One with the river

Posted Wednesday, July 13, 2011 in Sustainable Maine

One with the river

(Photo courtesy of Eliza Townsend) A group of state legislators explore the Allagash Wilderness Waterway during a canoe trip several years ago.

by Matthew LaRoche, superintendent of Allagash Wilderness Waterway

The feeling of being close to the natural world that you experience on a multi-day canoe trip is a memory that will last a lifetime. The rhythm of the paddle, the constant reading of the river, and setting up camp dominate your thoughts. Meetings, phone calls and emails are replaced with the sights and sounds of nature.

I have canoed the Allagash and other northern Maine rivers several times. Every trip has a special memory or two associated with it. On my first trip down the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, my college roommate, John Deans, and I started our trip at Churchill Dam. Like most college students, we outfitted our trip on a shoestring budget and with minimal gear. By the fourth morning, we had eaten all our food except for a packet of pancake mix. The mix supposedly made 18-20 pancakes. We got three 6-inch-diameter pancakes out of that packet of pancake mix! That was a pretty skimpy breakfast for a couple of 19-year-olds who had been on the river for three days.

Luckily, Lee Hafford, the ranger at Michaud Farm, invited us in for coffee and a piece of lemon meringue pie. We each had two pieces of pie, which was just enough fuel to get us to the town of Allagash. Lesson learned: Bring plenty of food when you’re on a canoe trip.

On a trip down Webster Stream with my brother, nephew, and son Levi, the water was running low, so I was poling rather than paddling the canoe. My pole got stuck in the rocks and rather than let go of the pole, I decided to muscle it out. Before I knew it, I was vaulted out of the canoe and ended up taking a swim – much to the delight of my son, who was high and dry in the canoe.

What I enjoy most about an extended canoe trip is leaving the thoughts of civilization behind and focusing on reading the best channel in the river, watching for wildlife, and the interaction with the rest of the group. It’s a mental break from the information overload we so often experience in the civilized world.

I have found that on the first day out you are still thinking about things at home or work. By day two, those thoughts are being replaced by paddling in tempo with your partner, figuring out where the next stop is going to be, and pondering what’s for supper. By day three, the stuff going on at work and home don’t even come to mind. You become totally focused on the things of nature that surround you, your group, and what’s for supper.

The simple things in life rise to the top when you spend a few days out on the river in a remote setting. Things like a warm fire on a cool evening, a good meal, and a good cup of coffee early in the morning (Why does coffee taste so much better out on the river?).

Some people experience a real clarity of life after spending a few days in the natural world, a spiritual awakening if you will. For others, they just want to go home and sleep in a soft bed! 

As with all good things, an Allagash River trip must come to an end. When you get to Fort Kent, you will have access to email, cell phone coverage, and many stores. You will be inundated by the technology of our modern world. Just think of all the great pictures you will have to post on Facebook!

One of the great things about the Allagash Wilderness Waterway is that it has been preserved much as it was 1,000 years ago. The waterway will be there when you are ready to explore its natural beauty. But don’t wait too long – life has a way of slipping by before we know it.

Some other great northern Maine rivers to canoe are the West Branch of the Penobscot, St. John, Webster Stream/East Branch of the Penobscot, Moose River, and Munsungan Stream/Aroostook River.

For information on the AWW, go to: or call (207) 941-4014, email or write to the Bureau of Parks & Lands, 106 Hogan Road, Bangor, ME 04401.

Waterway notes: The reservoirs behind Churchill Dam and Telos Dam are full. If we have normal precipitation during the summer, we should have excellent water conditions for the entire canoeing season.

Steve Day has transferred from the Penobscot River Corridor to the Umsaskis District on the AWW. Day is a retired district ranger with the Maine Forest Service. Erik Ahlquist has transferred to the longer season assistant ranger position at Churchill Dam. Ahlquist is a recent graduate of the University of Maine at Fort Kent. Two of his primary responsibilities will be regulating water flows in Chase Rapids and operating the portage service around the rapids.

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