#nfct20: Four women & a big white dog in the Allagash Wilderness

In 2012, Joanne Blondin, three friends and a big white dog paddled the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Joanne shared their story in honor of NFCT’s 20th anniversary. (Photos by Valerie Caro)

“No! Not left! Turn us right! Paddle hard!” Beth screamed.

In the stern, I followed Beth’s instructions and our canoe barely avoided a submerged rock. No time to relax; straight ahead were more rocks and more swift water. Beth and I were in Indian Stream headed north toward Eagle Lake. We had just begun a canoe-camping trip with Eleanor, Valerie and Shimmer, a large, white, fluffy, Samoyed dog in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in Maine.

Finally, a beaver dam miraculously built across Indian Stream slowed our speed. Beth in the bow nimbly got out onto the dam. With the canoe balanced I, moving gingerly, disembarked as well. With Valerie’s help, we pulled the canoe over the dam. We were in Eagle Lake. Now we paddled over bogs barely covered with water. We found our first campsite on Pillsbury Island.

After the Run of the Charles Canoe Relay Race in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the end of April 2012, Eleanor invited our team to join her and Valerie on their annual week-long canoe trip in the Allagash Wilderness in Maine.

Still buoyed from the canoe race, I was sure that I was an expert canoe-camper. I had canoe-camped on Lobster Lake in Maine and had been on a camping trip on the Green River in Utah. I emailed my friend Beth, a long time canoeing companion. Beth instantaneously responded, “I’ve always wanted to canoe the Allagash. Let’s do it.”

I emailed Eleanor that Beth and I were interested in going. Could we meet between our towns? Maybe Lake Quinsigamond, which was half way between both towns? Lake Quinsigamond turned out to be the weekend playground for power boats and jet skiers. We persevered and decided it was good practice for probable rough water in Maine. Beth and I tried many canoes. One was too fragile for the rocks it might be pulled over. Another was way too heavy. The third was too flexible. We listened to Eleanor and Valerie, more experienced paddlers, and chose the red canoe with the shallow arch hull.

We met many more times and practiced with more weight in the canoes — 45 pounds of sand and potting soil went in ours. Emails about who was bringing what food, equipment, where to send car keys for the canoe shuttle drivers, where to get maps, our itinerary, etc., flew back and forth. 

As the start of the trip got closer, I became apprehensive. What had I signed up for? Luckily, Beth was reassuring. Eleanor and Valerie had done the trip before and knew what they are doing, she reminded me. All I had to do was listen to the experienced paddlers. Surely, every canoe trip needed a poet. I relearned to accept our differences. One canoeist stripped as soon as she saw any water and went swimming. I kept my PFD on unless I was sleeping.

With no wind against us, we sped across Eagle Lake. We had time to explore Soper Brook, one of Eagle Lake’s tributaries. We heard splashing and saw four or five otter heads sticking up out of the water. We had interrupted their play.

Little Eagle Campsite (a poem)

Under a fir tree at Eagle Lake

Misty land ahead, sky serrated with tall trees

Foamy waves caress the shore

Rocks and pebbles shine with each woosh

A warm breeze pushes the clouds

Which dissipate and coalesce in the mist

A pair of ducks whiz past

A loon dives in the water

My soul fills with the events of today

Replenishing

The next day we sojourned up another tributary, Otter Brook. We quietly observed two mother ducks showing their ducklings how to take off from the water and fly. The mothers demonstrated and the ducklings paddled after them, but didn’t take off. They needed more lessons. As we got closer, they paddled rapidly to shore squawking for their moms.

We continued our journey north. Far ahead in the distance, we saw a black dot. A bear? Driftwood? We paddled closer and saw a giant bull moose casually eating shrubbery along the shore, unperturbed by two canoes of women taking his picture. The question of each day became: is it driftwood, or is it a moose?

All along the way eagles soared and loons dived for fish. Shore birds hunted along the water, too. I warned a frog, with only his eyes above the water, not to become an appetizer.

At the end of Churchill Lake was Churchill Dam and then Chase Rapids — class-II whitewater. Portage service was available. I was happy to accompany Shimmer in the truck that carried all our gear. Eleanor, Valerie and Beth, wearing their PFDs, went down the rapids. Arriving downstream, I tied up Shimmer and helped the woman ranger truck driver unload our gear. Other paddlers landed. One showed me the scrape on his side and told me that he and his girlfriend had just tipped over in the rapids. Good Heavens! Were my friends okay? Finally, there they were! Laughing! Their canoe had gotten stuck on a rock. Eleanor told them exactly what to do to dislodge. 

We packed up the canoes with gear and Shimmer and paddled into windy, choppy, white cap filled Umsaskis Lake. Beth suggested that we both use kayak paddles for more force to get across Umsaskis Lake. Since she was the stronger paddler, she should be in the stern. I reluctantly agreed. Beth was sure that we could change places in the middle of the lake. I was not. She lay down face first on top of our gear. I crawled over her as carefully and amoeba-like as I could. The transfer worked. Soon we were across Umsaskis Lake and unpacking at Pine campsite in Long Lake. We paddled through Long Lake and portaged around Long Lake dam. Now we were in the Allagash River.

We were having lunch at a vacant campsite when a couple with two small children asked if they could join us. “Of course,” we replied. I smiled and listened, but I was focused on the fresh cucumber and carrots they were giving their children. I wanted fresh vegetables too. Thank goodness. We would be off the river the next day.

Our take-out was at Michaud Farm, about 10 miles from the Canadian border and 65 miles from our put-in. The three fish I was canoeing with were back in the water again. I wrote poetry on the shore.

Michaud Farm Canoe Take Out (a poem)

Sun scalloped ripples swirling by

Circling bubbles coasting downstream

Minnows dart over flat washed stones

Friends in the flow, feet up slide down

Land woman watches from the shore.

We found our cars, packed up and drove to the town of Allagash, ready for fresh food. The waitress picked our salad out of her garden. After many goodbye hugs, we returned to Massachusetts. 

We made it! We kept our heads above water! A splendid time!

 

 

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