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Despite waiting for the start of this trip for three years, the ominous forecast for our start day would delay us yet one more day. Our September, 2019 plans were thwarted by low water levels in the lower third of the river; we wanted to do a complete through-paddle. Eight months later, COVID travel restrictions prevented us from going. This, our third attempt, was shaping up to be the real deal, as we would paddle in early May, hoping to avoid the emerging blackflies, predicted to swarm after Memorial Day. The water levels were seasonably low in the second year of a drought, but more than adequate (2250-1650 cfs) for a through-paddle.
We were not keen on challenging the forces of 10-mile-long Chamberlain lake and its potential prevailing NW winds, so we took a more scenic route, starting at Johnson Pond. After staging our vehicle in Allagash, we were shuttled southerly along muddy logging roads, witnesses to grouse, bear cub, moose, and loggers’ landscape rape along the 4.5-hour journey.
Despite the remote location, six paddlers (two parties) were finishing their trips as we were launching near noon. We were not a little anxious starting the trip, with the possibility of showers, and temps in the 40’s. The narrow outlet stream (?brook) was barely passable,
but connected to east-flowing Allagash Stream that quickly floated us into Allagash Lake.
Surprisingly, both northern sites were occupied, and we meandered along the western shore, stopping at “Ice Caves” campsite for lunch and spelunk.
We set up camp at the next “Cove” site, a lovely spot sheltered from the wind, facing easterly. Squeezing every minute out of the day, we paddled south to the ranger station, eager to hike to the recently-installed fire tower hut, checking the views of the surrounding lakes and rivers, and south to Katahdin.
We chatted up the ranger, who had arrived two days prior, and learned that his position was his as long as he wanted it! He shared some pointers/warnings of the paddle down Allagash Stream, which we would later heed. Back 3 miles to the campsite, dinner, and nestled into our cozy lakeside tents, serenaded by the loons.
Track of Day 1 paddle:
Up early, with a little frost on the pumpkin, gear packed, overnight oatmeal, and off to a blue-sky day and a quiet paddle across Allagash Lake to the outlet, Allagash Stream (continued). The first 100 yards of the rapidly-flowing stream halted us as we pondered our strategy through the maze. We gathered our courage and proceeded, happy to find that there was relatively smooth “sailing” thereafter, including this spotting of Cowinkle the moose
just before arriving at Little Round Pond. Little Allagash Falls
requires a short portage around a sweet campsite, and onward we paddled,
keenly aware of the two ledge drops we were warned about. The first allowed an escape route if one was quick enough to recognize it, and we were, just barely, as l sprang from the bow seat, grabbed the canoe, and dragged it to the right-hand bank, first scouting, then easing the loaded canoe down the chute to the right. Though we could have lined the canoe over the second drop, our blood was up, and we plunged over the ledge, shipping a bathtub amount of water on board, which we quickly released by tipping the fully-loaded tough canoe on its side at the riverbank. We had a great time gaining experience navigating the rapid stream to its termination at Chamberlain Lake ( https://youtu.be/YC6P6SN8Yho ). Paddling past the deteriorating train trestle, we took advantage of the NW prevailing wind (we would be fighting it paddling the popular route from Chamberlain Bridge) to guide us to Lock Dam, and another short portage.
A quick lunch of PB&J and X-bean salad fueled us for the quick paddle down Martin stream, into Eagle Lake. We took refuge from threatening clouds at “Windy Point” before paddling northward towards “Pillsbury island” site, which was occupied. We continued paddling up the western shore of the island to “Thoreau,” one of the cells clearly occupied by a man and his dog. Luckily, the southern-most site, sunny and grassy, was free, and we accepted the tacit invitation.
A sudden squall with steep waves had us dashing for the tarp, and it petered out anon.
Refining our routine, we were on the water by 6:30, our sights fixed on the locomotives at the tramway site. A surreal sight, two massive hulks of extreme horsepower, monuments to a logging industry long gone, but not forgotten.
We continued on our calm paddle to the “Pump Handle,” occupied by a fishing foursome, family and friends who have been coming to this location since 1975! We stretched our legs on the short hike to the Lookout (southerly),
returned to our boat, and made our way to the eastern shore with the building wind and waves. A ranger motored by and inquired as to our destination for that night, to which we replied “Scofield Point.” He warned of gusts to 20 and advised keeping close to shore, as we had planned. A quick stop at “Zeigler” revealed an unreliable spring, and onward we paddled, stopping at a rocky islet
on yet another Round Pond for standard-fare lunch, before ending the day early afternoon at Scofield Point on Churchill Lake. We had our choice of three empty cells, and quickly set up our sleeping quarters, gathered firewood, and commenced to select our options for tonight‘s dinner from the pantry. We gathered our supper, camp chairs, and cribbage, and headed out to the gravel point, looking forward to total relaxation, and warmth from the falling sun. Before turning in, we would enjoy N’s nightly specialty of cheese quesadillas on the open campfire, ?serenaded by the cacophony of loons, geese, and peepers.
Day 3 track:
Up early for the 4-mile paddle to Churchill Dam
to catch the early release, first visiting the museum, water resupply at the field hand-pump, and a safety chat from the young ranger. A sawbuck secured transport of our gear 5 miles downstream to Bissonette bridge, relieving any anxiety from the easily-navigable class II rapids. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLy0cucf7k0)
Still early in the day, we mosied along Umsaskis Lake, and kept our eyes peeled for any upcoming sites. A bald eagle launching from “Grey Brook” was an omen, and we settled in nicely to the routine: pitch tents/tarp, meals, “bath“, and a cribbage game to remember. N had already completed the outside row while I was still pegged to holes four and five. Wanting to give up, we decided to play it out anyway, and in the homestretch, I made up the difference with a run of 24 points (2 fours, a five, and 2 sixes), eking out a come-from-behind victory.
Track of Day 4:
Our routine was now automatic, and we savored the early morning tranquility of Long Lake.
A portage around Long Lake Dam
was quick, and we were back to the swift river before entering Round Pond, our sights on the hike to the tower, a five–mile jaunt. As the wind was rising, and potential thunderstorms were forecast, we decided to forgo the hike, but remembered our noontime meal of PB & J, and X-bean salad. Having nearly depleted the salad, we had added an extra can of black beans and some steamed vegetables to the mix, two days earlier. Sadly, the vinegar portion of the solution has become so diluted, that, by now, the salad had “turned a corner“, and we settled for sandwiches and mapled walnuts. Post-lunch, we proceeded onward, stopping at “Round Pond Rips” to wait out a heavy shower. The weather cleared and we meandered to the “Five Finger“ cluster of campsites, the first two occupied, pleased to arrive at the supreme northerly site.
We were on the water early, anticipating the lengthy delay at Allagash Falls. We had been advised to stop at the ranger station at Michaud Farm,
and we did, signed the ledger, and continued on. Much of the river seemed to be about 1 foot deep at 1650 CFS,
and a choice of river right, left, or middle was a roll of the dice. Although we felt we had become proficient at reading the water, it was hard to avoid every scrape, but we were certainly in paddlers’ sync at this point of the journey. The ¼-mile portage around Allagash Falls
was a slog, requiring three round trips, and we worried about availability of campsites down river, as there were parties ahead of us. Only by looking at the map, had we determined that “Big Brook East” was the best choice, and we were lucky to locate it, with the help of GAIA, after missing the signage on the first pass.
Luckily a slow-flowing section of river allowed backtracking to the site, high up on the bank. A fast-flowing, cascading brook emptied to the river, very near the steep path to the site, and we would later explore a short length of the brook into the forest, looking for brookies, to no avail. A few sentinel black flies emerged at dusk, reminding us why we were determined to be early visitors to this pristine paradise.
A light sprinkle would be the only precip. we would encounter launching during the entire week on the Waterway, and we made short work (?pleasure) floating the 8 miles of quickwater back to the car, staged at a convenient private residence in Allagash, 108 water miles from the put-in.
Filled with a gigantic dose of Nature Therapy, we decided to drive the 7.5 hour route back home, with required stops at (original) Pat’s Pizza in Orono, and (original) Amatos’ in Portland, for resupply!
Water is plentiful along the entire waterway route, duh! We brought a filter, but didn’t need it, having started with 16 L between us. The re-supply water source at Churchill Dam is recommended.
I was glad to have my Kokatat paddling pants with booties, over which I wore NRS paddling shoes. You are apt to be jumping from your boat not infrequently, and secure footwear is highly recommended.
I rented a Garmin In-reach mini for the trip duration, allowing me to send nightly, up to 3 preset messages of AOK, north, or south weather forecast to Susie.
I would recommend talking with one of the rangers on duty along the waterway if you have questions about adequate river flow along the river, particularly the last 1/3, or feasibility of running Allagash Stream, if that is a consideration. At the time of this post, the Allagash is in its second year of drought. Each drop of 100 cfs represents ~ 1-inch drop in water depth.
There are plenty of outfitters that will arrange transport of gear/people/vehicle in all combinations imaginable. Norm L’Italien (https://pelletiers.mainerec.com) has been in the business for decades, and has it figured out. We were able to rent a room with 2 beds at a reasonable price. We opted NOT to drive over sometimes-sketchy logging roads with our vehicles.
Consider being on the water by 6am during any of the big-lake portions of your trip, before potential winds pick up. A ready-to-eat breakfast and quick start will have you at your intended site early to enjoy a lengthy afternoon.
Allagash River flow: https://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/uv?01011000
Allagash Wilderness Waterway Map: https://www.maine.gov/dacf/parksearch/PropertyGuides/Maps/FullSize/aww-map.pdf
Original itinerary, later modified:
AWW Itinerary May 11.docx
Our personal checklist: