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I didn’t get a lot of sleep…at one point I woke up to what I thought was the sound of a bear ripping shingles off the side of the house, but it turned out to be Kevin’s snoring ripping the shingles off the building. Also, sometime during the night I heard Doug get up and start wandering about, muttering once, “Oh, shit…”. Nick later claimed that Doug came into their room sometime and turned on the lights, and then left. Doug denied any part in these shenanigans, but if we all had been on the jury he would have been convicted.

5:00 came very quickly, and we were all up and at it like Scouts at Revelle.   Norm was supposed to show up by 6:00, but he probably figured we’d try something foolish like try to load his trailer early, so he showed up at 5:30 to find us doing exactly that.  Fortunately we hadn’t gotten far, and under Norm’s directions, we got all the gear loaded in the trailer and van and were on the road by 6:00.  It would be over 5 hours over logging roads to the put-in at Baker Lake.

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Packed and Racked for the Long Journey

It was still considered to be Mud Season up there, so we didn’t encounter any logging trucks, but there was plenty of logs stacked along the roads waiting to be picked up. Some had collapsed into the road.

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Nearly the entire drive looked like this.

As usual, Norm shared stories with us on the way in.  We saw one moose and one deer along the way.  The day quickly warmed up…it got well into the 80’s!! A little after 11:30 we arrived at Baker Lake to find a van parked there with Rhode Island plates! Who was this?  After we got all of our gear unloaded I walked over to check it out and found a North Maine Woods permit on the dashboard for another friend of ours! In fact, he had also been sent an invite to the trip, but never replied.  It looked like we were a few days behind him.

On the way in, it turned out that the “smooth” ride in had jarred loose a few screws for Doug’s seat in his canoe.  He borrowed some tools from me and a couple zip ties from Mike to trade out some screws from the other seat in his Malecite to make things work again.

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Not even on the river yet, and already making repairs! Baker Lake in the background.

This was to be a short day…we only planned to do the nine miles down to Flaws Bogan.  We rode four miles of intermittent Class II rips to Turner Bogan.

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And so it begins.

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Everyone heads to the eddy.

Past Turner Bogan, it was another five wind-assisted miles to Flaws Bogan and a cabin site.

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Flaws Bogan in sight!

Located on the outside of a major bend in the river, Flaws Bogan commands quite a view both upstream and downstream.

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Gear, gear, and more gear.

Mike brought along a whole bunch of American flags to place at each of our campsites, so if you canoed the St. John in late Spring 2017, or if the flags last longer than that, thank Mike. Here is the one at Flaws Bogan:

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The forecast was for overnight thunderstorms. Everyone decided that one more night not setting up a tent was a good deal and decided to shack up in the cabin…except me.  I had the foresight to know that cabin was going to be Snore Central…so I set up the tent out back and had a fine night’s sleep, uninterrupted by any rumblings, or any of Doug’s nocturnal wanderings; he somehow got up during the night without stepping on anyone going out or coming back in…but did use Kevin’s head as a handrail to get back into his cot, lol! It was a fine start to the trip.

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When Jim sent us the e-mail saying that he wanted to come with us on the St. John, and maybe ride up with either Mike or me, it presented a bit of a problem.  Both Mike and I had each already offered to each other to drive, and there would be no room for Jim no matter which of us drove since we only had room for boats and gear for two. Fortunately, Kevin was going to borrow his dad’s pickup which had room for all three (him, Jim, and spawn Nick), his boat and Jim’s, and all the gear they could carry.  Doug lives in NH, so he was driving himself in any case.

The day arrived on May 17th to make the trek up to northern Maine.  I woke up at some ungodly hour to make it to Mike’s by around 6:00.  We quickly transferred my gear and boat from my Subaru to his Subaru, and were on the road by around 6:30.  Neither Kevin nor Jim communicate with texts, so I sent a text to Nick when we arrived in Worcester.  his reply was “we’re right behind you!” A check of the rear-view mirrors revealed no vehicles with boats. It turns out it was just a ploy to give us a sense that they were not far behind so that we would slow down and they could catch up from where they actually were, which was probably somewhere in Connecticut. They finally sneaked by us somewhere around Portsmouth, NH.

Shortly after that, we crossed the Piscataqua River Bridge into Maine. It’s like entering Oz.

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The gateway to canoe heaven.

Shortly after that, we pulled into the visitor center rest area to meet up with Doug.

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The caravan is complete!

It is a long drive to St. Francis, ME. But a scenic one.  We pulled of at one rest area off of 95 north of Millinocket for a nice view of Katahdin.

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From there, we hopped on Rte 11 for an hour and a half through forest and farmland to get to Fort Kent.  We were somewhat delayed by a long train.

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That’s a lot of wood chips!

After a short stop in Fort Kent for some chow at The Swamp Buck, we continued on to Pelletiers Family Campground where we intended to camp one night. At least, that was the original plan. Over dinner, there was some talk of rumors that Norm now had cabins available for rent.  It bore looking onto.  As it turned out, there was no cabin.  But, he had an entire house with two restrooms, multiple beds and a couch, satellite TV, a kitchen, coffee, and microwave sausage egg and cheese sandwiches for only $26 per person! We cracked open some beers (except Nick) and called it home. We didn’t even bother with a campfire.

So who was this crew that was preparing to take on one of the most remote river trips in the NE United States?

First were the trip coordinators, Mike and Doug. Mike has been on many river trips, and has been a constant and valued companion on all of my NFCT trips.  He is getting a bit sick of camping though, and has updated his gear to ensure comfort. He would be paddling his Kevlar Rockwood Prospector. Here he is with his cot tent and cabana lights:

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Doug is a New Hampshire paddler that I first met in Pennsylvania. I first was introduced to Doug through the internet, where I read of “The Adventures of Scooter and Hal” (search for these…it is GREAT reading!). Doug is also known as Scooter, and has had many cool canoeing adventures. This was my first extended trip with him. He would be paddling his Kevlar Mad River Malecite.

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Scooter contemplates the meaning of everything

Jim has also been on many trips with Mike and I, but only one day trip with Doug. He was the elder of the group, but has more energy than nearly all of the 70+ year old men I know.  He had the smallest boat of the crew, a Kevlar Mad River Guide.

Ole Jim Cole was a Merry Old Soul!

Finally, there was Kevin and his son Nick.  I’ve known Kevin many years, sharing some whitewater adventures with him and other RI Canoe & Kayak Association members, but I’ve never camped with him. He and his son Nick have done at least one wilderness trip a year since Nick was a wee lad.  They were a welcome addition to the crew, and were paddling a monstrous 17-foot Old Town Tripper.

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And then there was me, Chuck, paddling my Royalex Mad River Explorer.

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It was going to be a great trip! It was nice to start with a comfy bed, since we would be up at 5:00 for a 6:00 load-in.

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Map

While sitting around a campfire at a campsite on the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania last fall, my friend Mike leaned over and quietly mentioned that he and our mutual friend Doug were thinking of doing a St. John run in May.  Stories ensued of his last trip down the St. John many years ago. Mena and Tommy, who were also on our Allegheny adventure, had both also recently paddled the St. John.  Mena told me with conviction…and this stuck with me…that “If you ever get the chance to do the St. John River, do it.”

Well, over the winter, I indeed received an official invite via an e-mail from Mike, who informed me that Doug would love to have me along as well.  Mike made it clear that this was going to be a small trip, and that he and Doug were looking for one other person to come along, for a total of four. Neither Doug nor Mike wanted to have the “usual crew” along, so a few other constant companions were not invited. I did find out that our friend Jim was invited before me, but he had moved to Florida, and could not logistically make it work.

Thus began a search for that fourth person to finish the crew.  We sent feelers out to a few good paddlers that had not been on many trips with us.  We even invited some paddlers we knew through internet interaction but had never met in person.  No one was able to commit.  December turned to January turned to February.  We started to convince ourselves that 3 was enough, and still had enough of a safety factor.  Mike made contact with our outfitter, Norm L’Italien from Pelletiers Family Camps to arrange a shuttle. Things were coming together.

Then, while I was volunteering at my fire department for a Fish & Chips fundraiser, I ran into my friend Kevin.  He is a long-time canoeist who has been doing annual north country canoe trips with his son Nick, and his name had come up in our deliberations. We only hesitated since we knew he would not want to come without Nick and we didn’t want to be responsible for exposing someone so young to excess debauchery and erosion of morals. But before I knew what I was saying, I mentioned our St. John trip and that we had been looking for another crew member. His eyes lit up immediately and I could see him scheming as to how he was gong to tell his wife he was going to take a canoe trip just before their scheduled trip to Paris. I told him about our reservatons about having his son along, but he scoffed at my concerns. “C’mon, Chuck…Nick’s in college now. He can handle anything!”

So I told him I would get back to him, and sent an e-mail that night to Mike and Doug about my encounter.  Almost immediately, both got back to me endorsing the idea of having both along.  A week or two later, Kevin confirmed that both he and Nick were signing on, and that I was in trouble with his wife. And so a crew of 3 became a crew of 5.

A week after that, our Florida friend, Jim, e-mailed me and Mike saying that he couldn’t stand it in Florida anymore and needed a break. Were we still doing our St. John trip? If so, screw it, he was going to drive from Florida to RI and then ride from there with Mike and I.  How could we say no? So 5 became 6 and the sign-up sheet was closed to new entries. Time to pack!

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Bloggers note: For consistency, I am dating this for the date actually paddled, but seem to somehow gotten very late in actually writing up this last day of the segment, which actually happened in the fall of 2015.  Oops! Sorry so late!

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We get a message

Somehow the previous evening I never bothered to read any of the various witty carvings that previous visitors had scribed into the picnic table, and for all I know someone snuck in during the night and added to it.  Nevertheless, the first message I saw as I made my coffee was unequivocal:  “Welcome to Maine, Now Go Home!!!”. Not one, not two…but three exclamation points! My first thought was, “how did they know this was our last day?”

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Packing for the final leg

The last day is always a little bittersweet.  I have to say this was particularly true on this trip.  The Allagash Lake Loop has it all.  Lakes and rivers, forests and mountains, upstream and downstream travel, standard portages and The Mud Pond Carry…and all available without the need to shuttle vehicles. Without question, I consider it the most challenging and most rewarding trips I’ve ever done. I hated for it to end. But as always, I looked forward to real food and hot showers.  So as the coffee went down, so too did the tent for the final time this trip.

The morning was sunny and warm, with very light breezes, which is exactly the weather I like to have when paddling on Chesuncook Lake.  This is the only lake (so far) where I have been surfing downwind paddling in a tandem canoe in 30 knot winds with three and a half foot breaking waves.  It was a brief experience, but one that always comes to mind when I am on this lake now. I’m never comfortable on it. But today it was being very nice.

We headed down the lake (which here is a flooded arm of Umbazooksus Stream) towards Gero Island, which none of us-not wanting to be trapped there by wind-had ever visited. As we got closer to the island, and as the weather continued to cooperate, we debated taking advantage of the benign conditions to check Gero Island off our bucket lists.

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Tommy, and Gero Island, in my sights.

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Looking down the eastern arm around Gero…and Jim

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Gero Campsite

Every once in a while the breeze freshened a bit, but never enough to send my wind-sensor into red alert, so we chose to paddle along the western shore of Gero rather than to shade further west towards Caucomgomoc.  After a brief break on shore, we continued further down to where a large bedrock outcrop came out from the island into the water.  On the other side of it we found an expansive, beautiful beach backed by the massive shoulder of the outcrop we had paddled around, on top of which was one of the nicest campsites I’ve ever been on.  It even had a lean-to! And the view down to the beach, and across to Chesuncook Village, was exquisite.

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A commanding view.

After exploring the camp and the surroundings, and a quick snack, we returned the boat for our final crossing to close the loop back to where we started in Chesuncook Village.  Paddling conditions remained perfect, and we crossed quickly and uneventfully.

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Jim on the final stretch. For Chesuncook Lake, this is FLAT!

It was still before noon when we reached the beach and loaded up. All that remained was to hit the road back to Greenville in search of lunch.

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On the road back to civilization.

And there, sitting in the Stress Free Moose, ordering our food and beer, we finally saw our first moose of the trip.

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Total Mileage for the day: 5.8 miles

Total Mileage for this Trip: 57.5 miles

Total NFCT Miles (minus those already traveled): 43.34

Total NFCT Miles to Date: 721.8

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Blogger’s Note: Grab a coffee or something and get settled in. The day we did the Mud Pond Carry was a long day indeed. And so is this post.

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Morning at Mud Brook Campsite

Today was the day that we would finally meet the challenge of the Mud Pond Carry. Today all the stories and legends would be measured against our own experiences. Today it was time to put up or shut up. We knew it was the crux of the trip, and would be a long day. We could only hope we were up to the task. Speaking for myself, I woke up ready to git’er done.

Nature favored us with a sunny, cloudless morning, and we chose to consider that a positive omen. Breakfast and breaking down camp was a business-like affair as we mentally prepared ourselves for whatever the deep Maine woods could throw at us. I took particular care to organize my gear into as few packages as I could to ensure that I could successfully get me and all my belongings over the Carry in no more than two trips.

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Mud Brook is right there. Really.

Since we had already scouted it out the previous afternoon, getting to the mouth of Mud Brook was easy. From there, we all got out and started wading, tracking our canoes up the small brook towards Mud Pond.

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Tommy tracking up Mud Brook

Other than the need to work under a couple low-leaning trees, it was a fairly easy drag up the brook. In what seemed like no time at all, we had covered the half a mile or so to Mud Pond, which was pouring itself over a small beaver dam that had been built at the rocky outlet.

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Approaching the outlet from Mud Pond

We were greeted to the Pond by a couple eagles…another positive omen!

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Tom used his beaver stick to pole his way up into the pond while Jim and I took the more traditional wet-feet approach.

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Entering Mud Pond in style

Not much is written about Mud Pond. I think since most people arrive at Mud Pond from the other side, after themselves experiencing the beat-down that only the Mud Pond Carry can deliver, they treat the actual pond as a mere footnote. If anything, they only describe in detail the muddy slog they have to endure from the end of the carry trail just to get far enough into the pond to reach water deep enough to paddle.

From my perspective, Mud Pond is beautiful. It is ringed by tall pines, and low valleys filled with bogs and marsh.

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Jim crossing Mud Pond

There is a view of Katahdin off to the south. And I don’t know if it was due to the recent rains or not, but we found the pond to be plenty deep enough, even when we reached the take-out for the Carry on the other side. Sure, we had about ten feet of very shallow, muddy water, but it was fluid enough to pretty solidly ground the canoes up on the bank before committing ourselves and our feet to terra-somewhat-firma.

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Tommy got some mud before we had even started!

The carry starts out auspiciously enough. For some reason I had pictured this end of the trail to be only a somewhat dryer but still marshy flat area that in a pinch could be used as a campsite. In reality, it seems more like a narrow old fill bank, a good 3 feet in elevation above the surrounding pond and wetlands that in a pinch could be used as a campsite. So it was a pleasant surprise to be able to use it as a dry staging area for our gear as we readied ourselves for the carry. It was also nice to find that this dry hump, as it were, continued some distance before we descended into wetter environs.

Specifically, this distance was about 20 feet. From that point, the trail started getting serious about asserting its usual reputation as a muddy, soupy bog that was more river than trail. It was a fine introduction to the route that we would be spending the next several hours getting familiar with.

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Welcome to the Mud Pond Carry!

For my first trip, I shouldered my large back-pack dry bag, on which I had secured my folding camp chair and my Teva’s. In one hand, I carried my Gamma-lidded bucket and in the other I carried my now useless canoe cart. Tommy took a pack and his canoe and a paddle. Jim took a couple packs. And so we started, with me in the lead.

As already noted, once we descended to water level, the water was plenty deep. Like, thigh deep, at least on a short person such as myself. But the footing was solid, and so long as I took my time, progress was steady. Vegetation on either side was quite thick, and in a couple places I tempted calamity, trying to contort my body one way or the other to work my backpack under low-hanging branches and leaning shrubs without toppling into the water.

Fortunately this first deep-water stretch did not last long, and soon I was walking along what essentially was a shallow stream with solid footing, flowing back towards Mud Pond.

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Is it a trail? Or is it a stream?

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Foam sculpture.

The thick shrub layer receded, and I could see some distance into the woods on either side of me. The flowing water created occasional pockets of foam, and at one point I found a rather interesting foam sculpture. There was a good carpet of green moss, ferns and fir saplings. Despite the load on my back and in my arms, the Mud Pond Carry had turned into a pleasant hike through the Maine woods.

Of course, that feeling didn’t last. After a little ways along this stream, after ascending a sort of stair-step rocky portion, the trail changed character again to another deep-water segment. This was more like a deep, soupy mire than water, and was a real slog. This section went on for some distance, with occasional short stretches where water was shallower and footing more solid, as well as occasional stretches where previous travelers had beaten down a drier trail up on the banks.

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Sometimes there are alternatives.

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I found your shoe!

Many fallen trees and occasional boulders in the path required some careful planning of one’s footing. I found a stray, abandoned, partnerless Keen sandal on this section of the trail and hung it up on a branch (unbeknownst to me at the time, one of my Teva’s had also chosen to go off exploring on its own). This stretch may not have been very long, but it sure felt it, and definitely slowed the pace. Nevertheless, we definitely picked a good day for it…the weather was clear, with an occasional breeze, not too hot, and there was not a mosquito or blackfly to be seen. Had we been doing this at the height of blackfly season, I am sure all of us would have gone batshit crazy, especially in the “hog pits”, as I started thinking of this section since it reminded me of hog wallows I would find in the Great Smokies when I worked there in 1987.

Just when I thought that we might be walking through this crap forever, the water started clearing up and taking on the appearance of a stream again and, at some point, the Mud Pond Carry all of a sudden turned into a normal walking trail! Solid ground, a little moist, but very easy walking, and the pace quickened again.

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Finally, an actual trail!

This pleasant portage path lasted maybe, oh, 150 yards or so, and then it was back into the water, quickly deepening, but with a solid base and clearer water. I began to sense that the direction of flow was now headed in the same direction I was walking, and shortly after that discovery, at about the same time I noticed the woods thinning a bit to my left, I heard the sound of a truck on a logging road not too far ahead of me. The Winter Road? Sure enough, after a short distance walking through shallow stream water, I walked up the bank and onto the road. There was not too far to go from here!

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Look both ways before crossing the Winter Road.

I needlessly looked both ways before crossing, and then waded in (literally) again. Right past the road there is a narrow passage between two boulders where I found a DEEP hole, but that was just an anomaly, and it was right back to stream wading. This did not last long before the trail diverted out of the ditch to the left and through the woods to get around a number of fallen trees. It was just before I rejoined the stream again that I found the campsite that numerous other paddlers had mentioned in the many blogs I had read. It was a nice, clear site under towering pine trees with plenty of firewood, and if we weren’t intent on reaching Chesuncook Lake that night it would have been a fine place to camp.

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A campsite at the Umbazooksus end of the trail.

A few hundred feet beyond this, the vegetation started getting thick again, and after a short stretch of walking through wetland grasses and weeds and a thick growth of alder, I broke out onto a small beach on the shore of Umbazooksus Lake. Mud Pond Carry, Round One was done! I was there for maybe a minute before Tommy made his entrance into the clearing.

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Tommy arrives at Umbazooksus!

It wasn’t quite lunchtime yet, so I had a couple bites of power bar and some water and headed back for Round Two, now a few minutes behind Tommy who was already on his way back.

The Mud Pond Carry is pretty much just a muddy hike and slog when you don’t have to carry a bunch of crap, and far more enjoyable. I hadn’t gone far before I came upon Jim carrying his large packs and cart, and encouraged him that he was nearly at the end. He said he was doing OK when I asked.

It was during the trip back that I ended up taking many of my photos of the trail…funny how one tends not to take photos when one is having a hard go of things. It was also on the return trip that I found my stray Teva before I even knew it was lost, sitting up on a rock where I was sure one of my companions had left it for me. I grabbed it and continued on.

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Got mud?

Other than walking again through the “hog pits” (which were not that pleasant even with no gear other than a stray Teva), it was a pretty pleasant, uneventful walk back to my boat and the rest of my gear. Tommy again passed me on his own second trip with gear. I had another drink of water and looked over the remaining items. This is where I was going to find out whether my plan to two-carry this muddy portage was going to work.

My kneeling pad got bungied around the canoe seat. The paddles were bungied onto the thwarts, and I clipped my pfd and throw ropes to either end of the canoe on the carry handles. The folding saw was already secured onto one of the thwarts and my water jugs got clipped onto the other. My small pack went onto my back, and I threw the shoulder strap of my now nearly-empty soft-sided cooler over my head and onto a shoulder. Finally, the stray Teva was strapped on the thwart with my saw. Up went the canoe, and off I went into the third and final round! Holy shit, this was going to work!

I debated whether to just keep the canoe up on my shoulders with occasional rests, or whether I would take advantage of whatever deep water I encountered to float it along. Almost immediately, I had an opportunity to try the float plan, and it worked like a charm, so that decided it.

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First time I’ve done THIS on a portage.

In fact, I probably overplayed that card a bit, choosing to dish out abuse to my poor canoe’s hull by dragging it over shallow spots or the occasional boulder or tree when the next pool was “just right there”. It just seemed more expedient than heaving it onto my shoulders and then easing it back down every hundred feet or so in some spots. Either way, I made steady progress, but I can at least report that carrying a canoe, even a light canoe, is more of a pain in the ass than carrying backpacks and other gear. Or maybe it was just that I was finally starting to tire and was looking too much forward to again emerging on that glorious smidge of beach. It was certainly slower going, what with the frequent trips the boat made between my shoulders and the ground.

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One of many rest stops.

As I again neared the logging road, there was no reason any longer put the boat down, and the sooner I finished this damnable hike the better I would be. Besides, I was getting hungry and lunch was in my bucket!

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The view from under the canoe.

Just before I got there, I met Tommy once again, walking back once again. He had just finished lunch, and advised that I do the same and then follow him to help Jim with the rest of his stuff. Good plan. Both Tommy and I suspected that Jim would have a tougher time on his second trip than we did.

So I went on, dropped my boat on the beach, and dug into my beef jerky and trail mix, chased by copious amounts of water. I was there for maybe 15 or 20 minutes, munching away and wallowing in the glow I felt at successfully meeting the challenge of the Mud Pond Carry and emerging mostly unscathed. There was a celebratory beer in my future, but not until the entire crew was together, so off I went on my fourth trip down the path in search of Tommy and Jim. No man left behind!

When I started out, I guessed that I might make it most of the way, or maybe all the way, back to the logging road before I ran into them. So when I reached the road without any sign of them, and with no sound of their approach, I began to worry. When I made it back to the height of land and that glorious stretch of dry path and still had not reached them, I really started to get worried. I started envisioning the worst, wondering what we were going to do if Jim (or even Tommy) was having a significant health crisis. Or worse! When you are alone in the Maine wilderness on a tough portage and things do not seem to exactly be going according to plan, it is very easy for one’s imagination to go a little wild.

It was therefore with extraordinary relief, and a twinge of dread, that I finally ran into Tommy coming around a corner carrying Jim’s big pack and reporting that Jim was a short way back making slow progress. Relief because no one was hurt, and dread because now that Tommy had laid claim to the big pack, I was likely going to be stuck carrying Jim’s big Royalex Courier. Round 3.5, here I come! The Mud Pond Carry was not yet done with me.

Sure enough, a few minutes later I found Jim still battling the last of the Hog Pits. Evidently, he was in fact unable to carry his remaining gear in one more trip, so he would carry half of it some distance, and then go back for his boat and the rest, and in this manner he had frog-hopped his way along the trail. So I told him to grab his paddles and bucket and that I would carry his boat.

So up the boat went onto my shoulders (Jim had fashioned a pair of nifty padded metal braces that fit nice and snug on the shoulders). About five steps later, it came crashing down on my head when the kneeling thwart (on which the shoulder brackets were mounted) was wrenched free of its screws! Ugh! Okay, Plan B. All of Jim’s gear went into the boat, and he and I used the carry handles to struggle along for a while. It was slow going, since we were both tired and Jim was quite sore, and, of course, finding solid footing was a bitch and a half. I finally suggested to Jim that it may be most expedient if we take advantage of the fact that his boat was made of Royalex and simply drag it along. He agreed.

We were almost to the road when Tommy arrived again (trip number 5 for him if y’all are counting) and found us dragging things along. He then traded places with Jim, and we went flying down the rest of the trail, leaving Jim behind. When I say we pelted down the trail like a couple possessed madmen, with the canoe flying over rocks, logs, the road, mud, and slow squirrels, I only slightly exaggerate. At least, it seemed we did. There was no obstacle in our path that couldn’t be overcome with Royalex. Man, I’m gonna miss that stuff!

So in no time, it seemed, we were finally all on the beach and cracking open beers that we had saved for the occasion. The Mud Pond Carry was behind us! We could finally actually paddle again for the first time in what seemed like days! But the day was not yet over, and we still had some miles to put in, and possibly one more portage, before we reached our goal of Chesuncook Lake. So we quickly loaded our gear, and headed out onto Umbazooksus Lake, each taking the opportunity once we got to deeper water to replenish our water supplies with our filters.

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Finally paddling again on Umbazooksus.

One uncertainty still lay before us: the stretch of Umbazooksus Stream between Umbazooksus Lake and the northern arm of Chesuncook Lake. When last we had visited this area in September of 2009, we had not been able to paddle all the way up to Umbazooksus Lake from Chesuncook due to a lack of water. If we were to find the same thing this time, our alternative plan was to portage from the dam along the Longley Stream Road to the bridge right where the stream flowed into Chesuncook.

Fortunately, when we got to the dam, there seemed to be plenty of water flowing through the dam outlet. Sweet! None of us really wanted another portage that day.

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Tommy exits the Lake into the Stream.

We paddled down the chute and, after a brief sojourn in the wrong direction, headed downstream. It was a pleasant paddle down the stream, with one beaver dam to work our way over and a few shallow sections that required some maneuvering and scraping. Most of it was easy paddling, though, and a pleasant return to this lovely marshy area. Last time we had seen a few massive moose, but no dice this time.

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Umbazooksus Sream

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Approaching the last bend

As we rounded the last corner and the bridge came into view, we got a real good idea as to how low the lake had dropped. When we had visited six years ago, a couple of the guys who were sailing had to take their masts down to get under it. Now, they would have fit with room to spare! And where we had easily paddled up flatwater, we now looked down a stretch of Class I rapids that seemed to drop down into a shallow canyon.

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Dropping down into Chesuncook Valley

I led the way, and dished out some more abuse to my poor hull, but made it all the way down to lake level with relative ease, followed in turn by Jim, and then Tommy, who again employed his beaver pole for assistance.

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Tommy snubs his way down.

The skies were still clear, but the sun was going down and the air was cooling, and dammit, it had been a long day, to put it mildly, so we were ready to set up camp somewhere. The closest campsite on the map appeared to be close by on the eastern shore, so we headed in that direction and kept our eyes out for a sign. We never saw one, but we pulled up to what appeared to be a manmade jetty (now high and dry thanks to the low lake level), and after walking way up the beach along it, we found some nicely mowed grass, that led a ways inland to a large open area equipped with a post-and-beam shelter, fire ring, privy, and fire ring. Home! The campsite could also be accessed by a dirt road that came down from the Longley Stream Road. A sign identified the site as “Umbazooksus East”.

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Shelter, fire ring, and dry firewood? We’ll take it!

We were pretty tired when we arrived, and setting up camp and preparing dinner pretty much finished us off. It was still nice to get a fire going so we could sit around, sip our last beers (and pass around the last of the Sailor Jerry) and speculate about the total lack of Maine’s most famous wildlife species: moose and mosquitoes. Reflecting back on the day we all agreed that we had caught the Mud Pond Carry at a good time, weather and bug-wise. Jim vowed he would do it again. The jury was still out on it as far as I was concerned. The only fact I could testify to with any degree of scientific certainty is that I was damn happy, and damn tired. Time for bed.

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An evening sky and moon from our jetty.

Total Mileage for the Day: 6.7 miles (not including the multiple trips up and down Mud Pond Carry)

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My last post this past February stated that I and a couple friends would paddle the length, north to south, of Rhode Island (and then some) this summer.  And we tried!  But the one thing I figured would be the only thing that could possibly prevent the trip from happening (short of something truly tragic, like illness or worse) did in fact occur: floods.  Not record floods, but they didn’t need to be.

I knew the attempt was in trouble when the remnants of Tropical Storm Andrea were forecast to hit Rhode Island the day before launch, although even up to that day it appeared that perhaps we would receive only a glancing blow.  No such luck.  I really knew the trip was in jeopardy when I woke up to find 5 inches of rain in my rain gauge…and it only holds 5 inches.  Bad omen number 1.

But I packed up the car, not really feeling good about it.  No pre-trip euphoria.  Bad omen number 2.  My wife and I drove up to a friend’s house where we met my other two companions, Jim Cole and Tommy Taylor.  Jim didn’t look too confident. Tommy was ready for anything.  So was I…until I realized I had forgotten to pack a pfd!! Bad omen number 3.

We booked it back home, got my pfd, and met the others at the Stillwater Mill development in Burrillville where a launch event had been planned for us with the Town of Burrillville and NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley. The Clear River was well into flood stage. Looking at I knew that even if we managed to make it down this river, and the Branch, and the Blackstone and Seekonk, that the trip would have to be aborted by the time we reached the Pawtuxet River..because there would be no way we could paddle up the current that we would now be expecting to face.  But we put our game faces on and posed for the cameras with our boats.

The usual water level is located well behind the two dudes standing in the background.

The usual water level is located well behind the two dudes standing in the background.

So away we went.  We were all pretty familiar with the river, and although we knew that what we were doing was pretty dangerous, we felt prepared to deal with whatever happened.  The water was high, and the current was ripping right along.  Somewhere along the way Tommy lost his flag, and I failed to recover it. (Bad omen number 4?)

Flooded riverbank

Flooded riverbank

But we were having fun.  No major obstacles appeared.  It was by far the highest I had ever seen the river.  Soon after we merged into the Branch River, we paddled between the supports of a former railroad trestle, the tops of which were usually above our heads.

Former Railroad Trestle

Former Railroad Trestle

Below the trestle, and after a portage around a dam, in which we had to put back in by paddling out from the flooded forest into swift current, we hit the straightaway that would lead us to Glendale Rapid, the second significant drop of this reach (the first, Whipple Drop, which is normally a pretty sharp 2 foot drop over a broken dam, was completely washed out).

Jim and Tom riding the mighty Branch

Jim and Tom riding the mighty Branch

Glendale was pounding.  Big, irregular, exploding waves.  But fluffy…no rocks.  An easy Class III.  The trouble was, none of us had whitewater boats.  But we didn’t have gear to worry about (we planned to have our camping equipment shuttled ahead of us this first day), so we went for it.  Tommy went through first, and made a clean run.  I went next, and that is when things started going sour.

As I hit the third wave, it seemed to explode up on my right, tipping the boat to the left.  I almost saved it, but my paddle was on the right side, so there was no brace and the next thing I knew I was out of the boat.  Tommy asked me if I was OK as I floated by, and I replied “I don’t know”, since I knew it could be a long swim, with some possible lumber to worry about. I focused on what I needed to do: jam my paddle in my boat, get the boat downstream of me, and swim for shore. I initially tried to go right, but the river forced me left, so I went with it.  Pretty quickly I was able to grab on to some shrubs which slowed me down and got me closer to shore, where thankfully I found some footholds in a micro-eddy (or, at least weaker, current), because I was headed for a 6-tree strainer that would have potentially trapped both me and my boat.  I came to a stop maybe 70 feet upstream of it, and started bailing out the boat and yelling for my wife and my friend Mike, who saw the whole thing unfold from the road, and who I knew would be looking for me. They finally found me when I remembered I had a whistle.

Tommy had proceeded down to another eddy when he saw he could not help me without endangering himself.  Jim decided not to run Glendale after seeing what happened to me.  Mike helped me get my boat ashore and carried around the 6-tree strainer where Jim and I rejoined Tommy on the river.

We proceeded down some more beefy Class II wave trains and regrouped.  Above the next drop, Atlas Pallet, we all took out on river-right to scout.  River-left was not an option (we assumed) due to the Pallet factory and a variety of fences. The drop itself was a big ramp that ended in choppy irregular waves and crazy eddy lines.  Much of the flow continued ahead and slammed into a large jam of stumps and fallen trees…very ugly.  The rest of the flow went around it to the left.  There is also usually a slot to the far right against the bank, but we could not get any look at it, blocked by trees and an eroded bank from getting good access.  Jim definitely did not want to run it.  I thought it looked a little easier than Glendale, but the consequences of a flip in the rapids were far more dire here. Tommy was ready to run it, but agreed to a conservative approach that had us carrying river-right, past the heart of the rapid, and put in to ferry across the current to get around the log jam to the left.

So we put the plan into action, carrying the boats up into the woods, up a hill, and lowering each boat by rope down into the eddy, where we had to clear a few overhanging trees. Once in the eddy, which we later dubbed a “room of doom”, things looked worse.  The right slot was blocked by a tree, and the ferry we now absolutely needed to make to reach the other side of the river looked decidedly sketchy.  But it was now our only viable option, aside from trying to carry back up the steep bank and try to come up with another plan.

Tommy again lead the way, and again made it fine.  Jim exited next, and did not make it…the current blew him off his line. In trouble, he elected to head right to mess with the slot that was blocked by the tree.  He entered the slot, and grabbed onto the tree at chest level, trying to stay upright.  It looked sketchy, but I knew I could not help him where I was…I needed to get down where Tommy was. So I started my ferry.

I seemed to hold the ferry OK, and was making progress, when it seemed that I hit some funny current that abruptly slowed the boat on my right hand side.  I was slightly leaning the boat to that side since the current was coming from my left, and I tipped over to that side and was in the water again! This time, there was no worrying about the boat or the paddle or anything. I was in a bad spot. I swam for my life to the left, just getting around the edge of the log jam.  Just below was another jam, that I also swam around.  I continued heading left, grabbed onto a tree to assess where I was, and to see if my boat had followed me (it hadn’t), and then swam another 20 or so feet to shore on the pallet factory property.  There I looked across to see how Jim and Tommy were.  They seemed to be under control, and I made sure they saw that I was OK.  With a few hearty “Eff this!” expletives, the epitaph of the trip was written.

I walked upstream to see if I could find my boat.  I did, and it looked grim.  All I could see was one end of the boat (the bow, I assumed).  It was a bad pin, and there was no way we were going to be able to recover it that day. I was real happy I hadn’t been caught in the same spot.  I looked for any sign of my paddle or gamma seal bucket (where I kept my wallet, phone, and other emergency items)…no sign.  I could only hope they were still with the boat.

The bow of my boat is just visible on the end of the log jam.

The bow of my boat is just visible on the end of the log jam.

Jim managed to get himself out of his own jam, and with Tommy’s help got back in the river.  They both paddled to my side of the river, where I called my wife for an extrication…as it turned out, she was at Atlas Pallet looking for us! Good timing.  The guys decided to convene and camp that night in Mike’s field nearby where we would decompress and drink heavily.  And we did.

Epilogue:  Two days later, Jim and I, along with a few other friends, met at the river to try a boat recovery.  The river had dropped a good 3 feet or more. Jim put his boat in at a downstream access above a dam, and paddled upstream to the pin site.  The rest of us hiked in along a middle school trail, and carefully made our way down the steep grade to the site.  Climbing down that hill (and back up again) turned out to be the toughest part of the recovery. Jim was able to get up onto the log jam, and attach a rope to my stern grab thwart. He got us the line, and we all heaved until the boat came out from under the logs it had been stuffed into. It was heavily damaged, but my bucket was still in it! With my wallet (soaked) and phone (toast, but insured).  The boat? Maybe it can be repaired.  Maybe not. I’ll bring it to an expert and get their opinion.

A heavily damaged canoe. :-(

A heavily damaged canoe. 😦

As for the Paddle Across Rhode Island, it will have to wait until next year.  For now, I will focus on the next segment of the NFCT in my sights: The Allagash River for this fall.  I hope it isn’t in flood.

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Creating a new trail

This summer, I’ll be taking a break from the northern Forest Canoe Trail to pursue a different, but somewhat related, project.  I and two other friends will become the first group to paddle cross the State of Rhode Island, from North to South, using a primarily inland route (in other words, we aren’t going to cheat by simply paddling down the length of Narragansett Bay).  It has never been done before, at least in the modern age.

Of course, you’re thinking, how hard can it be to paddle across the smallest state in the Union?

Well, for one thing, it takes 11 or 12 portages to travel from Canada to the Atlantic Ocean on the Connecticut River.  I will need to do a minimum of 29 portages around multiple dams and into other watersheds.

For another thing, I’ll be paddling on at least 9 different rivers!  It was a bit of a challenge to map a route the whole way from Burrillville to Westerly, as well as to map out camping sites, etc.  But my experiences on the NFCT to date have, I think, been the best preparation for such a trip that I could ask for.  Had I not paddled most of the NFCT, I would never have even thought of doing this type of trip, never mind actually doing it.

And I will be back on the NFCT with the usual gang of suspects this fall for a trip down the entire Allagash Waterway.

Below is a map of our route, which also includes shaded areas depicting the three major watersheds we will be travelling through.  And I invite you to like my facebook page for the trip at:

https://www.facebook.com/PaddleAcrossRhodeIsland

Cross RI Map

 

 

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I’d like to interrupt this account of our Saranac River NFCT trip report to report in on a matter of some concern to wilderness canoeists.  As many of you know (if you have travelled through wilderness by canoe, or even kayak) packing along some beer is not too easy unless you are satisfied with Budweiser, Coors, and other beer-flavored water like that.  I, and many of my companions, prefer craft beers with good flavor.  It is difficult, however, to find decent beer in anything but glass bottles, which are heavy to pack out, even when empty, and are an absolute bitch to clean up if you drop them on rocks.

I am fortunate that a local brewery, Narragansett Beer, brews a decent lager available in cans, and I have taken it along in the past. But I yearned for more variety.  Over the last year, though, there has been an explosion of craft beers being packaged in cans, and we enjoyed an astounding variety on our Saranac trip, including a beer local to the area.

The list consisted of:  Narragansett Lager (the old faithful); Narragansett Summer; Narragansett Boch; Brooklyn Lager; Magic Hat #9; Harpoon IPA; Newport Storm Hurricane Amber; Dale’s Pale Ale; Saranac Pale Ale, and Saranac Summer.

Seriously, how often does one get to drink a beer while paddling down a river that shares its name?

The Newbie, Jeff, received the Beer Hero Award for bringing along most of these varieties.  And a cooler.

He was also, by virtue of spending at least two days and nights on a river trip with the rest of us, was infected (or inducted) (or in-duck-ted) as the newest Menacing Duckhead.  These duckheads are a society dedicated to camping, canoeing and carousing, with members nationwide.  You may have one living in your neighborhood! Don’t worry though…we’re mostly harmless.

No glass bottles or cheap beer were sacrificed for this picture. All trash was properly disposed of.

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So scheduling and planning for the next NFCT segment was going smoothly until my Memorial Day party.  I happened to mention to a co-worker who had attended that another mutual co-worker’s wedding was coming up in another month.  She replied in the affirmative, saying, “Yup, the 18th is right around the corner.”  I was like, huh?

“Isn’t it the 25th?”, I asked?

“No, I’m pretty sure it’s the 18th.”  She turned to her fiance and had him check his smartphone.  In the meantime, I turned to my friends, Mike and Bill, who had also attended the party and who were supposed to accompany me on the next segment, the Saranac River.

“Hey guys”, I said.  “We may have a problem leaving on the 18th.  I have a wedding to go to that I thought was to be on the 25th.  Can we leave on the 19th?”  Bill and Mike looked at each other.

“Uh, Chuck, ” Mike replied.  “We’re leaving on the 12th.  We’re supposed to be back by the 18th.”

Oh shit.

In the meantime, the smartphone confirmed the wedding date was the 18th.  What the…? I felt a bit discombobulated.  At the time, thought, I was also a bit inebriated, so I decided to leave this puzzle until the following day.

The next morning, I looked up the itinerary I had sent everyone on the trip (five others besides me), and saw that it had our departure date as the 18th.  So, I re-sent it in another e-mail with the capitalized subject line of “Check your Schedules!!”, and asked everyone to get back to me with whether I had the right understanding of our trip dates.

The tally:  3 guys had vacation scheduled from the 12 to the 18th, and 3 guys had it scheduled from the 18th to the 25th.  Not only that, but Jim forwarded an earlier e-mail from Mike, that I had definitely also received prior to sending out the itinerary, which stated that the best weekend for him was the 12th to the 18th.

Cripes!  I was feeling a whole lot more stupid than that smartphone!

Thus followed a series of e-mails with options.  Can we all reschedule for the week earlier? (No).  Can we all reschedule for a week later? (Maybe).  Could we split up, and keep our schedule as we had it set, so that three guys would go one week and three the next?  (Yes, but not happily).  Of the three who had the earlier week scheduled, Mike had seniority at work and could reschedule with no problems.  Jim is retired, but had some doctor appointments and a book signing scheduled; fortunately, he was able to rearrange everything.

Billy, on the other hand, works for a bank where coverage is everything, and he was low on the totem pole.  But, like the trooper he is, he went to his supervisor and groveled.  Incredibly, rescheduling his vacation for a week later turned out to work better for everyone. Wow! Talk about bullets dodged! I would have felt terrible if someone had lost out on the trip because of my scheduling snafu.

But, as of now, we’ll be leaving in a week, on the 19th, leaving our wives and jobs and kids and chores behind to pursue a segment of the NFCT which should put us over the halfway mark in mileage.

And in the future, I think it is time to start using a pocket scheduler.  Or maybe to buy a smartphone.

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Well, it was a long winter, and it has been a busy spring, and I don’t mind saying, “Good Riddance!” In a week and a half, I’ll be heading up to Vermont to visit the Clyde River, to “Git ‘er Done!”  I’ll be joined by my friend and constant NFCT companion, Mike “Wickerbutt” Bussell.  This will be the first NFCT segment since our very first one that it will only be the two of us.  The other usual suspects are otherwise occupied with other spring paddle trips.  Or work.

Based on what I am reading on local message boards, it looks like we’ll have plenty of water.  Maybe too much!  The Adirondacks and western Vermont (Missisquoi River) are experiencing some impressive flooding.  I don’t think the Clyde is quite as high or dangerous, but I also don’t think we’ll be dragging bottom.  If the river hasn’t dropped appreciably by the time we get up to Island Pond, we won’t be able to paddle under the Clyde River Hotel without submarines or scuba gear.

If all goes well on the Clyde, we may also take a day to finish up the last half of the Upper Ammonoosuc in nearby New Hampshire, a stretch we missed a couple years ago due to the need for an early exit for an unexpected home emergency.

It’ll shoah be gud ta git on da trail ageahn!!

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