Below is an account of day 1 of 8 days paddling the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in Maine in August 2015. Check back each week for the next 7 weeks to read the next days of the adventure!
Winterport, Maine to Little Allagash Falls:
We awoke at 4:00 AM to dress, pack the last few items into the red Toyota Rav, make some breakfast burritos, and drive away from the Winterport house by 5:15–only 15 minutes later than our ideal departure time of 5:00 sharp. The air had been heavy and humid in recent days, so we drove through pockets of thick fog as the sun rose. We got off I-95 in Millinocket, took a complicated sequence of dirt roads in a mostly unmarked web of possibilities, and had a variety of conversations about where we would put in given the conditions and conflicting advice from a variety of Allagash resources.
No less than five hours after our departure, we had ground through two ratchet straps holding the two kayaks to the trailer, loosened the screws on the kayak rudders, slipped the protective foam out from their bows, and worn through two hatch covers. We also had passed roadsides full of fireweed, evening primrose, and ripe raspberries that I provided to my co-adventurers after they adjusted straps and duct-taped screws.
I saw my first spruce grouse in Maine and observed a small flock of crossbills foraging. A wood frog jumped clumsily across the road, requiring a poke so we would not run it over. A pair of sharp-shinned hawks dived between trees and a deer lazily walked across the road in front of us, giving us plenty of time to stop. Many species, adjustments, and road rock removals later, we arrived at the Johnson Pond put-in.
The carry to the pond was a simple distance of less than 100 feet. We climbed into our boats to experience yet another sitting position of the day, crossed Johnson Pond, and began the paddle through the jungle of Johnson Stream. The stream narrowed as alders grazed our shoulders and spanned the clearing above us, leaving us paddling through a tiny tunnel of the North Maine Woods. Joe-pye weed bloomed pink on the shore and tiny spikes of orchids blushed boldly in several clumps in further marshes. We walked the canoe over several small beaver dams, so solidly built despite their size that I had no trouble standing confidently on top of them.
We were thrilled at the sight of the tiny orange diamond sign indicating our official entry into the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. We met Allagash Stream, took a right, and followed the swiftly flowing water–occasionally sticking our aluminum canoe to various shallow spots–to Allagash Lake.
By 2:00, we sat eating peanut butter and honey, jam, or fig sandwiches at the Ice Caves campsite. With a strict itinerary to stick to our first day, we gave ourselves only a half hour to eat lunch and hike up to one of the famed ice caves. While indeed a cold and deep hole in the ground, there were no confirmed ice (or bat) sightings.
Onward, we paddled across Allagash Lake with frequent glances over our shoulders to monitor the movement of the dark band of rain to the west and north. While we did battle some waves across the eastern third of the lake, we did not struggle to make progress. Thinking we were in the homestretch, we entered the Allagash Stream outlet from the lake and began to move swiftly eastward–and face our first rapids.
Given the relatively shallow water, we struggled to stay off bottom. The water moved quickly and proved challenging to navigate. The speed increased our adrenaline and heightened the impact of our collisions with rocks. Not prepared nor expecting this rapid water, we were all (with the exception of one experienced adventurer in the group) a bit shaken up. The stream widened right before our campsite at Little Allagash Falls, however, and we enjoyed the calming sounds of loons as we glided into the landing at about 5:00: a total of 12 hours traveling over road, stream, pond, and lake.
Getting into camp this late on the first day is something I would not repeat. We had to set up camp, figure out new systems and remind ourselves of old ones, have supper, and make English muffins for lunch the next day–far too much for one day. At 10:00 PM, I was sore from 9.5 miles of paddling, exhausted, not feeling like I was on vacation, and without a single photo of the falls to show for myself. I did, however, rinse off in the falls before supper, letting the water pour over my head–so hard and fast it was all I could do to keep it from breaking my neck backwards due to the water’s pull of my hair.
Three bear hangs up and stuff stashed, I crawled into my sleeping bag within my tent, arms feeling like lead and knowing I had to wake up by 5:00 AM to fulfill the itinerary on Day 2. As I closed my eyes, it began to rain. I slept soundly in my dry tent, listening for a few short minutes to the roar of the falls and the shower of raindrops on the fly.