St. John River Trip
May 27 – 31, 1999
By John Cary and Patty Glidden
For reference material, see AMC River Guide – Maine; contact North Maine Woods, Inc. (207 435-6213) PO Box 421, Ashland, ME 04372 - Pocket Guide ($3.00)
This trip had it all - enjoyable canoeing, excellent weather, pleasant campsites, vicious insects and drunken Maine rednecks. All things considered, we had a great time! This was not a ‘lazy float trip,’ because the St. John in late May is broad and shallow with many minor rapids, forcing you to navigate carefully. On our last morning, running the Class III rated “Big Rapids” was a fitting climax. We are used to backcountry trips by ourselves, and we are invigorated by the solitude.
The upper Saint John River from 4th St. John Pond to St. Francis is considered the premier wilderness river trip in Maine. Located in the NW corner of Maine, it runs northerly for 150 miles with no portages. It is not a difficult river trip, mostly smooth current, but there are two rapids, rated Class III, which demand respect because of their remote setting. Along the way, North Maine Woods maintains 28 campsites with tables, fire rings and privies.
The St. John is consistently canoeable only for one month in late spring. The river is too shallow in the summer, except following heavy rains. Canoeing is considered best in early May, before the black flies hatch and when the water is high, although sub-freezing nights and snow are not uncommon then. The first 26 miles, from 4th St. John Pond to Baker Lake, are only canoeable during the height of the spring run-off. However, due to work and family constraints (and a definite preference for warmer weather), we planned our trip for the end of May, over the Memorial Day weekend.
A major concern for us was the flow in the river, which was dropping rapidly in the weeks preceding our scheduled departure. Without rain, the river might be too low for canoeing. In advance, we packed our gear and non-perishable food, ‘just in case.’ Wednesday, May 26th, before leaving, we telephoned Wilmer Hafford, an outfitter in Allagash Village who would shuttle our truck. There had been some rain, and we decided to chance it. Quickly, we loaded our truck and set off for Maine.
Thursday morning, following a final civilized night in Millinocket and the $2.50 breakfast buffet at the Terrace Hotel, we drove into Baker Lake. The 105 mile trip on rough gravel roads provided sufficient agitation to aid the digestion of breakfast. At the lake we met a Registered Maine Guide who was coordinating groups of Nature Conservancy members. The Nature Conservancy had recently purchased 185,000 acres for a buffer zone, along the river between Baker Lake and Priestly Deadwater. The guide described the water level as “high.” This was only accurate in a relative sense.
On the shore of Baker Lake, voracious mosquitoes relentlessly attacked, slowing the process of efficiently stowing, for the first time, all our gear into our 17 foot, Royalex canoe. Finally, a little before noon, we were heading toward Allagash Village, 114 miles distant. The Baker Branch Stream is relatively narrow and had many exposed rocks. Difficulty was only Class I. It was a cloudy, cool and windy day with intermittent light rain. Clear-cut areas (of forest) can be seen through a narrow strip of trees remaining at the stream’s edge. We paddled 10 miles to Flaws Bogan where we had lunch. A Nature Conservancy group was just finishing their lunch amidst various articles of soggy clothing spread out to ‘dry’. One of their boats had capsized. Fortunately, they were in the capable hands of two Maine guides. We reached the confluence of the SW Branch of the St. John late in the afternoon. There were some Class I / II rapids where the SW Branch joined, and the river more than doubled in size. Although we were tired, cold, and hungry, the SW Branch campsite was not particularly attractive, so we continued on to Dolcie Brook, stopping at 4:30. Exhausted, we were asleep by dark.
Friday morning, following a leisurely breakfast, the river’s current was drawing us downstream at 10:30. The morning started off cool and clear, but fair weather clouds soon formed. Temperatures rose into the 70’s with a light headwind. At the NW Branch confluence there were some bony Class I / II rapids, as the river widened once again. High on the banks, scouring from ice out was evident. We had lunch at Moody Bridge and continued on to Nine Mile Bridge, arriving at 3:30. We were greeted by swarms of black flies. This was our least favorite campsite. We coped by donning long sleeves and pants, and by applying liberal amounts of 100% DEET. A college professor (a.k.a. ‘Nine Mile Mike’) has purchased the old US Border Patrol cabin here. Mike had lots of stories; he seemed to be on a first name basis with everyone within 100 miles. He did offer us his fresh water spring, which was a great improvement over filtered drinking water.
Saturday morning, anxious to stop feeding the black flies, we got an early start. Also, it was a concern that the river had dropped more than a foot in two days – we weren’t eager to be stuck, high and dry. The river below Nine Mile Bridge is wide with some current and very shallow. Fortunately, we were able to identify the deeper channels and avoid grounding out. Mid-morning, under a bright, warm sun, we encountered a fleet of canoes with outboard motors, coming up river. In the last canoe, offering a can of Coors Light, was the J.M. Huber (paper company) representative on the St. John River Advisory Council. In trade for the beer we consented to an informal interview concerning our experiences on the river. We had lunch in the fields at Simmons Farm, below Seven Islands. Then, passing through Priestly Deadwater and Priestly Rapids, a few miles further we came to Basford Rips, only Class I / II at this water level. Due to not paying attention, we landed on top of a rock and nearly capsized. The implications were sobering.
We stopped at Basford Rips campsite early in the afternoon. This is a pleasant, high bank campsite. The combination of a light breeze and a smoky fire neutralized the bugs. After completing our camp chores, we both ‘enjoyed’ baths in the river. That night Patty was awakened by a pack of coyotes, yelping at the full moon. “Coyotes don't attack people, do they?”
The next morning we stopped at the head of Big Black Rapids to scout them. These rapids are rated Class III. We followed the advice in the AMC guide – start out on the right and head back to center. This rapid is most difficult two thirds of the way down, on left center, and then at the bottom, on right center. We stopped for lunch at the confluence of Big Black River, one mile below. This campsite is on an open, grassy point with beautiful views.
The air mass continued to dry out. There were fewer clouds and the temperature was climbing into the 80’s. The wind had swung around to the southwest, providing a welcome tailwind. This section of the river passes down a modest valley, between attractive, forested hills. In the afternoon we saw dozens of motor-powered canoes. This was the norm from here on because there is road access from Allagash Village. It was a holiday weekend; most of the campsites were overflowing with pickups and people. Castonia Farm was vacant but in poor condition. Finally, at 4:30 we stopped at Fox Brook, the last reasonable place to camp that night, although there were 6 canoes pulled up on the bank.
Fox Brook has two sites, one on each side of a level, grassy area. On one side were 3 pickups, two cabin tents, and no occupants. The other held a group of a dozen men and 8 tents. They were the first canoe trippers we had seen in three days. Invited to find a corner to pitch our tent, we located a smooth spot away from the others, between some birch trees. The missing campers were local boys from ‘The County’ (Aroostook, that is) who returned at 6:00. Verbally abusive that their site had been "stolen" from them, it seems they had been drinking non-stop since Friday night. It was an interesting evening, to be sure, replete with lewd behavior, obnoxiously loud music, and threats to run over the “flatlanders’” tents. Fortunately, the local boys were partied out by 11 PM, and we actually got a good night's sleep.
Monday morning, Memorial Day, was sunny and very warm. Anticipating the end of our trip, we broke camp and had our earliest start. There were a few easy rapids in the several miles approaching Big Rapids, which are 2 miles long and rated Class III. The rapids didn’t appear difficult from the top. However, half way down, around a right hand corner, the rapids intensified. There were two challenging drops, with ledges, boulders and waves. Big Rapids were more difficult than Big Black Rapids.
Below Big Rapids, the river broadened, and it was very shallow. We passed families on outings, and children sitting in the river to cool off. Continuing on to Allagash Village, we took out at the highway bridge a short distance up the Allagash River. Our river trip ended precisely at Noon. This landing is on private property, and the owner, an energetic lady in her 80’s who wielded a yellow water pistol, charged $1 for the privilege. Free public access for Allagash Village is located ½ mile further down the St. John.
Wilmer Hafford had our truck. It was a relief that our long distance telephone transaction worked out smoothly. After paying him, we reluctantly started southward. In Fort Kent, we savored an ice cream bar. Across the street, the bank thermometer read 92 degrees. Further on, in Eagle Lake, we stopped at Dube’s Maple Grove and purchased a jug of maple syrup. Mr. Dube regaled us with a story of trying to climb a tree with his snowshoes on when he was attacked by a pack of coyotes. For us it had been a relaxing and leisurely trip with nearly ideal weather and canoeing conditions. However, we could not postpone our return to Massachusetts and the resumption of our routine lives.
Copyright 2000, John Cary and Patty Glidden. All rights reserved.