Monday, June 4, 2007

The Downhill Run

We woke up before dawn to get across Moosehead Lake, assuming that there would be a repeat performance of yesterday's high winds. We made it to Northeast Carry, 14 miles away, in only a few hours. The lake was glassy calm and we powered across before second breakfast.

The Northeast Carry gave us little trouble, and after a long lunch we pushed off on the West Branch of the Penobscot. We paddled at a leisurely pace, letting the current do most of the work and letting us enjoy our afternoon. We pulled ashore only as rain clouds began to move in. We had made over 30 miles, and their was no need to push it during a thunderstorm. We set up camp amid clouds of mosquitoes, and had dinner ready just as it began to rain.

Our first legitimate thirty-plus mileage day was not particularly difficult to attain, but it still felt mighty good to break that barrier that had thus far eluded us. We camped just before the West Branch turns into Chesuncook Lake, and for the first time we had to use our headnets. The black flies had come out a few days before but still were not in the mood to do much chewing. The mosquitoes nibbled a bit, but were more an annoyance there.

We rose early again, as had become our habit since the warm had warmed slightly; when morning temperatures hovered in the mid-thirties, motivation was hard to come by. As the temperature rose, our bags held us less tightly. We finished the last mile or two of the West Branch and Chesuncook opened before us. The waves had already begun to pick up and we made the call to forgoe visiting the village as it was eight o'clock and the waves already threatened to halt our progress. I remember visiting the village vividly when I was a camper with Chewonki. We went to the store and got cookies and root beer, then explored the cemetary and some of the buildings before paddling back to Gero Island and our beautiful low-water campsite.

We took the Mud Pond route from there, actually forgoing the ancient route in favor of a roundabout road portage. The Mud Pond portage trail is, under the best conditions, wet and muddy and miserable. With the heavy rains and particularly high water, we had zero interest in slogging across it. It is about two miles, and would have required two or three trips and upwards of six or ten miles roundtrip. It was easier to just go around.

The path of least resistance is also illegal, as all Allagash access points are marked and regulated. So we broke a small law, but no real harm was done. There was no chance of getting caught, another benefit of an early season trip. Interestingly enough, we later learned that the Mud Pond portage is not actually even on the list of access points. It seems the rangers do not expect many people to enter the hard way. If I had to do it over - and I likely will this summer with kids - I would go to Allagash Lake. Less and easier portaging to get there, an extra waterfall, and one of the most beautiful lakes in the chain. Oh well.

We fought our way across Mud Pond and down the truly tiny stream leading out of it into Chamberlain Lake. We made camp across the lake from Lock Dam, as we did not want to cross the lake late in the day with the wind and seas as they were. We later learned that two people drowned in Chamberlain that same day we opted not to cross. Their boat flipped, and threw three people into the drink. One was rescued, while two succumbed to the freezing water. Their dog was not found, and is assumed to have drowned as well. All aboard were wearing lifejackets.

We crossed Chamberlain at dawn the next morning and portaged around Lock Dam to get to Eagle Lake. We fought for over an hour to get to Pillsbury Island, and there stopped to collected ourselves. We landed amidst a huge fishing camp, complete with stereos, a portable shower, a fifty-foot tarp, a half dozen huge tents, and at least two hundred empty beer cans and vodka bottles. Different people enjoy the out of doors in different ways, I suppose.

We scouted the conditions on the other side of the island before attempting a crossing to the north shore we made it, but ended up stopping for our first lunch of the day. We had gotten to the point were we were eating two or three times as much as normal, sometimes upwards of 5- or 6000 calories a day. We chatted with a ranger that powered by, talking about the accident the day before and what we could expect ahead. We enventually pushed off and fought a fierce headwind all day right into Churchill Dam where we were stopped because of low water in the Allagash. We would have to wait until morning for the gates to be opened and the flow to increase such that we could make it down Chase Rapids. As we pulled in to Churchill Dam, we spotted a cow and her baby just east of the dam.

We enjoyed a nice evening in the relatively manicured campsites at Churchill Dam, and the nice museum the rangers have put together.

We were the first ones off the next morning, riding the release from the dam down Chase Rapids. We got a little ahead of the release, but with no ill effects. Intermittent rain fell, making us keep our heads down a bit, but the current was with us and we paddled with confidence. In the end, we broke the 30 mile, 40 mile, and 50 mile barriers, however arbitrary they may be, to make it just south of Michaud Farms. The next morning brought us to the confluence of the Allagash and St. John Rivers, meaning we paddled a shade over 70 miles in 24 hours. We had quickly gotten into a good rhythm paddling and portaging, and within a week or two our strength had matched that rhythm. What was missing were good conditions, even neutral conditions. We had them briefly on Moosehead and the West Branch, and then from Churchill Dam to Fort Kent everything was in our favor and we flew like demons.


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