A Maine Canoe oddyssey - T.R.

I don’t consider it to be a good sign when an air-based reconnaissance is sent after our group before we even start the trip. But…I swear I am not making this up…that is what happened.

Mike (Wickerbutt) had made arrangements to meet our shuttle driver at the boat ramp in Rockwood, ME between 2:00 and 3:00. Due to the requisite late start that every trip starts off with, as well as some minor traffic issues, we arrived there a little before 3:30, to find no shuttle driver waiting. No panic…he said he was in the area, and we had his cell number. But wait, no cell phone coverage for us. So, Mike went off to a pay phone, and returned to report that the shuttle driver…Luke…had not answered, so he left a message. Slight panic. Unbeknownst to us, Luke was circling a couple hundred feet over our heads in a single-engine Cessna, having flown inform Greenville to see if we’d shown up yet. Talk about above and beyond! When he showed up later, he stated that it was quicker for him to fly to Rockwood to check on us than to drive back and risk that we weren’t there still. I suppose that is true, but it couldn’t have been cheaper!

Anyways, we were quickly loaded and our way to the Stratton-Eustis area of Flagstaff Lake (motto – again, not making this up-“Get Useless in Eustis”). Arriving at our hotel (the bastids put us on the second floor), we proceeded quickly to, in two words, get useless. A bracing nip of Sailor Jerry, and a short walk to the nearest tavern, helped mightily in this regard.

Day 1 of the trip began with a ¾ mile walk to a neighborhood boat ramp located at the southwestern-most corner of huge Flagstaff Lake. Paddlers: OC1: Chuck “riverstrider” Horbert in a 16’ MR Explorer; and OC2: Mike “Wickerbutt” Bussell and Bill “Wet Willy” Luther, in a 17’ MR Explorer. When I say that this enormous lake was glass when we put in, and for most of the day’s paddle, what I mean is that the only ripples on the lake were those created by our wakes and the wakes of occasional other boats, with a jumping fish or two. Incredibly favorable conditions. It was hot…70 to 80 degrees, but we were fresh and we made about 17 miles that first day, camping slightly north of “mile long beach” which appeared to be mostly under water. The only threat to our safety and comfort was Bill’s silent but deadly farts.

Day 2: We finished the rest of Flagstaff lake and reached our first carry: a little more than a mile down past Long Falls, putting in below the bridge for Long Falls Dam Road, and continuing down the Dead River. It went well, once we quickly figured out that we could carry the canoes a short distance to roll them down the road, instead of dragging them along the official goat trail carry. We made one wrong turn (stay left at the first fork), but other than the tedium it was a pretty easy carry.

After a few miles of flatwater, including a 1.5 mile muckle-float and a close encounter with a bald eagle, we reached the first portage option above Grand Falls. A quick scout revealed another unappealing goat trail, so we proceeded to scout and pick our way through 3 or 4 sets of easy rapids right to a beautiful beach set just upstream from the cataracts. After a couple false starts, and with the help of some local camp occupants, we found the correct carry roads. We made one trip laden with packs, and a second with the canoes on wheels, carrying everything right to the confluence of Dead River and Spencer Stream, where we set up camp for the night, mentally preparing ourselves for the crux of the trip. This day was the first day that the bugs got vicious, but so long as I stayed in the vicinity of Mike and Bill, they rarely paid any attention to me. Those boys are almost as good as a violet light! I ended the night watching a deer swim and wade up Spencer Stream in the gathering twilight.

Day 3: To all you polers out there, you owe it to yourself to do the trip from Dead River up Spencer Stream and Little Spencer Stream to Spencer Lake once in your life. But only once. In my opinion, this was the best, and most challenging, portion of the trip. In this opinion, I believe Mike and Bill will loudly disagree that it was the best segment.

Having seen the low levels in the Dead River, we envisioned a nightmare 7 mile dragfest (Mike kept telling himself it was 5 miles…sounded better that way). Water levels were fortunately adequate for poling, but not for any reasonable paddling, except for very short stretches. With the lighter boat and one less passenger, I was able to pole 90% of the distance without getting out of the boat. And boy, was I thankful, because whenever I was out of the boat, dragging it up drops or shallow sections I could kill 2 to 3 horse and deer flies per slap…they were ferocious! But curiously, when I was in the boat, they didn’t bother me. Instead, they hovered around the bow, wondering why they couldn’t get any blood out of it. More on this on a later post.

Mike and Bill, on the other hand, had a hard time of it. They were able to pole/paddle maybe 30% of the length, having to resort to tracking and dragging the canoe the rest of the way. It made for a very long day. I am sure that where I found a magical stream corridor full of wildflowers, marsh, interesting ledges, lunker trout and bejeweled dragon flies and damselflies, they saw hell. A real “upstream slog”. I still feel some guilt about this, but they were troopers and only threatened to lynch me a couple times. At any rate, this upstream push was a great accomplishment for all, a real feather in our cap.

But it wasn’t over…our reward for the 7 mile upstream travel was what appeared to be a new dam without any obvious portage route. The dam at Spencer Lake was just rebuilt last year, or perhaps the year before, and can no longer be easily lifted over. And the surrounding area downstream appears to consist largely of steep ledges and cliffs. Wet Willy eventually found a faint trail near the base of the dam on river-right, that led to a short cliff. We chain-ganged all of the gear, and each canoe, in turn, to the top of the ledge, which was flat and spacious enough to accommodate it all, and then lowered everything down another cliff to the pool above the dam. From there, we had to paddle and slide the canoes over a log-chain barrier set above the spillway to reach Spencer Lake.

From here, it was another 5.5 mile paddle to our intended camp on Fish Pond. It was a nice change of pace, especially with a slight (almost non-existent) tail-wind, but the upstream push and subsequent portage (which turned out to be both the shortest and most difficult of the trip) had exhausted us, so those last miles were tough. We pulled into camp after a 10-hour day to the sight of our first moose, feeding across the pond.

We quickly set up camp, had a swim, started a fire (big-time luck…found a stack of dry, split firewood for the night), cooked dinner and broke out the Sailor Jerry. The worst was behind us! We hoped. That night, the mosquitoes found all of us. Even I had to break out the Deep Woods Off. And Bill discovered why his repellant did not work very well…Cutter “Skintastic” is only about 7% deet! Maine mosquitoes laugh at it!

Day 4

(To the popular Janice Joplin tune)

“Oh Lord…won’t you buy me, a Kevlar canoe

This por-tage sucks big time, I can not make do

Walked miiiiles down a dirt road, but wore the wrong shoes

So Lord, won’t you buy me a Kevlar canoe.”

Note…the most recent maps I have show quite a bit of Fish Pond stretching to the north of where we camped, but ain’t no pond there. It is a lot of marsh and shrub swamp, within which we found the river that took us to Hardscrabble Road. It was a short, mile long paddle to reach the bridge, easy flatwater broken up by two or threee beaver dams we had to lift over. The road, according to my GPS, has also changed recently, having been realigned somewhat to the north of it’s original course. But no matter…this actually cut off some distance, I think. It sure didn’t feel like it, though.

In what was becoming a daily occurrence, morning fog and scattered clouds quickly burned off to reveal a blazing sun and a hot, mostly clear day. In other words, pretty crappy conditions for a hot and dusty hike along logging roads. Fortunately the logging truck population did not put in an appearance. For the whole 2.5 hours we hiked, we were passed by a grand total of two pickups and the oldest Toyota Celica I’ve ever seen…a relic that carried a long-haired Mainer and two kids headed into town from their cabin on Whipple Bog, together with two 5-gallon gasoline containers strapped to the trunk.

I did observe a similar phenomenon with deer flies that I did while poling up Spencer Stream. If I towed the canoe along from the bow, which only makes sense I think, I was constantly harassed by deer flies. At one point, though (I think at our first downhill stretch), I walked at the stern for better braking control. For no reason other than pure bloody-mindedness, I stayed at the stern and pushed the canoe up the next hill. Not only did I find it easier, but I noticed that all of the deer flies were hovering around the bow, blissfully unaware of my presence 16 feet to the rear. Man: “I think, therefore I am”. Deer flies: “I instinct, therefore it happens”. Stupid flies.

But once again, other than the tedium of hiking through a whole lot of nowhere, it was a fairly easy portage. Just longer than the others. Canoe carts RULE! But the appearance of Spencer Rips on the Moose River was still a welcome sight. “It’s all downstream from here! Woohoo!”

This is a beautiful river. It is clear why the Moose River “Bow Trip” is popular. Quality tripping with convenient no-shuttle service. We each reveled in the silence of the Maine woods as we paddled steadily downstream, me monitoring our progress and approach to Attean Falls. Coming around one corner, we came across (of course), a moose swimming across the river no more than 100 feet or so downstream. In a true Far-Side wildlife moment, the moose clambered a ways up the bank, slipped, did a nose plant and slid back into the river. Doh! It then made it up on the bank, and looked over it’s shoulder, likely daring us to laugh at it, and presenting a perfect Kodak moment.

Water levels were clearly rather low when we approached the first drop in Attean falls, but we were able to run it right down the middle no problem, boat scouting. The second drop looked quite a bit bonier, so we got out and looked. We met a group from CT and ME who pulled in right before us, two canoes of which had already run the drop but had issues with broaching and/or getting turned around. But they did survive, and immediately presented us with their expert advice on how not to run the rapid. While trading tales of the trail, one of the guys cracked open a beer, the sound of which froze us in our tracks. “Oh man,” I said, “that’s a beautiful sound”. He then indicated that one might be waiting for me if I made a clean run through the rapids, an offer I could not, as much as I tried, refuse.

Mike and Bill led the way, with me not too far behind, and we styled that second drop like the canoes were on rails. Total sweetness. I pulled into the eddy at the bottom, and as promised one, two and then three beers were tossed my way for distribution amongst the intrepid trippers.

At this point, it had been a long day, but we decided to truck on into a windy Attean Pond and camp at one of the sites near the landing. Other than having the adjacent site occupied by some rather snooty Canadians (and, temporarily, by some rip-roaring drunk local boys, one of which proudly claimed he was related to 65% of the town of Jackman…you do the math), this camp was smooth, sandy, and relatively bug-free, with a beautiful view of the pond and a pit toilet. Bill went out to pump some water, and promptly got blown out of sight, but he eventually reappeared some hours later. We were serenaded asleep by the sound of multitudes of loons, and then shaken awake at 3:30 the next morning by a very-nearby freight train. Every night the moon is a bit larger.

Day 5:

We had been looking forward to this day because we could paddle all day and not have to portage anything! We got a relatively early start, 8:30 or so, and the wind chased us out of Attean Pond and onward down the river. When we got onto Big Wood Pond, we had a quartering wind and somewhat beam seas to deal with, but loaded canoes are a beautiful thing and the Explorers took all of the waves and gusts in stride. We found our way to Armand Pomerleau park, where we staggered into town for ice, cold beer, more sunscreen, phone calls to our families (We’re still alive!) and the best damn sandwiches we’d had ever! And cold soda! Wow! A few days of isolation make you really appreciate some of the junk we insist on putting into ourselves.

An hour later, we were back on the river, having had a frank discussion of our goals for the rest of the trip. Mike was getting pretty exhausted at this point, and was missing his wife and three girls, and not looking forward to the prospect of finishing our trip sometime Saturday, putting us home late afternoon Sunday. He became a bit moody and despondent. He thought if we pushed ourselves we could have finished the trip Friday, while I was already aware that we were pushing ourselves to finish Saturday. Simple miscommunication. It happens. Anyway, we decided to get off the river at Demo Road, the next day (Friday) which crosses the river 2.5 miles before Little Brassau Lake, and hitch our way back to the vehicles.

Having made this decision, Mike returned to his chatty self and we cruised down the river, which at this time was considerably less wild than the upstream portions, with a smattering of homes, farms and businesses, and a bridge or two. As we closed in on Long Pond, though, things became more natural and wild, and just as we entered the pond a bald eagle swooped down 150 feet in front of us and snagged a fish. A second eagle awaited us on a snag at the head of the pond.

We were in for a treat. The wind that gave us problems on Big Wood was blowing our way down Long Pond and after stopping only once for a swim break for Bill (I now know why they call him Wet Willy…he swam at every opportunity), we arrived at the Lower Narrows in no time. Previous through-paddlers had arrived here and failed to find any camping sites, despite the fact that the maps show one site on each side of the pond. When we arrived, there was an obvious beach camp site at the north point. A little more looking revealed two other secluded sites on the south point, one of which had a sizeable supply of stacked, split dry wood and thick grass. Home!

Knowing that this was our last night, we partied it up. There was no one around to disturb, other than a couple loons. If the train came through again that night (the tracks were a mere 800 feet away), no one heard it .

“Oh Lord, won’t you buy me…a six pack of beer

This water is tasteless, and not very clear

Got plennteeeee of Sailor, got nothing to fear,

But Lord, can’t you buy me…a six pack of beer.”

Day 6:

We all knew this was our last day on the water, and a short day at that, so breaking camp down did not seem a priority. We took our time. Brewed up some coffee, packed the sleeping bag, took down the clothesline, sat down and had some coffee, rolled up the Thermarest, sat down and had some coffee, put on some sunscreen, sat down with a powerbar and a coffee…and so it went. We eventually got on the water for the rest of the long journey down Long Lake, but not until it was almost 10:00. Once again, skies were sunny and temps were rising, with a bit more humidity on this last day…the lake shimmered in a hazy light. Nowhere near the breeze that we benefited from the day before, so the paddling was thirsty, hot work. At the far southeastern end of the lake, the Moose River resumes its riverine character.

There’s something about paddling out of a large lake into a river-especially a new one-that I just love. Especially if no portage around a dam is involved. It’s like witnessing the birth of an adventure. We experienced a lot of these entrances to new waterways, and I loved every one of them. This river greeted us with a feeding loon and a family of mergansers.

There were rumored to be some easy Class II rapids on this stretch, and we were not disappointed. I used them as an opportunity for some downstream poling and snubbing, and even managed a pretty nifty eddy turn with the loaded boat. I’ll say it again…I love my canoe!

All too quickly, Demo Road, our intended take-out, came into view, and after a check on river right, we ferried across the top of a Class III drop under the bridge to reach the trail to the road on river-left. Here, we left Bill to watch the gear and, if he was so inclined, sherpa it up to the road, while Mike and I started our walk in the hopes of hitching a ride to Rockwood and our waiting vehicles. And we were successful, but only after a 5.5 mile hike in hot sun. Just before we got picked up, we had our closest moose encounter yet when, while examining what appeared to be an active moose crossing, we noticed an actual moose right across the street from us! Big bull. No camera, though. Right after we got picked up, the skies opened up and it began to rain. Timing is everything.

After recovering our vehicles and stopping to again experience the wonderful world of cold soda and warm pizza (yes, we got some for Bill too), we drove back to load the gear that Bill had in fact hauled up the trail, and closed out another chapter in our quest t section-paddle the NFCT.

Here are some pics. I’m not entirely happy with them, but some of them came out pretty good.


Thanks, Chuck!
Your trip log was great reading and the photos were excellent!! I am happy to hear that you were able to put your poling expertise to work so extensively. Sounds like you guys had a great time of it.

Bill S.

Loved all of it !!
After reading your post and looking at your pictures I know what my wife and I MUST do next summer. We’ve kayaked and canoed some of this section but only a day at a time. Both of us are guilty of not taking the time to smell the roses because of our jobs. My We-No-Na Spirit might be a little too fragile to do certain sections of your trip but we’ll definitely do part of it next year. Just wanted to let you know someone appreciated your post. Thanks !!!

for the great trip report. Its probably as close as I’ll ever get to Maine. The scenery in your pics is nature at its finest. I go canoeing whenever I can, but the long trips are the best by far. Cheers!

Great trip report,
thanks for sharing, nice pics too!

I really enjoy reading about the places I am familiar with.


No…thank YOU!
Carol, I think you provided me with some GPS waypoints as I was planning the trip. While we didn’t utilize either of the camps you identified, those waypoints did come in handy on the portage between Spencer Lake and the Moose River.

Glad you all liked the story and the pics…I was suprised to see it pop back to the top.


Actually , Im shocked
that you portaged all that you did!

Im glad you found those waypoints handy.

Beautiful area.

happy paddling,