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The River Wilder
Maine's Allagash River has a mythic reputation: Henry David Thoreau once sought solitude here in a savage wilderness populated only by moose and loggers. A modern paddler floats in Thoreau's wake and finds that time hasn't just stood still on the Great American River for more than a hundred years—it's flowed backward. By Geoffrey Norman

Photo: Lonnie Thompson
OLD SCHOOL: The essential elements of multiday trip on the Allagash haven't changed in 100 years—a canoe, a fishing rod, and enough time to use them both.

The river had that rich, dark, specific mineral smell that I think of as the scent of time. It was the musky odor of all the decaying and dead things that the water ceaselessly carries away and all the stones that it remorselessly wears down on the way to the sea. The river was old, maybe even ageless, and that felt like a liberating thing. "Build your hopes on things eternal," the old spiritual warns, and that seems like increasingly good advice. There is a reason why you go to the river to be baptized, I thought, though I hadn't come to the Maine woods to be reborn in the blood. Just to get away from a 'new world' that was beginning to feel pretty old. New restaurant, new movie, new book. It all seemed tired, like the digital world that was supposed to set us free. Turns out the Internet is about gambling and porn. Nothing new there.

Give me a river, please, and bacon cooked in a cast-iron skillet over a hardwood fire; the sound of loons; a sky where the reflection of a million electric lights does not obscure the stars. I didn't want much. Just a little time out of time. And if this river was good enough for Thoreau, hell, it was good enough for me.

So I unloaded the canoe and dry bags and stood on the bank and looked downstream. The river was narrow and shallow here with lots of broken water. Where it wasn't broken and white, the water was the color of slate. Cedars and alders grew thick along the banks. Seeing the Allagash the first time is not the same as getting your first look at the Grand Canyon. I wasn't stunned speechless; merely glad to be here and eager to get started.

Henry David Thoreau was the first of many to make Maine's Allagash River into something iconic. His journal from a trip on the river was published posthumously as part of The Maine Woods in 1864, less than 50 years after the country he described had first been mapped. The book did more to secure Thoreau's reputation than either of his previous works, one of which was Walden.

Thoreau said, famously, that in the struggle between man and nature, he was on nature's side. So he inevitably loved the Allagash and deplored the logging of the big woods—especially the majestic white pines, some of which would grow to 150 feet (46 meters). But Thoreau had a soft spot for loggers, who were cut from the same cloth as cowboys, men who drove timber down the big rivers of Maine to the mills in the same way cowboys drove cattle across the prairies to the rail towns. "It is a solitary and adventurous life, and comes nearest to that of the trapper of the West, perhaps," Thoreau wrote of the loggers. "They work ever with a gun as well as an axe, let their beards grow, and live without neighbors, not on an open plain, but far within a wilderness."

"Wilderness," of course, was a term of dread in that era. Thoreau's lasting contribution was to change that perception. But not before the loggers had done their best to eliminate the very wildlands Thoreau revered. The big Maine woods went from a place of fear to a resource to be exploited to a remnant treasure to be preserved. Today the best-preserved portion is along the Allagash River from Churchill Dam to the town of Allagash, just below the Canadian border, where the river flows into the St. John River. This stretch—a little less than a hundred miles—was first proposed for protection during the Kennedy Administration. There are no towns or settlements or mills along the banks. Just a couple of ranger cabins and several unobtrusive campsites for the many people who make the trip by canoe, usually in the summer. I decided to arrive just after Labor Day, when water levels drop, the crowds and blackflies thin out, and the river foliage is in peak autumn form. The Allagash in September isn't what the Maine woods once were—nothing is—but it is the closest thing you'll find anywhere.

Lately, the backcountry has become so sanctified that you feel a little guilty for using it at all. So you tread lightly, trying hard not to disturb the fragile environment. But not in the big woods of Maine. Perhaps because it has been cut over for timber and come back so many times from hard use, and because there is so much of it and it is so much less hospitable than, say, Yellowstone, the Maine woods can accommodate old-style camping. Bring your high-tech stove and cook freeze-dried delectables on it, if you must. But it is also perfectly acceptable to use an ax on dead wood and build robust campfires.

You use an ax so seldom these days that you forget what a satisfying tool it is and the pleasure of swinging a good one. But for the full experience, you have to go to Maine, where camp axes and pack baskets are still essential tools and wool clothes are preferred to fleece.

The canoe I took to the river was made by Old Town, one of the venerable names from Maine. This one was 17 feet 2 inches (about five meters) long and made of ABS, the rubberlike composite that gives on impact. There are many stories about ABS canoes getting wrapped around rocks, spars, and bridge pilings and springing back into shape. A friend of mine had one fly off the top of his car when he was going down the highway. He kicked it and pounded on it until it looked like a canoe again, and he's still paddling it.

I wasn't expecting to use this canoe very hard on the Allagash. But I chose the ABS because I'd been told the river would be low and that I could expect to scrape over some of the gravel bars if, indeed, I didn't have to get out and drag the boat. I was looking for utility. But the canoe could have been Kevlar or aluminum or cedar or even birch bark.

My packing also included an ancient Lodge cast-iron skillet, made when my grandfather worked for the company, and a fly rod. There were supposed to be brook trout in the Allagash, and I hoped to catch some and fry them up for dinner.

I could have made the trip alone. This would have been a Thoreauvian gesture, and I considered it—briefly. But I felt like company. So my wife, Marsha, and I drove north up Vermont, then east across New Hampshire and into Maine. The towns got smaller and meaner and farther apart until we made it to Greenville, on Moosehead Lake. Fifteen miles later, the pavement ended. From now on—about two hours—we would be on logging roads.

It rained that night. Rained hard. This was good news and bad news. Good news because there'd be more water in the river and we might not have to drag the canoe across the gravel bars. Bad news because if the rain kept up for the next four days—not unlikely in Maine—we'd be wet the whole way down the river.

We went to bed early and slept well in a little cabin in the big woods. In the morning, after breakfast, we drove to Churchill Dam on the Allagash. It was still cold, with low, dirty clouds obscuring the sky. But the rain had stopped. Temporarily anyway.

"If you'll hang around for an hour I'll open the spillway and let some water through," a ranger at the dam said. "Might make it easier to get through Chase Rapids."

"We'd appreciate that," I said. I knew from my map that Chase Rapids would be the only really challenging white water we'd be running. The most difficult stretch was the first mile and a half, where there was water that approached Class III. Someone had told me that for $10 the ranger would truck your gear down to the bottom of the rapids, so I asked about it.

"Sure," he said. "Probably a good idea, especially if you are out of practice." We were.

"Best water is on the left side. In low water like this, your biggest problem is the boulders just under the surface. Be quick and you'll be all right. And if you do go over, the water is warm. You'll dry out."

To continue on this Thoreauvian river trip through Maine's North Woods, read the full story in the September print edition of Adventure.

Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, September 2004

Where to Live and Play Now: Spend a week in these enticing base-camp burgs and you may never go home.
Pelton's World: Surviving a foreign fleecing
The River Wilder: Maine's classic American river trip
K2 at 50: The controversy surrounding the world's most vicious mountain

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Related Web Site

Maine's Bureau of Parks and Lands
Before planning your own trip down the Allagash, get more information on where to go and how to do it right.

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September 2004

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