The Big Machias River offers plenty of whitewater and an abundance of game fish.
We fished the mouth of virtually every significant brook, and the pools at the end of most of the major rapids.
In between, we paddled long, but gentle sections of whitewater. It was difficult to determine which was the most enjoyable; trolling for brook trout or running the rapids. Each evening, we dined on the succulent catch of the day, sauted in olive oil and white wine, while camping along the river in beautiful and remote wilderness settings. It simply doesn’t get any better than that.
We were on the Big Machias River in Aroostook County.
It is known by many as “the other Machias River,” as opposed to its better known namesake that flows through central Washington County. Located in north central Aroostook County, its source is Big Machias Lake, and flows southeasterly and then easterly from the lake for about 32 miles to the Aroostook River in the town of Ashland.
The Big Machias is well-known for having an abundance of game fish, particularly brook trout. In fact, a recent study by the Maine Department of Fisheries and Wildlife indicates that this is one of the areas of Maine where the brook trout population is still completely intact.
Except for about a five-mile stretch of flat water in the middle section of the river, it is almost continuous whitewater or quick water. Therefore, the only reasonable way to reach many of its remote environs is by canoe. Our goal was twofold; a whitewater canoe trip coupled with a fishing adventure.
To reach the Big Machias from central Maine, travel north on Interstate 95 to the Sherman Mills exit. Then continue north on Route 11 to the Town of Ashland.
It is about a 5- to 6-hour drive from the Lewiston/Auburn area. Once in Ashland, follow Route 11 to the Aroostook River, where there is a public boat landing with ample parking on the right. This is the take-out for the Big Machias River trip.
To reach the put-in for the trip, cross the bridge over the Aroostook River and then take a left turn off Route 11 and travel for about a mile to the American Realty Tote Road, which is a dirt road in fair to poor condition. It is a bumpy, pothole infested 20-mile ride to the Big Machias Lake campsite, which is located at the outlet of the lake and is the beginning of the river trip. There is a modest amount of parking space available and it is necessary to carry your boats and gear down a path for about 50 yards to the river. The American Realty Road is privately owned and road use and camping fees must be paid at a gatehouse located at mile 6.
It is possible to view the Big Machias River just above its confluence with the Aroostook River by taking a left turn onto the Garfield Road just past the beginning of the American Realty Road. After a half-mile drive, there is a bridge that crosses over the river. If there is adequate water in the rapid above the bridge, then the river should be at a good paddling level. An easier method of determining the water level without driving to the river is to access the USGS Web site for Maine river gauge readings at waterdata.usgs.gov/me.
There is no USGS gauge on the Big Machias River; however, the gauge for the Aroostook River downstream at Washburn can be used as a fairly reliable indicator of water levels. If the gauge is reading 3800 cubic feet per second (CFS) or higher, there will probably be adequate water to run the Big Machias. We had levels between 4300 and 4800 CFS for our three-day trip, which provided for a very fluid medium level run. Paddlers should probably be wary of water levels in excess of 8000 CFS, as the waves may be big enough to swamp a gear-laden canoe.
For fisherman disinclined to paddle the river, it is possible to access the flat water portion by taking the Pinkham Road just after the gatehouse and driving about twelve miles to a bridge over the river, which is near the beginning of the flat water. It is also possible to take the Lynchs Tote Road out of Ashland to a landing at the downstream end of the flat water. The Pinkham Road’s condition approximates that of the American Realty Road and the Lynchs Road is inferior to both. However, either choice will deprive you of a truly outstanding canoeing and fishing adventure.
Machias is believed to be Native American for “bad little falls” or “swift water.”
In the case of the Big Machias, swift water accurately characterizes it, as there are no difficult or dangerous rapids or falls. Rather, it is essentially novice to intermediate level paddling, and almost perfect for a canoe camping trip. However, paddlers should possess basic paddling and river reading skills.
Delorme Publishing Company publishes a small river guidebook entitled Maine Geographic – Canoeing Northern Rivers, which provides an excellent description and map of the Big Machias River.
Just below the outlet of Big Machias Lake are some of the most difficult rapids on the river, but under normal circumstances they do not exceed Class II or a novice whitewater level.
Easier whitewater and quick water continue almost unabated for about 12 river miles, to the Pinkham Road Bridge.
There are four excellent Maine Forest Service Campsites on the river. One is located at about mile 4, and then there are three additional sites near the bridge. We chose a site on river right at about mile 11 for our first night of camping.
A short ways below the bridge, a five-mile stretch of flat water begins. It is possible to launch canoes or small motorized boats in this area. Part way through this section, the South Branch joins the river from the south and nearly doubles the water volume. After passing the landing at the end of the Lynchs Tote Road, the remnants of a washed out dam are encountered and the whitewater and quick water begin anew.
They continue for the balance of the trip to the Aroostook River. There are no Maine Forest Service Campsites in this section, however, it is quite easy to paddle the remaining distance from the vicinity of the Pinkham Road Bridge to the Ashland take-out in a day.
Since we wanted to enjoy the many benefits of the river for an additional day, we chose to set up a makeshift campsite at about mile 26. There are a number of locations along this stretch that are quite suitable for camping.
As the canoeist approaches Ashland, there is a fairly long rapid that ends next to a steep rock wall on river left. On the opposite bank are the remains of an old factory that are worth exploring. It is about another mile of rapids to the Aroostook River, and the take-out is on the right an additional mile downstream.
Our trip consisted of three people all paddling older model solo whitewater canoes, which easily carried all of the necessary camping equipment and fishing gear for the group. However, traditional tandem canoe tripping boats such as the Old Town Tripper or Discovery or the Mad River Explorer would also be perfect for this river. We carried detachable fishing rods and used worms for bait.
Don’t forget to take the necessary cooking equipment, so that you can enjoy fresh fish. We took a two-burner Coleman Stove with a Peak 1 backpacking stove as a backup. A skillet is a must.
If you enjoy rigorous paddling, exciting fishing and a great eating experience, write this trip down as a must.