Life List: Allagash River, ME
Savor shoulder-season solitude on this renowned waterway.
FROM THE SLOW RHYTHM of the splashes, I know the moose isn’t hurrying. I’m also fairly certain it’s staying on the far bank, but I can’t really tell, thanks to the thick fog that obscures everything but the tips of the Eastern white pines 300 feet away on the opposite shore. Not for the first time this trip, I’m grateful for the wide expanse of Maine’s Allagash River. I’m here during mating season and have no desire to cross a moose during the rut.
The Allagash flows north, cutting 92 miles through Maine’s North Woods to Canada. It pools into lakes along the way, slowing the progress of our canoes, but here, it’s brisk. I still can’t see the bank across the way, but with each minute, the morning sun melts away more of the fog and early-morning frost.
It’s hard to be thankful for 25¡ F nights when you’re on a five- day canoe trip in Northern Maine, but it does ensure one thing: solitude. The Allagash, which celebrated its 50th anniversary as a state-protected waterway last year, is a popular summer destination for anglers, and from July to Labor Day, it’s awash with kayaks and canoes. But in the beginning of October—just a few weeks shy of the winter ice—we see just four other people on our 35-mile segment: three moose hunters and one forest ranger.
The weight of the quiet silences even our group of 11. The river reduces the static of our daily life. We navigate small rips in near silence, adjusting our 16-footers to avoid rocks and downed trees. We’d put in at Long Lake to bypass the 9-mile Chase Rapids section just south, where whitewater requires fast thinking and sure paddle strokes. Instead, here, we fall into the gentle rhythm of the lazy river; loons call to each other at night, and eagles occasionally wheel across the window of sky visible between the pines.
Accustomed to carrying everything I need on my back, it’s pleasant to let a canoe do all the work. It frees me up to focus on the scenery, the conifer- dotted marshes and red hardwoods. Both banks of the Allagash are dotted with first- come, first-serve campsites equipped with campfire rings and composting toilets, and it feels a little like car camping when we unload our heavy Duluth packs and food storage boxes onto a picnic table each evening. But with only the sigh of the pines and the murmur of the river echoing outside my tent at night, that’s where the similarity ends.
The Allagash was on Thoreau’s itinerary as well, and I channel him, rising early to saturate myself in solitude on the last morning of our trip. I stretch muscles sore from paddling, shake the frost off my tent, and walk down to the river to inhale the last few moments of stillness. I look upriver toward our beached canoes and spot movement through the fog: moose, a bull and a cow, picking their way across a narrow inlet. Perhaps it’s a little more crowded out here than I thought.
DO IT To replicate the writer’s five-day, 35-mile route, put in at Umsaskis/Long Lake Thoroughfare and take out at Michaud Farm (shuttle car required). OUTFITTER Northwoods Outfitters (maineoutfitter .com) in Greenville rents boats starting at $30/day. GUIDE Mahoosuc Guide Service (mahoosuc.com); starting at $1,225 SEASON May through October, depending on ice.
PERMITS Wilderness permit (starting at $7/ person per night) and North Maine Woods day-use fee ($10 to $15/day) required; obtain at North Maine Woods control stations or Allagash Wilderness Waterway Stations.