Weekend Expeditions: Connections Across Maine

You can’t get there from here.
I’d heard this line over the years, but had never known its roots. I took it as some folksy idiom—most often, delivered with a butchered Yankee accent. That is, “You can’t get they-ahh from he-ahh.”

The drawled words echo in my head as we pull off Maine State Route 27, the area’s lone north-south corridor from the Atlantic to Quebec, outside a small town named Stratton (or named Eustis, depending on who provides directions). It feels like we might be getting closer to understanding the meaning of the hard-to-place phrase. Especially as we prepare our canoes to veer off course on a watery route to a roadless destination, eastward and north across Flagstaff Lake.

Northern Forest Canoe Trail Co-founder Rob Center gives us some paddling trail advice before launching our group onto the glassy waters of Flagstaff Lake.

Fortunately, the path ahead is not exactly unbeaten. It was a long-term project of Vermont canoe racers Rob Center and Kay Henry (following their roles as the marketing and management principals, respectively, of Mad River Canoe), to create a route that allows paddlers to make connections.

Those connections were both physical and personal. Center and Henry’s task was linking the traditional waterways and travel corridors (re)explored by a defunct paddling group (called Native Trails), to form a 740-mile paddling trail in 13 distinct, mapped sections across northern New England from the Adirondacks to the Allagash. The key connections also extended to regions and people. For the co-founding couple, that meant years (after launching their nonprofit venture in 2000) of raising funds, lobbying politicians, rallying private land owners and management agencies alike, plus uniting stakeholder groups in 45 communities to establish the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.

The NFCT in many ways, offered paddlers that missing access, or, put another way, the means to get there from here. Though the NFCT map has been complete for over a decade, including our route on it ahead, the story of Flagstaff Lake goes back further—to 1950 when the Central Maine Power Co., constructed the Long Falls Dam, impounding the Dead River and expanding a lake body that inundated four townships. Our group of four paddlers launches into the dark tannic water, noting the lake’s slight depth as tree stumps appear in the shallows.

Clouds whipped over the Bigelow Range to the south as the glassy lake turned to chop.

Our course across the lake seems just as clear. We’re in lightweight composite boats loaded for a single night, making miles across sheet glass. Time flies as we catch up after a long collective travel day to converge on the mountain-ribbed center of western Maine. Photographer David Jackson and I cruise in solo pack canoes alongside a tripping canoe with C&K’s Aaron Schmidt up front and Zand Martin at stern, acting as the one veteran to the trail guiding our trio of boats to an island he knows.

I’d spent nearly a decade corresponding with Martin as he contributed globe-circling canoeing tales to C&K from his five-year, 15,000-mile, human-powered crossings of North America (2010), Europe (2011), and then Mongolia, Siberia and the Russian Far East (in 2015). That communication was entirely over email, making me realize how little I know of Martin, who steers us up the lake, viewing our group from a reserved distance. He is as new to the three of us, as we are to his home waters where expedition-leading educator first began to stretch out his paddling excursions.

Any chit-chat however is cut short by the sight of the squall.

The exacting line dividing calm and downpour looks as if sheered by a razor. As the wall approaches, Zand tells Aaron how David and I, a few boat lengths back, are “going to get it in six seconds, we’ll get it in 20.”

The gumball rapture begins. Huge drops slap the surface as the mounting tailwind chops up the dark surface, turning it white with the static noise of the rolling impact. Rising mist off the growing ripples blocks the views from one boat to the next.

Prevailing winds at our back soon brought heavy rain.

The storm passes us over, continuing up the lake as abruptly as it arrived.

“My heart got beating there for a second,” Jackson says when we reconnect. “Then I realized, Oh, and I looked around at where we are.”

“There’s only a half-mile of fetch in this lake,” Martin adds.

We dry out and catch the sights of bald eagles regrouping as we make an afternoon landing on Hurricane Island. This is where Martin, without a word, goes to work. Having spent 11 years guiding wilderness canoe expeditions for the National Outdoor Leadership School, not to mention having written their textbook on canoeing, he operates without pause or wasted motion: tarp and tent up, wood cut and collected, dry clothes on, fire up.

We set our sights on Hurricane Island, our campsite for the evening.

The nature preserve island features two first-come, first-served campsites with fire rings and picnic tables. And one fireside table comes in handy as a centerpiece for Martin. As if by muscle memory from creating countless camp kitchens, he pops open a handmade wannigan and nonchalantly starts dealing out gourmet meal courses as the conversation rolls and afternoon hours lazily shift to dusk. While 24 inches of kielbasa browns on a grill sheet, he mixes a naan dough, breaks out a cheese and crackers, plus pesto and mustard for a salt injection while he starts boiling the bugs.

Martin, going to work setting up the campsite on Hurricane Island.

By bugs, I mean live Maine lobsters. This was camp-feast first. And hopefully not a last. The giddy pleasure of the delicacy ripples through our group, gouging through the tender steaming innards with buttery fingers, washing them down with some local Gritty McDuff’s Ale, as if we were getting away with something, or breaking a rule, filling up to such extravagance outside. That’s when it hit me.

“Wow, we’ve been eating for four hours straight,” I said. “That’s as long as we paddled for today.”

“Dave, it’s called canoeing,” Martin responds, loading his Dutch oven with berry cobbler.

Zand Martin impressed with his camp chef skills, preparing course after course, from Maine lobster to blueberry grunts.

I start to appreciate Martin’s dry wit and delivery into the evening. It’s there where another, more basic and intrinsic outdoor skill quickly rises to the surface: campfire banter. Coming straight from the over-connected screen-time world of endless notification alerts and email replies, it takes us a little time to re-adjust to regular interaction. Fortunately, Martin picks up the slack there too, with tales from Kyrgyzstan to Yukon, and also deep-cut comedy bits recited verbatim.

With a belly full of lobster and other camp delicacies, the author gathers in the last light of a Lake Flagstaff evening from the water.

This is where we meet ol’ Virgie and Enoch, a peculiar couple of old lobster-pot dropping characters. None of us know exactly why we’re rolling to Martin’s drawn-out tales leading to weirdly deadpanned punchlines like, “Virgie, you know I have two rakes,” or “Set her again, Bert.” It’s a style and delivery of joke like none we’d ever heard. Martin explains the accent’s roots in the state’s isolated ‘Down East’ northern coastal region, and the tales as folk bits traced to the “Bert and I” comedy duo sketches worn through the last 50 years and now woven into the fabric of Maine.

Clear stars above, thick woods opening onto empty water: The night scene has a feel like other wilderness camps, but this place has a specific feel. The words echo again – you can’t get there from here — as Martin explains how that line too, is a deep Maine cut from the same local ‘Bert and I’ comedy archives.

Waking to the sound of howling wind on the lake — blowing favorably in our intended direction.

The next morning, we get a better sense of the place, waking to cool winds. Back in the boats, the miles fly by with wind and waves lined up at our backs. Clouds scuttle across the Bigelow Range to the south. We turn at the lake’s east side, where the Maine Huts & Trails Flagstaff Hut lies, and where any paddler could imagine the possibilities of an added day — connecting with the adjacent access to the Appalachian Trail, which runs from a south arm of the lake up along the Bigelow Range.

We arrive at the dam and begin the portage around the falls beneath, guided through the forest’s dense greenery by the NFCT’s blue and yellow placards.

The well-marked portage around Long Falls offered a welcome and mellow walk through the woods.

On a return leg to schlep more gear, Jackson says, “Some people don’t like portaging; I love it.”

I ask the him to clarify. I know the photographer is Canadian, but the statement still doesn’t make sense.

“It’s just a thing you do, after sitting in a boat all day – think about people with bad legs or a bad back who can’t do it, and just enjoy the exertion.”

He’s dead serious. I keep in mind, this is a guy who recently canoed (and portaged) 2/3 of the way across Canada.

I start to revel in the walking change of pace too. Though this trail is not too long, immaculately maintained by corps of NFCT volunteers, these boats are not too heavy, and the August weather anything less than perfect. Still, the lugging counts for a little earned forest therapy.

The Dead River winds north below Long Falls Dam.

The lively moving water of the Dead River shuttles us through sunny afternoon miles and a change of wind direction in our faces. As the hours and miles stack up and the conversations devolve, we arrive at the top of Grand Falls.

The group paddles down a calm stretch of the Dead River before the second portage around Grand Falls.

I revisit my better efforts to enjoy the gear slog on the scenic portage around the horseshoe-shaped 40-foot cascade, but each step is a challenge. This walk is longer, steeper, and muddier. We pay for the prior evening, sweating out the lobstah and cobblah, wondering if each bend in the trail will be the last. Finally, we cross a bridge over Spencer Stream, where the NFCT veers off north, and we head a new direction to our destination at the Maine Huts & Trails Grand Falls Hut.

Martin’s wannigan was our heaviest piece of gear. Thankfully we also had David Jackson.

Of course, there’s one catch: You can’t get there from here.

The hut itself requires entry via a footpath downriver along the Dead, or a shuttle ride up to its nest in the woods above the river corridor. We opt for the latter, and upon arrival forget any portage woes.

This is not a “hut” as you’d normally label a compact refuge. At 4,200 square feet, the palatial off-grid lodge boasts a grand main room, radiant slate floors, and the centerpiece – figuratively and literally – of a composting water-free toilet system that’s mysterious in its why-is-this-not-everywhere efficiency (the only byproduct is CO2 vapor and a wheelbarrow full of soil every four years).

After our slack-jawed tour of premises built 14 miles from any pavement, the awe continues through a feast: Fresh bread, kale salad, spicy sesame broccoli and maple balsamic chicken washed down by a special MHT Lager that Baxter’s Brewing cans as a nod to Maine Huts & Trails. The nonprofit works to link a backcountry trail system now highlighted by four of these so-called huts (including the one we paddled past earlier on Flagstaff Lake).

With bellies filled and grime showered, the overstuffed plush leather chairs feel like another overindulgence. We look at the area maps, littered with remote waterways through the patchwork mix of private and protected lands, and start dreaming of getting back on the water again. Martin notes how a single day “in the outdoors with a group of people you’ve never met before has got to be worth a few weeks back in that other life.”

It’s staggering to quantify the degrees that our small group of scruffy, disparate dudes connected in just two days covering 28 miles through a landscape still cut off from the cell service that would surely pull our thoughts from the shared path ahead. We naturally return back to that campfire ring. We gauge the full ribbon of the Milky Way above and then stare down into the embers for answers.

We’re there.

Night falls on Maine Huts & Trails Grand Falls ‘Hut.’

Eustis, Maine lodging: Spillover Inn at Stratton Brook
Northern Forest Canoe Trail (Section 9): NFCT Trip Planner/Map
Maine Huts and Trails: Flagstaff Lake Hut / Grand Falls Hut

Northstar Canoes // Hornbeck Boats // Placid Boatworks // Kokatat // NRS // Bending Branches // Mitchell Paddles // Werner // Exped // Alite // WenonahCurrent Designs // Granite Gear // LL Bean // Garmin // MPowerd Lights // Pocket Disc // Thule // Honey Stinger // Gritty’s // Allen’s

Go Light, Go Long, Testing the Latest Crop of Pack Canoes
Inside the NFCT: A Case for Maine
Solo on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail
Linking the NFCT and Maine Island Trail
The Maine Barn of Birchbark Builder Ken Weeks

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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