Paddling the Wild; A Four Day Expedition Along the Allagash Wilderness Waterway
The Allagash Wilderness Waterway, located in the far northern reaches of Maine, has been a highly sought after destination for paddlers from all over the world for decades. A journey along the Allagash grants an experience that can be hard to find elsewhere;
consisting of 92 miles of remote and pristine river and lake travel through the heart of the Great North Woods. A truly wild place.
As exciting as the prospect of tackling the entirety of the 92 mile route in one push sounded, I wasn’t quite sure if I was ready for such a water expedition, as most paddlers complete the entire route in around 10 days. Most of my experience in the backcountry comes primarily in the form of foot travel, but I do dabble in the art of canoe expeditions from time to time. I’m no expert by any means on river and open water travel, but I like to think I know my way around a canoe.
Months of pouring over trip reports and talking to local guides helped me settle on a more feasible plan; 50 miles over the course of four days, traveling through the northern half of the waterway.
This route avoids most of the larger lakes in the Southern half (and the burlier rapids), which can be tricky to cross when faced with the brutal North headwinds the Waterway is known for. This route I had chosen primarily consisted of river travel, with some open water lake paddling.
With my team of three assembled (and a trusted four legged, furry river companion, Max), we loaded up my car with one canoe and one kayak, and on July 13th we left the cozy confines of our apartments and the luxuries of city life in Portland, ME, and began the five hour drive North to Arrostook County, the land of Moose and sparse cell service.
July 14th, Day One, 17.8 Miles Paddled
Our shuttle van slowly but surely made its way down the series of backcountry logging and fire roads, weaving its way through the many acres of the remote forests and rolling hills surrounding the waterway, far
removed from any sign of civilization.
I was fascinated by the massive network of logging roads scattered through this area. Although seldom traveled now, this area was once a major hub for the logging industry way back in the day.
Just getting to our launching point at the Umaskis Lake Thoroughfare was an adventure in itself. After leaving Portland the day prior, we spent the night at Pelletier Campground in the town of St. Francis, ME, nestled along the St Francis River on the Canadian Border.
The following morning our shuttle driver loaded up his van with our
gear and we began the three hour journey to our launch point, not before dropping my car off at the takeout location. It was a long, bumpy, but scenic ride through the woods as we anxiously passed the time chatting with the shuttle driver and looking out the window for any signs of Moose. Sure enough, before we even got on the water, we passed a female Moose in a brief clearing of woods, adding awe and excitement to our crew that already had tons of stoke to be out here.
Right around noon, after the arduous drive through one of the most remote settings I’ve ever experienced, we arrived at the launch point at Umaskis Lake and bid farewell to our Shuttle drivers, and set off down the river into the unknown.
Day One was where most of our open water lake travel would occur. With me steering the canoe in the back, river dog Max manning the middle of the boat, Evan at the front of the Canoe, and Chad cruising on the kayak, we swiftly made our way North,
traveling across Long Lake and Harvey Pond before being deposited onto the river. Morale was high amongst the team, as the reality of what our lives would consist of for the next four days truly began to sink in.
There are 80-something primitive campsites nestled along the shorelines of the Allagash, so needless to say camping and afternoon siesta options were in abundance. No formal itinerary for camping was planned, as we felt we could paddle for as long as our hearts desired until we wanted to settle on whichever campsite seemed most appealing.
Nearly 6 hours of exposed paddling in the hot sun proved to be more tiresome than we may have thought, but we soon found ourselves docking the boats on the shores of Round Pond, home for the night. Sleep came easy for the team, as we fell asleep to the sound of Loons screaming away, and a thunderstorm slowly making its way towards our location.
July 15th, Day Two, 15.6 Miles Paddled
The sound of thunder and pounding rain on my tent woke me at around 4:00 am. My trusted Unbound 2P Shelter kept me and my gear bone dry throughout the storm that rocked the region during
the early morning hours. The storm slowly petered off, and by 6:30 the sun was shining throughout the Allagash Wilderness Water.
A nice morning spent sipping coffee and eating our breakfasts on our own private beach that our campsite offered had us fueled up and ready to continue our journey North along the river.
A brief mile and a half paddle along the shoreline of the Pond led us to Round Pond Mountain trailhead for a side quest. A gentle 2.5 mile ascent of Round Pond Mountain led us to the sketchiest of fire towers at the summit.
Despite the nerves, the long climb up the ladder proved to be worth it as we were gifted with a 360 degree view, with our route for the next three days clearly visible before us. Mount Katahdin loomed far off on the horizon line.
We were back in our boats around noon with the intention of covering some serious miles for the next few hours. With most of the lake travel behind us, we found ourselves cruising through fast moving waters on the narrow river at a speed of arounf 5-6 MPH. Some
sections of this river consist of long stretches of fast moving ‘rapids’; nothing that was too strenuous for our team but certainly required some attentive paddling and communication to ensure safe passage without capsizing.
The Allagash River is engulfed by endless rolling hills and mountains, proving to be a scenic backdrop for the team to marvel at as we paddled. I was beginning to realize why this sliver of land in Northern Maine had such the reputation.
Wildlife is also in abundance on the Allagash. We passed several Bald Eagles, Geese, Ducks and Loons who called this waterway their home. Birds aren’t the only animals that call the Allagash home, as we paddled right past a large Bull Moose enjoying an afternoon swim. We slowly paddled past him in awe of this massive creature, soaking in the setting, before he decided he had experienced enough paparazzi for the day and ran back into the forest.
Roughly four hours of paddling later, we were ready to call it quits for the day, as another thunderstorm loomed in the distance. We had gone the entire day without seeing another paddler on the water, but began to see other travelers already at camp for the night as we began our hunt for a campsite, ultimately settling on a large grassy clearing right off the shores of the river.
July 16th, Day Three, 8.9 Miles Paddled
We had heard weather reports of rain for the entire day from a ranger the previous day, but we awoke to an overcast sky with no immediate threat of rain. We hurriedly broke down camp and got back on the water, with the ambition of covering as much ground as possible before the imminent rain arrived.
More paddling through fast moving ‘rapid’ sections had us covering ground (water?) quickly. We docked at the Michaud Farm ranger station, a required check in point for paddlers, before the long portage past the roaring Allagash Falls.
Portaging is often a fact of life when traveling by canoe; this route offered very minimal portaging, so we really couldn’t complain. The ranger informed us that the Falls had a 20% mortality rate for those who attempted to paddle through the rapids. Yikes. The .25 mile portage seemed like a safer option for us.
Lugging our gear down the rocky trail, we looked back at the mighty Allagash Falls with awe and amazement.
We knew rain was right around the corner, so we zoomed down the river with the goal of finding a sweet campsite to get settled into for the afternoon before getting soaked.
We found ourselves docked at the campsite of our dreams with a wide open camping area overlooking the river, our own private beach, and even a spring! Gushing springs are a true delicacy on the river after drinking straight from the river itself the past couple of days.
The rain did in fact roll in at around 2:00, and we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon under the tarp we had pitched, listening to the rain fall, enjoying the ambiance and reflecting on the trip thus far. Life was good on the Allagash.
July 17th, Day Four, 9.6 Miles Paddled
Not a whole lot to report on for the final day on the river. We set ourselves up nicely by crushing miles the first two days to have a relaxed final two days. The last day of the trip, as with many
backcountry expeditions, proved to be bittersweet as I was ready for a proper nutrient packed meal and a much needed shower, but not so eager to leave the wonders of the Allagash behind me.
We hurriedly packed up camp and hit the water early at 6:15 AM. The rain had stopped and we enjoyed the scenery of the fog lingering around the mountainous backdrop. More swift moving ‘rapids’ required proper technique and a steady line of communication to prevent capsizing on the final day of our journey.
We made quick work of this final portion, cruising at around 6-7 MPH as signs of the outside world began to slowly pop up for the first time in days, in the form of gorgeous riverside homes. To own such a home one day would be quite the life achievement.
We were greeted by my car at the takeout point as we concluded our expedition along the Allagash. The long car ride back to Southern Coastal Maine, which feels like a different state entirely at this point, had me daydreaming about paddling the entire route in its entirety; I know I’ll be back someday to do just that.
Canoe and kayak travel sometimes offers a slower pace and a different perspective on experiencing the backcountry compared to hiking, backpacking and trail running. As someone who generally prides themselves in moving 'fast and light' in the mountains, finding that balance in wilderness travel and adventure is key.