Maine has many of the best canoe tripping rivers in the northeastern United States. The Allagash, St. John, Moose, St. Croix and East and West Branches of the Penobscot are probably the most famous. However, there are others worth considering.
Canoe tripping was my introduction to paddle sports. I began with large northern Maine lakes in the 1970s and quickly progressed to rivers. My favorite trip is the Machias River in Washington County. Since 1978, I’ve completed about thirty Machias voyages sharing them with scores of boating friends.
Perhaps the best kept river tripping secret in Maine, the Machias River flows for about eighty miles from Fifth Machias Lake to the coast in Machias. In between, it offers virtually everything that a dedicated river enthusiast could want; beautiful pristine lakes, dozens of rapids that range up to Class IV in difficulty and a waterfall. There are several access points that facilitate shorter trips and numerous outstanding campsites. Depending upon paddling abilities and water levels, some portages may be necessary. Virtually everyone carries around impressive hazardous Holmes Falls.
My basic criteria for a spring canoe trip is twofold; high water and no blackflies. That generally means late April or early May on the Machias and a little later for the more northern rivers. Spring canoe tripping isn’t for the faint of heart and doesn’t come easy. Temperatures are usually cool and the water icy cold. Friends and I have endured snowstorms on the Machias and St. John. Even in the best weather, paddlers can expect frozen hands, cold wet feet and chilly sometimes frigid nights.
The cold has one significant advantage, blackflies hate it. For me, nothing is more unwelcome on a canoe trip than those nasty little blood suckers crawling in what little hair I have left, flying into my eyes or hitchhiking a ride on a spoonful of chili. While I understand their importance in the food chain, I prefer to be the missing link. Carefully planning to avoid the offensive insects usually works, however I always pack a head net and the usual assortment of ineffective bug stuff.
If blackflies can be avoided, the next most important ingredient to enjoyable spring paddling is wearing the right clothing. In 1978, I wore old running shoes, jeans, and a wool top and was almost hypothermic. Now, I dress in a dry suit with several layers of warm clothing underneath and thick neoprene footgear. Heavy duty paddling mitts and a hooded shell to protect from rain or snow are prerequisites. It’s amazing how much being warm and dry enhances the quality of a canoe trip.
Canoe tripping, particularly in the spring, is quite demanding. Navigating a boat full of gear down challenging rapids requires strength, stamina, skill and determination. Perhaps that’s why I’m finding it more difficult to recruit expedition companions among my aging friends.
Again this year, I attempted to organize a Machias River trip. Unfortunately, the river gods didn’t cooperate. The first effort fell through due to illness, unplanned dental surgery and exceptionally high water. It seems old people are always between doctor and dental appointments. A last minute vehicle problem resulted in a second failure. Later trips almost guaranteed blackfly attendance so I scrapped the Machias idea.
Almost simultaneously, a longtime canoe tripping friend contacted me with an Allagash proposal. Alas, late winter snowstorms had rendered the roads impassable. We almost reserved a flight into Umsaskis Lake on the waterway when we were informed that flood level water and ice jams had made the river unsafe. Park Rangers had closed the lower portion. Three strikes and you’re out may not be the case this time. While discussing possible river options with Norm L’Italien at Pelletier Campground in St. Francis, I inquired about a trip on the most northern of Maine rivers; the St. Francis. While cautioning me about past border crossing problems during the shuttle, he thought it could be arranged.
The Appalachian Mountain Club Maine River Guide indicates that it’s a 56 mile Class I, II and III trip with two significant lake traverses. The description has an implicit weakness it hasn’t been updated since at least 1976. Ready to go, I needed a victim — I mean companion.
The river gods have granted a reprieve. Recently retired outdoor buddy Brent Elwell is also intrigued with the prospect of exploring a new river. We only know of one team of paddlers who have completed the journey and information is sketchy. The elements of a most interesting escapade appear to be present.
We’ve packed our bags, arranged the shuttle and the water is high. I hope to report on our exploits in my next column. If we can avoid blackflies and border disputes, I’m optimistic.