The farther north you get, the deeper the woods and the richer the rewards. The connections in Maine only get better. Not to cell service, of course. To find your way, you’ll need a gazetteer.
We break ours out after passing The Forks, and heading into the Maine Highlands’ network of backroads. There, analog navigation points us up the Kennebec, passing our first Moose Crossing sign. After a quick food restock in the town of Jackman (the last real paddling trail community until the northern end of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail) our group of four switches over to the Moose River drainage. On the banks of Moosehead Lake, we stop at another storied adventure outpost. Not unlike our prior stop at Northern Outdoors, this one is also helmed by another one of the state’s pioneers of outfitted paddling.
In the marina of the Birches Resort, John Willard sits on the float of his 1947 Piper Super Cruiser PA 12. He talks at a pace as relaxing as the atmosphere around the resort’s tranquil string of cabins extending out from its historic lodge. Willard relives the spark that began his whitewater paddling career in the mid-‘70s “Deliverance Era,” after which he launched Wilderness Rafting Expeditions with “one raft and 10 life jackets.” Since selling it over a decade ago, he has focused since on operations for the resort he has owned for 34 years. “I always did what I liked to do,” he puts simply, “and marketed it.”
Now Willard accesses the wilds with quieter paddling, and louder planes. When he invites us for a ride in the restored bear-hunting seaplane, we jump at the chance to get a larger sense of the landscape. The immediate ascent off the lake yields a dramatic view down, where the volcanic face of Mount Kineo sheers off nearly 1,000 straight down to the water. The rise in elevation provides a longer view north: a green carpet of spruce and pine extending to the horizon, ribboned with streams and lakes of the vast Allagash Wilderness Waterway. It appears endless, peering out over seeming untouched reaches into the Canadian north. Willard alerts us to the bull moose exploring the stream directly below, which meanders into our destination on Lobster Lake. From this vantage, the lake clearly fits its namesake with two bodies that resemble the claw of a Maine lobster.
Lobster Lake, while not a part of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, presents too tempting a side-journey off the trail to write off from any journey to the region. A mere two miles down from the bridge/parking lot where Lobster Stream veers south from the trail’s route north along the West Branch Penobscot, the Lake offers pristine paddle-in lakeside camping. We snag the first-come, first-served Ogden Point north site with enough time to soak in a long afternoon and take advantage of a leisurely sundown tour of twisted pine trees topping the rocky islets marking the entrance to the Little Claw bay.
It’s black glass paddling back into the silent setting sun. Karrie Thomas, who serves as the NFCT’s executive director, relives the trip in which she brought her two young boys out here on their first paddle-camping experiences
“It’s that place where we are just with each other,” Thomas says, “learning about the natural world and experiencing the landscape … taking time to just talk to each other, what we are seeing and having a common purpose.”
With full bellies and a fading fire, we dig our feet into the sandy north-facing beach and I think how that hook of common purpose doesn’t diminish with age. We are all present, processing this experience together. Conversation quiets as we soak in the view out from camp, north over the calm waters of the lake: the reflection of a new moon’s sliver, a clear and cloudless night, and the first flashes of a meteor shower streaking across the open space above — and all around us.
The morning opens in slows paces. Sunrise slowly warms the breezy beach-side camp. Wood crackles, coffee percolates. Zand Martin trowels red-hot coals to top a Dutch oven loaded with caramelized cinnamon rolls.
“I particularly like Lobster Lake because it’s not necessarily part of the canoe routes – it doesn’t go anywhere,” says Martin, assessing the day’s open agenda. “So much of my time in this part of Maine has been very goal oriented, A to B along a canoe portage or trail, and it’s a wonderful thing to have an opportunity to not be going anywhere.”
We relish the relaxing morning, stuffing selves with the warm rolls and hot coffee, followed by a swim in cool lake waters. Inertia forward eventually returns. We load up and cross back over the glassy open waters, returning to the West Branch Penobscot.
The clear current provides Martin time to reflect back on his first summer-camp trip down the West Branch 20 years ago. “It was the first big expedition I had ever done and it felt like I was on another planet — I had never been any place quite so wild.”
The decades since have taken the expedition paddler-instructor around the world (literally, in a trio of continent-spanning canoe journeys), down both some of the planet’s most remote and inhospitable watersheds, as well as its most storied and populated river corridors. With all that new perspective gained, you might not blame Martin for feeling underwhelmed by the simple stretch that inspired those larger, longer journeys. Instead, he beams about the West Branch’s ample campsites that allow any level paddlers the ability to stretch a long day-trip into a basic multi-day excursion. Martin notes the continuous, yet forgiving flatwater flow through remote woods. His conclusion is clear: “I don’t think there’s a better introductory river canoe trip in the world.”
The retrospect feels fitting as we land on Thoreau’s Island for lunch. Imagining the naturalist writer-thinker’s first 1853 exploration of the river inspires lively conversation about human impact on the planet since Henry David’s life centuries prior. As the discussion broadens to greater life in the cosmos, the rumble of a logging truck in the distance brings us back to the present.
As Martin points out, the North Maine Woods is wilderness, yes, but there’s a catch.
“It is a wilderness,” he says. “And yet people live here, and people travel here and have for ten thousand years: Abenaki, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, native people, loggers, people that live on the lake and the guides that work here, fishermen, us as canoeists and human-powered travelers: This is an inhabited wilderness.”
We discover another type of inhabitant as the calm conveyor belt ripples with a little more pace into the woods. Rounding a bend, we spot a moose drinking from the river-right shore. With a slight headwind to mask the approach of our three boats, we freeze. Time slows without stroke or breath as the current collapses the distance between us and the antlered brown dot that grows into a hearty bull audibly slurping away in our direct path. In the moment before awe turns to aww-crap concern for self, he whips the rack our direction and locks eyes. Without worry, the bull turns and traipses back up to denser wetlands.
The river itself breathes life with the long, wavy ends a grassy riverbed poking through the dark, tannin-rich waters just beneath the surface. We emerge from the green tunnel where the West Branch widens. The sky opens into the afternoon sun. As conversations quiet into the longer miles, we slide past other, more distant signs of life. Rock and rebar, railroad ties and white pine bolted, grouted and ground into mid-river piles for attaching log booms: man-made signs of the Penobscot’s history as a log-running artery of the timber industry.
On the final approach into Chesuncook Lake we arrive at a unique five-way intersection: Take a hard left, and access Black Pond and paddling (and portaging) routes north toward Allagash Lake; Head left, continuing up Chesuncook and along the Northern Forest Canoe Trail route, moving northeast over Mud Pond Carry to Chamberlain Lake into the wilderness watershed of the Allagash River; Turn back up the West Branch; or, take a right turn down the lake’s southern terminus, where the West Branch then funnels through the (dam-controlled) whitewater of Ripogenis Gorge on its long run out to the Atlantic.
“It’s one of those really cool nexuses of the North Woods,” Martin says, where, “with a good map, enough food and with a stout crew you could move basically anywhere in the state.”
The view opening to the south, of Mount Katahdin’s 5,000-foot massif looming over the lake provides an added sense that we’ve reached the hub of a wheel where endless paddling trips extend out and connect in every direction. Again, the gazetteer is an essential. Martin even pitches trips about portaging and re-linking to the Penobscot’s upper East Branch on the distant side of Katahdin.
After the 25-mile day, however, we take the most direct path ahead, across the lake to Gero Island. A final wind-whipped sprint to the bedrock shore, and we quickly make camp. Sweated out and drained, everyone takes silent action popping tent poles and cracking kindling. We stop to notice the sun’s orange glow as it drops into a low haze. The breeze settles and the scene takes a halcyon turn. We’re helpless against the lure of the sunset, drawing us back out of camp to the smooth sun-baked slate lakeshore for a final swim.
There are no thoughts of the paddle out tomorrow, the storm system working its way in or the long drive back out the North Maine Woods’ dusty logging road tether to the paved world. No desire to start thinking back to the other life responsibilities on hold for this moment. We just float in the water, lay on the rocks. Look up at cumulus puffs crossed by jet streams. It feels like the peak of summer.
There’s no rush to the finish. With the final takeout within sight, there’s a reluctance to move ahead and a need to draw out this sunset close to a slow, long, full day. To feel that good sore: reconnected with a healthier, simpler sense of self. One more meal around the campfire, conversations about the next trip, the next route to arrive at this same type of place and same rekindled sense of being. And finally, a parting reassurance that the less-covered corners of the world — ones that you still need a map to locate — are more welcoming and accessible than ever given credit for.
Wenonah–Current Designs // NRS // Kokatat // Bending Branches // Mitchell Paddles // Werner // Exped // Alite // Northstar Canoes // Hornbeck Boats // Placid Boatworks // Granite Gear // LL Bean // Garmin // MPowerd Lights // Pocket Disc // Thule // Honey Stinger // Gritty’s // Allen’s
Connections Across Maine — Part 1, Lakes & Mountains // Part 2, Kennebec Valley
Inside the NFCT: A Case for Maine
25 Days on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail
Linking the NFCT and Maine Island Trail
The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak
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