We’re in the early days of our wilderness canoe trip in the North Woods of Maine. We’re camped on Munsungan Lake. Last night was cold but at least there’s no rain (for a change!). As the sun starts to peep through the thick firs, today’s guide team get the reluctant fire crackling under the coffee. The fire’s soon roaring and as always, a steaming mug of coffee makes the world a much finer place.
Today we leave the lake and head down Munsungan Stream towards the Aroostook river.
Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States, spent time in the North Maine Woods in the late 1800’s as a young man. Roosevelt and his Maine Guide Bill Sewall poled up the Aroostook river to Munsungan Stream. It was September and they found the stream with little water, forcing them to drag their heavy boat up much of the stream. These were formative years for the young Roosevelt. Being in the midst of this land I can see how it would have a strong influence on the willing mind. I hope some of this rubs off!
We certainly have better luck than Roosevelt at Munsungan Stream. After an unusually dry winter Tim was worried that we wouldn’t have enough water. Fortunately, topped up by spring rain, the water’s high. The two days of heavy rain that kept us at Chase Lake should have topped it up a bit further.
Munsungan Stream, according to the well-thumbed Appalachian Mountain Club river guide we brought along, has rapids from class I-II. A few miles downstream lie Munsungan Falls which are small but dangerous enough in a loaded canoe. The falls are preceded by a series of ledges. With this much water many of the obstacles are submerged which makes progress easier but the speed of the current is unforgiving. Strainers are a constant danger and with the river flowing this fast it’s easy to run into trouble.
Defensive rather than offensive paddling is the order of the day. We’re not here for the white water, we’re here for the trip and more importantly to get home again. Running rapids is great fun and all but when you have a boat loaded with camp gear and you’re a couple of day’s hard paddle from home there’s no room for unnecessary risks.
Of course, in this modern royalex boat I could smack and scrape rocks all day and most likely come out of it relatively unscathed but that’s not the point. Why take the chance? In days gone by when canoes were made from birch bark, wood or wood and canvas, there was no such leeway. Any damage could spell disaster. You might be lucky and spend a day or two in the woods repairing the canoe. You might be less lucky.
Rather than barrelling through, canoes would be carried, lined or eased through using the pole at questionable spots. Using a pole to propel a craft on water is probably as old as man’s use of anything resembling a boat.
A pole can be used to propel a canoe upstream. This is known as poling. A pole can be used to slow the canoe when running downstream. This is known as snubbing. By using short stabs of the pole onto the river bed the canoe can be brought to a standstill even in fast water. The pole can then be used to ferry the canoe sideways to avoid an obstacle. The pole is an incredible tool for defensive river travel. It’s use here in Maine was widespread due to the often shallow and rocky rivers.
As it stands today at Munsungan Stream, I have maybe three or four hours poling experience under my belt and two goes at snubbing (the first of which saw me take a dive straight away!). Today will test my skill with the pole to the limit.
We paddle across Little Munsungan Lake to the outlet stream. The stream starts out wide and slow but soon narrows and the current quickens.
I’m learning a valuable lesson about the importance of trimming the canoe. Most of my paddling before this has been tandem where the weight of the bow paddler tends to keep the boat pretty evenly trimmed and there’s not much to think about. Trim turns out to be very important! The current will try to spin the heavier end of the canoe downstream so the canoe needs to be bow heavy for downstream travel. Believe me, running a speedy river sideways or backwards isn’t much fun – I’ve been there.
Today I’m solo in an 18ft boat with limited kit to make her bow heavy. I’m carrying my personal kit weighing around 15-20kg, someone else’s kit weighing slightly more (my muscles told me this as I lifted their bag into the boat!) and one food box weighing probably 20kg plus a few other bits and pieces.
Even with my best efforts the canoe spins in the current. It’s a combination of things – but probably none of them my fault. It’s a jokey tradition at Jack Mountain to never accept responsibility for anything. Ever. Despite strictly adhering to this tradition I learned many lessons on the rivers of Maine.
At this early stage in my poling career I’m finding snubbing a loaded canoe (and one that isn’t trimmed right) challenging to say the least! I’m just not doing it quick enough. Luckily as the water is high I have the luxury of resorting to the paddle.
When snubbing, a series of jabs are made using the pole at a shallow angle so the weight of your body is behind it. Snubbing consists of a pair of ‘snubs’. One to the left, one to the right or vice versa. As soon as you plant the pole, the canoe will try to turn around the pole. A snub on the opposite side counters this. Repeat until the canoe has slowed enough.
Snubbing should never be done with the pole across the body. If it is and the pole gets stuck, you’ll take a swim for sure! To do this properly means moving the pole from one side to the other for each snub. For example the left-right snub involves planting the pole left, swapping the pole to the right side of the body, planting the pole right. To do this quickly takes practice. More practice than I’ve had so far.
I’m pleased to hear from the guys who have already gone through this early experience with the pole that the level of frustration I feel today is pretty normal. It’s a steep learning curve.
Back to the water. We’re speeding along. My journal notes that a couple of members of the party took unplanned swims before we reached Munsungan Falls. I stayed dry. I’ve trimmed the boat as best I can with the weight I have available by kneeling just behind the yoke and leaning forward to get more weight at the bow end when necessary. She still spins from time to time if the fast current gets the better of my rather rusty paddling.
We reach Munsungan Falls soon before lunchtime. Boats and gear are carried up the portage trail to the campsite above the falls. Sit down. Rehydrate. Eat lunch. It’s a warm day and it’s nice to relax but all too soon we’re carrying boats and gear down to the put in below the falls and off we go again.
Below the falls the river is a bit more relaxed for a while but soon there’s plenty of rocks and a few strainers to keep your mind on the job.
It’s on this stretch that I take my swim of the day. Rounding a bend where the river narrowed I stood and swapped the paddle for the pole as the river got shallow and rocky. After a blur of snubbing and canoe spinning in the current I had to avoid ‘an obstacle’ (as so often happens when travelling with others!) and despite some panicked poling couldn’t avoid putting the canoe broadside onto a fallen tree at the edge of the river. As the current weighed on the boat and the gunwale started to dip below the water I jumped. Fortunately the current was slow enough that I could pull the boat off and walk it round the tree, have a breather and hop in again.
After what seems like a very long afternoon we reach Munsungan Stream Campsite. Everyone looks wrecked. It’s been a super hard day but boats must be unloaded, taken out and turned over for the night and camp chores done. Soon tents and tarps are up, the fire’s lit and some hot sweet tea is brewing. Wet kit drips on a couple of clothes lines in the last rays of the afternoon sun.
This campsite is accessible by woods road. Thousands of years of ingenuity, skill and knowledge that used to be involved in navigating the woods are now replaced by an hour or two sitting in a truck on a gravel road. Travelling the rivers which run like arteries through the North Woods makes you really appreciate the place. After the incredible wilderness canoe journey we had, just on this one stream in Maine, driving here seems like cheating.
Watching darkness fall over the woods and pondering our place in it all is about as much as I manage tonight before retiring to sleep the well earned sleep of hard labour. Another great day in the North Maine Woods.
During my time in the North Woods of Maine I was a paying guest at the excellent Jack Mountain Bushcraft School, attending the wilderness canoe semester. JMB is run by the ever hospitable and knowledgeable Tim Smith, registered Master Maine Guide, admirably assisted by his cousin Cletus.