I don’t have any photos of our paddle the final day because, as you will read, my mind was otherwise occupied.

We woke up on our final morning to cloudy skies. Cindy got up before me to go walk Trixie, but she returned not to long afterwards to suggest that I get up and check on Jean Marie, who was not feeling well. Cindy sounded concerned, so I quickly got dressed and went to see Jean Marie.

She appeared a bit pale, but otherwise seemed OK on first sight. I went in to EMT mode (I had been a volunteer EMT for many years) and I asked her a series of questions about her condition. Without getting into the gory details, I was able to confidently determine that she was suffering from a moderately severe internal bleed, something that could only be treated in a hospital.

And here we were, out in the wilderness. Shit!

When I had been planning this trip, which was my first leading a wilderness trip for the RI Canoe & Kayak Association, one of my considerations for selecting a destination-besides being remote enough to offer a good wilderness experience-was that we have cell phone coverage for most, if not all, of our route just in case we needed to call for help. Never have I been more thankful that I made that choice for our route, as well as planning our campsites to offer a quick exit if needed.

I got out my phone and called the emergency number listed on an NFCT map that I always bring with me on such trips. This put me in touch with a dispatcher for the rangers and first-responders for the Adirondack State park. What I had not anticipated, though, was that he would not necessarily have access to the same map info that was readily available to me. So when I let him know what our emergency was and described our location as “campsite no. 19 on the Raquette River just upstream from The Crusher” he had no frigging clue what I was talking about. Probably a damned rookie. But he asked for a GPS coordinate, which I was fortunately able to quickly get him from the GPS unit I was also carrying. Bingo, he could see exactly where we were! I suggested that he get a boat in the water at The Crusher access downstream of us and have them come up river to us, informing him that we were going to pack up and start paddling downstream as soon as we could.

Jean Marie was given the job of staying seated and not doing much of anything. Cindy was our only extra hand, so she helped to take down Jean Marie’s tent and pack her gear. Jim, Steve and I each packed our own tents and gear, and everyone pitched in to pack the rain tarp. It was probably the quickest I have ever seen a camp broken down.

We did not want Jean Marie to do any paddling, so her foot pegs were readjusted with Jim’s help so that Cindy could paddle her kayak. We put Jean Marie in my canoe and headed downstream. Around every bend, we hoped to hear a motorboat approaching. As the big beach at Trombley Landing came into view, we finally heard it. What a stroke of luck! This beach was literally the only easy place to land both my canoe and the ranger’s boat so they could work the patient without any tricky mid-river patient transfer maneuver to get Jean Marie out of my canoe and into their boat! They took a set of vitals and started Jean Marie on portable oxygen. Her systolic BP was 90 at that point. If you know anything about emergency medicine, you know that is low enough to make any EMT get a move-on so an IV could be started.

Jean Marie was transferred to the ranger’s boat and they tore off downstream. The rest of our group continued our paddle downstream. I found out what it was like to paddle an 18 foot tandem canoe solo with a full load of gear and a dog. Thankfully Trixie was well-behaved and did not panic with no one in the bow seat in front of her.

The rain began again in earnest as we arrived at The Crusher. Jean Marie had left her keys with us, so we were able to pack all of her gear and get her boat onto her car. I shuttled Jim back up to Axton Landing so he could retrieve his car. From the rangers that were still at the access site when we arrived, we were able to get the name and location of the hospital Jean Marie was transported to: Adirondack Health Center in Saranac Lake. That was our next stop.

We found Jean Marie in the emergency room, which was a first-class facility. It was clear that she was in good hands! We left her the keys to her car, made sure she had her phone, made sure she was able to contact her family, and wished her well.

She went into surgery that afternoon and was in the hospital for 4 days. She is doing perfectly fine now.

One of my original ideas for a RICKA wilderness trip was to go up to Lobster Lake and the West Branch Penobscot River. What a bad idea that would have been! If we had been there instead of the Adirondacks, she likely would have died. If not, it would have been damned close.

The next trip I planned and led for RICKA was indeed to the West Branch Penobscot and Lobster Lake (a trip I will write up soon). But before that was planned and committed to, I implemented some lessons that I learned on this Adirondack trip. First, I would be sure to have a means to communicate to emergency responders no matter where in the world I was. A SPOTX satellite communicator that allowed two-way text communication with responders was purchased. I required more detailed medical histories for any people who signed up for the trip. And I required signed waivers, and contact information for next-of-kin or another immediate family member.

This trip ended up with a happy ending, and I hope by reading this account you have also learned something that will improve the safety of your next trip.

I leave you all with well-wishes, and a picture of Tupper Lake that I took as we headed home.

Tupper Lake View

Packing up and moving on

The expected forecast for the day was cool weather and gray skies, with an occasional shower. But it wasn’t raining when we got up, so camp was packed quickly before the clouds could change their minds. Jean Marie woke up feeling better and refreshed by her rest day yesterday and decided that she would stay with us for our final night on the trip. Our plan for the day was to canoe back down Stony Creek to the Raquette River, and then take the river past Axton Landing and make some miles downriver to a camp that would leave us a short paddle to get to our cars the next day.

We were on our way around 9:00 or so, but before we were able to leave Stony Creek Ponds they left us with a departing gift: An adult bald eagle in a pine tree that we paddled past!

Bald Eagle!

We found the sharp meanders of Stony Creek to be much easier to negotiate going downstream, so the current quickly propelled us down Raquette River. Although the clouds stuck around all day, we avoided rain the entire day other than an occasional light mist. And the fall colors we passed were stunning. In fact, I am going to devote most of the rest of this post to photos so you can follow along with us down river.

Flame red maples!

Steve and Jean Marie

Jim leads the way

After a few hours we started checking out campsites, and at Campsite No. 19 found a nice site with plenty of flat spaces for tents and a nice privy. The first order of business was to set up a community tarp since rain would be expected in the morning.

Tarp, with log table.

After camp was set up and firewood gathered. we kicked back to enjoy the rest of the day and the evening, reflecting on the trip we had nearly completed. it would be an easy couple miles or so to our cars the next day.

Settling in at the end of the day.

Supper was cooked and eaten, and we settled by the fire. Jean Marie and Cindy played some more cribbage; Jim. Steve and I traded more canoe trip stories back and forth, and the Sailor Jerry made some rounds. The night settled peacefully around us and gave us no warning of what was to befall us the next day.

Tarp City

The previous day, with a forecast of rain starting in the morning, we made sure to set up a couple tarps near the campfire and over the cooking area to make life easier when we woke up. Living in the woods is easier when one can prep food and have a place to sit out of the rain. Under one tarp we set up our Coleman kitchen-in-a-briefcase that converts into a small prep table and stove stand, with places for cooking gear. Under the other tarp were our chairs and our firewood. It worked.

By the time we woke up, it was cloudy but no rain had started yet, so we were able to start a little morning fire and have a comfortable breakfast. Most of the group decided to paddle over to the Indian Carry and take a hike to Upper Saranac Lake. Jean Marie said she was a little fatigued from the previous day’s paddle, so planned to stay behind and enjoy her book in the solitude of camp.

Trixie in her rain gear!

Just as the rest of us prepared to leave, the rain started, so everyone donned their rain-gear…even Trixie! The Adirondacks didn’t get its nickname of “Adiraindacks” for nothing! I had ensured prior to the trip that all participants would be properly prepared for any weather that would be thrown at us, so we were prepared.

The Portage Carry sign

Pretty much the heaviest rain of the day fell on us as we paddled the short distance across the top of the pond to the beginning of the Indian Carry, which is the name of the portage trail used by paddlers to get from Stony Creek Ponds (In the Raquette River watershed) to the Saranac Lakes (In the Saranac River watershed), so over the distance of a little over a mile we would walk over a height of land between two watersheds.

Steve and Jim paddling through the rain.

This is a very easy trail with no steep sections. In fact, half of the carry was along a wide gravel road once we reached and crossed over Route 3. As we walked, we were passed by a number of cars with canoes, and when we reached the lake there was a crowd of college kids waiting for their leaders who were going to be leaving on a three-night trip into the Saranac Lake region. It was good to see young folks taking part in canoe camping!

We ate snacks for lunch while we were at the lake, and the skies eventually started to lighten up with occasional patches of blue appearing in the sky.

Upper Saranac Lake-Chapel Island in the distance

Skies continued to clear as we started our trek back to the other end of the carry trail where we had left our canoes. It’s amazing how much more one notices while walking when it isn’t raining out! We found mushrooms, moss-covered rocks and stumps, and even one stump that had clearly been ripped apart by a black bear looking for grubs. Maple trees put out the red carpet for our return.

The red carpet

By the time we go back to the boats, the sun was out in force, warming up the air and cheering our souls. We were looking forward to some post-adventure beach time with Jean Marie!

Returning to camp under sunny skies!

After some gathering of some supplemental wood supplies, and a nap for some of us, dinner was cooked and enjoyed down by the pond. There’s nothing like dining al-fresco with a view! Jean Marie announced that she was not feeling very well, and was thinking of leaving the group the next day from Axton Landing, where we had left a vehicle for just such an event. The next couple days were predicted to be cool and cloudy, with some rain coming on on Monday, our planned day to exit the river.

But in the meantime, it was enough to just enjoy the moment given to us and contemplate a good day in the wilderness. Tomorrow would assuredly take care of itself.

Dusk settling in on our pond.

The sky was glazed over with a thick haze when we all woke up, but experience told me that it would burn off pretty quickly. And it did. While we waited, we scrounged up some breakfast, coffee, and tea. I took my coffee down to the river (I always gravitate to the water) and arrived just a minute or so before a motorboat arrived with the ranger. We exchanged greetings and, when asked, I gave him the news that we were a group of 5 that arrived last night and were planning on camping in the area for the next few nights. He decided to disembark and come up to camp to see for himself. Over the next ten minutes, he used small talk to skillfully determine that 1) we were who we said we were; 2) we were appropriately equipped, particularly with life jackets (dog too); 3) we had not destroyed the camp during the previous night’s party and 4) we weren’t a bunch of yahoos unprepared for a few nights in the woods.

The previous night, after a discussion of our options, the group agreed that we would paddle upstream to Raquette Falls with empty boats, check out the area, and then return to camp, pack up, have lunch, and head to our next camp up on Stony Creek Ponds. So, after breakfast was checked off the to-do list, we got in the boats and started paddling.

Steve and Jean Marie bringing up the rear.

By the time we got on the river, the sun was beaming through a blue sky and warming the air. The Raquette River is a lovely waterbody, lined with pine trees, red maples and silver maples, with occasional backwater and marsh areas. It was an easy paddle with empty boats.

On the way, we took a short break at one of the other lean-to campsites on this stretch, a camp I like to call the Land of Rock-Eating Trees. Here, there are several trees that must have started as saplings growing on the rocks, eventually extending roots down the rock to reach the earth, slowly “eating” the rocks they were growing on.

I told a couple stories about a previous NFCT trip I had led here during which we had stopped at this very camp. It was one of the few trips on the NFCT that Jim was unable to join at the time, so he was happy to be here on this trip. After story time, we got back into the boats to continue a short ways up to the foot of Raquette Falls. One can hear the falls before one sees them, but it is still an impressive sight as one comes into view.

Jim approaches the bottom of Raquette Falls.

We spent some time walking around, going a little further up to see some more impressive sections of the falls and visiting another campsite located along the carry trail that allows boaters to safely bypass the falls. Maybe 45 minutes later, we were back at the boats. We returned to camp, broke down our tents and repacked, and then headed back downstream.

Heading up Stony Creek

About a half mile before we would have reached our previous night’s put-in at Axton Landing, Stony Creek flows in from the north. We all turned upstream and started our battle upstream. Stony Creek (which is not very stony) is a sharply meandering stream that, thanks to the previous day’s rains, was flowing pretty swiftly. If you ever have had to negotiate

Approaching Stony Creek Ponds

sharp meanders upstream with long boats that have essentially zero rocker, you know what a challenge this can be! Around every corner, the current would catch our bows and try to sweep them away from our intended direction. Up to this point, Jean Marie had endured some good-natured ribbing about being the only kayak in our small group, but it turned out she had the right boat for this segment! She managed to pass us all as we battled the dragon.

After about 4 miles of expending far more effort that any of us would have preferred (except Trixie, who just enjoyed the scenery), we paddled into Stoney Creek Ponds. Our destination was the pond furthest to the northeast where several campsites are located. We first stopped at a campsite at a point on the west side of the pond as we entered, but decided it wasn’t for us. So we headed east across the pond, past the island, to a campsite that had been recommended to us by the ranger we met in the morning. Jackpot! Tons of room, tons of firewood, and a nice beach with a view!

The first order of business was to set up some chairs, grab some beers or other beverages of choice, and take a break from our arduous paddle up the creek.

That accomplished, camp was set up and firewood was gathered. I can’t remember what we had for dinner, but I think we all would have scarfed it down no matter what it was. We had burned some serious calories for the day! Over dinner, we listened to the weather forecast, which called for some rather rainy and windy weather the next day. The day after that called for some cloudiness but less of a chance of rain. It was therefore decided that we would lay claim to this campsite for the next two nights, using the following day as a “down” day with an optional paddle and hike over the Indian Carry to Upper Saranac Lake.

So it was a happy campfire. Cindy and Jean Marie played some cribbage, while Jim, Steve and I traded canoe trip stories. Did I mention that it was a nice campsite with a view? I think I did.

Beach with a view



The Gateway to Canoe Country

Sitting in my “home office” in this new Covid-19 pandemic world, it occurred to me that I had not posted any blog posts in a while. Sadly, it has been some time since I have managed to notch another segment of the NFCT into my belt. My wife and I have kept our travel “dancing card” full, leaving little extra time for the NFCT. Or at least for new segments.

But in 2017, I became the new Wilderness Tripping chair for the RI Canoe & Kayak Association, and in 2018 I decided to lead an easy “beginner-level” wilderness trip to one of my favorite canoe destinations: The Adirondacks. And of course a good part of the route would be on the NFCT. I chose this destination due to ease of access, quality campsites, zero portages, and opportunities to easily bail out early if anyone wanted, or needed, to.

The crew included me and my wife, Cindy; my longtime paddling companion and partner in many NFCT trips: Jim; Steve, another friend who I hadcanoe-camped once before; and a newbie, Jean-Marie, who had done some canoe camping in the past but had not had any opportunity in quite some time.

L-R Steve, Jean-Marie, Jim, me and Cindy

We caravaned up to the Adirondacks and arrived in the Hamlet of Long Lake around 1:30, in the rain. We decided it would not be the worst idea to stop for lunch at the Adirondack Growl & Grub, a great little deli behind Hoss’s general store that maintains a fine selection of craft beers. As lunch wound down, a check of the radar indicated that the rain continued…time for another beer! After the second round, the radar loop indicated that things would be clearing soon, so we took care of the bill and saddled back up to head to Axton Landing, our planned put-in on the Raquette River.

Loading out at Axton Landing

The sun broke out as we arrived at Axton Landing, and warmed the air as we unloaded and packed gear in the boats. Our dog Trixie, who was to experience her first extended wilderness trip, enjoyed walking around and investigating new smells. Jim paddled his solo Mad River Guide, Steve his Bell Magic, and Jean-Marie her Current Designs sea kayak. Cindy and I would tandem our 18-foot Wenonah Sundowner.

We shuttled most of the cars down to our planned take-out at The Crusher access further downstream on the Raquette, bringing one car back up to Axton Landing, which left us with a short-paddle access for anyone wanting or needing an early exit from just about anywhere on our planned route.

Stunning fall colors

It was getting late and the October weather was cooling down as we started upstream on the Raquette. The fall foliage that early October day was pretty much at peak, and the color along the river was beautiful! The current wasn’t difficult to paddle up, and we managed 2 or 3 miles upstream to a nice campsite with a lean-to. The skies had cleared nicely and we anticipated a cold night. At some points, mist rose off the warmer water into the cooling air.

River mist

By the time we got tents set up (except Jim who took advantage of the lean-to), it was really cooling off…time for hot food and a campfire! Trixie adjusted to the camp routine just fine.


Warm clothes, hot food, and a watchful dog.

While inspecting the campsite earlier, we found that we were quite lucky to have a functional outhouse…it came very close to being creamed by a falling tree!


A close call!

The rest of the site was clean and a little damp from the rain, but with the help of saws and a good axe we were able to split up a good amount of wood for a nice campfire, around which we discussed the various options before us for the next 4 days and 3 nights of our extended Columbus Day weekend.



I woke up in the morning full of piss and vinegar and ready to go home! It was going to be a long day, and it was going to start with a bang, with Big Rapids lurking a couple miles downstream of us.  If we made it through there without holding a yard sale, it was a mere 16 easy miles to Pelletier’s campground in St. Francis, where our vehicles all waited.

Breakdown of camp was a no nonsense affair, unless you count the nonsense of having to negotiate the muddy trail back to the river and our boats.  I debated tying anything down in the boat since losing camping gear on this last day really wasn’t a big deal, but I’m not made of money so I decided that a few straps on the packs would be cheap insurance.

The day started out sunny with some scattered clouds, and not too chilly at all.  The boat felt good in the water.  I sensed no bad omens. Which is unusual for me, because usually when I’m ready to tackle a rapid in a loaded boat I’m usually a bit tense. Not panicked. Concerned. But not today. It was time to bring it.

Before we knew it, we were passing what looked like a ranger station on river left, and making the big left turn to the head of Big Rapids. This was it!  This was…ummm…is this it?


Keeping Kevin and Nick in sight as Big Rapid begins!

We entered Big Rapids and started looking for rapids…but it seemed to just be a lot of fast, swirly water with a few big rocks and a few small waves. We bounced though water like this for at least a half to three quarters of a mile.


Kevin & Nick, and way in the lead…Mike probing the way.

Eventually, the water got a little bumpier, but there was little to be concerned about at this water level, which was probably a medium low level by now with the dropping water levels.  Way in the distance, I saw Mike turn around and heard him give what sounded like a heads up.  Then he seemed to drop about two feet very quickly. OK, here we go!

I could see the river start making a right turn, and I knew from previous accounts of boaters that had gone before us that this marked a point where the river got noticeably steeper and the wave bigger. At the very least, before we got there, the rapid had finally worked itself up to a respectable Class II, but the rocks were generally easily spotted and handily dodged. We started entering the curve, and then things got busy.

The river visibly started to slope steeply, and I seemed to be looking down a hill of rocks and froth. But so long as I kept track of where Nick and Kevin were going, who in turn were trying to match Mike’s moves, I found maneuvering from channel to channel to be more than manageable.  And then we were really in it, and I found that I could only vaguely keep track of where Kevin and Nick were headed as I spent most of my brainpower scanning the stretch of river within 20 to 30 feet of my bow. It was read and react…dodge the rock or eat the rock…jam back with the paddle on the right, turn right, draw right, switch sides, jam left, two strong forward strokes now! Woah, that was close…glance up quickly, where the hell is Kevin going? Oh crap, I missed that channel! Weave left, forward stroke, draw right, right, YOUR OTHER RIGHT! Merde! OK, bounce through the wave train between the boulders, draw left again to the next channel, take a breath…hey, things are slowing down, I think we made it! I see Kevin raise his paddle and shout, so I do the same. Whooee!

Oh crap, its not over, one more nasty stretch before the bottom, man this rapid won’t end! I see a line of rocks marching into the river from the left bank, so I start heading center, glance off a rock, slide over it in stride, dig, dig, dig, OK, I see the route to the bottom, just need to dodge a few dozen more rocks, no sweat!

After what seemed like 15 long minutes of dealing with whatever the river threw at me, I got spit out of the bottom and headed left into the eddy to join Mike, Kevin and Nick in celebrating our clean runs! Jim and Doug soon joined us, having also successfully run the gauntlet. Big Rapid was checked off in our books!


Looking upstream from the eddy at the busy bottom of Big Rapid.

So that was it.  As far as I was concerned, the St. John trip was over.  From here, it was just a day trip to our take-out, and most of it I had already paddled.  It wasn’t long before we came into view of Dickey Bridge.


Dickey Bridge comes into view.

It was above this bridge that we discovered that the rest of our day wasn’t going to be just a mere float trip.  Sand and gravel bars were starting to form, so we had to pay attention to where the flow was going in order to pick the right channel.

Past Dickey Bridge, we pulled over to another take out to see if we could walk up to the store.  Doug and I walked up, where we found the store was closed. Damn.

Onward and downward!  Skies had clouded up, but it was still warmish and pleasant to paddle.  A few miles further on, we passed the mouth of the Allagash and I was back into familiar territory, having passed this way almost 4 years earlier with Mike and Jim and some others.  For the most part, we remembered which channels would have enough water and which would not.


Staying right while the river filters itself through shallows on the left.

Most of us bottomed out briefly at one point or another, but Doug really got himself grounded in one of the braids. As Norm L’Italien is fond of saying, “The river, she’s a mile wide and an inch deep!”


Doug hikes the river.

The miles fell away under our hulls. Cross-Rock Rapid, Golden Rapid, Rankin Rapid…after Big Rapid, these weren’t much of an obstacle.  One more big bend to the right and we saw the orange barrels and log shelters of Pelletiers and pulled out on river-right.  As tradition dictated, Nick and Kevin took a plunge into the river to celebrate the end of another great father-son wilderness experience.


Water fight!


The Final Plunge!

All that was left was to pack and drive home.  It was a phenomenal trip, and one I hope to repeat someday.  A true Northern Forest Canoe adventure, traveling though both the wilderness and through history.


L-R: Doug, Chuck (me), Nick, Kevin, Mike and Jim


I was up at 6:00 to find everything socked in with Fog.  Doug was already up and getting a fire started.  I felt well rested. There’s nothing like sleeping next to a babbling brook to put me into dreamland.


morning fog

The fog burned off pretty quickly while we were having breakfast to reveal clear skies and warm sun.  It was going to be a T-shirt kind of day!


The fog starts lifting

We were packed and off the site by 9:15.  With the continued drop in water levels, I decided it was time to finally take out my canoe pole to get down Long Rapids.  Big fun! It was nice to be standing tall and weaving my way around rocks.  I ended up poling all of the named rapids we encountered that day except for Poplar Island Rapids.

There was no wind to speak of, even as the puffy clouds inevitably rolled in. A muckle was quickly declared soon after we got on the river.


Doug is a professional muckler…don’t try this at home.

None of the named rapids was difficult.  The left side of Schoolhouse was very rocky, so of course I went left.  Big fun with the pole!


Ouellette Farm shelter

We passed Castonia Farm without stopping, but stopped at Ouellette, which is a family name of mine going back to my great grandparents. This was a very nice, grassy site with a nice shelter, and tons of room for a huge group…but it was a bitch and a half to get up to from the river! We had to bash our way through tall marsh grass and shrubs on the exposed riverbed to get up to a steep scramble to get up a bank of loose gravel. It would have not been any fun with gear.

As we continued on and past Fox Brook, the ice damage along shore was very evident.


Mike and Jim paddle past ice damaged shores

As we passed through Poplar Island Rapids, we started to look for the campsite, since this was our intended stop for the day after 15 miles. The next site, which we scouted when we first drove up to the river, would have required us to run Big Rapids, which we wanted to save for the last day. For some reason, I had two waypoints marked on my GPS as Poplar Island Campsite. The first was at the bottom of the rapids, but a scan of the shore revealed nothing. No clearing, trails, paths, not even a sign of places canoes had landed before.  So we continued on to the second waypoint.

Shortly after the first marked waypoint, we passed an old, collapsing shack. Beyond that was a long, high, sandy bluff that had a promising clearing on its top. This was the site of my second waypoint, but when Jim, Nick and I climbed up (with difficulty) we found nothing but a dirt road that led to the shack in one direction, and a dammed pond in the other. No campfire rings, no tables.

Meanwhile, Mike had progressed downstream. We floated down to him at the head of the next fast water, and he reported finding nothing. WTF? We must have passed it! We looked back at the map and decided it had to be near the rapid it was named for.  It was easiest for me since I could pole my way up through the fast water, but fortunately it was plenty deep enough for everyone else to paddle up.

Back at the collapsed shack, Kevin pulled over to let Nick out so that he could run upstream from the cabin in the hopes of finding the campsite.  Meanwhile, Mike and I creeped up the shore, scanning it with eagle eyes.  At the same moment I spotted an orange surveyor’s ribbon on the alders, Mike announced spotting the top of another picnic shelter, right where my waypoint said it should be! Just as we pulled onto shore, Nick appeared out of the dense shrubs to announce what we already knew.

The trail was pretty much invisible from the river. The take out was poor and rocky, although this was a function of the dropping water levels. From the shore, the first half of the trail was muddy, and then rose to the shelter, which was adorned with moose antlers and a deer skull.


A muddy trail to the river


Dryer land.

Of course, before lugging any gear through that mud, I set up a chair by the river and cracked open a beer. This is my favorite way to transition from paddling to camping, just sipping a fine beverage and contemplating the timeless persistence of a river.

But soon, we all had camp set up. It had plenty of room, and enough wood under a piece of plastic to last a week!


Ready to spend our last night on the river.

After lunch and set-up, I wandered down the nearby road back to the shack to investigate it. It appeared to be an old hunting cabin, maybe a ski-mobile hut. It had gas lamps and a steel drum wood stove, eleven bunks, a couple moldering couches and chairs, a sink and some cupboards.  Old dishes, coat hangers, and flatware were still there. The ceiling was supported by massive timbers, but the timbers weren’t supported by anything except flimsy 2×4’s and thin plywood, which probably explained why it collapsed.

Back at the site, it was time to trade more stories, cook dinner, bake more muffinbread, build a blazing fire, and enjoy our last night out.  The Knob Creek was long gone.  There was not much Sailor Jerry left. We didn’t see any other paddlers this day, but from the site we did not have a good view of the river.

Well, we would be off 20+ miles downstream to St. Francis tomorrow, with the 2 mile-long Class III Big Rapids lurking only a couple miles downstream of our camp.  We all debated the best way to run the river based on whatever info we were able to read prior to the trip. Mike’s memories of his last trip were thoroughly probed.  It was agreed we would run it in the same order as we did Big Black, and there would be no sissy scouting.  We’d just read and react, taking it down the left side the whole way, and rely on our considerable whitewater skills to get us through. No problem. We were confident. Well, Mike was confident, and he was probe boat…we just had to follow him and hope he didn’t eat it.

It was a great campfire that night, and an even more impressive star show as the skies cleared.



Well, we woke up to clear skies and warm sunshine! But within a half an hour, the clouds came in.


The clouds came in from nowhere.

It was a slow break-down of camp, with a planned short day today.  It had rained some overnight, but not enough to prevent the river from dropping another 3-4 inches overnight.  After launching, we took a short paddle up Big Black River, just to say we had.


Looking up Big Black River

We saw another young moose along the way but, despite that- and the lack of any development in sight along the river- it no longer felt like a wilderness trip to me.  Maybe it was the road that was now nearby that Jim and I walked up to.  Maybe it was the cabin that was located across the river from our camp last night that left a light on. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I felt like we had exited the wilderness, and we were re-entering the “real” world, even though we didn’t plan on getting to Dickey for another couple days.

At any rate, today was an easy day of riffles and a few rapids with no deadwater to speak of.


Jim in his element.

We passed by a few other sites…Ferry Crossing and Seminary Brook…and at the sound of a babbling brook, we pulled into Long Rapids campsite at around 12:30. Our initial assessment was that the site was a little rough…there were a lot of rocks, making tent staking an iffy proposition.  But the site had 2 picnic tables, a shelter, a nice view and, of course, the brook.


The brook


A brook-side tent site.

We set up camp, ate, and I went for a walk to explore.  A gravel road evidently provided vehicle access to the site, so I followed it downriver to another campsite, where I found the beaten remains of someone else’s bad day.


Half the canoe, twice the paddler?

From this site, the road turned up the hill, and a short ways up, I discovered that we wouldn’t be bothered by anyone trying to drive into our site.


I crept by these trees, and many more that had dropped across the road, and finally came out on a fairly well-used road and a driveway that led up to a large, unoccupied, but well-equipped cabin. More neighbors! Definitely not feeling like wilderness anymore.


Living well in the middle of nowhere.

Back at camp, we shot the shit for a while.  As we did, two more parties paddled past us; the first paddlers we had seen on the river since Mike woke up early the first morning and saw a solo paddler go by us. One party had a solo paddler and two pairs of tandem paddlers. We found out later that one group had to evacuate one of their members when she broke a leg. Likely the solo boater was her former tandem paddler.

The second group was a party barge with four tandem boats muckled together and floating through Long Rapids.


I guess we aren’t the only ones who muckle!

The weather stayed mostly cloudy all afternoon, with the sun poking out every once in a while. We finally saw some blackflies…like 2 or 3 of them.  They would be the only ones I saw all trip.  Moose tracks were everywhere, and spring peepers were making a racket from across the river.  After dinner  Kevin baked up some double-berry muffin bread and we sat around watching the skies change on the river as the sun went down.


Dusk on Long Rapids.

The clouds yesterday didn’t lie…we had a change in weather.  The rain started at around 5:30. It never got heavy, but it was light and steady and had the feel of an all-day event as we gathered under the tarp for breakfast. Everything was packed up in the rain and staged at the edge of the cliff to be shuttled down to the waiting boats.


No one was as organized as Nick and Kevin. Sickening.


The boats are secured for the loading.

Fortunately, the rain stopped as we left the site, and never really got started up again, but it remained mostly cloudy all day, with the sun poking out only a couple times.  We wound our way down random channels through the Seven Islands area, finding many geese and red-winged blackbirds.  Below the islands, after a couple small rapids, we came up on Malbec Bridge and stopped for Jim to pick up another geocache.


The gang heads through Seven Islands.

After the bridge, we slogged our way through the Priestly Deadwater.  On the outside of one prominent curve, we found the only block of ice we would see left over from ice out a month before.  Mike recalled that it was at about the same place that he saw ice on his previous trip.


Jim paddles towards the ice block.

Priestly Rapids was nothing to write home about.  In fact none of the small


Simmons Farm.

rapids were.  Easy rock dodging for the most part, although the wind was learning a new trick and blowing from our rear now. We arrived at Simmons Farm around 11:30.  It was a huge, beautiful grassy site with good boat access, but no picnic tables…unless you wanted to hike way up the hill to a beautiful Pine-tree-bordered site with all the amenities…shelter, ridge pole, benches. But we didn’t want to haul our gear all that way, so we decided to move on.

Three miles and a couple bends in the river later, we found the former Basford Rips campsite.  It had a beautiful view and a nice beach, but nothing else but a fire ring, a bench, and space for maybe two tents. So, we called it our lunch spot.  After lunch, we all spent time securing our gear better in the boats, since the next campsite was below Big Black Rapids, rated Class III.

Basford Rips presented no challenge, and neither did the small rips past that.  Above Big Black, we crept along the left bank and pulled in above to scout it.  We did not know what to expect.  When we started out the previous Thursday, the river was running close to 10,000 cfs by the Dickey gauge, but it had been dropping steadily since then. Most sites say you need a minimum of 3000 cfs for a smooth run. We had visions of big waves, huge holes, and canoe-eating boulders. A later check of the gauge records showed it was running close to 5000 cfs now. So our reaction to our first view of the top of Big Black was one pretty much of relief…THIS is Class III?? Of course, we all were very experienced whitewater boaters, and I am willing to bet that a lot of people would have seen what we saw and started getting the knee shakes. It was certainly much bigger than anything we had yet encountered. But what we saw was multiple routes and clear sailing. We decided to stay far left at the top, move center, and then left into a big eddy. this would take us through the first half.  Our pre-determined order was Mike as probe, followed by Kevin and Nick, me, Jim and then Doug as sweep.


The very top of Big Black from the left bank.


Left of the pourover, right of the jutting rock to get center, and then head left.


Doug in the last drop before the big eddy halfway down.

We didn’t bother to get out to scout the second half…we just followed Mike, who initially went all the way across to the right, but then decided that he liked what he saw to the left. He took us through some minor boulders, and through a couple waves to head left into another eddy.  Big Black was done! Other than the wind blowing Jim onto a rock on the last half, which he was quickly able to slide off, no one so much as scratched a paddle through all of Big Black. Whew! Big fun!


Mike decides to head left.


Jim styles the last drop of Big Black.

It was a bit of an anticlimax to float our way down to Big Black campsite, but it had been another 20 mile day and we were happy to find it unoccupied.  The beach was a bit muddy, and in a moment I now regret, I decided to straddle the gunnels of my boat to walk my way to firmer ground…only to have the inner gunnel tear and split at a couple screws…Dammit! Oh well, something to worry about later, after a beer.

The wind was whipping downriver and the site didn’t have much protection, so securing my tarp was an adventure.  We all got camp set up, and Nick split up a whole bunch of logs someone had left for firewood.


Big Black campsite, looking upriver

There was the matter of my canoe. I was able to get a couple zip cable-ties from Mike.  Using the awl on my multi-tool, I drilled a couple holes through the Royalex below my gunnels.  The cable-ties were fed through the holes and over the gunnels, which I pressed together, using the cable ties to lock them together.  It worked! Problem solved.

Later, Jim and I took a walk up a trail that led to a nearby road that was bridged over Big Black Brook, which merged with the St. John right at our camp.  Back at camp, on the banks of Big Black Brook, I found a nice patch of wildflowers, including a patch of trout lilies and a few purple trilliums.

There were a few sprinkles as the campfire was lit, but they didn’t last long. No stars, though.  The Sailor Jerry made its rounds, as did the last of the Knob Creek. It had been a fine day. Tomorrow it had been agreed that we would keep it short, perhaps only going as far as Long Rapids.  We could sleep in! So it was a late night around the campfire, trading jokes, stories, and trying badly to sing popular songs.  Nick was impressed than an old guy like me knew bands like Slipknot and System of a Down. Win! Speaking of songs, I haven’t mentioned…Mike had downloaded a bunch of songs into his tablet and would play one for us every afternoon after supper. I can’t remember the play list, but I think tonight’s was Riders on the Storm.

Well, so far, the Storm had treated us all well.

After two long days in a row, we decided to do a short day today, aiming to OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERApaddle the 9 miles down to the campsite at Seven Islands.  We woke up to blue skies and sunshine, but it had been pretty damn cold that night. I am never the first dude up in the morning but somehow I managed to be this morning. I made me some coffee and wandered down to the river, where I found confirmation as to how cold it got…frost on the boats!

We took our time breaking down and loading up.  Breakfast was an extended affair, and word got around in the local Gray Jay population that there may be some free crumbs to sample. We had a small group of four flying between the trees and the river-side shrubs.


Gray Jay

It was already about 10:00 by the time we finally left Nine Mile Bridge.  Right around the corner we floated through a snappy little rapid.


Nothing like some quickwater to start the day off right!

But after that, we had some slow water and it seemed like a good opportunity


Doug and Mike

to convene our first muckle of the trip.  The Sailor Jerry made the rounds, because rum makes you a pirate, not a morning drinker. There may also have been a round of some Knob Creek…I don’t recall.  That bourbon almost had a tragic end…after the bumpy ride into Baker Lake on our first day, Kevin discovered that the top of the bottle had broken in his cooler! Some of the bourbon was spilled, but he was able to decant most into another bottle to serve as emergency rations. Well, whether we had some of it or not, it was a fine muckle, lasting until the next rifle where we had to break it up.


Smooth Sailing ahead

Water levels had been dropping 3-4 inches every day that we had been on the river, and today we finally started seeing some gravel beds that forced some decisions on channels to paddle.


Mike goes left, Jim goes right

It was a pretty easy-going paddle.  We pretty much let the river do the work, like true Menacing Duckheads.  There was an occasional headwind, but


A steep welcome mat and parking area

nowhere near as bad as that fucking wind yesterday. We floated past Connors Farm, but didn’t stop.  Plenty of birds were chattering along the river, and I heard another drumming grouse. We didn’t see any moose.  Despite our best efforts at not making progress, we eventually floated into sight of Seven Islands and pulled over, grimly looking at the steep gravel bank. It was going to be a steep climb! It brought back memories of the No Country for Old Men Canoe Tour on the Saranac!

But once we got up the bank, we were welcomed by a huge, expansive, flat campsite with a nice picnic table shelter.  One could have fit a minor jamboree of boy scouts up there! And perhaps that is exactly what happens here a lot, because the shitter was almost completely full.  At any rate, we all had room to spread out.


Back in the bad old logging days, Seven Islands was the site of a huge farm, where food was grown for both men and horses that worked in the nearby logging camps.  The farm is gone, but there are plenty of old artifacts hanging around.


We had plenty of time to be industrious, so of course we wasted most of it sitting around napping, drinking, smoking, and snacking.  At some point, wood was gathered and split…mostly by Nick, who had plenty of extra youth at his disposal, and also since he was too young to drink.  We noticed that the sky was full of high cirrus clouds, meaning a change in the weather was coming.  More showers? Probably, so we set up a tarp off the side of the picnic shelter to give us a bit more room in the morning if needed.


Kevin and his cuppa Knob Creek


Jim admires the extra tarpage,

After supper, we looked at the maps and debated were to stop next.  The consensus was to check out Simmons Farm, but we preferred Basford Rips.  We had high hopes for Basford, but the NMW took it off of the list of campsites in the updated brochure and we didn’t know why. If neither site worked, we would have to paddle through Big Black Rapids and camp at the confluence of Big Black Brook…a 20+ mile day.

The night was not expected to be as cold as last night…high 40’s, low 50’s…positively balmy! Dessert tonight was chocolate chip cake, thanks to the magic reflector oven.


The crew awaits baked goodies!