Location: East Branch Penobscot River, Maine
Put-in: Matagamon Wilderness Campground
Take-out: Lunksoos Basecamp
I could tell the river was rising. I built a cairn at the waterline while washing our dinner dishes. It was not big, only three rocks and maybe a foot tall. When I checked it an hour later, it was under water.
I was with my family at the Upper East Branch tent site on the East Branch Penobscot River in Maine. Deciding to do this trip had been a long process with advice from several friends. My husband and I are skilled whitewater paddlers, but we wanted a canoe trip where we could bring our 7- and 4-year old boys. People who know the river told us we would be fine. People who have kids thought we were crazy!
My particular concern was having too much water. Big water is pushy and in my mind it would only add to the portaging we would have to do with two kids in tow. I was sure we could make it safe, but I was not looking forward to walking all of the rapids that would be part of the 20-mile stretch of river we planned to paddle with two canoes.
After a month of little rain, northern Maine got a deluge in the days before we started. The river went from 500 cfs to around 2,000 cfs in 12 hours. It had settled back down by the time we put-in, but as we went to bed on our first night, the river was rising.
To add to the drama, the wind blew all night and it rained. It blew so hard that we had to set our canoes up to block ourselves from the sideways driving rain.
We woke up to a clear blue sky and incredible light filtering through the late summer leaves making one of nature’s most perfect shades of green. My cairn showed its top rock poking out of the water indicating that the water level was holding steady rather than rising further. After eating a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs and packing up camp, we set off. My husband Culley said, “I guess we’ll see what happens.”
The swollen upper East Branch moved quickly. We enjoyed some friendly riffles and speedily came to a feature called The Oxbow. Looking around we wondered why no one else was there. We were surrounded by gentle rock covered mountains, open marshy backwaters, silver maple forests and an amazing view of Mount Katahdin. Canoeing with two young boys, we were not quiet, but we did see a family of ducks and evidence of otters and beavers along the way. Further downstream we followed a bald eagle for an afternoon and chased kingfishers.
I had scouted this river online by reviewing photos, videos and trip reports for countless hours before we left. We used the Thoreau Wabanaki Trail map for navigation and reviewed water flow information from the USGS water discharge data for Grindstone, Maine. We were also aware that we would need to be careful in a few places. There are four mandatory portages for anyone in an open boat (and for all but the most skilled in a closed boat): The upper part of Haskell Rock is a pretty steep Class IV, and Pond Pitch, Grand Pitch and the Hulling Machine are all legitimate Class V rapids.
However, I was keen to run Stair Falls and I hoped that the high water would not put a damper on our fun. We scouted on river right and saw immediately that an adult sized swimmer would likely flush safely through the numerous holes that recirculated next to the center line, but a 40 pound 4-year-old would be stuck for sure. We hemmed and hawed. Culley and I were sure we could make it together, but we were nervous about separating to “solo” the rapid with a kid in each bow. And all of us really wanted to run it.
Well…we ran it twice! All four of us made two runs together riding prettily in two gear-laden canoes. It was a good thing we did because the kids were not finished with the rapid when it was over the first time and we were all glad to have another go.
At that moment all of my fears about too much water were swept away. The river was very comfortable with what we found out days later was 1,700 cfs. The rain had forced the Telos Dam to release, which in turn forced Matagamon Dam to release. I will remember for future trip planning in this watershed that a high lake level and a big rain event can double or triple the flow extremely quickly. At any rate, our water bubble settled out to a happy 800 cfs for the last few days of the run.
Confession: Before this trip I had never paddled a river in a canoe that required portaging. And the East Branch Penobscot River with two young kids in tow sounds like a crazy place to start. But I’ve always taken Everest climber Jim Whittaker’s quote to heart, “If you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up too much space.”
My advice to young families who might try this trip is to pack your things in as few containers as possible and make sure they are comfortable to carry when walking over rough terrain. It sounds obvious but is worth repeating.
Culley and I knew we would carry 99% of the gear we brought, so we packed light. The kids did carry their own day packs, paddles and PFDs on the portages. But that left three giant loads for me and two tandem Royalex canoes for Culley. Fortunately, the portages, while a little rough are not particularly steep or long, and we had some great, comfortable gear-swallowing packs that allowed us to haul big loads without any trouble.
The silver lining was that the carries broke up each day of paddling very nicely for the kids. Finnegan loves to catch frogs and there are so many kinds of frogs on the East Branch! It seemed like every time we got out of our canoes we would find that a different species occupied that particular spot.
And the many falls on the river are all unique and beautiful. Even if you don’t want to paddle the river, it is worth hiking in to see the falls. Taking a break to enjoy the swimming holes before and after each portage was also a hit. Once again, my friend’s advice to forget about paddling many miles and take the time to have fun along the way made everything about this trip work.
On our last night on the river we stopped three miles from our take-out and slept at Big Seboeis campsite. With a serene view of Lunksoos Mountain, an abundance of smallmouth bass and calm water for swimming, the kids were happy to stay and play. An added treat was when the caretakers at Lunksoos visited us and pointed out a pair of sandhill cranes.
Most people would do this trip in two or three days. We liked it in four because it allowed us to be totally unconcerned with time. I absolutely recommend this as a great trip for kids. Having two adults was key in making the portages run more smoothly.
Our trip has an exciting footnote. While we were out there, much of the land west of the East Branch Penobscot River was designated as the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument. This river is a rich and beautiful part of Maine’s history and paddling tradition. I am grateful that people will be able to continue paddling it as we did into the future.
The East Branch Penobscot River is a 75.3-mile long river southeast of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, and part of the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. The river can be accessed from the NFCT via Telos Lake, Webster Lake, Webster Stream and Grand Lake Matagamon. See a National Park Service map of the region here.