazing timeless connection for me.
I put together a video of some of the canoe races over the years below.
As I approached the lip of the falls I had second thoughts about going over them, but it was too late for that. Suddenly I was thrown into the maelstrom and tossed about as if in a washing machine. I felt myself moving forward and opened my eyes briefly to see the rocks on the walls of the trench I was in whizzing by, and quickly closed them again. Then the current slowed, and my lifejacket popped me to the surface of the river. I grabbed the rescue rope and pulled myself to shore to join the others.
We were starting a Boy Scout trip down the West Branch of the Penobscot River, and one of the rights of passage to beginning the trip was going over the washed out Roll Dam in nothing but a lifejacket and a helmet. How fearful and exhilarating it was to swim out into the water above the falls, and feel the strong current grab you and pull you to the brink. Better than any amusement ride out there. This was my first long canoe camping trip, and I was quickly hooked. I remember a couple of highlights of camping on an island in the river and feeding fallfish we had caught to a nearby soaring osprey. One evening I went out for a paddle up a stream next to where we were camping, and on the way back down a huge moose crossed the stream just in front of me. It was amazing for me to watch, and I so wanted to move to Maine and see this every day.
The upper west branch that we were paddling drains into Chesuncook Lake, a reservoir formed by Ripogenous dam. It’s about 22 miles long and 1-4 miles wide, with a maximum depth of 150 feet. I’ll never forget coming around the corner into Chesuncook and seeing the Chesuncook Lake House, smack dab in the middle of nowhere it seemed so big. We pulled in to the grassy shore and went up to the house to check it out. They rent rooms and cabins, and at the time I was there, had a small store where we bought homemade root beer and homemade bread. We sprawled out on the grassy lawn overlooking Chesuncook and ate and drank our root beer. My Dad as a joke mentioned to be careful drinking the root beer, as it contained a tiny bit of alcohol, and after that one of the kids in our troop started acting like he was a little drunk. It was pretty funny. Chesuncook Lake House has a webcam that you can see here – this is the view we had while on the grass that day. Chesuncook is a crossroads of sorts, you can head down past Ripogenous gorge ( where they whitewater raft) into the Penobscot River, you can head north to Umbazookus Lake into Mud Pond , carry to Chamberlain and then down the Allagash, or you can head up to Black Pond, into Caucomgomoc Lake and then up stream to Round Pond which is what we did. I remember climbing the firetower overlooking Allagash Lake and picking fresh strawberries to put in the pancakes for breakfast. I paddled way up one of the brooks in the area, dragging over rocks and pulling upstream for a long ways. Suddenly, perched on a rock in the middle of nowhere was an old rusty lamp, probably from the logging days. It was magical almost, as if I was drawn to it somehow.
On the way back down from Round Pond to Chesuncook the wind was behind us, and we lashed the canoes together and raised a large tarp and sailed the 22 miles down the length of Chesuncook. This was one of my first encounters with the region, and the north woods with its adventures and secrets still calls out to me. Those of you who hear it know what I’m talking about.
The region is full of rich history, tales and characters, most notably Hiram Johnson.
The following story was printed in the Bangor Daily News on 12/19/2005, written by Wayne Reilly;
Mainers never cease to be fascinated by hermits. There have been an abundance of them immortalized in local histories or in the minds of older residents in nearly every community in the state. Most of these folks were harmless eccentrics, as was Hiram Johnson until one day in 1959 he shot and killed the logging contractor who had employed him near the bank of Chesuncook Lake, northwest of Mount Katahdin. Then he killed himself after setting his shack on fire.
Howard Collins knew Johnson when he was a boy growing up in Chesuncook Village. He recently discovered what is believed to be the only photograph of the hermit in existence. Johnson is displaying an auger, the device he used to bore holes in the ends of boom logs that were chained together and used to corral floating logs on their way to market. Why this stubborn, solitary man allowed his picture to be taken seems as much a mystery as the rampage that ended his life some years later.
Johnson was 70 years old and reportedly hard of hearing when he killed Leslie E. Spear after the logging contractor tried to enter the “horse hovel” he occupied. Spear was accompanied by two deputy sheriffs and an employee, according to the contemporary report in the Bangor Daily News on Sept. 22, 1959. The dispute, said the newspaper, was over pay, apparently aggravated by a second disagreement about whether Spear could take his logging equipment past Johnson’s squatter’s dwelling, located on land owned by Great Northern Paper Company. Today it is impossible to sort out all the nuances of this emotional dispute.
Howard Collins remembers Johnson well from when his father used to take him fishing near the hermit’s hovel, which was across the lake from Chesuncook Village, behind Gero Island. He lived in a clearing beside the lake in what is called the Cuxabexis region after a stream that flows into Chesuncook from a smaller lake by the same name. Collins recalls a man far different from the crazed “elderly woods recluse” portrayed in the newspapers in 1959.
“Hiram was not a bad guy. Some who didn’t know him just painted him that way because of the murder. All of the so-called ‘old timers’ at Chesuncook Village liked Hiram,” recalled Collins, who worked for Great Northern Paper Company for 32 years and still owns a camp in the area. “He lived in a small cabin at the south end of the village. Shortly after the end of World War II, perhaps 1948 or 1949, he moved to Cuxabexis. … The reason Hiram left the village was he felt it was becoming too crowded for him. … His cabin at the village burned and, needing a place to live, he knew of the horse hovel at Cuxabexis.”
“He was to say the least a very stubborn man,” said Collins, recounting a story about a large pile of scrap iron that Johnson had collected and piled by the side of the lake in the hopes of making some money. He built an enormous raft from 28-foot-long boom logs and piled the tons of iron on the raft. He poled and paddled the craft all the way down the lake, taking a week or more to get to Chesuncook Dam. Someone had called ahead to a junk dealer from Greenville. Johnson rejected the dealer’s offer and laboriously propelled the load back up the lake, unloading it on the shore.
Collins was surprised to run across the photograph of Johnson. It was strange that Hiram would pose for someone to take a picture of him, Collins said. But a viewer can interpret things differently. Perhaps Johnson did not consider the picture to be of him exactly, but of the tool that he was extending in a mittened hand at the end of his rigid right arm toward the camera, as if indicating the photographer should keep his distance. This photographer may have surprised him, saying, “Hiram, let me take a snapshot of that auger you use so well.” Johnson’s first impulse being pride, he posed stiffly, perhaps before he had a chance to think too much about it.
You can see that only photo of Hiram here.
I delved into the story a little further, and found the account from 1959. It appears there are numerous accounts as to what really happened, for instance some stories say it was a shotgun, some say a rifle. Nevertheless, apparently Leslie Spear hired a deputy to fly him out via seaplane to Hiram’s cabin to talk to him about money the old hermit said that Spear owed him. Hiram warned them away from his cabin and then fired a shot at Spear, killing him instantly. The deputy ran back to the plane and radioed Greenville, where more deputies, fire wardens, and woodsmen formed a posse and flew in. A doctor got close enough to Spear’s body to determine he was dead under covering fire, and amidst threats from the hermit. Gunfire was exchanged throughout the morning, and then they lobbed tear gas into the cabin, prompting Hiram to run for another shack 100 yards away to take refuge. The posse waited for nightfall to close in on the shack but in the meantime it caught fire. They found Hiram in the remains of the shack, with a self inflicted gun shot wound.
Hiram was known for his feats of strength , often hiking to Greenville through the woods some 40 miles in distance for supplies. He was said to have hauled 1100 pounds of grain up the ice on the lake “just like a horse”. One of Maine’s many interesting characters.
Dad and I returned to Chesuncook some years later to do some camping and fishing. The summer had been very dry, and the lake was extremely low. You could see on the rocks where the water level usually was way up on shore. We encountered a strange phenomenon while fishing there one day. The Lake was very calm, and we were some distance from shore, when suddenly large waves appeared out of nowhere, almost as if a large boat had gone by and left a wake. We rode out the waves successfully and talked about where they could have possibly come from. Much later, after returning home, we learned that it was a phenomenon called Seiche, which can happen on large lakes when one side of the lake has a different atmospheric pressure than the other. The phenomenon is described well here.
The next day we were on the opposite shore of the lake paddling and trolling for fish. I was absent-mindedly staring at the bottom as it went by, bottom that would usually not be visible except that the lake was so low, when I spied something. I shouted to my dad to look, and he saw it too. We back-paddled and hovered over it trying to figure out what it was. It looked like a gun case. With paddles and fishing poles, we managed to fish it out, and not only was it a gun case, it had a gun in it. A 30.06 rifle. There was a barely visible name on the case that slowly faded from view as I read it. The gun was quite rusty, and had been on the bottom for quite some time. We brought it back to camp with us. Later that evening we heard a motorboat out on the lake, and it was headed in our direction. The man landed at the campsite, and talked with us about how the fishing was, the weather, and the lake level. After some time, he introduced himself, and it was the same name that was on the gun. I was just a kid at the time, and immediately told him that we found a gun with his name on it. He picked up the gun and looked at it, and thanked us for finding it, and said that he had lost it while duck hunting the previous fall. Despite being young, it seemed that the gun had been there longer than that, and I knew that you do not use a rifle to hunt ducks, you use a shotgun. After getting the gun back, he shortly hopped back in the boat and left. Dad and I thought about when we found the gun and realized that we had been within sight distance of a camp on the shore when we picked up the gun, although it was some distance away. I’ll never know the true story behind that gun, dropped into the water at a depth where we wouldn’t have ever seen it, except the water level was low that year. Another North Maine Woods secret that will never be told.
Early in the year 2000 I had an epiphany that changed everything. It took every facet of my life up to that point and combined it into a single focus. It forever changed the way I viewed the world, how I think, and how I react to the physical world. It took the small picture I had been seeing all those years and blew it up to the “big picture”. It allowed me to see sights that I never would have imagined seeing before. It got me in shape, toughened my body, and sharpened my mind with what I learned, and had to figure out. It brought me into the woods of Maine, back to basics, made me free, and instilled a kindred historical spirit in me that I cannot put into words. A friend once told me the reason he enjoyed it so much was instead of waiting for things to happen, he was making things happen and that makes all the difference in the world. Indeed it does. He also said that doing it made every day like Christmas. And you know what’s funny? I used to hate it. When I came across the subject in a magazine or catalog I would immediately turn the page. I thought it was wrong. And you know what else? At one point in your life you’ve probably done it on a small scale. What is it you ask? First, let me back up for a second.
The history of our country is ripe with exploitation and romanticism. From the moment the Europeans hit shore they exploited the Native Americans the land and all of its resources. Our nations wildlife was no exception. We hunted and trapped many animals to the brink of extinction for greed. Over the years since our exploitive days we’ve turned things around. Don’t forget that there are a myriad of other reasons besides hunting and trapping that have hurt our animal populations including pollution and habitat destruction. But we’ve come a long long way towards repairing some or even most of that damage. Unfortunately a lot of what people and the media believe today comes from the stories from our exploitive past, and I think at least some of it has to do with our culture today being far removed from our food and clothing sources, instead we let other people do the dirty work for us. I’m sure at some point in your life you have heard of the success stories of wildlife re-introduction to habitat where they once thrived, but because of habitat destruction, pollution, and exploitation no longer lived there. One of the best reintroduction stories are the river otter in Ohio, a detailed description of which you can find here.
So let me ask you this – How do you think they caught them for reintroduction? (hint: the linked research article above describes how)
To answer the question above, in a seemingly ironic twist animals intended for reintroduction are caught in foothold traps. The most misaligned and misunderstood wildlife management tool.
And to answer the first question above, in 2000 I started on my journey as a trapper.
It evolved very slowly. As a kid I would plead with my Dad to let the fish go we had just caught instead of taking them home. I once swam out to a float to rescue a grasshopper that I thought would die if I didn’t. But over time as I matured I realized that things, including us, die. And that each day, for us to survive something has expired for us to do so. Whether you do that deed yourself, or whether you have someone else do it for you, something expired. Being self-sufficient and independent , by the time I got to college I tried hunting, and over the years I got better at it. I liked being outside, exploring, and occasionally getting my own food. Then, one day while deer hunting in 1999 I sat down for a break on a big beaver dam. It was a beautiful fall day..the kind where the leaves are aglow, some floating on the brownish water of the beaver pond, the sun was warm, and the air had a hint of cool to it. I sat there lost in thought, and then I started looking at the beaver house, the dam, and the runways on the bottom they had created. And I started thinking to myself, you know, one of these days you might want to try trapping. Here on the coast of Maine they had just come up with stringent new rules making it almost impossible to get into the lobster industry, and at the time I was upset that I didn’t have the foresight to buy a license when I could have. I had a recreation license to trap lobsters for a while, and I enjoyed it, but the new rules would have made it very difficult for me to get a commercial one. I thought what if they do that with trapping and someday I want to go and I can’t? I thought about it, and decided to look into it when I got home. I grabbed a law book from the town hall and pored it over, and then bought some books on the subject, and I began to get excited about it. The state makes you take an education class to get a license application and I went to one over the winter, and got my license. Now that I had it, I might as well try to go and see if I could catch anything. I bought a couple of traps, and decided to see if I could catch one of the beavers at the dam I had been sitting on the year before, using the knowledge I had read about in books. I eagerly checked them for a couple of weeks, with no catch at all. Turns out trapping is a lot harder to do then I thought. I do think when it comes to trapping, people for some reason think it’s easy. It’s not. You have to be intimately familiar with everything there is to know about the creature you are after. Where it lives, how it travels, why and when it travels, how it thinks, and a whole host of other criteria. It’s hard to do. But now I can tell you when a stream looks “minky”, or when a beaver house is active, or notice the signs that point to a bachelor beaver den upstream. And believe it or not, most sets that trappers set are blind sets – that is to say they are not baited with anything. You have to know a lot to get a creature in the vast forests and streams, to know where they are going to step on less than a square inch spot. So, the first time I went after beaver I caught nothing. The first time I tried to catch a fox he dug the trap up and pooed on it. But I was undaunted and challenged. This was going to be hard, but I was going to learn how. I attended the Trappers weekend that the MTA put on the next fall, and attended all the demos. That fall, everything came together. My love for being outside, canoeing, backpacking,exploring, and learning were all focused. I went hard-core, and old school. Snowshoeing miles in to backcountry beaver flowages, backpacking 60+ pound beavers back out, and cutting ice with a chisel that I packed in. It was unbelievable. For several years when it was clear I saw the sun rise each morning. I learned to skin, flesh and stretch fur. I learned as much as I could about each creatures habits, and how they thought. When I look at a map these days, I instinctively pick out otter routes (an otter typically has a 20-80 mile circuit they run) , and look for crossover trails in the woods. I can’t drive by a pond without scanning it for beaver houses. I saw huge bobcats. One night miles from anywhere,standing in the frigid and still January air, I watched a small plume of steam rising up from a beaver house silhouetted by the moon. I met some incredible, down to earth, and trusting people. I had a “ghost” cat following me one year and visiting all my sets. I felt such a connection with history it’s hard to describe. Trapping is akin to a chess game, except who you are playing against has more pieces than you do. You are on their turf and in their “home”, and just like you would know if someone had been in your house, they know that someone has been in theirs. There is truth behind the cliche “outfox a fox”, and on the days when that happened it was great. I enjoyed the peace of the woods and the freedom. After a day in the woods things smell better, taste better, and there are always the wonderful and rich stories that come with the adventure, like falling through the ice on a wind chill advisory day. I had so many rich adventures that first year, that I wrote a story about them. “Tales of a First Year Trapline” appeared in the Jan/Feb edition of Trapper’s World magazine.
There is a little bit of trapper in each of us. As a nuisance trapper I had interesting clients including a Park Ranger. He came out to watch the sets be made, and was always ready and waiting when I showed up to check them. His wife said it was the highlight of his winter to check sets with me. If my stories have piqued your interest at all I linked two books below, they are both valuable resources that can get you started, along with your states Association.
It was barely light on the hill overlooking brown brook when our moose call reverberated down into the valley. It wasn’t long before a small bull slowly materialized in the distance down by the brook and slowly walked towards where we were sitting. He stopped and looked up in our direction before turning and running back into the thick brush, shortly we found out why…
Maine has a healthy and large moose population and is a very popular animal both for viewing by locals and tourist alike, and for hunting during the fall. For a lot of people it is a must see animal while on vacation, and with a little work, it’s fairly easy to accomplish. It is always exciting to see one, especially when canoeing. Although usually docile animals in the spring and summer females may be aggressive towards people as generally they have a baby nearby, they also often have twins. As a young boy scout canoeing down the west branch of the Penobscot River with my troop, we were all excited to see a moose standing in the river feeding and we drifted slowly by her taking pictures and gawking when suddenly her ears went back and she false charged the canoes. We had failed to see the twin babies on the bank, and we had made the mistake of getting between her and them. One lesson I have learned in the woods is this; if you are in proximity of a wild creature and it knows you are there, and it is looking towards something else as it’s primary interest instead of in your direction make sure you try to identify what it is looking at. If it’s a female and you are hunting, chances are there is a buck there in the bushes, in the springtime it’s the baby. Always take the time to notice everything in your surroundings and to feel and be open, it is never a good idea to focus.
There are a series of pictures related to this one of calf and baby, picture taken in Baxter State Park near Trout Brook. Canoeing into this inlet the mother was chest deep in water feeding. As I approached she kept looking to her left toward the tree and thicket in the extreme right of the picture. Eventually as I was clicking pictures, she began moving toward the thicket, loudly grunting with each step and when she got to the bank, the baby came out of that thicket and here they are seen smelling each other in greeting.
Males on the other hand can become aggressive in September and October during the mating season when they are in rut. They often spar with and destroy small trees as the rut approaches. Some fun statistics of moose are; male moose can weigh up to 1200-1500 pounds and stand 6-7 feet at the shoulders.
Moose can be fairly easy to call, one day while driving I came upon a yearling standing on the left side of the road, and my passenger called it across the road simply by calling out the passenger window away from the moose. Moose can hear and smell well, but they can’t see very well, and it’s also easy to take a couple of large sticks with branches attached and hold them over your head like antlers, swaying them back and forth while calling. I’ve called them in with some success in Baxter for people from out of state that were watching from a distance. Each time you see a moose, it’s always fun to try calling one, try different things and gauge their response. It’s easier to hear rather than write about what a moose call sounds like, I surprisingly had a tough time finding a decent video of what you can expect when calling a moose – but these two are pretty good;
I especially enjoy the posturing of the bull in the second video.
I was out grouse hunting early one quiet morning and got to witness moose mating one fall. I kept hearing a loud splashing sound, and then thrashing on the ground some distance away. I stopped and listened trying to figure out what it was, and began walking in that direction. I then began to hear the characteristic moose grunt and immediately knew what was happening. I snuck in until I could see them, and got to watch them for a while.
Maine reinstated moose hunting in 1980, and the program has been going strong since. There are a large number of applicants, for a small number of permits the bulk of which are reserved for Mainers, so it is hard to get picked. The number of permits changes each year depending on a lot of factors, especially the health and number of the herd. For 2010 there were 3188 permits given out and 2393 moose harvested. Moose, if you’ve never tried it is delicious and oftentimes you can’t tell the difference between it and beef, especially when it has been canned. You can get a large amount of meat off of a moose, but it is a lot of hard work, which is why you are required to have a sub-permittee with you. I put in off and on for a lot of years, and finally got picked in 2006. The state now has the application divided up in several ways, you can hierarchy the different wildlife management district zones you want to hunt in, or say that if picked there is only one particular zone you want to hunt in. The more zones you choose, the more likely you are to get picked, for if one zone is full, the state can put you in another on your list. You can also choose if you want bull or cow only or either one (in which case the state will choose for you). The northern half of the state is more popular with more permits issued because there are more moose up there. I figured if I ever got picked to go moose hunting, I wanted it to be a “real” hunt. For me that meant northern Maine, and a bull only. Preferably a really big bull. It also meant a traditional hunt out of a canoe. So, on the permit I put in for only zones 1,2, and 3 as those zones encompassed the extreme northern portion of the state. When my number got picked, it got picked for zone 1, which is the northwestern portion of the state and the most remote and rugged part. I was excited. As my hunting partner Peter put it, this was going to be a “big boy trip”. Here is the description of zone one from the state of Maine Department of Inland fisheries and wildlife:
WMD 1 features very remote commercial forestland and access through logging roads and navigable rivers and streams. Access to the area through North Maine Woods check points in Allagash Plantation, Telos, Six-Mile (west of Ashland), Fish River (west of Portage), and along the Maine/Quebec border at Daaquam, St. Pamphile, and Escourt controlled by U.S. Customs. Some access points have restricted hours. Some developed campsites are available, and camping is permitted in certain areas with a Maine Forest Service fire permit. There are no facilities so hunters must bring all equipment and supplies needed.
Everything you need to know about applying for a moose permit in Maine can be found here.
We had 4 months to plan the once in a lifetime adventure, and went camping in the area in September to do a little pre-season scouting and calling practice, and some canoeing on the Allagash River. Surprisingly we saw very few moose, and we were wondering if that was a good sign or a bad sign.
When the season came in October we rented a cabin in Allagash, and although we did not use a guide for this hunt (we wanted to do it ourselves) the cabin was part of a guide service, and he asked us what our hunting plan was.
When we told him that we planned to paddle up the Little Black River and try to call one in off of the bogs up there he immediately said it would be impossible, because the water level was too low, and there was no way we would be able to make it up where we wanted to go. Disappointed, we had to change gears. We looked at the map that night and made a rough plan about where to go the next day. We were up early and in the woods as the sun was coming up, trying out the call on a ridge over a small waterway. We hunted and drove all day that day, and while we saw some recent sign, we didn’t see any moose. We quit at dusk, and went back to the camp to make a plan for the next day. We looked at topography, streams, bogs and for some place remote. The moose season is split up into two one week seasons, and we had drawn the second week. That meant that moose out there had been hearing gunfire and were more skiddish than they would have been the first week. So we wanted to be where nobody else had been. We settled on a boggy area called Brown Brook with a rise in topography on either side. We figured our call would travel down into the lowland of the bog and hopefully bring a bull in off of it. After the bull we did call in there turned tail and ran, I thought for sure we were doing something wrong. We backed off from our stand, up to the top of the ridge and down the road a ways to find a giant bull moose standing there. That’s why the little bull had run, he knew that this monster was coming in to the call from our backside. We harvested him, and after the congrats and a quick couple of pictures, the work began. And hard work it is. After field dressing him we tried to get him into the back of the truck with a come-a-long attached to the head-ache rack on the truck. After several attempts the frame on the rack had actually bent, and the day was beginning to get warm. We had to worry about the meat not cooling, so we decided we had to quarter him to get him in the truck. Long story short, it took five hours to get him packed up and ready to make the long drive back to camp to get some ice on him. That afternoon after everything was all set we went partridge hunting in the area we were in the day before and almost immediately saw another good size moose, and down near one of the big lakes we saw a huge bear in the woods. It was a great trip. Whether you live off the grid or not, if you are a hunter at all you should put in for your permit. The information linked in this post should be enough to get you started. You can expect to get 50-55% of live weight in meat. Our bull’s antler spread was 57 inches, and weight was approximately 1000 pounds. A lot of work, a freezer full of meat, and an adventure of a lifetime.
The Allagash River. What image comes into your mind when you read those words? A riverman standing on the spring log drive to the mill? A fir tipped horizon on a calm lake at sunset? Class III whitewater? Or how about an American Indian watching you silently from the bank? A large trout bending your fly pole? Allagash itself seems a harsh word, invoking images of jagged dark rocks and dense seemingly impenetrable forests. At one point in history any one of those images would be true. The Allagash cuts a 100 mile ribbon from Chamberlain Lake to its confluence with the St. John. American Indians used the Allagash extensively as a travel route and Above the Gravel Bar: The Native canoe routes of Maine is a very interesting book, and well worth the read if you live in Maine or not. The book (linked at bottom of post) describes how and why the waterways are named the way they are, and the different routes Native Americans used.
Standing at the official put-in for the trip on the Chamberlain Lake thoroughfare is seemingly like standing at an old fork in the road. Heading to the right takes you into Telos pond, portage around Telos dam, down Webster cut (famously described by Thoreau), into Webster Lake and down Webster stream into Grand Lake Matagamon. There are gorgeous views of the mountains in Baxter Park, which is on your right going down Webster Stream. Webster Stream is wild and narrow, and should only be attempted by very accomplished paddlers. Baxter State Park maintains the campsites on Grand Lake Matagamon as well. At the end of the lake is the East Branch of the Penobscot river, which after wonderful views and lots of portages, dumps you into the Penobscot itself. Taking the left way though leads you to Chamberlain Lake, and into the heart of the Allagash river.
Chamberlain lake is both beautiful, and slightly forbidding because of its sheer size. The day I set forth on Chamberlain it was windy and rainy, and the lake was like a kettle of boiling water with waves reaching up to the gunnels of the canoe. Hindsight being 20/20 I probably should have stayed at the campsite at the end of the thoroughfare and gotten an early start the next morning, but I was anxious to get started. The weather was unforgiving and began to get worse as sheets of rain blew down the lake and into my face. A good portion of the shore is rocky, and prevents an easy canoe landing. Finally I found a spot to stop and take a rest, huddled under a thicket of cedar. As the afternoon wore on, it began to clear, and by late afternoon the wind had calmed down, eventually turning to glass as I paddled along and landed at Lost Spring campsite for the night. After dinner I went down to the shore and caught trout after trout on the flypole, right from the bank. One of the things I find fascinating about camping , especially in Maine, is that as the night darkens and you are sitting by a campfire, lost in your thoughts, it is a timeless moment. With the loons beginning their calls, it could be any moment in history. If you want to travel through time, go camping in the remote Maine wilderness. It’s been wild and free forever. That first night on Chamberlain had that feeling.
Most guidebooks tell you to go across the lake at Ellis Brook to Lock Dam to continue into Eagle Lake. I disagree for a couple of reasons, first being that you will miss some of the tramway. The tramway was a railway that took the logs to the mill, and was a vast improvement over booming them down the lake to the Penobscot river. At most of the campsites on the west side of Chamberlain a short walk leads you to the old railbed, which is now grown up, but still visible. Stand there and imagine the roaring of the steam engine as it passed laden with its load of logs. I wish I could have gone for a ride on one. As you go up the lake it’s a short jaunt up into the start of Allagash Stream to see the old trestle. The right side has fallen into the water, with the rails from the left decending into the depths. It’s a shorter distance now to the east side of the lake, where you will find a portage trail that is about a mile. This is the other thing you would miss if you went via lock dam. Prior to the tramway, there was a steam (donkey engine) conveyor that hauled all the logs from Eagle across to Chamberlain to be boomed up for the journey down the lake. Everything is still there in various stages of decay. A short walk into the woods reveals more, and how nature will always grow back. If memory serves it took the better part of three hours to accomplish the portage, with a special treat at the end. The locomotives that ran on the tramway are still there in the woods in all their glory. They have been somewhat restored (over time one of them had fallen over) by a local group. To get the locomotives there, they were hauled across the thick ice during the winter. Imagine…each one of them weighs 90 tons, looking at a chart of what weights ice can support, it would require 60 inches of ice. The thickest I’ve ever seen was 38 inches. It is magnificent to view, and worth spending some time poking about the area, which is a good place for lunch. These are accessible by taking the Lock dam route as well, but it’s a bit of a paddle.
Eagle Lake has an interesting story surrounding it. In 1976 4 men claimed to have been abducted by a UFO and subject to testing by aliens. A good story to relate around the campfire at night. Check out the story here .
When I left the trains to paddle across Eagle Lake, I was taught a valuable lesson about paddling big lakes. Eagle was glass when I started out, without even a ripple on its surface, or a cloud in the sky, headed for Farm Island. Suddenly and without warning, as the shore I was headed to was in view, and the shore I was coming from a good distance behind the wind came up with a vengeance. If you know anything about boating, you want your bow into the wind and into the waves. With this wind that came up it was behind me, and so I had what is called a following sea. The waves grew in size, enough so they would break over the stern and get my back wet. I was in a predicament for sure, and I was becoming more worried by the minute. The trouble with a following sea is that the waves are rolling with you, which makes it a lot easier to get swamped. I pictured the canoe swamped with water, with my gear in disarray around me, as I paddled along, quartering to the waves before each one came through. As I described it after, I swore my way across Eagle Lake. After what seemed like hours, it looked like I would make Farm Island, and it was with relief that I stepped onto its shore for the night. Preparing to be windblown (too windy to paddle) is a must for your itinerary on this trip. The wind slowed at sunset, but did not stop through the night, and I had one more big lake to make before I got onto the river, so at three am under the moon I got up, packed, and with a last look at the Katahdin range, set out to put Eagle Lake to my stern. The wind typically picks up during the day, so I knew this was the prime time to make some distance before it got too windy to go anymore, and I didn’t stop. There is nothing like watching the sun come up from a canoe. By noontime I had made it to the end of Churchill Lake safely and stopped for the night. After setting up camp I wandered down to the sandy shore, went for a swim, and spent the afternoon napping with my feet in the cool water, watching the puffy clouds, and relaxing. All of the campsites are maintained by the Allagash Wilderness Waterway (AWW) and are great places.
The magic thing about any remote camping trip, starts on the third day. For the first couple of days you are “settling in” and still have some of the vestiges clinging to you of the life you are leaving behind. Typically on day three I become free. I deliberately usually don’t bring a watch, or a way to keep time, one of our biggest enslavements as a society. You get to find what cycle of time fits your body the best. When you wake up, eat, sleep all of that doesn’t matter anymore. It’s out the window. And it all starts on day three. I did bring a watch on a long canoe trip once, and discovered how my rhythm compares to our society’s time. I’m usually up and packed around 4 am, watching the sunrise from shore, or while paddling. Lunch on a pretty spot on the river is right around 10. Depending on if I find a spot where I just have to stay there because it’s so nice, or depending on how far I want to go that day I usually have camp set up by 1pm, afternoon snack and a nap, followed by swimming, fishing, or exploring. Dinner around 6, and a paddle, fish, sunset watch. A drink by the fire lost in thought and then bed around 10 or 10:30. That’s who I am when I’m free, and without the constraints of time. Try it – find your rhythm and see who you are when you don’t “have” to do anything but what you want.
After dinner I walked down to Churchill Dam to scout for the next morning, for I would be officially on the river in the morning, and running Chase rapids. One of the great things about the Allagash is there is a ranger at Churchill who for a modest fee (when I was there it was $10.00) to portage all of your gear 10 miles downstream where the river opens up into Umsaskis Lake, and is well worth the price. Chase rapids is rated a strong class II or mild Class III rapid depending on water level. I don’t remember it being all that difficult to get through, most of the time it’s basically just dodging rocks, and exciting. A group of Boy Scouts behind me overturned and broke a thwart. I gave them some duct tape (a must have item to repair a canoe on a trip) so they could get it fixed. One fascinating and exciting thing for me about running rapids is the decision making – you make a calculated best decision with your knowledge, and you instantly know if you were right or not. Where else do you have that instant gratification? In life you always wonder if you are making the right decision, here on the river if you are right, you stay afloat. If you are wrong, you get wet. It’s basic and simple principles, and I like that. After what seems like a long time, around one of the bends is your gear on the bank where the ranger put it. There is still moderate current that brings you into Umsaskis. On the right as you approach the lake is a campsite called Chisholm Brook. I didn’t stay there, but the next time I run the river I am, what a beautiful campsite tucked away in the tall spruce and fir trees…absolutely beautiful. After a short narrow spot you come to Long Lake, where I stayed at Grey Brook campsite.
After a short piece of river, you come to Harvey Pond and then Long Lake dam, which I portaged. It is possible to run it, although supposedly there are spikes still sticking up that can damage your canoe should you hit one, so I played it safe. Of course, if I was thinking, there is a campsite there where it would be easy to stay since you have all of your gear out anyway. After the dam is a good stretch of river that brings you to Round Pond, the river divides up into threads before emptying in to the pond, and the water is quick. I think all of the separate channels are runnable, I picked the river right channel and made it safely. I stayed at outlet campsite on the end of the pond, before it becomes river again. A passing ranger told me about a must see firetower that was a short walk on the other side of the pond. Her definition of a short walk and mine I believe are quite different. After I finally got to the tower it looked (to me) too rickety to climb. I did climb halfway up and took a look around, and it was a pretty good view. Halfway down the trail I got caught in a thunderstorm that I had to wait out before heading back to camp.
Sitting around the fire that night, a giant frog suddenly appeared just within the firelight. I had never seen, nor have I seen since, a bigger frog. We both sat there looking at each other for a few minutes, when I hatched an idea. I had nightcrawlers for fishing with me, and I slowly reached in the cooler and got one out, and placed it in front of the frog. The frog sat there for a few minutes, and just when I began to think he wasn’t interested, with lightning fast speed he grabbed the worm with both of his front legs and stuffed it in his mouth, pushing it in. It seems it took a millisecond to happen, and then he went back to just sitting there with a blank look on his face. I fetched him another, and then two more. The fifth one he ignored, and then as quick as he was there, he was gone, probably thinking about how lucky he was.
The next morning started uneventfully, but just after getting settled into a good paddling stroke I came around the corner to find a big moose in the middle of the river. The river was narrow here, and I hesitated, trying to decide what to do, and what he was going to do. There didn’t seem to be enough comfortable room on either side of him for me to get by, so I backpaddled and waited. He stood at looked at me for a bit, and then ate a little and then stood some more. Some time passed and I was beginning to think I should make a go of it, when something in the woods caught his interest, and he stared intently at the opposite bank. Shortly another moose appeared on the bank, and they looked at each other for a while. Then, the moose on the bank turned and ran into the woods. The one in the river started chase, running across the river on the side I had thought about getting by him on, making an incredible bow wave in front of him. Lots of excitement that morning. Just past Round Pond on the right is the tornado path. I remember you have to turn around to see it, and I’m not sure what year it happened, but its on the side of a hill and you’ll know it because in the midst of all the conifers is a narrow swath of birch and maple trees. There are occasional rapids and a beautiful stretch of river through here, I pushed hard and made it to Ramsay Ledges just before a fast moving thunderstorm. Exploring that evening I came to a beaver dam and fished it for a bit, and had the pleasure of watching a couple of beavers come over the dam and swim right under the boat. It was a warm July night, and after dinner I waded out into the shallow water and laid down in it, letting the current of the Allagash pass over me for a while. During the night I was awakened to a loud splashing in the river, I stuck my head out of the tent, and shined the headlamp out onto the river to see a big moose staring at me. She raised her ears just like a horse does, and stared at me for a few moments before proceeding upstream, now oblivious to my presence.
Upriver from Ramsay Ledges is a campsite called Cunliffe Depot. Stop in here to see a derelict Lombard steam log hauler, invented in the early 1900′s. It was essentially a steam locomotive with skis on the front to steer, and caterpillar tracks on the back. Truly a leviathan of the woods.
Downriver a ways is Michaud Farm, and past that you will begin to here the roar of Allagash Falls, an unrunnable falls that you portage on the right. Start staying to the right when you hear the falls, and you will see the trail. It’s worth spending some time at the falls for it’s beauty.
Between the Falls, and the end of your journey there are some interesting places. The AWW gives you a free map at the beginning of your journey, with the campsites and rapids listed on it. Look for a site called Ghost Landing bar. During the 1800′s a large pine tree fell on and killed the man that was cutting it. The log was found to have a hollow heart when taken taken to the water in preparation to be floated to the mill and was left on the bank. Since then, some folks passing down the river have reported seeing a ghost of the logger standing next to the log crying out to them to put the log in the river so his soul could rest.
Also watch for McGargle Rocks ( I wasn’t quite sure where they were) which are not a problem for canoeists, but were a big problem for loggers. The area is named for a river driver that was killed trying to loosen a log jam.
After Allagash Falls, I stayed at Twin Brook for the night, and prepared to get back to civilization the next day. It got really cold that night, down into the mid 40′s. The next day brought twin brook rapids, Eliza hole rapids, and finally Casey rapids, none of which are bad, before coming around the corner to see the road at Allagash, and bringing the trip to an end.
So there you have it -you have tested your mettle, and found out what you are made of. You have found yourself and lived as we should live. You have disappeared off the map for several days without news, phones, or other distractions other than making the trip. Congratulations.
Here’s a short video of the trip down the river I took in 1997;
And a video of the history of the river;
Some interesting books: