birchbark oldie     East Branch Penobscot, Maine

I haven't run all the rivers in New Brunswick, and I probably never will. Yet last spring, it was time at last to look past the borders of my province and try a new river in another province, or state, for that matter. I have pretty well run a furrow down the middle of the Miramichi in central New Brunswick the same weekend every year, seeing the same faces over the past twenty years or so, it seems.

Now, I got nothing against them, it's good to renew acquaintances on the river bank. The re-assurance I feel when the good ole boys are flipping steaks on their barbie at Moose Call makes me feel young again. But jeez, every so often I need to run a new river. The itch gets to be too much to bear after a while.

Paddlin' Hal
Hal is framed by the hills of Baxter State Park as he plays with his aluminum pole.

I thought again of the Gull-boy and Scooter. Of course I'd never met them, but I'd followed their every stroke on their "Flight From Quebec" in 1999, on their six-week trip from the height of land behind Riviere-du-Loup down to Penobscot Bay on the Maine coast. These two guys seemed to know what they were doing, and they had the gumption to go for it.

Yeah, we'd been making vague promises to get together some spring and run the Machias down behind Bangor. You see, these two buddies were from southern New England, but most of the woods were chopped down around their stomping grounds. They made a point of driving up to Maine and running the backwoods rivers up north for several years.

So once I got out my map, I found that the Machias wasn't all that far away from my home town of Fredericton at all, maybe a two and a half hour drive. It is actually closer to home than most of my favorite rivers in northern New Brunswick. Nothing like the seven hours Hal and Scooter were used to driving to their put-ins in Northern Maine. So we made a pact in February to get together in Machias first week of June.

Well, to make a long story short, there was no rain that spring, and all the streams were rock gardens. It didn't look like we were going anywhere. Then Hal started talking about this dam-controlled river up by Medway on the I-95 called the East Branch of the Penobscot.

The plan was to paddle from Grand Lake Matagamon on the East Branch Penobscot, down through a series of unrunnable falls and runnable rapids up to class IV, ending at Medway. There were four waterfalls that were required portages.

We met in Medway in a rented cabin. Being the first to arrive, I plopped my duffel on the double bed and took a snooze. I woke to the clatter of the other three pulling in late in the night. Looking at all my stuff on the double bed, Hal immediately assessed the situation and claimed the upper bunk. Nothing like four men and three beds. Wayne grabbed the lower bunk and poor Scooter was left with a difficult decision: sleep in bed with a stranger from a foreign country; or lay his sleeping bag on the sticky floor amongst several dozen empty Moosehead cans that seemed to have appeared as if by magic.

Snore? I swear, there was no wildlife anywhere near Medway for several days after. They were run out of town by the international choir of beer-sodden, tired and hungry voyageurs.

Friday morning, we looked up Rick Levasseur, who shuttled us to the put-in. We packed our various boats, each to his own. Scooter, Hal and I each paddled our own sixteen-foot Royalex tandems, while Wayne had a solo. I know my Mad River, fully laden looked and handled like a Mississippi river barge compared to Wayne's sleek 12-foot-long waterbug.

Day One on the river was pleasant smooth water for the most part, with an occasional drop through good water. It was a good day for wildlife, with Wayne seeing his first moose. Eagles perched in the branches above the water, lifting off as we drew near. We could see the clouds getting thicker, but in spite of our experience, we just had to believe that this idyllic sunny warm day would go on forever.

Stairs of the East Penobscot
The Stairs are a long series of short ledges that span the stream.

At the end of the deadwater under the hills flanking Katahdin, the first named rapid is called the Stairs. As the water level was fairly low, we bumped and scraped our way down this series of one and two foot ledges that spanned the river in symmetrical steps. This type of rapid typifies the rest of the drops on the East Penobscot, in that the rocks are sharp and upturned. My experience with New Brunswick rivers involves chiefly rapids running through glacial wash, resulting in smoother rounded granite boulders which are easier to slide over and around.

The first portage was done in the heat of the day, in late afternoon. It was long, but thankfully, fairly level. We tried first the lazy man's way ... two men grabbed the front, and the other two grabbed the back of each fully loaded boat, and tried to muscle and grunt our way along the forest path. It was long, and we were suitably exhausted and over-heated after the first boat was lugged around the drop.

first portage
A view midway through the first portage.

I nearly paid a huge price for my laziness. The last ten metres to the put-in was down a steep slope, over gnarled tree roots. We decided to let the heavy boats slide down on their own momentum. As the first one came down, I stumbled on a root, and I didn't get my foot out in time.

The heavy boat glanced off my ankle and shin as it slid over the last root. Thankfully, I was able to turn my leg slightly aside, and suffered no lasting injury. It seems the easy way is not always the best way. We decided to unpack the boats and carry lighter loads on the next portage.

This brought to light a major cultural difference between me and my New England born and bred buddies ... the pronunciation of the word "portage." Hal admitted he laughed inwardly each time I spoke it with the long aww, in the French voyageur tradition. He and his buddy Scooter said portage like porridge, and that was equally bemusing to my ears. At least Wayne, whose mother was of Quebec lineage, understood why I said portage the way I did.

Another difference soon became apparent in the tailrace rapids below that first falls and gorge. Both Hal and Scooter are accomplished poling canoeists, as they honed their skills going up the watersheds toward the divide in Northern Maine. I too am not unfamiliar with the pole, but this was the first time I had seen anyone use an aluminum pole.

Scooter and Hal decided to snub down with their aluminum poles. Scooter dropped his, shouting to Hal to grab it. Hal, in the middle of the pitch, could only see Scooter gesturing wildly, and assumed it was some sort of warning. In the confusion, he jabbed his pole for a snub, catching it under a rock, and had to let go.

Scooter's pole floated down to snug up against a rockpile, where I retrieved it. Meanwhile, Hal's was caught good in the middle of a roaring pitch, sticking up for all to see.

In a valiant rescue, Scooter waded out in waste-deep water, and joining hands with Wayne and Hal, fetched what was left of it. I couldn't help thinking, now if that had been a trusty spruce shaft ... it would have held true without buckling beyond redemption. But I knew it would be a blow to these proud rivermen to try to get them to switch to spruce.

I understand that there are no large spruce forests in greater Boston where they can pick up a stout pole ... they were forced to adapt. I found their aluminum poles cold to the touch and noisy on the rocks. But you can't deny that they are light and quick to manoeuvre. Never the less, I've promised to fix them up with stout spruce poles from New Brunswick the next time they're up my way ... maybe I can win them over in spite of their stubbornness.

Rick had recommended that we get the first two portages out of the way the first day. Somehow, though, the campsite at the end of Pond Pitch portage enticed us and we stayed. Hal cooked up shish-kabob, or brochettes along with roast corn and baked potatoes. After dinner, we piled on the logs and traded lies late into the night.

It began to rain in the night, a steady rain with intermittent downpours that didn't stop until we were about a mile from the take-out three days later. We picked up and packed in the rain and slogged down the river. Sure it was wet, and we were all soaked, but anything was better than rotting away in a cubicle prison.

Grand Pitch
Grand Pitch, East Penobscot River

The next two portages were close together on the morning of the second day. The walk around Grand Falls, a tremendous waterfall, leads past a cliff face high above the falls, with a splendid view of the drop. After lugging our gear and boats about a half mile, we stopped for photos and stood cliffside, discussing the most do-able lines through the torrent (as if). It seemed to rain harder when we were on the portage trail. At least the flies were bearable.

The last portage of the day, around a falls and gorge called the Hulling Machine, came when we were all tired, wet and hungry. We got out to scout, following the path, which turned uphill and began to look more like a deerpath leading up Everest. I could have sworn Munsungan Lake on the Aroostook River was about to appear over the next rise. I'm not ashamed to say that I've never portaged as frequently and for such long distances on my home rivers in New Brunswick ... as far as I'm concerned, portaging is like banging your head against the wall, it feels good when you stop. I firmly believe that if you are not in fairly good cardio-vascular shape, this trip is best enjoyed in your armchair.

It was unanimously decided to camp at the end of the trail. Hal offered to keep plugging away at portaging the myriad gear and boats if some one would get the tarps up and a rosy fire going. Scooter and I collected firewood while Wayne started the fire. We did as Hal said and then set out to help finish the portage. After all, who wants to be outdone by Hal? Sheesh, we'd never hear the end of it all trip.

Well, many hands and all that and we were soon enjoying soup and more lies by the fire. It sure was cozy to sit warm and dry under the tarp and watch and hear the rain sluice over the edge.

Scrambled eggs and sausages, along with mystery food in cans, those that lost their labels, were the fare for breakfast. Turned out to be yellow beans and pears. We packed our wet gear and headed out into the gray wet morning. It was one of those days where bailing was required just from the rain in the boat.

Flatwater alternated with good rapids for most of the day. We stopped at a campsite just below the confluence with the Seboies River, where Scooter and Hal had descended on their trip last year. The campsite was muddy and buggy. We were happy that this was a lunch stop and not today's destination. We had a campfire and cooked up some hot soup.

Ten miles of slow current brought us to Whetstone Falls campsite. A real pretty little spot, only accessible by canoe from upstream, it sits on a sandy little beach at the top of the falls. Curious that the rapids are called falls and the waterfalls are called pitches. We made ourselves at home, wandered the shore, scouting the top of the falls and enjoyed the last campfire of the trip. With all the rain, we kept track of the river level, which rose steadily all evening.

Scooter aka Doug Doremus
Scooter holds his boat true and steady around the turn

The last day of the trip arrived and we looked forward to three major sets of class III whitewater: Whetstone Falls, Ledge Falls, and Grindstone Falls. We had Whetstone for breakfast, and got the adrenaline flowing. The left run took us past some campsites under the bridge, then dropped into a hole followed by a six foot high wave train. We all bounced through like rubber duckies in our oversized canoes. This was followed by a bailing session.

Grindstone was by far the longest and roughest stretch that any of us had done. There was a spot to take out right at the top, in a small park with a riveted steel outhouse. From there we could see the leaping froth as it disappeared around the corner. The guidebooks suggest those who choose to run this rapid unload and carry their gear downstream first, then run them in an empty boat ... but when the rapids trailed around the turn and out of sight, somehow it didn't sound all that appealing.

Hal and Wayne led the way, into a huge mid-river eddy at the bottom of the first drop. As Scooter and I entered the eddy, everyone headed down, one-by-one through an endless procession of six foot waves. I knelt on the floor of my canoe, as close to the center thwart as I could, and spread my knees as wide apart as possible ... and that's not very wide. All pretense of picking a line down the rapid soon gave way to a grit-my-teeth determination to keep it straight, as the current, swollen from three days worth of heavy rain, offered no leeway.

I spied a large rock with a heavy curl on either side, which no doubt hid a deep back wash on the down river side. It was maybe two hundred feet downstream, lots of time. Okay, I thought, go on the right. I drove and heaved on my paddle with all my might, but the current was relentless, I could make no difference. I ended up smack on and over the rock, shipped in half the river, but miraculously stayed upright.

Nanook of the Nashwaak
Before the flip

We all pulled over in a narrow little strip of calm water to bail and congratulate each other. Then Hal peeled out, pulling for the midriver. Reaching the really big waves, he turned downstream and barely made it through a tricky hydraulic along shore. I followed suit, hit the same hydraulic and became submerged in an instant. It seemed my front end caught just the tip of that green curling wave, and it flipped me like a sumo wrestler.

I came up for a breath of air, and saw my boat, upside down and fully loaded, careening down river only inches by my face. I pushed it away with my left hand ... no way I wanted to end up between it and some unknown boulder deep in the northern Maine woods. I held onto my paddle in my right hand. I remember thinking, no matter what happens, I'm hanging on to this stick with all my might.

The wave train was endless. I slid deep into each trough, was forced underwater, and rose on the next crest, to grab a quick lungful of air, and went under again and again. I forced myself to keep my trunk pointing downriver and my legs on the surface ... my pfd gave me enough bouyancy to snatch air every few seconds. Snagging my feet on a submerged rock would have been fatal.

Shortly after, I am humbled by Grindstone. Of the three boats, mine was the only one to flip. That yellow dot with a hat on on the left is me.

As the rapids began to lose their punch, I looked to shore and saw where Hal was pulled over, only to see me bobbing down the river, followed by my capsized canoe. He did a little dance, trying to figure out whether to throw a line or paddle out to meet me. Finally I had to shout "Take a picture!" Hal immediately fumbled for his camera and managed this shot.

As Scooter swung by, he trailed his rope behind his boat. By that time, however, I was close enough to shore, and flailed and threw myself on to the rocks. I needed a couple of minutes to grab my breath. Thankfully, the water was warm after the rain, and I suffered no hypothermia, nor bruising from my brushes against the rocks.

Losses were minimal, the lid of my cooler being the only item. Fortunately we had already finished the beer off, so no loss there. I was disappointed to note that the contents all of my "dry bags" were completely soaked. I guess I'll have to pack everything in plastic bags inside my "dry bags" next time.

A few hours later we began to see the outskirts of Medway and our waiting vehicles. That's when the sun came out in all its glory. Perfect timing. Didn't the same blessed thing happen to Biff and me on the North Oromocto?

Pics by Hal and Nanook

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