Backpackers Trade Trekking Poles for Paddles

an excerpt from my latest goEast story

Are you planning to hit that rock for a reason?”
“Tell me where to go; don’t tell me where not to go!”
“You have to speak louder!”
“The glare! I can’t see!”

Dodging rocks on a river takes practice, and learning is a trial-by-fire situation. My friends and I are all hardy hikers and have been on many challenging adventures, but this is our first long-distance canoe trip. We’re all out of our comfort zone. And as the current moves us swiftly down Maine’s Allagash Wilderness Waterway, we discover we need to do more than just muster some paddling skills.

In the months since we planned this trip, we had all done more reading about canoeing than actual canoeing, and this became apparent soon after we slid our boats into the quiet water of Umsaskis Lake. One canoe began drifting aimlessly, as if unmanned, and another traveled in circles. Paddling requires cooperation, and while we’re a tight-knit team, we’re each used to choosing our own path. Snippets of unhappy conversations between partners swirled, along with the canoes, in the afternoon breeze.

Forming a line of four boats in the middle of the lake, we huddled for a pep talk that first afternoon. We shared stroke advice and discussed fundamentals (steering happens at the back). Things improved moderately after that and more dramatically after we stopped for a snack break on land and rotated some people from the stern to the bow. Still, we made slow progress, and when we reached our first obstacle, a short portage around Long Lake Dam, we decided to call it a day. We were tired and frustrated. Mostly, though, we were concerned about the rapids, the Allagash Falls portage, and everything that lay ahead in the next 50 miles.

We set up camp in relative silence, each contemplating our own inadequacies. But our moods brightened after a refreshing swim and a good meal: vegetables, beans, and sausage cooked in tin foil packets over the fire. River camping was beginning to grow on us. When we crawled into our tents that night, our concerns about what we might encounter downstream faded, blurred by the soothing sound of water rushing over the old dam. Overhead, we were blanketed by a dark sky alive with shooting stars.

The midsummer sun stretched warm arms down the river as we packed our canoes the next morning. We set off with renewed energy. Bald eagles, great blue herons, kingfishers, and mergansers became our constant companions. We slipped silently by as deer crossed the river ahead of us. Paddlers at the stern became more adept at making minor course corrections, and those in the bow improved their forward stroke. Beyond technique, there’s an intuitive nature to paddling that we were beginning to understand. And just as we started to feel the rhythm, we entered the first of many rips (easy rapids).

Suddenly we were being propelled quickly forward regardless of our will. Why had we put ourselves in this position? Who’s idea was this? What was the difference between an upstream V and a downstream V? Our limited knowledge of river reading abandoned us in the panic. Initially, we turned on each other.

Are you planning to hit that rock for a reason?”
“Tell me where to go; don’t tell me where not to go!”
“You have to speak louder!”
“The glare! I can’t see!”

We yelled frantically over the din of the current as our canoes bounced off rocks but eventually exited the rips unscathed.

Floating in the calm water, flanked by towering eastern pine, spruce, and fir, we gathered our thoughts. We weren’t in danger of being thrown into a frothy torrent. The water level was perfect for beginners. It wasn’t fear we were feeling. It was something else. Continue reading on goEast.

Our Itinerary:
Day 1: Umsaskis put-in to Long Lake Dam
Day 2: Long Lake Dam to Hosea B (side trip to hike Round Pond Mountain)
Day 3: Hosea B to South Twin 
Day 4: South Twin to Allagash Village

– Allagash Wilderness Waterway National Geographic Maps
The Allagash Guide by Gil Gipatrick
AWW Conditions and Alerts (The water was flowing at 1,370 cfs when we paddled.)
– There are nightly campsite fees and day-use North Maine Woods fees.
– We used Talor Kelly Camps to rent canoes and drive us to our starting point.

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