September 21, 2007

Maine - Penobscot River Paddle

The Penobscot River in central Maine is New England’s second largest river system. With Mount Katahdin as a stunning backdrop, this powerful river is a picture come to life. The river's West Branch is famous for its numerous falls and rapids which provide outstanding whitewater rafting and angling for landlocked Atlantic salmon.

Since Sam & I don’t paddle whitewater. We were assured by local paddlers & river guides that the section of the river that we chose was safe for anyone. We would meet a few rapids, made less threatening by low water levels this year, and there were easy portages around them. Of course, no story is ever totally true.

Bob and Joy were anxious to put their two Necky Manitou 13 kayaks to the test. The launch-point and take-out were close to our campground and luckily, Bob & Sam ended up hitching a ride from a fellow kayaker.

Our first hour on the river was breathtaking. Wide and clear, moving slowly through woods that were just starting to show their autumn glory. Mt. Katahdin towered above and behind us. We continued to glance back, hoping the view would miraculously appear before us around the next bend. Mt. Katahdin and Baxter Peak are the end of the Appalachian Trail. See Sam and I's account here on the Blog. It seemed amazing that we were actually had reached the top of the huge peak only days before.

As we approached the roar of the first rapids and spotting the portage was easy, reducing apprehension that we may have to run them. The half mile carry was wide, easy to follow and fairly flat. We snapped a few pictures of the rapids before putting in on the opposite end. Within a few leisurely miles the next set of rapids came into view. We zipped through the fast water, which proved more fun than threat!

Since the designated campsites either didn't exiet or were poorly marked, we pressed on and Sam discovered an unmarked camp on an island in the middle of the river. It had a nice fire ring, room for 2 tents and beautiful views of Katahdin.

Sam couldn't wait to wet a line on this great salmon stream. While he caught a few small ones, Joy ended up catching the only “keeper” of the trip.

Known for its large population of moose, we expected to see a few of the huge creatures. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any moose during the trip. While paddling we did see a few bald eagles, mergansers, kingfishers and osprey.
Morning painted a beautiful sunrise with a bit of fog and mist rising from the lake. What a start for another beautiful day. Lows in the upper 50's rising to the mid-70s by noon were perfect paddling and camping weather!

Although starting on a quiet, wide stretch of the river, it wasn’t long before we heard the somewhat louder roar of the next set of rapids. Looking for a portage on the left side of the river as we had been told, we were taken by surprise when we discovered an old deserted cabin.

Peering through the window, I noticed a journal on the table. Surprisingly, the door was unlocked, bearing a note on it's inner surface that had been left on birch bark offering it for use in an emergency. The wood stove evidently still worked and there were several pots & pans adorning the interior. If one dared, you could even sleep in the musty smelling bed. One wondered about the stories it's walls could tell of the numerous trappers, hunters, woodsmen and fisherman who had stayed there over the years.

During the 19th century, the Penobscot became the primary means of transporting logs out of the North Woods to Bangor--then the "timber capital of the world". Much evidence of this logging activity remained on the river.

After an hour or so examining the camp, looking at the next set of rapids and trying to figure out how we were going to make our way out at the other end of the portage. we braved a part-run through the back half of the rocky rapids.

As we approached Lake Ambajejus, the river was slowed & widened into it. The river had been dammed years ago to form the lake so that the logs could be gathered into booms. We found the old boomhouse there on the North shore of the lake. It is manned by a caretaker who also built birch bark canoes.

Just as we paddled up, he was returning in his tiny skiff after making a grocery run. He invited us to eat our lunches on the porch then visit the museum. The house was filled with all kinds of antiquities from the logging industry. It appeared that almost nothing had been changed since the day the last logger left it.

The last part of our paddle involved crossing the open water of Lake Ambejejus. We soon
discovered that the deceivingly short-looking paddle was an illusion. After three miles across open water, we finally arrived at our trucks. We were delighted to find these oddly named but ice cold refreshments across the street.

We all felt that this paddle had been one of the best. It was just the right combination of scenic views, great water, beautiful weather, history and companionship. Two days had not been long enough to soak it all in. I discovered a few weeks later that the River further north was more wild and scenic, being home to the largest concentration of moose in the state of Maine. We WILL come back!