A Novice Canoeist’s Perspective on Paddling in Maine

By Serena Doose
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Lucky me, stuck with my brother as a paddling partner on my first canoe experience.

The slow moving, tannic waters of the Santee Canal in South Carolina were the backdrop for the third day of “staycation” week involving cypress swamps, beaches and historic plantation homes. Though no one in our family knew which end of the boat was the front or back, much less how to paddle at all, we set out on our first float trip in the high heat and humidity of a southern August day.

A few hours later, no one had capsized, and we were on our way back to the visitor’s center. My brother, in the stern, had decided to stop paying attention now and we quickly found ourselves in some wonderfully thick riparian vegetation. Struggling to understand the paddle strokes to free us from this situation, I looked up at the branch above our boat and saw a snake.

Most snakes in South Carolina are poisonous. This was not good. I vowed to never go canoeing again.

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Ten years later, I’d moved to Maine and had now spent a fair amount of time both paddling and dragging canoes throughout the watersheds of Downeast Maine. I’d come to embrace and love the pastime of paddling with the understanding that I had much to learn and the hope that I’d have the chance to expand my experiences.

On the list of priority adventures related to paddling was to complete the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. If National Geographic said that it was a “must do” adventure, then who was I to say otherwise?

Birthday Week, June 2015

It was soon to be my first experience on a section of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. It would also be my first experience canoe camping, camping for more than two days, and a hasty introduction to paddling whitewater.

The trip began with rain. We blew our way across Chamberlain Lake in an ocean-like squall, and shivered our way to the first portage. The trip continued with rain. Would we ever be warm or dry again? It was an hour long chore to try and make a fire every evening and our trusty tarp soon grew weary with holes. Making camp at Churchill Dam, we prepared ourselves for the end of the tiresome lake paddling and began to grow hopeful for faster, and less windy, progress with the downstream current.

The next morning was clear and bright—the only time we’d seen the sun in days. Enthusiasm ever increasing, we hopped in our boats and headed for Chase Rapids, fully loaded with all of our gear and ready for some action. I was in the stern and a friend in the bow.

We hit the very first rock in the rapids and somehow managed not to capsize. We gave each other a victorious glance at our good fortune, and in that split second, we struck the second rock and were immediately sucked sideways. Pinned. The water rushed in, filling every void of our boat with hundreds of pounds of water, further fastening the boat to its granite anchor.

Fifty-degree water swirled around us as we worked with our friends onshore to rescue certain items and begin alerting the rangers to our predicament. An hour later, the rangers decided it was best to stop the release for the day and close the gates of the dam, as they could see no other way to free our boat from its watery grave.

After another ½ hour, the boat was back on shore and we only had to drag it, along with our other two boats and all of our gear, more than a mile through the woods back to our original campsite. We’d lost the majority of our camping necessities to the river and the boat had a prominent crack in the hull, due to being bent at a near 45-degree angle for over an hour.

We made plans to head out of the Allagash the next morning since none of us were prepared with a second set of equipment. Plus, there were other, less rainy, adventures we could have to finish out the week.

We returned to the Allagash one month later, to both finish the river and achieve a sense of closure. The weather was infinitely better than it had been in June and we navigated the rest of the rapids and portages with ease. As I now say, the first trip was to build character; the second trip was to have fun.

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Leaf Peeping Season, 2016

Nicole Grohoski, board member and first female thru-paddler of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, invited me and another friend to accompany her on a trail maintenance mission to Spencer Lake. A year-long drought prevented any further exploration of Spencer Stream, so we decided an out-and-back would be appropriate.

The first leg of the adventure took us through the alder choked inlet to Fish Pond where loppers quickly proved their worth. A light drizzle decorated the bottom of the boat as we trimmed back head-high branches and fought our way across a few beaver dams. Soon, the stream began to widen and we got our first glimpse of open water. After marveling at the colorful hills that surrounded the lake, we signed the roster and paddled south to Spencer Lake.

With our two mascots, Eduardo the inflatable giraffe and Ingelbert the stuffed cow with bunny ears, proudly keeping watch in the bow, we soon fell into a paddling rhythm (as much as you can with three people in a boat) and great conversation. The silence of the lake grew more profound as we paddled through the narrows and into Spencer Lake.

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A paddler’s perfect campsite awaited us on a wide sand bar, replete with birch bark, carefully stored in a Ziploc bag, as well as an exceptionally nice outhouse. As we began exploring, a flat-bottomed motorized craft approached, the likes of which I’d never before seen. The caretaker on the lake was checking in while delivering bean-hole beans to his evening abode.

That night, we were treated to Dutch oven lasagna, à la Nicole, which may take first prize as my favorite meal eaten while camping. Granted, the competition isn’t too high since my usual couscous or smoked sardines in a tin don’t always warm the soul. Conversation waxed and waned around the campfire as we capped the evening with pieces of dark chocolate and the echoing, wavering calls of nearby loons.

The next morning, we packed up camp and headed down to the outlet dam to check out the portage trails. It was fascinating to think of the potential for this weekend as just one leg in a multi-week adventure. The view from the dam was spectacular and we took a moment to silently contemplate the vast stillness of the lake, punctuated only by diving loons. A slight breeze sent foliage tinted ripples across the water. Soon, it was time to begin our journey back.

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The idea of a water trail has never quite made sense to me, until recently. Lessons in history books pertaining to ancient trading routes via waterways always seemed obscure and irrelevant to my suburban, car-driven life. It was only until I moved to Maine and began spending quality time in boats that I could begin to appreciate the singular nature of water travel.

The handful of times I’ve spent paddling sections of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail have shaped my life in ways I have yet to fully understand. The deep, methodical rhythm of paddling, the team work of portaging gear and navigating rapids, the silence and stillness of the Northern Forest…all are reasons to return and share such experiences with those who have yet to paddle these waters.

At age 25, Serena Doose has been proud to call Maine her home since 2012, though she originally hails from South Carolina. She works on diadromous fish habitat restoration for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Doose spends most of her time hiking her way around New England and is always up for an adventure.

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