My canoe-paddling colleague, Peter Christensen, suggested we make Allagash Lake our destination for this year’s 13th Annual Nordic Paddle into the Wilds of Maine.  “It is a beautiful, remote lake and it is full of native brook trout” he said.  Peter did not, however, emphasize that its remoteness and its fishing status can easily be attributed to the difficulty in getting there.

Most Mainers have heard of the 100+ mile Allagash Wilderness Waterway.  This lake is not part of the iconic and challenging waterway, although it is only three or four essentially impassible beaver dam and blowdown-infested miles to the west of the midsection of that familiar canoe trip.  We paddled that memorable waterway four or five years ago.  It was a great and exhilarating trip, of course.  However, “been there, done that”.

We are always searching for another new experience as we continue our explorations of the wildest parts of this beautiful state.  Allagash Lake easily falls into that “wild” category.

To summarize our efforts to “get there from here” one begins by driving the more civilized, but clearly secondary, paved roads between Rangeley and Greenville on Moosehead Lake.  That is the easiest part.  Then, after about 5 more miles of paved road with beautiful views of Moosehead on the left, one passes through the fishing outpost of Kokadjo on First (of three) Roach Pond.  We then are greeted by the beginning of our next two hours on occasionally very rough gravel logging roads with marginal, at best, signage.

The roads took us past the southern tip of the well-known Chesuncook Lake (once paddled when the area was REALLY, REALLY wild by Henry David Thoreau, and chronicled in his book The Maine Woods back in the early 1800’s).  We then passed by the Ripogenus Dam and the spectacular Ripogenus Gorge…that I remembered fondly thanks to a great heartrate-elevating rafting trip back in the ‘80s.

We then crossed over the West Branch of the Penobscot and onto Telos Road that took us to the Telos Gate where we paid our usage and campsite fees as we entered the multiple private logging company-managed Great Northern Maine Woods (or something like that).  Among other things, those fees allowed us to use a series of their poorly marked logging roads that included the Trans-Canada Road that seems to begin and end in Maine without coming anywhere near Canada.

Then, after consulting our Maine Atlas and Gazetteer a few times, we made it to our canoe put-in on Johnson Pond…where the real adventure began.

Once our canoe was carried down to the water, along with our gear sufficient to handle four days/three nights on Allagash Lake, we began the short paddle across Johnson Pond.  The pond drains into Allagash Stream which then leads to Allagash Lake.  That drainage was the tricky part.

At the far end of the pond, that waterway became increasingly shallow as we passed through a wide, aquatic grasses-infused area whereby our paddles dug into the sand/mud as much as the water, as we followed the center grassless route that was initially 15 feet wide, then gradually narrowing to a 6-foot wide (at most) winding route through dense alders.

Back to the grassy route for a moment.  As we paddled on through that narrowing route I noticed something protruding from a grassless patch of mud to our right.  As a 73-year-old retired physical therapist I quickly identified the muddy 6” protrusion as the proximal (upper portion) of a moose’s upper leg bone (femur).  It was clearly larger than a human or deer femur.  I filed it away for a closer look, if possible, on the return trip.

That bone’s reason for being there in the mud became clearer about 200 yards later.  Peter was paddling in the bow, constantly searching for more water than mud to paddle through.  I was in the stern, paddling hard and hoping for continued water-route success.  That also allowed me to look around at the bigger picture a bit more.

I then noticed a pair of moose ears on high alert protruding from the 12-18” grasses about 100 ft. ahead and 20 ft. to our right.  Our first thought was “What is a pair of live, and very alert, moose ears doing sticking up above the grasses, of all places?”

The moose mired in the mud Allen Wicken

As we came closer, we could see the path the moose had taken through the muddy, grassy narrows until the female yearling (presumably) had sunk almost up to her neck…just 15-20 feet from the solid ground on our right. (see photo) She was alive, but obviously exhausted, and clearly mortally stuck in the mud.  There was nothing we could do.  Getting closer was impossible. Plus, how could two guys in a canoe possibly budge a frightened moose that was mid-chest deep in what was essentially quicksand.

We continued on, knowing that getting out of the canoe and pulling/pushing it was not an option.  The mud was too deep.  We just had to continue paddling in the water and mud as best we could.  That earlier moose femur turned out to be a harbinger warning of the danger ahead.  Clearly it was not the first large animal to find its fate in that silty sand and mud.

We continued on with the modified paddling/pushing technique until we reached the alders and more solid footing allowing us to push/pull from outside the canoe (see photo) through the narrow, winding alder stream for another quarter-mile or so.  This new phase reminded me of a book I read recently recounting Teddy Roosevelt’s post-presidency expedition in Brazil’s Amazon jungle looking for an alleged lost Incan city.

Pulling and pushing the canoe through the dense alder stream Allen Wicken

We finally reached Allagash Stream and decidedly easier sledding, so to speak.  It was a beautiful, widening stream.  We were even led by a large reddish hawk, that flew ahead of us as we rounded each bend,…much like a kingfisher flies on ahead of one’s canoe or kayak in short flights to the next perch above the water.

We ultimately reached the beautiful, large lake and made camp at our chosen site on Sand Point well before darkness (see photo).  The next two days were filled with the usual rich paddling/fishing/camp cookery/campfires/and conversations that have characterized all of our 13 annual canoe trips.

Beautiful Allagash Lake in the early evening of our arrival day Allen Wicken

Standing out, however, were numerous eagle sightings in flight and in the tall shoreline white pines, a handsome 15” native brook trout that Peter caught (see photo)…and later adequately fed both of us with its abundant pink flesh that characterizes native brookies., and glorious lakeshore features and picturesque rocky islands and ledges.  The numerous loons on Allagash Lake were particularly vocal, calling much of the day, and well into the night and early morning.  “It doesn’t get much better than this” I am prone to say…although I said that same line during our previous 12 trips as well.

The 15″ native brook trout that easily made our meal for two entree’ that evening Allen Wicken

One other thing was unique to this trip.  We actually hoped that the long-term weather report would be correct.  It called for rain the day before our return to Johnson Pond.  Hoping for a day of rain is clearly a unique wish when on a canoe trip!  However, all beautiful, clear days would also possibly make our return even more challenging due to even less water as we traversed the grassy/muddy portion.

Fortunately, the forecast was correct.  We got rain in the early morning hours as evidenced by being awakened by winds and pelting short showers on our tents…and the next day was overcast with occasional light showers that didn’t diminish our fishing time…and clearly made us feel a bit more confident about our return to Johnson Pond.

The return trip was no more challenging than the “going” passage, even though it was upstream, although slow-flowing.  As expected, the moose had died sometime during our time on Allagash Lake.  She was still in the same place, having found it was impossible to make any more progress to that nearby solid ground.

We paddled across Johnson Pond, unloaded the canoe and put our gear in Peter’s pickup bed, and the canoe secured to the rack.  We re-traced (with a few looks at the Gazetteer to refresh our memories) our winding route through the north woods, and made it back to the pavement again in Kokadjo.  The rest of the trip was a piece of cake, albeit a long drive after three exhilarating days on beautiful (and hard to get to) Allagash Lake.

Another line that my wife, and our Colorado sons and their families, accuse me of saying quite often… “Its all good!”  …and this trip was all good, in spite of the mud challenges, and the fact that the moose didn’t make it.  On our drive back to Rangeley, the possible destination(s) of the 14th Annual trip was part of our always lively post-adventure conversations.

We need to write, otherwise nobody will know who we are.

Garrison Keillor

I’ll be ridin’ shotgun, underneath the hot sun, thinkin’ I’m a someone…


Per usual, your thoughts and comments are always welcome.  Jot them down on a 3”x5” card and slip it inside the log door of our mudroom on the rockbound west shore of Gull Pond….or simply fire of an email to [email protected]

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