(Steve first published this article about the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in July 2009 on his blog Outdoor Enthusiast.)
Ten of us just returned from paddling the Allagash Wilderness Waterway (AWW) in northern Maine. The ninety-eight mile AWW is composed of streams, rivers, and lakes, and shines as the brightest among the jewels of Maine’s wilderness state parks and historic sites.
This was a father-son trip with four dads and five sons. Linwood “Loon” Parsons (www.loonsnest.biz) was our guide. Loon’s knowledge of the history and special sites around the Allagash meant many side trips and unique Allagash lore.
Wildlife was plentiful and we stopped counting Moose at twenty-five, and eagles at ten pair. Another thrill was having a loon land within feet of our canoe as we paddled. The loon landing took a long time before it settled on the water – it was like a big seaplane without skis coming in low with its proud chest up and no legs showing. This long landing time and style was magnificent to see, as the loon got lower and lower to the water. Finally, the loon gently became one with the water.
A special treat for me was hearing the ”snort” sounds of a moose, and the shriek of the eagle. One evening a cow moose and her calf spent nearly an hour across the river from our camp, and we heard her many snort calls to her calf. Another time two eagles perched in trees across from camp and made frequent eagle screams.
This was my son Tim’s and my third trip into the AWW in six years, and the water level was the highest and fastest we have seen. My earlier trips required us frequently to get out of the canoe due to low water. This time we fought headwinds on Eagle and Long Lakes. Chase Rapids are five miles of Class 2 and Class 1 rapids with many thrills. We did short stretches of class 2 rapids over Long Lake Dam and below Allagash Falls.
My biggest thrill was paddling with my son, Tim. We did the first three days with me in the stern, including Chase Rapids. On day four, we switched ends of the canoe for the remainder of the trek. Tim’s ability to read fast moving water, along with his paddling strength, resulted in an adventurous, fun, and safe trip though the rapids. Our last day, the eighth, poured rain, but since we were on our way out, rain was no issue.
Our meals were simply delicious, well planned, and cooked by “The Loon”. Steaks and potatoes cooked over our open fire pit are just a sample of our eight days of gourmet meals.
Allagash History and Our Itinerary
Without a doubt, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway rates as one of the grandest wilderness areas east of the Mississippi. Its mystique draws canoeists from all over America and the world. First roamed by native Abnaki Indians in search of food and furs, then in the 1800s by lumbermen in search of virgin timber for logs and pulpwood, it is today visited by the adventurist paddler seeking a deep wilderness experience.
The Allagash Wilderness Waterway is rich in historical points of interest from those by-gone eras. It abounds in wildlife of every description, from the majestic Moose to the ubiquitous White-throated Sparrow. Extending some 98 miles end-to-end, the Waterway offers the canoer both lake and river paddling environments.
Our trip began at Indian Pond Stream, flowed into Eagle Lake, and then proceeded northward for eight days ending at Allagash Village on the Canadian border. “Pongokwahemook”, an Indian name meaning “woodpecker place” and today called Eagle Lake, is a most interesting spot on the Allagash. We pitched out tents at Thoreau campsite on Pillsbury Island, the northernmost point reached by Henry David Thoreau in his expedition of 1853. It is from this base encampment that we launched our exploration of the “Tramway” that connects Eagle Lake with Chamberlain Lake and of the old locomotives that ran between Eagle and Umbazooksus lakes in the early 1900s lumbering era. A strange sight indeed to see these 90 and 100-ton locomotives sitting alone in this vast wilderness.
By now, everyone’s paddling skills have became finely tuned and in two days or so, we will be running the canoes down famous Chase Rapids, a beautiful and exciting run of nearly 5 miles ending at Umsaskis Lake. As the river enters Umsaskis Lake it meanders through an attractive marsh where we see moose feeding on the plant life. Canada geese often stop over here also on their great migrations up and down the Atlantic flyway.
We next cross Round Pond, the last pond on the waterway and spend the next few days being carried along by the current through easy rapids as the Allagash River descends toward the Saint John. Trout fishing at the mouths of the many brooks and streams offer Eric and Garrett enjoyment to wet a fly and we enjoy Garrett’s fresh 14” brook trout over our open campfire.
We portage the most awesome spectacle on the river: 40-foot high Allagash Falls, a thundering, boiling cauldron of power and beauty.
Never say, “I wish I had …”
Fourteen river miles below Allagash Falls through Class 1 rapids, the Allagash River delivers us back into civilization and our wilderness river adventure becomes a treasured memory.
A special notation on this trip. We had planned this trek two years ago, but one of the Dads was diagnosed with throat cancer. We had made all the arrangements, and two weeks before the trek, we had to cancel on the advice of his doctor to begin aggressive treatment. Two years later, cancer free, he and his two sons, made his Allagash Wilderness Waterway dream come true.
We now never have to say, “I wish I had paddled the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.”
Steve Priest is a member of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail and author of Outdoor Play: Fun 4 4 Seasons. His blog Outdoor Enthusiast and website outdoorsteve.com share his many recreational experiences as well as his upcoming speaking engagements.