By Fred Paillet, OS Education Chair
When I was growing up on the east coast in the 1960’s, the fight to save the Buffalo was far off my radar screen. There was, however, a similar fight to preserve the wild and undeveloped status of the Allagash River in northern Maine going on at the very same time. Wilderness protagonists (most notably Justice Douglas) eventually prevailed, with the state legislature officially designating a wild river corridor in 1966. The next year, the legislature appropriated 1.5 million to implement the plan with a matching amount of federal funds soon added. The plan designated over 90 miles of wild river with only two road access points, and preservation of the “historic” Chamberlain dam in the river’s headwaters. Wild and Scenic River status was added in 1970 by the DOI. Today, there are fourteen road access points and eleven parking lots, with the waterway managed by the Maine Department of Conservation. The deteriorating dam has been replaced by a permanent concrete structure. Commercial outfitters must purchase permits from the DOC, and private parties must register to gain access. Camping is only allowed at designated prepared campsites with picnic tables, outhouses, and racks for suspending tarps or keeping supplies out of bear reach. Thus, the waterway is managed in a fashion similar to that of the Boundary Waters in Minnesota which Arkansans are more likely to have experienced.
When comparing the Allagash to the Buffalo, there are major contrasts both in development threats and geology. The primary environmental issue in northern Maine is the logging industry in terms of roads, forest disturbance, and waterway management. There is the intrusion of logging infrastructure, but also the tradition of logging company owners granting leases for cabins to local residents in a long-standing pact of granting easy access to woodlands in return for not setting fires or vandalizing equipment. Today, depression in the logging industry is making large blocks of forest available and controversy rages over whether to incorporate this into a North Woods National Park or let developers take over for creation of private estates. Independent Mainers are staunchly averse to letting the “Feds” tell them how to manage their lands but are also leery of outside developers denying access to “their” woods.
Geology makes the Allagash a very different river from the Buffalo. Whereas our river has been cutting its way into limestone buffs for millions of years, the Allagash is barely ten thousand years old and still creating its natural course over a mantle of glacially deposited sand and boulders in the space between granite ridges. The development of the river’s path has been further complicated by the slow uplift and regional tilt produced by the delayed response of the land to the removal of the former ice sheet. Instead of pools and riffles the river is often spread widely across a course of big, rounded rocks locally described as “granite manatees”. There are long stretches of “dead water” where the river turns into a placid canal with hardly any current at all. The riverbanks have tamaracks (larch) and birch leaning out over the water with a taller wall of spruce and fir behind, and a mixture of hardwoods and conifers on surrounding hills. The prime game fish in the buffalo is our smallmouth bass, while fishermen find substantial catches of eastern brook trout in the Allagash. Not far above the lower end of the waterway the river plunges over rock ledges a total vertical distance of about 40 feet to require the only portage along the canoe route. That foaming cascade makes an exciting addition to the float, especially when trying to identify where to take out without going over the edge.
A university stint followed by a summons from Uncle Sam took me away from the east coast, and then on to a career two time zones away from the Maine woods. Thoughts of that wilderness eventually convinced me to take up a faculty position in northern Maine, so it was inevitable that I would visit the Allagash.
Three of my Alaska hiking buddies were enthusiastic about making the trip with me. We found an outfitter that suited our needs. Perhaps the bottom line on his web site convinced us.
Putting in below the Allagash Falls portage
It said: “I specialize in homemade pies and steaks”. This would be a five-day, four-night paddle on the lower half of the river. My friends bunked with me, and we drove in the early morning to the outfitter’s place. A few hours to the put-in and we were on our way. This was in early October at the height of the fall foliage, but with the river running low. Our guide joked by calling it the “waterless wilderway”. As expected, the biggest issue was dodging boulders and grounding on gravel. The fishing season was just closed, but we could see the substantial size of trout by the filleted backbones in the water near one campsite. There were multiple sightings of moose every day. The bar was set up on a picnic table by four in the afternoon. Then a Dutch oven used to warm the pie and grill the steaks. Our guide ran Quebec hunts in the fall, so we had a choice of beef or caribou. We encountered only a few other floating parties each day, along with a friendly chat with a ranger checking our permit. The only downside was the sound of jake brakes used by early morning logging trucks on distant hills during our final night on the river. To give a real taste of the experience, here are a few journal entries from that memorable trip.
October 2, 2004: After a dinner of beans and franks with home-made apple pie (as advertised), high clouds begin to thicken and lower, portending rain. We dine to the music of a pair of loons out on the water in the middle of the lake. In the evening a young bull moose walks out on the beach across the way and enters the water. To our surprise, the bull suddenly heads out into deep water and begins to navigate across to our side a short distance south of camp. You can see his ears twitch and his eyes blink (with binoculars, of course) every time a big wave washes over his head. John gets a good picture up a way from the camp when the bull steps out and shakes the water off his back like the family dog.
The moose that swam his way across to camp
October 3, 2004: Below [the remains] of the old dam we are introduced to the “real“ Allagash. The river channel is more than 100 feet wide in most places and only a foot or two deep in riffles. Although we are supposed to be in northern hardwood forest, the banks are lined with alder and cedar, the latter usually bending out over the river, backed by a tall screen of big white spruce. Individual birches are scattered through the conifers and leaning out over the water. Stop for lunch at the Sweeney Brook camp. This is a relatively dry terrace, six feet above the river level. Shrubs are dominated by red-osier dogwood, hazel, both shrub maples (mountain and striped), elderberry and high-bush cranberry. Not long after lunch, the river makes a sharp turn to the east and then comes almost all the way south in the Musquacook Deadwater. The breeze has risen out of the south so that we are forced to paddle upwind for a while – an unfamiliar situation. We then wheel around again to where the Musquacook River joins. The confluence is partly hidden by a dense screen of alders, but you can hear it because a giant beaver dam (maybe five feet high and spanning the entire tributary) produces a loud cascade. But any contemplation of the confluence is abandoned at the sight of yet another young bull [moose] swimming across in front of us.
October 4, 2004 [Approaching the falls]: From here on hills suddenly appear on either side and the valley quickly narrows. Bigger rocks appear in the water. Blaine [our guide] leads us to the right side to the head of the portage with the roar of the falls only faintly audible and a stretch of boulder-studded water is evident below the landing spot. The plan is for Blaine to work his way down to the actual head of the falls using the setting pole to guide the fully loaded canoes, considerably shortening the distance we carry the equipment and boats.
October 5, 2004: Stars and moonlight after midnight and clear skies over a misty river at dawn. The fog rising off the falls as the first rays of sunlight penetrate the forest canopy makes for some dramatic pictures. At low water, the raw knobs of almost black rock line the trench where white fountains of water pour through the gap in the rocks. A small flow goes around and behind a rock outcrop crowned by a few ragged cedars. Windrows of organic foam like the head on a glass of root beer float in the inky black whirlpool where the falls discharge below the rocks. The stranded rafts of flood debris and the high gravel berm where we put the canoes in the water show that water level was maybe four or five feet higher earlier this summer.
This account of my Allagash float experience comes with a pair of photos instead of my usual line drawing. For those interested in the full experience, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you the fully illustrated pdf version.