I have to do some soul searching before I sit down to write this trip report on the Aroostook River.
Should I be loyal to our brave shuttle driver, who drove through a maze of dubious woods roads to take us to our put-in point? To the wonderful folk of Aroostook County, who helped us out time and again after every misfortune? To my paddling buddies, who put up with my rooting and chaos for five days on the river? Or to North Maine Woods, who charged us to drive their roads and camp at their sites?
Of course, I am loyal first and foremost to you, my reader. So the truth is, I do not recommend a paddling trip on the Aroostook River.
There are many exciting branches, small and quick, that join early on to swell the Aroostook ... Munsungan, Millinocket, Machias, Mooseleunk, St. Croix (did you know there were two in Maine?), even LaPomkeag Stream, Beaver Stream, the Little Machias and Presque Isle Stream come to mind ... but the main river is big, wide, slow, flat and broody. For 70 miles or so past the confluence of the Munsungan and the Millinocket branches, the current runs deep and steady, with almost no redeeming quickwater or perceptible change in scenery.
We ran the Munsungan branch, from the headwaters at Chase Lake, down the throughfare to Munsungan Lake, past the junction with the Millinocket and all the way to Presque Isle. Ninety (90) miles in total, in four days. We had planned for five days, but the terrible condition of the campsites meant we had to keep going, searching for a suitable spot to pitch our tents and spend the night.
The roads were good, but almost all the campsites past the NMW were unusable. They were strewn with fallen trees, some of the toilets were crappy (sorry), and the banks leading up to the sites were steep and log-choked. One was a tiny patch in an alder swamp, and another was so small there might have been room for one small person in a pup tent.
I understand that the first two sites we stayed at were managed by North Maine Woods, and they were spacious and clean. Our first night's campsite at Chase Lake was fine, and so was the second night's at Oxbow checkpoint. We stayed warm and fairly dry thanks to Mike's large tarp, which he hung over our table.
But I'm not sure who, if anybody, mamages the sites downstream. Even if they were cleared of debris and the toilets and tables replaced, there would not have been room for our three tents and gear. We were forced to spend our third night at a boat launch near Masardis, ninja camping in an open field, after our disappointments at several campsites we found unfit for use.
We were sure the buddy who drove over to us in the pickup truck was going to give us the heave-ho from the boat launch field. But he said it was okay, the old gent who owned the land had passed away the year before and no one lived near there anymore. He sped off, only to return twenty minutes later with a generous load of dry firewood and a truck rim for our fire site. What a fine feller.
The next day, we were forced to paddle past our planned campsite, as it and others along the river were littered with huge broken-off tree trunks. After a 30-mile paddle, we arrived in Ashland, and sneaked our tents in behind the local Fish and Game Club's building, with roof-covered tables and lots of dry wood.
Once again, a gent in a pickup came to see what we were doing. It turned out he was the prez of the Club. Thankfully, Mike used his charm on him, and promised we would leave the site spotless in the morn. Mr. Tucker invited us to make ourselves at home, and to use all the wood we wanted.
So when the police came by and woke us up in the middle of the night with their flashlights, telling us we weren't allowed to stay there and to move on in the dark, Mike dropped the name of the Club prez. He said we had Mr. Tucker's permission to stay, and suddenly everything was hunky-dory. Score another one for our silver-tongued trip leader Mike.
The last day was more of the same, except it didn't rain as much. We actually had lots of sunshine between scattered showers. Our planned campsite at Beaver Brook turned out to be worse than pitiful, a scattering of stones and a patch of mossy gravel up a high bank that was so small even one camper in a pup tent would not have enough room to change his mind.
So our last day was another 30-mile slog down a wide, slow and flat river all the way to Presque Isle. I don't mind some deadwater now and again on a trip. It might even be good for the soul. But mile after endless mile wears me out. Thankfully, my buddies Mike and Marshall were fine company all the way down the river.
I mustn't end this short recap without mentioning another local good ole boy who rescued us on the drive in. We had driven maybe a mile past the NMW entry point when we heard a bang and grind under our shuttle driver's truck. Hit the brakes!
One look underneath the truck showed us the gas tank had broken free of its straps and lay on the ground. Thankfully the tank and gas lines were still intact, or we might have been incinerated in a heartbeat.
A gentleman and his wife drove up in their pickup shortly after, and fortunately, he had spare straps and the know-how to re-attach the tank to the chassis of our truck. After some careful fiddling and finagling, we were able to continue our drive in, thanks to another good Samaritan of the North Maine woods.
So in short, the Aroostook River system contains many tributaries that promise lively water, adventure and no doubt enchanting scenery. The folks who live along the river go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome.
But I feel the main stem is more a salmon and trout fisher's paradise than a paddler's stream. There are countless other rivers in Maine of greater interest to paddlers, I feel.
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