The Allagash Waterway – Eagle Lake to Umsaksis – Day 3

A cool wet wind blows out of the northeast into my face. It’s uncomfortable enough I stop paddling and pull on a windbreaker. It’s not good, this weather out of the east. Last night the ranger mentioned three days of rain.

Up ahead where the lake narrows down two dark canoes appear. I’m wondering why I didn’t see them before, then they touch shore and climb up on the bank. Two moose had just swum across the thoroughfare. What’s on that side of the lake that isn’t on the other side, so far as a moose is concerned I don’t know. Isn’t a twig a twig? But I already know moose have a penchant for travel and exploration. Maybe it’s a way for them to keep in shape. I’ve seen their sign in the most improbable places, tops of bony mountains, for example, which made me think they’d climbed up there for the view.

As I approach John’s Bridge in the gray gloom two loaded log trucks pass over headed toward Canada. Americans and Canadians fought over Maine woods timber for decades, and now we deliver it to them.

I’m a bit apprehensive about the waters under the bridge. The wind against the current kicks up a  little chop, and it’s all quite gloomy and dark. What’s on my mind is the 14 Honduran and Guatemalan workers who died here in 2002 when their van went off the bridge into the water. No wonder the water is roiling.

Scofield Point, Churchill Lake. Landing places like this are few and far between on the Allagash, at least when the water is high. Lots of shoreline is not so inviting – it’s rocky, or boggy, choked with alder. When I pulled in to take a break and stretch, I found the dry images of two canoes on the bank. Someone had left only minutes before. So far, I’d not seen any other canoes when I was on the water – that would change at Churchill Dam, where the river begins.

Putting in at Bissonette Bridge. With reluctance I portaged around Chase Rapids for a couple of reasons. One, the kevlar canoe, hardly a white water boat in any way, would not get on well with rocks if there should be a meeting, and two, if I got in a pickle alone I wasn’t confident of being able to get a swamped canoe floating again without further mishap. I resented this caution, but pride and valor got in the back of the pickup, and I sat up front with the ranger who drove me and a small mountain of mine and others’ gear over ten miles of dirt road.

The Bissonette bridge is long gone, washed out in a freshet forty years ago. It’s a spot that can get jammed up pretty fast. People usually run the rapids on an empty boat, and hire the ranger to haul their stuff. A party of twelve boy scouts stops to reload their gear. The Family of Four, and the Two Couples are also here. Parties starting out at the same time are likely to run into each other over and over from here on out, people tending to cover similar distances in a day , even though their times vary.

Vigilance on the water. There wasn’t any one else going to warn me of rocks, so I kept a constant eye out. Many times the waters ahead looked clear, and my attention would wander to one side or another, to the trees, far down river, behind me, and then, suddenly, there’s a rock a few feet ahead, wearing black disguise and parting the black waters. I picked up the restlessness of the river and moved along with it – hardly pausing, or stopping ever, and probably moved too fast. I found to my surprise I missed the lakes, their wide waters reflecting  the wider skies, the distant shore you can paddle toward all day and not reach. The river never stops, pulls you along in its relentlessness.

The river enters Umsaksis Lake through a alluvial plain of sorts, the river channeling around many islands formed from suspended silt dropping out of the stream. Entering Umsaksis is a magical moment. The wind dies and the surface of the lake is glossy. Squirrel Mountain and Priestly Mountain in the west are lovely voluptuous shapes on the skyline.  Snipe whistle in the sky.  Check out their flying sounds here.

It’s late afternoon and time to be looking for a place to stop. The boy scouts, a mile ahead, pull into the only campsite on Umsaksis, and I paddle on into Long Lake. The wind comes up behind me for the first time in three days. It rains some more.

Grey Book is a peaceful spot, and after setting up I start a fire. It would be my only fire on the trip. Usually a fire is a priority, but with all the set up and break down time involved with camp, I didn’t always welcome the extra chore of gathering wood. I’d intentionally left behind the saw, and forgotten an axe, so I was left with picking up sticks, which burn nice and hot but disappear in minutes. Anyway, it was worth it.

Looking out on the morning rain. Water management would be the preoccupation for the rest of the trip.