We’re still in the heart of the Maine North Woods on day five of our Canoe Expedition. Last night we made camp at Munsungan Stream campsite after a hard day’s paddle. We went to bed with clear skies but awake to cold grey skies full of rain. A day like this isn’t the day for canoeing a remote river that’s already seen several of us taking unplanned swims.
It’s only day five of our canoe expedition but we’ve already got the rainy day routine all sewn up. Hemmed in for a couple of days by cold, wet weather at our put in on Chase Lake we drank coffee, collected firewood, chatted, ate, drank more coffee, laughed, stoked the fire, drank even more coffee, slept and fiddled with kit.
Urgh. Another rainy day
Today is the same. Only the place is different. Yesterday was a tough day on the river. People are tired. It’s wet, it’s cold (temperatures on the trip so far have been not too far above freezing), it’s windy. Staying put is definitely the right call.
The decision – stay put or push on?
The decision to stay put for a day or two can be a tough one. Some members of a group will always be keen to push on regardless. They often have the loudest voices. The group leader has to weigh up all the risks and make a decision. Out here in this weather, especially on a canoe expedition, hypothermia is the absolute number one risk factor. Sitting in a canoe for a few hours, let alone dumping the canoe and getting a soaking, on a day like this stacks the deck firmly against you.
So the day was spent with the usual camp shenanigans: Trying to keep a fire burning in heavy rain, cooking, eating, joking around. At one point we even resort to some knot practice. I’ve never had a brain for knots. The non inverting slippery bowline still eludes me.
The group shrinks
The most notable event of the day is the departure of two members of the group. Shawn needs to be back home in two days time. After some discussion he decides to carry on today. Zac volunteers to go with him (he’s a young guy. he’s in a rush). With the river runnning fast and high they paddle the thirty-odd miles back to Masardis before nightfall.
I’m sorry to see the guys go as they added alot to the group but I’m relieved that this takes some of the time pressure off the rest of us. I’m still struggling to get used to the pole. In faster water I feel far from confident and happy to take my time.
Late in the afternoon the rain lets up a little.There’s some fishing. The fishing is good with some decent brook trout falling prey to the lure. Food can be a real morale booster on a day like this. Everyone helps with dinner. The highlights are salt pork and cabbage fried up with some spices and chilli and some more sourdough delights courtesy of the folding reflector oven and the Sourdough Supremo on this trip, Big Fish.
The day slowly draws to a close and a new one begins after a damp night. It’s still cold but the rain’s slowed to a light drizzle.
It’s time to get the canoes in the water again for a remedial poling class.
It’s strange to get back into an unladen canoe. It’s tippier but so much more responsive to even the lightest touch of the pole. We each get to put in a few laps round the small island just upstream. First task is to pole the canoe against the current through some rocky, quick water past the island river right. Upstream river travel relies on making use of eddies, the calm areas downstream of obstructions such as rocks. Push through the quick water, manoeuvre the canoe sideways into the eddy, take a breather, push again to get through the next quick bit.
After a few tries and a couple of gunwale grabbing,squatting, nearly overbalancing moments, I’m upstream of the island and in the eddy behind another island.
Now comes the bit that’s proved most challenging so far – snubbing. Using the pole to slow the canoe downstream by planting it firmly ahead of the canoe on alternate sides, the poler can stop their canoe midstream in fast water. I’m not quite a poler yet as my attempts still end up with the canoe swinging broadside into the current with usually hilarious results.
In the wider part of the stream nearer camp we practise ferrying the canoe across the river upstream and downstream. Essential skills for a wilderness river canoe expedition. Imagine you’re approaching the infamous Widowmaker Falls. You get the canoe to the bank before the falls. There’s a portage trail somewhere here. Shit! It’s on the opposite bank. An upstream ferry will see you right without becoming another victim of the Widowmaker.
I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of this poling lark but I’m not letting go of my paddle yet!
We hit the river again
After a lunch of leftovers, we pack up camp and head out. The rain has stopped and it might even brighten up this afternoon. Munsungan stream has been a fine testing ground both for the group and for my rusty river skills. It’s only another couple of miles from here to Munsungan Branch campsite, sitting high on a bluff overlooking the pool where Munsungan Stream and Millinocket Stream meet and flow together as the Aroostook River.
The river is high, fast and winding. I lose my pole three times and swim twice.
Someone manages to rescue the pole each time but the river claims my cap and my sunglasses which were whipped off by a passing alder.
It’s a hard couple of miles. I’m last into camp. I’m about done. Habit gets me through the usual routine of getting camp set up. I must look a wreck – Whisky Jack gives me a mug full of trail mix. This hasn’t happened before. I sit by my tent tired, damp but restored by the wave of salty goodness and reflect on another great day on the river.
These are the long overdue reports of my trip to Maine in May/Jun 2012. During my time in the North Woods of Maine I was a paying guest at the excellent Jack Mountain Bushcraft School. JMB is run by the ever hospitable and knowledgeable Tim Smith, registered Master Maine Guide.