Photo by Jacob Resneck
Mike Lynch lines his canoe up the Missisquoi River in Vermont during his journey on the Northern Forest Canoe trail this summer.
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When Ariel and I arrived at the northern end of Churchill Lake on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway at about 6:15 p.m., a rainbow appeared on the horizon to our right. After snapping a few photos of it, we continued heading toward our destination, Churchill Dam, where we planned to camp for the night. 

To get to the dam we had to go about a mile through a channel several hundred feet wide. As we entered this channel, we again paused for a few minutes as I tried to get some photographs of a pair of loons on our left. 

After we started paddling again, I saw a dark brown hump about 75 feet upstream and slightly to our right. I cautioned Ariel that we should slow down; it looked like a moose. Sure enough, after a few moments the head of a moose came out of the water. Water dripped from its fur and ears as it held some vegetation between its teeth. 

With such a good view of this moose, we both stopped paddling and started to drift in order to watch this large creature for a while. Sitting in the boat, it wasn’t long before another moose appeared on the shoreline. It was a young calf. 

The calf didn’t appear too eager to get into the water. Instead it stayed on the shoreline, watching its mother and some of the other nearby wildlife. There were also about a dozen wild Canada geese swimming in the vicinity of the moose, at times coming within a few feet of it. 

As we were sitting there calmly watching this scene, Ariel turned her head back slightly toward me and exclaimed that she had just seen a bald eagle to the left. It had swooped down and gotten a fish from the water. I missed this action because I was shooting video of the moose. 

After a few more minutes passed, Ariel again noted there was more wildlife upstream. A family of four or five otters was swimming in the water, near some submerged stumps. One of them ventured toward the middle of the channel, and turning toward us, popped his neck and head out of the water. It then swam back to shore. 

By this time after about 40 minutes, the large moose started to walk out of the water. After taking several steps on dry land, the calf walked up to its mother and nudged up against her and started nursing. After a short period, there was a loud suction cup noise. It was finished. The pair then moved slowly toward the forest. 

When I envisioned doing the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail, which starts in Old Forge and ends in Fort Kent, Maine, I was confident that I would see moose on the Allagash River Waterway in northern Maine. I didn’t imagine seeing the amount of wildlife all at once that I saw that evening. It was inspiring, to say the least. 

That experience came after an intense thunder and lightning storm centered around the Churchill Dam area. Ariel and I had been taking cover several miles away on the edge of a forest, under some alders and evergreens. Luckily, we didn’t experience the worst of the storm, but I saw several lightning strikes in the area where we saw the wildlife. One of them was particularly brilliant and appeared to strike the ground.

The next morning when we were talking to a pair of forest rangers at Churchill Dam, they said it rained about three-and-a-half inches in a 24-hour period.  

Although many people may not welcome so much rain in one day, I was excited to get it at this point of the trip. We were just about to hit the whitewater river section of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway and the rain would help raise its water levels and make for better paddling.

That evening after watching the wildlife, we headed to the Churchill Dam, where we camped for the night. In the morning, we walked over to the ranger station to find out about the rapids we were going to face in the coming days. 

As we later experienced, the Chase Rapids right below the dam were the most serious on the river. They were a solid Class II and were running particularly strong the morning we ran them because of the previous days rain. 

The rangers told us a number of stories about the rapids. Apparently, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to wreck their boat in the rapids or tip over. I assumed a big part of that reason is the high volume of people who paddle the river, many of them inexperienced paddlers. When we walked up to the cabin, the ranger was fielding a call about someone who had lost their boat. 

After scouting the rapids, Ariel and I decided that we would take advantage of a portage service the rangers offered and have them shuttle our gear 4 miles downstream. That would allow us the freedom of running the rapids without a weighted boat.

This was the only time during the trip I paddled without my gear or accepted a ride to get from one point on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail to another. I did take a few car rides off the trail during the trip, but never to get further along on it, only to take trips to towns.

Having someone shuttle our gear was breaking routine a bit, but I felt it was worth it to have a light boat. When I scouted the rapids that morning, it looked like there was enough water in the river for empty boats to float over any rocks, at least in the first set of rapids.

After we glanced a few rocks a little later, I was confident we had made the right decision. The rapids were fast at times and the waves were high enough to break over the bow, but we were able to handle them without having any serious issues. 

Once we finished the 4-mile stretch of rapids, we ran into a group of Boy Scouts, who had been paddling ahead of us, and four Russians who had gotten a ride to below the rapids. The Russians were at the starting point of their journey and they had an enormous amount of gear stored in crates alongside the dirt road. The four of them actually had more than the entire Boy Scout troop, which consisted of about 15 people. 

Later when we saw the Russians, their two canoes were filled at least a foot above the gunnels, probably more. I couldn’t imagine having to run rapids and paddle across windy lakes with that amount of gear. But, as I later learned, they did this every year, with the same amount of stuff each time and they somehow finished their trip. 

Running into this many people on the Allagash River was a big change for me on the trip. For the most part, I found that I had the rivers to myself or I would only see a few other paddlers, fishermen or boaters. Because it was early August, it was peak tourist time on this popular river. 

Despite the high traffic on the river, we saw a lot of wildlife, including about a dozen moose and 25 bald eagles. Paddling the Allagash was definitely the best part of the trip because it was all downriver, there was plenty of wildlife and it is in a very remote area of northern Maine. 

In addition, I think having fought through many of the tougher sections of the trail made me have a deeper appreciation for this section.

The Northern Forest Canoe Trail is a challenging route. It includes paddling across large lakes like Raquette Lake, Lake Champlain, Lake Memphremagog and Moosehead Lake. Those lakes can be challenging to paddle because they can be windy and have large swells.

Sometimes you simply have to wait until the conditions are right. On the flip side, when the water is still, lake paddling can be very scenic and they made for great places to camp. 

There is also lots of upstream paddling, lining and some poling on the trail. The portages can be long and challenging. Ariel and I wheeled our boat and gear about 20 miles from Rangeley, Maine to Stratton on a paved road because the South Branch of the Dead River had very low water levels. From what I’ve heard, it’s only runnable for a short period in the spring. 

People who paddle the trail in the summer months often have to navigate lower water levels. On my trip, I had good water for the majority of downriver sections. The entire Saranac River was runnable and so were the Allagash and St. John rivers. It was on the St. John that I would say Ariel and I faced the largest waves (in rapids) of the trip. 

The low-water stretches I hit were on the Missisquoi River near Richford close to the Canadian border, the Clyde in Vermont, the Upper Ammonoosuc and Nulhegan in New Hampshire. There are stretches of the Nulhegan that are only 5 feet wide and crowded with alders, beaver dams, mud and are so windy that it’s hard to make good time. 

Probably the hardest part of the trip is dragging your boat up some of the small connector streams. You’re lucky to move at a pace of one mile an hour in some of these places. Physically, this is tough to do, but it’s probably more of a mental battle, especially toward the end.

I found a place called Little Spencer Stream in Maine to be one of the most difficult parts of the trip. This little stream is about 10 to 20 feet wide in sections and it had very little water in it when I was there. Probably one of the toughest parts of lining upstream is that the rocks can be extremely slippery and tough to negotiate. 

All in all, it’s hard to summarize a seven-week, 740-mile trip. The highs and lows are scattered throughout the journey. Many of the most memorable highlights came in simple interactions with people, both locals and tourists, at campsites. It was also fun stopping in towns and learning more about the small communities.

Overall, though, I would say it was hard to top the wildlife experience on the Allagash near Churchill Dam.