Not the same as Thoreau's river, but wild again

Canoeing the west branch of the Penobscot River

EDITOR'S NOTE: Brian Carovillano, an Associated Press writer based in Boston, took this trip with his wife in July 2004. Their daughter, Emilia, was born March 19, 2005.

By Brian Carovillano

CHESUNCOOK VILLAGE, Maine -- We pointed the nose of the canoe downstream and the current took hold. We glided over the white gravel of the riverbed, past boulders and small islands -- two tiny canoes out for a four-day paddle on the Penobscot River's West Branch, in Maine's North Woods.

The first two days took us more than 20 miles down a river that once was the main thoroughfare of the nation's lumber industry. The second leg, on Chesuncook Lake, brought us to the doorstep of Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.


It was a modest endeavor, but for me and my wife, Michele, this trip at this time had a special significance. Michele was pregnant with our first child. With parenthood on the horizon, this was likely to be our last wilderness adventure for a while.

We started at the Allagash Gateway Campground on Ripogenus Lake, where for $50 owner Bill Reeves will shuttle you and your canoe to the put-in. You then spend the next four or five days paddling back to civilization. The sky was threatening as we loaded bags full of clothes and food, jugs of water, tents, a stove and fuel into Bill's van, and threw the canoes on top. We were on the road just as the rains came. It was a Tuesday in July, and Bill told us that there were few others on the river.

"You'll have your pick of the best campsites," he said.

Our launch point was the confluence of Lobster Stream and the West Branch, where a logging road passes near the river on its way to nowhere in particular. By the time we got there, the rain had stopped and patches of blue were appearing between the clouds.

On the first day, we covered 10 miles. At first, the river was wide, deep and smooth, a mirror image of the sky. But as the afternoon wore on, the current picked up. We ran a few little rapids before making our first camp at the downstream end of Big Island. I assembled my fly rod and waded into the river.

The West Branch is one of Maine's premier fisheries for landlocked salmon, a cousin to the Atlantic salmon that long ago were cut off from the sea. But the best salmon fishing in this waterway is farther downstream. This section of the river is instead loaded with native brook trout. After an hour I lost count of how many I'd caught and released.

As the sun dipped below the trees, scattering diamonds across the surface, there was a splash and I looked up to see a young bull moose wading across the river about 50 yards downstream. He stopped to look at me before crashing into the underbrush on the far bank.

Henry David Thoreau canoed the West Branch twice in the 1850s, writing about it in "The Maine Woods." He came to experience the natural world in a way that no longer was possible elsewhere in New England.


That's why we went, too.

But since Thoreau's time, the land has seen a lot of changes. The forests were harvested repeatedly for their timber. Submerged logs lurking just below the surface are remnants of the log drives that once choked the river. And the clearings visible beyond the corridor of trees along the riverbank are reminders that the adjacent lands were clear-cut as recently as the 1980s.

There was no roar of machinery as we floated along a widening river on the second day of our trip. While hundreds of thousands of acres on both sides of the river are still owned by paper companies, the immediate surroundings are set aside for recreation, and the forest is slowly reverting to something closer to what Thoreau experienced.

Mergansers and kingfishers streaked past, and eagles and osprey soared overhead. There are bears, otter, moose, coyote and bobcats. At one point, a deer nervously stepped onto a sandbar to drink from the river.

Rounding the last bend in the river, we were suddenly confronted by the enormity of Chesuncook Lake, third biggest in Maine, and by the mass of Katahdin, which dominates the southern skyline. It was a perfectly still, clear day. The mountain's rocky top gleamed in the bright sun.

Chesuncook Village occupies a stretch of shoreline just south of where the river pours into the lake. This is one thing that hasn't changed since Thoreau's time: There are no passable roads to the village. The only way for visitors to get there is by seaplane, boat or on foot.

The village is home to just a handful of year-round residents. One of them, Jack Murphy, operates Chesuncook's only store. Actually, it isn't so much a store as the front porch of Murphy's house, and the inventory is limited to two things: home-brewed root beer kept ice cold in an old-fashioned fridge, and soft, sweet fudge in a dozen or so flavors. We sat on the porch sampling his wares and making small talk with a neighbor.

Later, we made our camp in a cool grove of cedars on Gero Island, directly across from Chesuncook Village. We sat by our roaring fire on a moonless night under a zillion stars. The gas lamps of the village reflected on the lake's shimmering surface.


The next morning, it was raining and a stiff breeze from the south promised a miserable upwind paddle. So we decided to wait it out on the island.

The next day, the rains continued but the wind died. We loaded our canoes and began the final leg of our trip. An osprey took an interest in our progress. We hugged the shore, and the majestic bird followed, gliding from treetop to treetop. Then, as fast as it appeared, it was gone.

An hour later, the osprey was replaced by a pair of bald eagles that glided endlessly above. One eagle skimmed along the lake, driving its talons beneath the surface to snare a fish.

All this activity kept our minds off the rain, which was incessant. I was up to my ankles in the bottom of the canoe, so we alternated between paddling and bailing. But mercifully, there was almost no breeze, and we ticked off the miles -- 16 this day, to be exact.

By late afternoon, we beached the canoes on the gravel shore at the Allagash Gateway Campground, where we'd left our cars four days earlier.

On the Net:

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