Allagash Wilderness Waterway – Day 2 of 8

Right now Mike and I are wind bound at Pillsbury Island on Eagle Lake and it is only 10 AM.  We’re not going anywhere from here today.  The wind is up to a steady 30 MPH out of the Northwest and that is where we were hoping to go.  [ Ed. Note- checking the Bangor Daily News for this date upon return home saw the following headline:  “High Winds cause outages in several counties” ].
We had started paddling at 8:30 AM  on a small stream leaving the dam that connected to Martin Cove on Eagle Lake.  It required us to do a short portange, and put in at a churning pool, where a 3 foot metal culvert was dumping a huge torrent of water from Chamberlain Lake into the stream.  The 1 mile channel posed immediate whitewater challenges for us.  First, we got hung up on a rock at the bottom of a rapid. As we dislodged from the rock we spun around, lost control of the canoe and nearly tipped it over with all our gear in it. We both had to jump out of the canoe and manhandle it in thingh deep water, all of this in our first 5 minutes of paddling.  Then we had to deal with the water rushing through a breach in a beaver dam that had several large rocks smack below the middle of the spout.  We decided to stay wet, play it safe and lined the canoe through the iffy section.  My LLBean boots filled with water, and it wasn’t icey cold, just regular wet cold.  More twists and turns and we were into Martin Cove and began experiencing the difficulty of navigating from the low position in a canoe. You just can’t easily see the watercourse.
Mike and I planned to keep to the west side here as well, but encountered  a number of coves, islands, mini-islands, and land points that challenge our perception, even with me consulting my ancient Garmin GPS II for guidance.  After minimal backtracking, we verified out exact location, but at the same time verifird that the wind was building as the sun increased its angle in the sky.  At times we were not even able to move in any semblance of a straight line in point to point travel. on the west shore.  It was now impossible to move sideways in the cove, as the waves were now high enough that they would have broadsided the canoe and spilled water inside.  Our arms were really working as we iunched our way along the shore, with all focus on heading straight into the waves.  Soon, we recognized Pillsbury island on our right, a place where HD Thoreau sat out a severe thunderstorm in his  northernmost advance on his 1857 journey, turning back to Chamberlain Lake.
From the moment we exited Martin Cove, and turned northwest, we continued to battle severe headwinds. My GPS told me we were making 1 MPH along the shore at this point, digging deep with the paddles. Soon a high powered Boston Whaler left Pillsbury Island and approached. It was the Ranger checking on us. He asked us how e were holding up and advised us to reconsider our advancement, even if we could make it to a point just ahead.  He told it it was blowing even harder there, as the waves were accumulating additional force after traveling some 9 miles down the open lake.
“ Be careful, check it out. It all depends on how hard you guys want to work today.  There is just one tent site left at Thoreau campsite, and you have to decide at the point  if you want to turn back.  Right now, you can still probably turn around and ride the waves it.”
Mike and I rested our canoe against the shore and had a pow -wow.  Even so, we were reluctant to end our day for several reasons: First, it was not even 10 AM.  Second,  the day was supposed to reach the 80’s which meant the black flies would be fierce on land right and would be biting and drawing our blood all day long, or keep us both in the little tent. At least in the wind, they were history.  Third, there were already whitecaps between us and Pillsbury Island, and for at least part of the return, we, have to turn the canoe across the waves and chance taking on water. Things were looking grim. We advanced to the point to see what it was like up there, and immediately saw that as bad as it had been so far, it was doubly challenging with even more wind after crossing the point. We tried moving forward, now needing to angle the canoe sideways a bit to reconcile our travel angle with the way the waves. I realized that my right shoulder would be ground to a pulp, and my hands would form permanent claws if we had to work this hard for hours to reach the next campsite, and we both knew that there was no quesiton.  We had to turn back.  The very quick ride to the island  was really scary.  Granted, we were rolling with  the wind at our backs, but some of the crests of the waves were now three feet high. We were fast approaching a situation where if we faltered  in the troughs and didn’t get far enough up the face of the backside of the wave that just passed us before the next oncoming wave crested, we’d take on water.  Our canoe was sort of caroming object , plus we were mentally compensating for the sideways movement of the canoe in the water.  We were actually aiming a considerable distance upshore of the campsite.  I was basically in the stern, using my paddle deep in the water as a rudder, and Mike was hanging on, making minor corrections himself.
However it happend I don’t know , but it was right  here, at this moment that my mind recalled a bit of reading that I was doing just before the trip.  Out of Cody Lundin’s “ 98.6: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive, or How to Survive Fear, Panic, and the Biggest Outdoor Killers“” returned the following concept:  rational insanity.  Lundin advises to detach and retain some level of rational thought in survival episodes. I found myself shouting to Mike, “Party On!”  right in the middle of this crossing  of the turbulent waters.  Lundin characterizes those words as forming the most optimistic phrase in the world, and the phrase is to be used when you need a boost of courage or focus.  I may not go so far as tattooing the statement on my forehead, backwards, so that I can read it in the mirror as a reminder, but the infusion of positive energy from  shouting a positive orientation into me being  did much to help me quell my fear and maintain the skills necessary to bring the canoe into the campsite without destroying it on the rocks, or ramming the two canoes that were partially exposed in the take-out ahead.
After beaching the canoe, Mike and I hugged and I drained my boots of water, and put on dry clothes.  I fired up the Uncle Tom wood stove and perked up two big cups of Rock City Dark Star coffee.  Adjacent to us was a huge multi-person encampment with three cabin sized tents, numerous outboard motors, gas cans, a bloody fish cleaning site, a shower stall , and smoky fire.  It actually looked like they had been encamped there for a month, but it had been just 4 days.

Here is a YouTube video clip taken from the Thoreau campsite: 
The wind dried out my wet clothes in just two hours, and was still going strong at 2 PM.  Mike was keeping us occupied with readings from Gil Gilpatrick’s “The Canoe Guides Handbook”, a book I should have studied before the trip!  Mike assured me that so far, we were doing all the right things, including sitting out a day to wait for the wind to stop, specifically on the shoreline of Eagle Lake.
A woman from the next site told us she had been camping on this site for many years, but that this wind was exceptional. She assured us that her and her friends had worked their way up to using the biggest boat and motor allowed on the AWW, a deep 21 footer with a 10 horsepower outboard.  The ranger had told her today was also a “Red Flag Day”, meaning no fires,  as an errant spark could immolate the whole island in no time.
At 4 PM the wind was still blowing like stink.
It was at this point that I had a turnaround in my attitude.  What on the surface seems like a block in our path and a screw up of our intentions for the day is not that at all.  It is a vehicle for laying in the sun, for reading interesting ideas, for napping, for dreaming of one’s own place in the universe, and except for the very minor inconvenience of an ant on one’s arm or a insect flying near one’s face, is now an altogether stunning few hours of beautiful warming May sunshine, spent on a piece of land surrounded by shimmering light refracing off these deep,  deep waters.

6 thoughts on “Allagash Wilderness Waterway – Day 2 of 8

  1. Kristi & Dave

    Tom, we’ve enjoyed the first two exciting days. Hope your shoulder is getting used to the idea. Thanks for letting us come along vicariously. Kristi


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