The Allagash is located in the far northern reach of Maine. Surrounded by a massive tract of privately owned and actively logged forest, the waterway is about as far removed from civilization as you can get in our country�s northeast. Protected as a state-administered component of the National Wild and Scenic River System, it has a ribbon of "buffer" zone along its entire length. Void of the usual resorts, cabins, and vacation properties that spoil many of our streams these days. The river and its headwater lakes offer a true wilderness feeling.
Since we only had four days to experience the river, we began our trip at Churchill Dam. This is where most visitors start. From there it�s sixty miles to the river�s end at the confluence with the St Johns River in the town of Allagash. Speaking of the town; there are no services here, stock up on food and fuel during your drive through neighboring Ft Kent.
First let's talk about the shuttle; the forest roads are built for logging, gravel, rutted, twisty, and not well marked. For us it made sense to go with one of the local outfitters to get us where we needed to go. We chose Allagash Guide Service and were extremely pleased not only with their transport service but with their lodge accommodations the night before and after our trip. Their hospitality was second to none. They went out of their way to ensure we were comfortable and had everything we needed.
Something we look forward to on our river trips is meeting interesting locals. We weren�t disappointed at all on this trip. Pike was our shuttle driver. Since the ride was three hours long we got to know him quite well. At eighty years old he�s lived in the area all his life, driving a logging truck for the majority of it. Needless to say, his stories about his life in the woods were fascinating. One in particular was when the clutch on his snowmobile exploded, sending a chunk of steel through his abdomen and severing a main artery in his back. His buddy threw him in his truck and flew the thirty miles to the nearest hospital. Despite being nearly all bled out he still pulled through, and was back to work driving truck in no time. He also knew a lot of the history of logging along the river, the lumberjack camps, farms that supported with food and livestock, etc. The long drive went by fast, almost too fast. I would have liked to have heard more.
On our shuttle to our put-in at Churchill Dam we stopped off at a landing four miles downstream to drop our gear packs. Right after the dam is Chase Rapids, a long series of solid class two rapids, much better to run without the weight of the packs. Sean at Allagash Guide Service told us a few days prior to our arrival there was a group that started upstream at Chamberlain Lake. They portaged the dam then tried to run the rapids with their canoe fully loaded. They ended up wrapping the canoe around a rock and losing their kitchen pack and most of their food, that was the end of their trip. There�s a ranger�s cabin at the dam. He�ll use his truck to portage you or just your gear around the rapids for a minimal charge.
Day one: finally we were on the river, and what an exciting way to start the trip off! Chase Rapids is a four mile stretch of solid class two pool and drop. The first set, just a couple hundred feet down from the dam is the largest. It consists of tall standing waves, with only a few exposed boulders, pretty simple to run with a good brace. Even with a light, unloaded canoe you can expect to be kneeling in a couple inches of water by the time you get through this one. Next comes the calm before the storm, a hundred feet or so of flat water followed by more big waves with huge rocks to dodge. The rapids continue, getting smaller and easier as you pass by.
We picked up our gear at the landing and continued on. There were a few more riffles before we entered the long lake portion of the trip. First up is Umsaskis Lake. Right as we entered it from the river we saw a moose feeding near the eastern shore. I've seen a lot of moose on our trips but I never get tired of watching them raise their head out of the water with a mouthful of plants, the water running off their long nose and big ears.
Since we got a late start because of the long shuttle we decided to camp after traveling only eleven miles. We picked the Ledges campsite on Umsaskis primarily because of the exposed rock ledge that offered a nice view of the lake and it faced west so we could see the sunset that evening. This is a double site we shared with a couple of college kids. One of the young men's uncles gave him an old aluminum canoe. The guys have backpacked near their home in upstate Pennsylvania but have never paddled together for more than a couple hours at a time. They decided eight days on the Allagash would be a great adventure for them. They were in good spirits and seemed to be getting along okay. It's a wonderful thing to see young people committing themselves to take on such an endeavor. We don't see that nearly enough. Later that evening the four of us sat on the river bank and enjoyed a vivid sunset. This is a perfect wilderness trip for beginners. Other than Chase Rapids, the river is easily managed with basic river paddling skills and there are ranger cabins along the way just in case things go horribly wrong.
A little information about the campsites; there are plenty of them and they vary in size. Some are single sites for one small group or couple, some are multiples suitable for larger groups. The map indicates the size of the sites. All have a rustic wood picnic table with a ridge pole mounted along its length for hanging a tarp. On one end just four or five feet from the table is a rock fire ring with a hinged grate. If you plan on grilling, bring a grate with you. The slats of the existing ones are spaced too far apart. Those ribeyes you've been patiently waiting for will fall right through. The toilet facilities, yes there is one, surprised us. It�s an actual outhouse, with walls and a roof! I�ve never seen such plush accommodations along a wilderness river. As you might expect, the immediate area around camp is well picked over for firewood. Just a short bit of bushwhacking will get you to a motherload of dead and/or downed trees.
For the third week of June we expected the bugs would be bad. Most of the campsites are fairly open, allowing a breeze to keep them at bay. Back in the bush however, they were really bad. They make gathering firewood more of a sprint then a casual walk in the woods.
Day Two; we got an early start under a cloudy sky, rain was in our future. The first eight miles were lake travel out of Umsaskis Lake through a short squeeze and into Long Lake, then across Harvey Pond. When the river takes on river form again we came to what used to be a dam that flooded the lakes for transporting logs. It�s all broke apart now and more closely resembles a short rapids. Since there was an easy portage and we both needed to take a potty break we decided to carry around. Then it started to rain. This may sound crazy but we actually enjoy paddling in the rain, not a lightning storm rain, just a nice gentle soaking. It makes everything look, smell, and sound different. During the day the majority of campsites are empty making perfect lunch stops. We took advantage of one such site, threw our tarp over the ridge pole, and feasted on tuna and crackers. Not exactly gourmet cuisine but makes for a good gut plug.
After paddling about seventeen miles we arrived at Round Pond. Right before the river entered, we came across another moose grazing in the water. She kept looking past us to the opposite side of the river, making us think she had a calf hiding in the bush. To avoid what could be a nasty situation we decided to move quickly past. Our goal was the Tower Trail campsite on the far side of the lake. There was a big wind coming from the south and since the lake is shallow, waves and whitecaps made us really work to get to our destination. We picked Tower Trail for the opportunity to hike the two and a half mile path to an old fire tower. At the beginning of the trail there is a sign stating that the tower is closed because of unsafe condition, bummer. There is however a nonfunctioning logging road a short walk from camp so we hiked it instead. On our little jaunt we came across some of the brightest white birch trees we�ve ever seen, along with an interstate highway worth of moose and coyote tracks. The night brought the best sleeping conditions ever, a gentle rain drumming on the tent fly, frogs croaking, and loons calling each other from lake to lake. Ahhhh, zzzzzzzzz.
Day three; by sunrise the storm had passed by and we were graced with a clear blue sky. Leaving Round Pond it was all downhill, literally. The river alternates between fun, shallow, easily paddled rapids to long stretches of calm flat water. One of the many things that make the Allagash so beautiful are the tall hills that surround it. Covered by a wide mix of tree species, you�re greeted by a different one around every bend in the river. This day we paddled fifteen miles. We could have gone much farther due to the swift current and perfect weather but we wanted to save the portage around Allagash Falls for morning when the lighting would be better for photos. There are inviting campsites all along this stretch of the river. We chose the very last one before reaching the falls, Taylor Landing. This was once the site of a farm. All that remains is a hole where the root cellar was. Most of it is caved in but you can still see the timbers that once shored up its walls. During the logging heyday a hundred years ago there were farms like this all along the banks, supplying food for the workers and horses to pull the logs out. It always amazes me how, if left alone, the forest can reclaim the land and cover up its scars, as if nothing ever happened.
Day four, our last day on the Allagash; we were camped a mere two miles from the falls so there was no hurry to get going in the morning. Along the portage trail there are numerous campsites. We wanted to give those who camped there plenty of time to pack up and move on, hopefully having the falls to ourselves for taking photos and video. Our timing worked out well, just a small family group remained and they were headed out when we got there. The Allagash is a popular river located a relatively short distance from one of our country�s most populated regions. It gets its fair share of visitors, still not as busy as some of the Ozark Mountain Rivers and many of the popular spots in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota. The falls are nothing short of spectacular with well worn trails leading to many views of it. Keep an eye out for an old ring anchor point drilled into the bedrock along the portage trail, a reminder that this was once a place where men traveled to earn a living, not for recreation. The portage is easily seen from the river, can�t miss it really. Carrying your gear and canoe along this trail couldn�t be easier. Flat and well worn, there�s even a board walk through a soggy area. I wish all portages were this easy.
Below the falls the river begins to change its character a bit. It starts to widen out and get shallow. Still easily traveled, you will need to be vigilant of where most of the water is flowing, or have the river bottom come up and grab your canoe. Along the way we encountered countless class one rapids, boulder gardens, and riffles, it was a fun day of paddling. Fifteen miles brought us to the inevitable end of our trip. Allagash Guide Service has use of a private river landing on the St Johns River just a couple hundred yards downstream from where the Allagash converges.
In conclusion, the Allagash was a wonderful wilderness river in the East, with great campsites, exciting rapids, and wonderful views. It did not disappoint us.