East Branch of the Penobscot River
Starting Point: Grand Lake Matagamon
Ending Point: Medway, Maine
Met our shuttle at Maine Quest Adventures in Medway Maine at 8:00. We were an enthusiastic, though inexperienced crew of four men. We came with two Old Town boats. One was a 15'8" Discovery and the other was a 17' model.
We left our cars in Medway and the shuttle brought us to the put-in just below Grand Lake Matagamon, where there was a campsite that seemed somewhat crowded for a rainy Friday morning. We started our journey with nothing but our day-packs, since we paid $50 to our shuttlers to drop off our gear at Bowlin Camps, which is located below all of Day 1's four portages. In retrospect, it was money well spent.
At put-in, the water level was running around 1400 cfs (measured at Grindstone Falls), which I understand to be pretty high this time of year, but a little low for some of the rapids at the lower end of our trip.
Weather was cloudy when we started and stayed decent by the time we got to Stair Falls. There was a lot of anticipation over this rapid, but in retrospect it is more due to its unique artificial-looking ledges rather than the challenge that it presents. We scouted it, found some channels to run and had no trouble with it. In lower water, it would have been pretty scratchy, but none of the ledges are so high that they will give you too much trouble going over them straight.
In the next couple of miles the skies really opened up and we suffered through some pretty heavy rain. We soldiered on to Haskell Rock Pitch. I had this in my notes as a half-mile portage, but it wasn't too taxing without all of our gear.
After the portage there was a series of rapids that took us somewhat by surprise. I don't believe that we scouted them. One of our boats made it through unscathed, but the other tipped over, hit a rock, and sustained a great deal of damage: two of the three thwarts were broken and the gunwales on each side were snapped as well. The boat was holding together, but we were very nervous that it was going to come all apart at the next rapid. It was a pretty demoralizing way to start the trip, but we soldiered on through the persistent rain.
We then made it through the portages at Pond Pitch, Grand Pitch, and the Hulling Machine. As I recall, there were some very entertaining rapids in between each of these. Once again, the portages were not too difficult without all of our gear. The trails were pretty soft (the first two were even grassy), so we opted to simply drag our boats along the trail. I found the hardest portage to be that around The Hulling Machine. The trail was the least smooth and for some reason it felt like we ended up going uphill more than down. There were some steep inclines.
From what I have read, other trip logs tend to overstate the inconvenience of these portages and gloss over the fun rapids between them. I thought it was the best section of the trip. The one thing that I regret is that we were not able to spend more time at the scenic falls, particularly Grand Pitch, since our broken boat had us feeling under the gun.
We then rode some quick water through Bowline Falls, which was pretty innocent, and arrived at Bowline Camps in the late afternoon. The proprietor of the camp was there and was gracious enough to rent out a canoe for $25 per day (another 15 8 Old Town Discovery, as it happened to be) and let us leave the damaged one there to be picked up after our take-out. By now the sun had come out, and we were in higher spirits.
We set up camp just about a half-mile below Bowlin Camps at a wooded site. I have not seen other accounts do much to describe the campsites along the way, so I will make a note of our site here. The site, like all others on the route so far as I could tell, was about as basic as they come: some clearings for tents, a fire ring, and nothing else, so those who do this trip should be prepared with a shovel to dig your own toilet and rope to keep your food away from bears at night. Being so confined to the woods, it was quite buggy and tough to get dry. We hung our wet clothes on a line, but by morning they were just as wet as we had left them.
However, we got in early enough to do some fishing (only one smallmouth bass caught), start a fire, cook some dinner, and get settled in.
After a lazy morning of breakfast and breaking down camp, we embarked on our second day at about 10:30. This day was almost totally unremarkable. Thankfully, the sun made an appearance (though there were some passing showers), and it was warm enough to jump in for a swim. The water was flat, but the current was decent, so we covered some decent ground. We arrived at Whetstone Falls around 3:30 or so.
Whetstone Falls looked a bit scarier than it actually was. There are two short sets of rapids, so if you take on water in the first, then it is easy to bail yourself out before the second. Both boats made it through unscathed, which was fortunate because there was a large group of curious teenaged girls watching us (the only group that we crossed paths with the whole trip) and a spill would have been especially embarrassing. The second set of rapids passes under a road bridge.
We had been planning to camp at the site occupied by the aforementioned teenage girls, so we found ourselves in a bit of a predicament. We knew from our notes that that was the last designated campsite of the trip. After some poking around downstream, however, we found a delightful gravel bar that made a better campsite than any of the designated spots. It was open, with a breeze to keep bugs away and dry off our gear. There was some sand upon which we could pitch our tents, and plenty of overhead sky to stargaze at. We pitched camp around 5:00. We spent the evening eating a hearty dinner, talking around the campfire, and watching for shooting stars (we saw many).
We packed up camp and departed for our final day on the river at about 9:30. The first stretch of the river was much like Day 2: fairly uneventful, with good current but not any rapids. There was lots of idle chatter and some swimming. We did hit some rapids around lunchtime, then found a delightful rope swing at a railroad bridge, river right that we spent a good deal of time on. Our most daring member climbed onto the bridge and did a backflip off it, but this is not something that I would recommend.
The next challenge came at Grindstone Falls. This is where things got really interesting. We knew that this was described as a half-mile of sustained rapids and the guidebook recommended that it be run dry. We considered leaving our gear at a rest stop at the head of the falls for pick-up later in the day, but I think that hubris got the best of us because we decided to run it with all our gear.
We scouted the top section of the falls and made it through with no incident and managed to eddy out. We felt that we had a good enough view of the rapids below to run it without scouting, so we plunged right in. This is where doing a long set of rapids with extra weight really took its toll. The rapids has a long series of wave trains that are easy to traverse but the boats inevitably take on a great deal of water at each one. One of our boats got pretty well-swamped, but managed to get out and bail. The other boat wasnt so lucky. It got almost totally swamped and capsized. Before the boaters could get control of the canoe, it got pinned so firmly that it looked like there would be no way to save it. Fortunately, the rock wasnt too high out of the water, so that when the strong current really "tacoed" it, we were able to push it over top of the rock. After unloading it, we were able to pop the bottom out into something that slightly resembled its previous form. Fortunately (or unfortunately) this was not the rental. We lost some gear, but we considered ourselves lucky that the boat and all boaters were okay.
Another feature of this falls that is different from the ones that we had run above was that it was relatively wide and rocky, making it a bit more difficult to read for inexperienced paddlers. We ran the remaining half of the falls with a little bit more prudence and didn't have any trouble.
The lesson for those who are looking for lessons are these:
I am hoping that someday I have another chance to test myself against Grindstone Falls.
By the time Grindstone Falls spit us out, it was getting to be mid-afternoon and we still had a good amount of ground to cover. The current was pretty good, however, with some mild but entertaining rapids along the way, so we covered the ground pretty quickly. We reached the takeout a little before 5:00.
Other logs that I have read have this as a four-day trip, but with decent current, I dont see why one wouldnt do it in three. You will need to start early on Day 1, and may need to get out late on Day 3, but if you have strong paddlers and good current, there is no need to spend another day on the river. The only time we felt like pushing the pace was Day 3, but we could have roused ourselves earlier in the morning or skipped the rope swing if we really wanted to. Also, if you took out above Grindstone Falls Day 3 would have only been a half-day affair.
All in all, it was a superb trip that I hope to do again someday.
Two canoes - Old Town Discovery 15'8" and a 17' Old Town (boat number two broke along the way and was replaced by another Discovery).
Fire permits at campsites
Appalachian Mountain Club River Guide