We unload the canoe and my gear in the steady rain. With his guide’s head on Tim says, in a serious tone I’m not used to, “If you run into any trouble bang on a cabin door or wave down a truck”. Fortunately I don’t run into any trouble as I only pass two empty cabins in the next eight days and trucks are rarer than hen’s teeth once I get away from the road. With the haste of a guy who’s getting soaked when he could be sitting in his dry, comfortable truck, Tim wishes me well, hops in and hits the gas. I wave him off and then I’m alone in the rain.
Well, almost alone. There’s a slightly surprised moose across the road. I’ve never seen a moose with any other expression. It’s probably mild surprise that there’s anyone stupid enough to be out here in the rain and mosquitoes. And here in Northern Maine, rain and mosquitoes is pretty much the regional speciality.
The campsite is no great shakes but show me one that is when it’s cold, grey and wet
I’m making a solo canoe trip in the green heart of northern Maine, the North Maine Woods. I’m headed for Millimagasset Lake. It’s not a huge lake but at a few miles long by a couple wide it’s a great place for a week or so of fishing, relaxing and generally enjoying myself. I shouldn’t have much company up there. There’s no public road access and only one or two private cabins on the lake shore. There are two campsites on Millimagassett, both on small islands a little way off shore. I intend to make one of these islands my home for a week or so. With the nice breeze you get on a body of water, it should be the ideal place to get away from it all with some fishing, sleeping, swimming and generally enjoy the high life.
Tim reckons it’ll take me a couple of hours to travel upriver to Millimagassett but it’s already 4pm and pissing with rain. It gets dark pretty late this time of year but today it’s grey and dull already. I make the decision to stay at the campsite near the put in and set off in the morning. Hopefully the weather will have improved by then. The campsite is no great shakes but show me one that is when it’s cold, grey and wet. It’s an almost flat patch of grass next to the road with a couple of picnic benches, a couple of fire rings and a toilet.
In what’s become a well drilled, almost subconscious, routine I pitch the tent, throw anything that needs to be kept dry inside it and stash everything else under the canoe then scout around for some dry tinder, kindling and firewood. One of the marvels of the northern forest is the almost universal availability of birch bark and good dead, dry spruce twigs. You find the stuff wherever you go and I’m damn glad of it. One of my favourite fire starters and very reliable. I always carry a little pouch of tinder with me but I like to use it as little as possible and pick my tinder up as I go.
A match held under a good double handful of small, dry spruce twigs (and maybe some birch bark for extra oomph) soon gives birth to a smokey flame that grows and makes the wood crackle despite the rain. With some larger dry sticks on top I soon have the perfect fire to hang the billy can over for a brew. While there would be nothing better than a nice cup of tea, nice cups of tea are rare on this side of the Atlantic. I guess it could have something to do with that business in Boston all those years ago but whatever the reason for the lack of proper tea, a strong pot of coffee brewed over the fire cowboy style is probably more fitting and does the job just as well. When in Rome and all that.
For years I’ve been a staunch tarpist but each time I’ve come up here near the end of spring or in summer, I’ve opted for a small backpacking tent. The bugs are relentless. Until you’ve been in a northern forest in summer you wouldn’t believe how much of your time is spent swotting and cursing bugs. Oh, and bleeding. And scratching. Being able to zip up that mesh door, squash a few lone raiders inside the tent and not have to worry about anything other than the incessant hum outside is a real luxury. I guess a tarp with a bug net would be another option but just seems like more faffing about.
I lie in the tent propped up on a dry bag drinking coffee and thinking about the journey ahead
I’m excited to be starting another journey but as usual the little voice in the back of my head is questioning me. I tell it to shut up. There’s no feeling like starting a journey. Being alone makes it even more exciting. All the while the rain drums steadily on the fly. I love being out in this weather inside a shelter I’ve carried here or made while the rain falls. It must be something pretty primal. It’s like a deep satisfaction. It’s raining but I don’t care. I’m OK. It seems like it’ll be a wet night. There’s been a fair bit of rain here lately and the rivers are higher than I’ve seen them before. Travelling upstream will take more muscle than ever and possibly more than I can offer. Only tomorrow will tell.
By morning the rain has stopped and it’s overcast but bright with mist hanging in the trees. Breakfast is the standard fare for a canoe trip – oats and coffee. While the oats are cooking I start to pack up camp and soon enough it’s time to set off for Millimagassett Lake. Breakfast on a canoe trip is rarely a relaxed one. If the weather’s fair it’s best to get on the water while it stays that way. Relaxed breakfasts can wait untilI reach my luxury island getaway.
The put in is just a short walk down the road, over the bridge and down the bank into Millinocket Stream. I carry the canoe first. It’s been a while since I’ve carried one of these 18ft Novacraft Prospectors and I’m amazed how much heavier it seems than the 16ft boat I paddle at home. Once the canoe is safely afloat in the eddy upstream of the bridge, I make another couple of trips with the gear.
At the start of a journey, I’m excited but part of me (that little voice again) wonders why I’m doing it and whether I’m up to it
After loading, checking and rechecking everything I take a good drink of water, tighten my PFD, untie the canoe, step in, push off and take hold of the setting pole and manoeuvre the boat out of the eddy into the current. The big prospector is so wide and flat that standing up involves virtually none of the “shit! it’s going to tip over” moments that I get at home in my shorter boat with more rocker.
The pole makes upstream travel in quick water possible where paddling becomes impossible. A pole allows you to push the canoe upstream without the current dragging you back downstream between pushes. But I’m still a novice at it. Last year was the first time I’d used one. I learnt the basics but struggled in quicker water. I left somewhat confident of my ability and keen to try it again. It’s time to find out how much of the learning stuck.
A short distance upstream from the bridge is a little set of rips where the stream flows through some rocks and vegetation, squeezing the flow through three quick moving chutes. Nothing too tricky really. The boat’s set up for upstream travel – trimmed stern heavy, I’m poised with bent knees and good balance. It’s time for action!
I steer the canoe towards one of the smaller chutes. I push up it with the pole but the
bow gets pushed over by the current and catches on a clump of weeds sticking out of the water. The beauty of standing in the canoe is being able to easily use your weight and position in to alter the trim on the fly. I rock the boat from side to side and step back to make the bow lighter. Slowly the bow slips back off the weeds and I’m back in the fast flowing current. I jab the pole in to stop the boat moving any further downstream and get ready for another upstream push.
This time the bow hits the chute square on and I power up the chute with the full length of the pole. I recover the pole and thrust it into the stream bed again, all the while the current desperately trying to push the boat back down the chute. With no practice since last year I’m a little slow at getting the pole firmly planted. The strong current flowing downriver past the chute I’m on grabs the bow and tries to turn the boat sideways. Damn it! I quickly jab the pole in to the right and manage to turn the canoe back upstream with every muscle from my biceps to my thighs. I’m turning like a corkscrew! This time I manage to quickly plant the pole behind me again and with one last heave push the canoe up the chute and into the slower water beyond.
The first day of a trip is always hard. Muscles are getting used to it again and the mind must follow. It takes some strength of character but I think that’s a good thing
So far I’ve gone about 200ft and it’s taken me 45 minutes. To make myself feel better about this I convince myself Tim’s two hours to reach the lake must have been at much lower water. In reality it probably wasn’t. It probably took into account the exact river conditions, prevailing wind, temperature and barometric pressure. That’s what guide’s are good at. Or I hould say, they’re good at giving you the confidence they did take all that stuff into account even if they just remembered vaguely doing it once and grabbed a number out of the air.
Whatever the case, today time doesn’t really matter. It feels good to be out here doing something so special. I’ve spent Monday mornings for years stuck in the same old routine. This marks the start of Monday mornings with a difference. I’m actually rather glad it’s taking a while. I’m happy, have hours of daylight left and I’m not running to a fixed schedule so why not just enjoy the ride? The sky’s clearing and it’s turned into a beautiful day. Dragonflies cheerily flutter alongside the canoe. Even the blackflies gnaw at me cheerfully today.
After the rips, the stream doesn’t hold too many surprises. There’s the odd stretch of
quicker water where the river is running through fallen timber but other than that it’s a grand day to take a seat and paddle in a laid back style. I’m not planning on a lunch stop as even at my relaxed pace I’ll arrive in time for a brew and an early dinner.
Before long the stream flattens out into a pool and a stretch of almost dead water. After being hemmed in for so long by the legions of spruce and firs the stream finally escapes from the regular curves and lines they enforced and enjoys some freedom as it spreads out into a wide marshy area and runs where it pleases. Above the pool on a bluff lies a gorgeous cabin.
What a place for it! You can’t look at a cabin like this without imagining yourself sitting out back dressed in a comfortable old flannel shirt tinkering with a fly rod in preparation for fishing that deep old pool for the catch of a lifetime or holding court over a lazy barbecue washed down with a few cool beers on a hot summers day. I’d better start playing the lottery!
My companions through the marshy deadwater are a few more slightly surprised looking moose – I can almost hear them thinking “What! No one normally comes up here”, a couple of beavers are pretty upset that I’m on their patch, and the usual flittering and fluttering insect and bird life of the woods. As there’s not much wind the wildlife is also bolstered by a few billion mosquitoes intent on sucking out some of the stuff the blackflies left behind earlier.
You know, I saw so many moose this trip that I even stopped bothering to photograph them
According to my Maine Atlas And Gazetteer, the outlet stream from Millimagasset Lake is the second stream on the left after the put in. The first stream, Boody Brook, was back by the cabin. I’m now on the lookout for the next stream which should take me to my destination. If I overshoot the turning Millinocket Falls, another mile or so up the stream I’m on now, will make it clear that I’ve gone too far.
Eventually I reach what I guess to be the Millimagassett outlet stream and head up it meandering through a beaver pond and onwards to quicker water again as the stream is once more hemmed in by timber. It’s narrower than Millinocket and with a good flow so the pole is brought out more often. There are quite a few strainers and large rocks causing even quicker flow but it’s steady progress switching between paddle and
I wonder how many people travel up this stream in a year? It can’t be many. Most people drive their SUV or putter in a boat with an outboard to their destination rater than canoeing upriver to it. I can’t help thinking they’re missing something. Missing a whole other side to this landscape and a much more wholesome way to travel these woods.
Soon the current gets faster. Much faster. Even the hardest paddling gets me nowhere. The pole comes out again. Soon the current’s soon too fast even for the pole. The outlet stream is jammed with fallen timber forcing all the water through a narrow chute. I hold the boat in the current with the pole and think through the options.
When I’m in the outdoors, especially alone, I make it my business to take my time to appraise the situation. I’d be an idiot not to and it’s saved me from a few situations where I’d have been in over my head. This time probably literally.
I pole the canoe over to the bank. I need to check this out on foot. I’m soon balls deep in the freezing water. I don’t like this. In fact I don’t like it at all. The water in the main channel’s over my waist, and it’s moving at a hell of a rate over the slippery, rocky stream bed. It’s a potentially deadly situation. You might think I’m being a bit dramatic but for me, one of the best parts of any journey is getting home to tell the tale.
Hopping back onto the bank, it’s time to make a decision. The stream here is hemmed in by thick timber so there’s no chance of a carry. It also makes it impossible to tie lines onto the boat and track it through the quick water from the bank. Generally, wading in fast water above the waist is a no brainer. It’s too easy to lose your footing and get unbalanced by the strong current. A foot caught under a rock or a log, even if I wasn’t alone, could easily end the journey right here at this spot in a very short time. It’s time to weigh up the options.
After a few minutes crouching on the slippery river bank I realise there’s only one
option – to walk ahead of the boat dragging it behind me through the quick water and hope I can keep my footing. I tie line to the bow and in I go, over waist deep in the cold, rushing water.
I test the slippery rocks with my feet, trying to gauge my chances. Shit. I’ll just have to go for it. One hand on the rope, one hand on the bow grab handle for support, I inch forwards, planting my feet as securely as I can after feeling my way over the slippery rocks. Slowly does it. Another step forward making sure I’m balanced before moving the other foot. I slip on a large rock and nearly lose my balance.
I’m usually pretty cautious in the outdoors but sometimes you just have to say screw it and get on with getting on
A couple of times I feel like my legs are being dragged from under me by the current. I lean into the current and hang on. The current’s almost too strong for me and I can feel myself losing the battle and being dragged back downstream. Just as I’m sure I’m going to lose my footing, I manage to stretch my hand out and grab a fallen tree.
As I clutch at the wet, slimy timber it takes every ounce of energy to drag myself and the canoe through the chute and into the deep pool beyond all this craziness. I take a few minutes to gather myself. I’m dehydrated, hungry and my brain’s fried but at the same time I feel elated. Elated by my achievement. My thoughts are usually weighed down with the useless crap that modern life pumps into my head. Here at the outlet of Millimagassett lake, my thoughts are about nothing other than my journey. This single minded focus that I find so difficult to achieve in modern life with all it’s distractions makes every part of me feel alive.
Luckily all that piled up timber at the outlet makes the stream from here pretty slow moving and I enjoy the more relaxed pace. Soon enough the outlet stream opens out and I’m on the lake. I plan to try out the nearest island camp site at least for tonight. Another twenty minutes paddling and the island’s in my sights. The wind’s whipping across the lake which makes it a rough crossing but by now this seems like the least of my worries and I just want to reach the campsite and get settled in.
Once the canoe’s unloaded and safely onshore it’s time for the routine to kick in again. It’s a welcome routine that no matter how tired I am, happens almost without thought. I pitch the tent, kindle a fire, get a brew on – you know the drill by now. As I sit there enjoying the sunshine, the owner of this island, a fine bald eagle, sits sentinel-like on a tall pine. I sip a sugary green tea and reflect on the day.
It’s been a hard one but good things come out of a day like this. Whoever said the journey’s more important than the destination was dead right. Today I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and I came off on top. Solo trips are a chance to experience nature in a uniquely intimate way. They also allow me to push myself and live with the consequences. As always, I finish the journey enriched, more experienced and have learnt more about myself. What more could I want? I eat a hearty supper, spend a while watching the dying embers of the fire and retire to my exclusive lake view bedroom. I think I’m going to like it here.