For more than 100 years, “the Allagash” has been praised and enjoyed as a spectacular outdoor paradise. Even Henry David Thoreau enjoyed its beauty. The Allagash Wilderness Waterway ( AWW) was established by the Maine Legislature in 1966 to preserve, protect, and enhance the natural beauty, character, and habitat of a unique area. It is a magnificent, 92 mile long ribbon of lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams winding through the heart of northern Maine’s vast commercial forests. Protection of the waterway was further enhanced in 1970 when it was named the first state-administered component of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. There are no permanent human residents on the corridor.
Signing on with a guiding service to do this 7-10 day trip would cost close to $1,000 per person. Doing the trip ourselves allowed me to save about $700 of that price. It helps to know how to do things on your own, but this trip has its own unique sets of challenges.
Last fall, I received a call from Mike Gundel, who had just retired from 19 years as Principal of Rockland (Maine) District high School. Mike asked me if I would be in the bow of his canoe for this trip. Mike and I had not camped together since somewhere around 1996, when we belayed each other on a high ropes course on Hurricane Island, where we were taking an Outward Bound Team building course. I had always wanted to do this trip, had begged many acquaintances to join them if they went again, and jumped at the chance to do the trip with Mike.
Mike picked me up early mid-week. We left my house at 5:10 AM, arriving at the Irving gas station/ convenience store in Medway, off I-95 at 7:10, a record time. Then a 17 mile drive to Millinocket, and onto the private Golden Road where we eventually turned north and hit an even rougher gravel road that brought us up through a checkpoint where we paid $71 in entrance and camping fees and arrived at out put-in at Chamberlain Bridge. No one greeted us, as the ranger was away, and the three men we did see in the parking lot were repairing a hole in a powerboat that had encountered a very hard object in the lake, likely a sharp boulder. It was 45 degrees out when we exited our car, and the wind was already starting to blow. Spring was still way behind here, with many trees still in the stage of budding out. Yikes!
This trip has two major parts: the first half of the trip will be spent paddling across the three Allagash headwater bodies of water, Chamberlain, Eagle and Churchill Lake. After carrying around Churchill Dam, we’ll have the option to run the famous Chase Rapids, the most taxing section of whitewater on the Allagash River.
On the second half of the trip we’ll paddle the lower portion of the Allagash, which is mostly river, with several sections of white water and plenty of challenging quick water.
After signing the Ranger station clipboard, we took the first of what eventually added up to many ten-thousands of canoe strokes, as we hugged the eastern ( west) shore of Chamberlain Lake. It was not easy paddling, as we were often fighting some degree of headwind, a factor that would stop us dead in our tracks in the not too distant future. At some point, we needed to paddle 1 mile across the Lake. Later in the afternoon , the wind calmed down a bit, and Mike and I chanced it, aiming for a point on the far shore that ended up being the former Chamberlain Farm site. It was unsettling to me to be alone in a tiny 17 foot craft moving over the big water, but this is the deal here. The Farm site dated to 1846, and served as a base of lumber operations for then next 80 years. We wandered about and saw traces of the former farmhouse, storehouses, outbuildings, and even the rusting remains of a log-boom towboat on the shore.
Four more miles of paddling on the eastern side of Churchill brought us to our destination for the night at the Lock Dam , some 10 miles from our starting point, not a bad day from two guys who got up at 4 AM. We had the pick of the 4 tent sites, and were alone here, as we were for most of the trip. As I was settling in, Mike started fly fishing off the remains of the dam, and caught over a dozen brook trout in a 45 minute period.
I caught one fish, but lost it just as I was about to land it. It was really hard for me to cast effectively into the wind, which posed no problem for Mike. Mike ties his own flies and here is a photo of the array he brought for us to use.
We ate really well on this trip, bringing a cooler with frozen 1 gallon jug of water and real food, like hamburgers, chicken, ham, bacon , hot dogs, and salads. Our supper was pico de gallo with chips, grilled steak, salad, fried potatoes with onions, and a half a Wicked Whoopie Pie each.
My right shoulder was killing me, so I downed 4 ibuprofen as we moved toward bed time. I decided to bring along a single person sleeping tarp as an experiment.
I thought I was settled in when I realized that the tarp didn’t allow me space to store any of the clothing I removed, so I was up again and got a dry bag and stuffed my pants, jacket, and shirt in there. As I settled in, I heard a mosquito buzzing around, and soon realized that my reading headlamp was drawing in flying insects. Done reading or writing. Then I felt something creeping up my wrist and turned on the lamp again and brushed off an ant, and also saw a large spider climbing up the inner wall of the tarp. After about 15 minutes of increasing aggravation with several mosquitoes , I abandoned the tarp and shared half of Mike’s two-person LLBean tent. The tarp idea became history out here in the Maine woods. We both slept well, my 20 degree down bag was not too warm up here, with my supple sweetheart cushy Big Agnes insulated air core mattress nursing my shoulder through the night.