Salmo salar or Surviving the Spring Flood

Spring floods require us to hold on to root and rock while the once trustworthy solid ground, like sand at the beach under our toes is getting eroded out from under us and flushed out to the ocean.  Rivers swell and fill in ravine and swale, forming tendrils that reach out from the main current and attempt to pull the covers off the land like two lovers in bed locked in a nocturnal battle for the blankets. Amidst this undressing, the landscape becomes temporarily aquatic, a place where rivulets careen down footpaths, submerge spring ephemeral wildflowers and fill deep hidden pools whose dark tannic water lies in wait to engulf a distracted fisherman up over his chest waders. One must mosey with care this time of year lest you lose your footing and end up getting swept over long-forgotten grist mill dams and through rusty highway culverts on your long swing back to the ocean. You wouldn’t be alone should you go for a long swim this time of year, although like driving against rush hour traffic, you may see more headlights than taillights.

As you slip into the water that up until recently was locked up in it’s solid, hibernatory phase you feel the bone aching cold that slows your blood down to that of the brown trout you find parked in calm eddies behind rock and log, snatching small aquatic insects in free drift but who are not really warm enough to work too hard for that meal. The cold water thickens life, it thickens sounds and soul too bringing every action and movement into question of worth as in “is this really worth the discomfort to be fishing right now?” It’s the first of May but my hands are numb, it’s been raining all day and I’m beginning to shiver. I have spent many days in cold water and, just like beard frost in the winter, I use my body as a thermometer. Today I’m guessing by the ache in my legs that the water is around 40 degrees, although since the air temperature is only 39 and I’ve been wet all day the integrity of my inner thermometer may be off a few degrees.

You get used to it though, or maybe your pain receptors, no longer receiving any new stimuli are switched into their off mode. I have felt this in natural hot springs where the water was hot enough to cause pain and an elevated awareness of life, or at least an elevated awareness of your sometime faulty decision making process. When you’d slide into the hot water it’d hurt for a half minute then, as long as the water stayed perfectly calm you’d slip into a state of heat- induced meditation that lasted until someone else entered the pool and made some waves or you committed to making a mad dash out of the pool when you’d reached your cooking temperature. Hot water, cold water- it’s all the same to us, but not to the fish.

You are making your way downstream, neutrally buoyant in the water, passing suckers full of small peach- colored eggs the size of half a pencil eraser. They are heading up to their gravel beds to spawn, giving life to future suckers as well as to the trout and salmon who feast on their eggs and the eagles who are better fisherman than I. I found a sucker mostly eaten by some large bird, osprey or eagle probably, on the sandy river bank surrounded by the golden blobs of her egg sacks like the halo around the Virgin Mary or the long blonde hair of Botticelli’s Venus. I’m not sure why the eggs were left uneaten, I assume it was the eagle giving me a chance to see the size and color of the sucker’s eggs so if I were so inclined I could tie on an appropriately sized and colored egg to my fly line and catch a trout or two unawares to my avian-inspired knowledge.

As the river slows from the frenetic white water pace upstream and enters a lower gradient meander to the ocean, you pass the ghosts of salmon, Atlantic salmon that used to clog the small river by the hundreds of thousands and push my comfort limits of fecundity and life. Fish by fish the runs shrank. Some were caught by the ton off shore for food by us and other nations. Others were choked out by rising water temperatures and lower oxygenation. Some were impeded by dams that placed impassable barriers between the ocean and the clean cold gravel beds some hundred miles upstream. A couple hundred years ago you would have been pushed back up river by the amorous rush of fiscian love, now you only pass a few lone survivors, salmon that avoided the “black hole” of salmon mortality in the Atlantic where scientists don’t really know why juvenile salmon are failing to return from their few years of life in the open ocean.

They are hatchery fish, these salmon I see now, raised in the headwaters and planted by various means in the same gravel beds the wild running fish used to come back to.  I caught a couple yesterday, 14” flashes of silver that looked like puppies in a pet store; innocence born out of simple, blissful ignorance.  They have yet to breath the tangy salt water or see the real life ahead of them. They swim with hope, hope that they will have a life we can relate to: a safe childhood, a place to grown and learn and a home to raise a family.  The salmon I saw were like middle school age kids. Sure they had probably chased each other around and taken a few token pot shots at some smaller suckers but they were good fish, fish that were on the brink of a big adventure, an adventure we’re pretty sure they won’t come home from.  The chance of truly living doesn’t come with high success rates for anyone, only around 1% if you’re an Atlantic salmon whose home river is in southern Maine.

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The water warms past head tide, the fresh water is replaced by a tidal rush that pulls you out to the open ocean. While you’re out there maybe you could ask around and find out where the salmon are going who don’t make it home. Maybe you’ll decide after a few years it’s time to come back home. Where the river grows small and cold and tunneled by cedar and hemlock you’ll see me again, shivering in leaky waders, dead drifting a #12 Hare’s Ear Rubber Leg and a #16 Pink Frenchie through the deeper runs. Maybe you’ll just see my boots as I bend over a small birch sapling adorned with those same flies and hear my muttering about the state of my fishing affairs.  Just like yesterday, I’ll stop fishing for the day when I know you’re down there, you have a rough go of it and the last thing you need is to be pestered by a half- frozen human.  I’ll just sit on the bridge eating cold chicken parmesan and drinking equally as cold coffee in the late afternoon drizzle, imagining the river filled bank to bank with your ancestors and trying to make out your shape in the dark water below, enviously imagining the travels you have in front of you.

The Waterlogged Journals: Page 14

Aug. 2nd

Big Island campsite on Spednic to Wingdam Island on the St.Croix.  Good campsite, small flat area around fire pit with camp sites up the hill.  Shared the camp with a youth group.

Portaged through Vanceboro, went back and forth between US & Canada customs 5 times in 1/2 hour.  Portage around dam over grassy bank.  Both customs offices were very accommodating.  Made the short walk to the duty free store to celebrate the beginning of our downhill run to the ocean.

Ideas from the trip

-role/place of technology on trail, in wilderness, on an expedition, in our lives.  We had coverage (cell phone) most of the time which allowed for the use of google earth/maps and also the ability to share our experiences in real time.

-hobo bushcraft

-charity/ kindness of strangers along the way

-protection of water, doesn’t have a cute face for media to sell/to save, not an individual species, harder to protect

The paddle across Spednic marked the end of our flatwater paddling and took us to the dam in Vanceboro.  Like I have written before about this trip, dealing with customs was a never ending source of inconvenience and bureaucracy but also a unique and memorable distraction from the routine of paddle and portage.  As with all the other custom officials we met on this trip, both side of this border were extremely laid back and courteous to our situation.  Two of us, in the process of alerting both sides to our team’s plans, carrying our gear across the border, going back for more gear, heading for adult beverages at the duty free store and then back to our gear had our passports scanned 5 times on each side in the span of half and hour, which I’m sure sent off an alarm somewhere in Washington.  

We poled the short stretch of rapids below the dam that marked the last week of our expedition.  The St. Croix is one of my favorite quick water runs in Maine giving paddlers access to playful whitewater, well kept campsites, solid fishing and the opportunity to score gear and other lost goodies from other paddlers who let their guard down on some of the St. Croix’s rapids.  

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Poling rips on the St. Croix

As any long trip begins to see it’s end, it is natural to begin the reflection process and take stock of thoughts and experiences you’ve had along the way.  Here I was working on how I felt about the mix of modern life/ modern gear in not only a wilderness expedition, but in our lives at all.  It is easy to let it in to our lives at home but on trail the presence of technology needs to be measured and balanced against your personal goals and motivation for that experience.  In our case we were never out of cell range, and since most (if not all) of used our phones as our cameras, the internet leaked into our trip on a daily basis.  It wasn’t all bad, like I wrote in the journal, having our phones with us in use allowed for each of us to broadcast pictures and moments to whoever cared to see, which I think is pretty awesome.  On the flip side, having all that distraction in the palm of our hands poses challenges in keeping your head in the game, so to speak, and keeping everyone invested and present in the moment.  The amount and presence of modern technology on any wilderness trip is a personal choice we all make.  Some of us have to bring it as outdoor professionals.  Other use it to capture media from the trail in hopes of sharing and inspiring others.  Some of course just want to check facebook 15 times a day.  

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Another Great St. Croix Campsite

I have written prior about our concern for the quality of the water on our trip so I won’t kick that can again but I do want to point out the inherent problem our culture has with water protection.  First, like I wrote on trail, water isn’t a cute, cuddle warm little fuzzy mammal with doe eyes and a waggly tail.  Water suffers the same fate as reptiles and fish that way.  Our culture loves to save the adorable but doesn’t often extend that concern for other species unless they can be hunted, fished or utilized somehow.  Water is faceless and is also not a single species but in instead a community.  It is easier to save the west slope cutthroat trout than it is to save the entire aquatic ecosystem it lives in.  The other problem our culture has with water protection is that while no one owns water exactly, we all use it and unfortunately some use (and abuse) it more than others.  Does the McCain potato factory have the right to use the water of the St. John as much as I do or as much as the fish do?  I think so.  The problem is how they use is.  Do I have the right to paddle and swim in it leaving it more or less the same as before?  Sure.  Does the McCain potato factory have the right to use the water and return it full of industrial pollutants that are detrimental to the use of the water by all the other life forms who depend on that water’s integrity for life?  Well, this is where me and Mr. McCain disagree.  

 

 

 

The Waterlogged Journals: Page 13

July 31st

Blue Berry Point campsite to Hinkley Point campsite on Spednic Lake via portage trail from Mud Pond (16 miles)

Amazing campsites on both lakes

Finished reading “Trapping the Boundary Waters” by Charles Cook

Two Disclaimers

1.  There has been a gap of time, not only between when we paddled this water and now but also between the last time I wrote a blog post which adds a certain amount of mist to the memory and also, like a police line up, allows our memory the ability to pick and choose what it wants to see and what events will slip from our vision.  In the space between then and now I have spent time on trail in Yellowstone in the dead of winter, which is one of the most dramatic and stunning places on Earth that time of year ( I promise to let that experience bleed onto this blog soon) and have also found a great joy in life that has nothing to do with fly fishing, camping or philosophy ( SPF 4,2,1 ).

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2.  Sometimes strange things happen on trail, not by our intent but more out of, let’s say momentum and sometimes those events need to be filtered in order to preserve those involved.  

As a registered Maine Guide I have to follow all the laws and rules of the Inland Fish and Wildlife Department of Maine and also the local, state and federal laws that might blanket us while we are on trail.  Sometimes on trips you might end up having to camp outside of a designated campsite due to approaching weather or other safety concerns.  I know explorers who were forced to illegally hunt game in order to make it home alive.  As a survival instructor I have been asked many times if I thought it was acceptable to light a forest on fire if it meant someone would find and rescue you.  All situations force you to balance natural and legal laws, what is right and wrong and what the ramifications of your actions will be on you, on the ecosystem, and on the community as a whole.  Is all this ambiguous? For sure, but such is life when you live in the Wild and not in an organized, humanized landscape that due to size and mass has stacks and stacks of laws and punishments out of necessity.  So what am I getting at you ask?  Well, unless you can track one of the 7 of us down and buy a few rounds, you may just have to live with the knowledge that what happens on trail stays on trail.

This was a fun day with a mix of big lake paddling on the sprawling Grand and Spednic Lakes and a short shot of whitewater poling fun on Forest City Stream.  We found an old portage route that led us (mostly) from Mud Lake to Spednic Lake just down from the Booming Ground where timber was cradled up on its run to the mills downstream.  I can’t say enough about  cleanliness and comfort of the campsites on both lakes, especially the two on Spednic which rank high on my all time favorite campsite list.  We enjoyed some decent bass fishing catching smallies on black and olive woolly buggers fished in 15′ or so feet of water along the large boulder gardens just off shore.  

 

August 1st

Spednic Lake- HInkley Point to Big Island campsite (9 miles) 

Saw more loons on Spedic than I have seen on one lake before

Weather : warm and sunny.  (we all had the sun tan lines to prove it)

The only rain so far:

On bluff outside of Fort Fairfield- short downpour at night

On Carnival Island off of Woodstock – light rain at night

On the Eel River (which was fine as we were soaked anyway from wading and walking our boats upstream for 5 hours) –on and off all day, big storm just as we got to camp.

—Early day off

The real take home for me in this entry is the weather.  We had absolutely ideal weather for 18 of the 22 days (there is one more storm to come) and when it did rain it couldn’t have come a better time- at night, after camp was set up or when we were already soaked to the bone.  All throughout the 22 day trip where we could have seen big waves from a headwind we got calm as glass water.  Where we could have been rained in (or out) for a day or two we woke to crystal blue skies.  Where we could have suffered through intense heat and humidity we had relatively mild day time temperatures ( although we did wither a tad under the sun on the St. John for those 4 days).  As a long time adventurer and guide I always hope for the best weather and prepare for the worst.  Maybe I had suffered through enough cold and rainy days trying to teach bow drill fire lighting or shelter building to earn a decent streak of expedition weather.  Either way, it was pretty nice.

 

 

The Waterlogged Journals: Page 12

July 26th

Woodstock NB to Start of Eel River Portage (9.5 River Miles)

Woodstock to John Tingley’s house.  Got in around noon.  Afternoon off, gorged on fresh raspberries, beer- great time.  Prepared for long portage.

All I can say is thanks to John for taking such good care of our team, and also for believing in my flying abilities enough to let me pilot his remote control drone.

July 27th

St. John to Molly’s Rock (2 River Miles, 6 Portage Miles)

Portage day.  6 miles each way, 2 people carrying small gear and one boat.  One boat loaded in cart.  Everyone else carrying personal gear.  6 hour portage.  Paddled to Molly’s rock to camp about 2 miles up the Eel.

A little backstory.  The Maliseet Trail begins on the St. John River near the town of Meductic and ends close to Old Town Maine thereby connecting the St. John River drainage to the Penobscot River and historically the Penobscot Tribes to the Maliseet, Passamaquaoddy and Mi’kmaq Tribes.  The trail jumps overland from the St. John to the town of Benton some 6 miles away avoiding dangerous and formidable rapids on the Eel River below Benton.  From Benton the trail pushes up the Eel close to 15 miles to First Eel Lake.  There is a 3 miles portage into North Lake where the Maliseet Trail crosses into Grand Lake then keeps heading west into the Penobscot drainage.  

This route has been central to life in this area for longer than we know but just like many ancient canoe routes is being lost to time.  While we chose to hike the paved road instead of retracing the original path, it was still a truly amazing experience to be a part  of the ancient human story in that part of the world.  I highly recommend checking out http://www.maliseettrail.com/ for the whole story.

We arrived at the homestead of John Tingley who I had met a few months earlier scouting out this portage section of the expedition.   We met John around noon at his landing on the St. John which he had marked with both Canadian and American flags.  This small gesture of welcoming and hospitality was repeated over the day we spent with John to the point that we as a team had to sit down and decide just how much assistance we wanted to accept for fear that out hard won trip would devolve into a vacation.  For example, John had offered to drive us and our gear over the portage in his van alleviating the 18 mile two- trip portage.  As a group we talked about this and voted to tackle the portage as we had planned from the get go.  It was a great offer but ultimately we didn’t want an asterisk next to this trip and also since we had been planning on this epic  portage from day one, to cut it out last second seemed anti-climactic.  

We enjoyed a much deserved day off after putting in 7 long mileage days and 3 portages totaling 10 miles (two trips each time).  John had a full fridge of food, beer and an appetite for cribbage which we obliged.  I can’t say enough for the generosity of John and his laid back willingness to help out however possible  We went to bed well fed and ready to get up at 4 to beat the sun and the projected 90 degree day.

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Lounging at the House of Tingley

Not to undersell the portage, but we cruised through two trip portage completing the 18 miles in 6 hours with only a few sore feet and one bored trip member who drew short straw and had to guard the gear pile as the rest of us went back for the second load.  At the end of the portage  we snapped a pic in front of an old covered bridge with our nation’s flag presented to us by John.  It was a long haul but the much talked about portage turned into just another day for this group.  img_7264img_7270img_7274

 July 28th

Molly’s Rock to First Eel Lake (12 River Miles)

Had a pair of guests last night, couple who boated by earlier us brought us a case of beer and a big bag of meat-he was a local butcher- salt pork, beef heart, rib eye steaks, bear sausage

Did whole Eel River today.  Easy paddling to second bridge (Hartin Settlement Rd).  Low water made upper part of river tough, pushed and dragged all the way to earthen dam.  Got to Bear Point 5 minutes before big storm.

The upper half of the Eel was a section of this trip that I hadn’t been able to scout due to limited road access to the river.  I had read that at normal water level the upper Eel is a challenging section of whitewater requiring poling and lining, but at the low levels we faced it was more like dragging our boats up a wet sidewalk.  After a day of slogging upstream and then paddling the dead water before Eel lake we pulled our boats onto Bear Point just as the storms that had been building all day blew open on us with high winds, cold sheets of rain and lightning.  After some fruitless attempts at setting up a tarp and getting a fire going, the storm blew over and we settled in for the night knowing that the trip was all downhill to the ocean.  

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Push, Pull, Drag, Pole, Paddle, Portage- Typical Day on the Eel

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Our Welcome to Bear Point Storm

July 29th Bear Point to Grand Lake Blueberry Point Campsite (8.5 Miles, 3 Portage Miles)

Bear Point to Grand Lake camp.  Great open campsite, will spend a day off here.  Went through customs again.

I guess I don’t have much to say about this day.  It was an easy 3 mile portage along Highway 122 and a nice paddle across North Lake, down the river connecting Grand to North, through US and Canadian Customs (both super friendly to wayward paddlers) and then to Blueberry Point Camp on Grand Lake.  This day off was driven as much by the need for a day of rest as by the need to start putting the breaks on the group since we ate up miles on the St. John so fast, blew through the Benton Portage, completed the Eel in a day  and arrived at Grand Lake 3 days ahead of schedule.  I told the guys at one point that any guess I had at daily mileage and expected destinations at a given time were out the window due to the amazing ability of this group to grind out miles both on the water and on the portage trail.  It’s always a beautiful thing to see a group perform at the level you know they can!

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July 30th

Day Off

-Loon attack?

-Wilderness trip existing so close to people

-a lot of noise and traffic on lake

-bear meat

This pretty much sums up any duff day on trail: lots of food, contemplation of the wilderness/humanity/civilization situation, and some shenanigans involving the locals.  We took a much needed and well deserved day off at Blueberry Point, our first full day off of the trip.  Days off are necessary in order to repair gear, give your muscles a chance to rest, heal any ongoing medical problems ( in this case an infection from a leech bite) and also to take a chance to reflect on the trip and prepare for the next leg of the journey.  We enjoyed a breakfast of rib eye steaks and bear sausage that sent everyone back to bed to digest the overwhelming goodness of the gifted food.  When you’ve been eating a diet of trail food for a length of time any diversity is more than welcome.  

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Day Off Planning

So yes, one of our guys was savagely attacked by a look while he sat in his canoe dangling his feet in the water.  Well, that’s what it sounded like and to be fair I did see most of the even happen, although I do admit to only catching the act after the alleged assault took place.  It was surely one of the strangest animals moments I’ve seen on tail.  Who knows why loons do what they do, but all I know is for the rest of the trip we saw an unusual amount of loons who all seemed to be eyeing us up.

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Day Off Cooking

 

I chose this route because I wanted to produce a long canoe trip that encountered both wilderness and non-wilderness water.  I think I is important because it not only forces you to confront the environmental impact of modern civilization of water ways but it also gives you the chance to meet folks along the way.  I wrote more about this a few months back: https://paulsveum.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/adventure-evangelism/

 

 

 

The Waterlogged Journals: Page 11

July 25th

Florence To Woodstock New Brunswick(26 river miles)

25 mile day. Camped on island offshore of Woodstock. Been hot and sunny all week

High 85- Low 55

Weather has been great, no wind and easy paddling. We haven’t been drinking the water but is seems o.k. for swimming.

We have the 6 miles portage ahead of us which we should reach in 2 days. The plan is to  get to the take out early tomorrow in order to have some rest for the carry.

—Self sufficiency on trail- what you left with should be all you get. To get supplies along the way or not.

Another long hot day put is in the town of Woodstock N.B. which provided our first real chance at getting supplies that we didn’t bring, mostly beer and cigarettes. We had talked about it around Ft. Fairfield but I decided that we were an expedition and should act as such, meaning that once you start buying supplies along the way you are undermining the hard work you put in planning and preparing. While I stand by this ethic and will continue to hold to that belief, I am also a proponent of making good memories on trail and some times that means letting one member of your group wander through a river town looking (fruitlessly) for a convenience store to buy a few beers. We did “re-stock” later on the trip in St. Croix at the duty free liquor store, but that was a planned celebration. I think any time a long trip takes you close to civilization long thought should be given to whether or not to take advantage of those modern amenities.

What we didn’t know at the time was that the island we camped on off shore of Woodstock was an old (and now submerged) amusement park that was drowned about 50 years ago when the St. John was dammed downriver. I love these back stories of the places a trip takes you. Of course those stories exist in the back country but are often void of living history. On this trip we met many people who shared their story and the stories of the landscape and waterscape we were traveling through, stories that were both entertaining and enriching and also useful to the logistics of the trip.  

One such insight involved the levels of pollution in the St. John.  Before we had left for this trip we were advised not to drink (and even swim in) the St. John even after boiling and/or filtering due to industrial pollution.  At one lunch stop we met a lady whose husband works at the McCain potato factory near Florenceville New Brunswick.  She said one day on a tour of the factory her husband pointed out the outflow pipe, the waste liquids that were drained directly into the St. John and she noted how gross the water looked.  He then showed her the pool of sludge that wasn’t supposed to get released into the river but that did occasionally at high water and she described it as a pool of “green goo.”  I’m not citing McCain as the sole polluter of the St. John, but it does go a ways towards justifying our caution in finding drinking water and hesitancy to swim in the St.John for the 4 days we paddled the river.   

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The First Dark Clouds Over the St. John

This camp was the first time the wind blew strong from the south and caused us to circle up and decide whether to cut camp on the island or keep going. There is a list of questions you should ask yourself when deciding if your group should stop for the day (sometimes earlier than you’d like) or keep pushing on. Primarily I want to make sure my trip mates are safe, healthy and happy. If you keep pushing you are risking over-exertion if the day is long, exposure if the weather is tough, and a poor night’s sleep if the trail proves unfit for camping. Stopping early on the other hand can disrupt the flow of a trip, give your team too much down time, and can throw off the timing of a long expedition. Depending on my understanding of the risk of the moment and the performance of the group I will oscillate between telling and selling to participating (More on situational leadership).  Flexible leadership is the name of the game; invisible yet powerful.  

The Waterlogged Journals: Page 10

July 21st

Beaver Brook camp to 2 miles south of Caribou (24 River Miles)

Hot and uneventful day of paddling. 7:30- 3

Moose Day. 2 young cows met us on the river.

—–Agreed to wake up at 5:30 and be on the water by 7:30

It’s a funny thing looking back at this entry, at the way what the uncommon becomes routine on trail, at the quickness a certain level of tunnel vision sets in on a long trip. Even though this was only day 2 of the paddle, the sight of two adolescent cow moose who not only posed for a great pic but who waded out into the river and started following us like a pair of golden retrievers received only a passing mention. 

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One of the first specifics we nailed down prior to leaving camp was our morning schedule. Even before we talked food, gear, or route details we as a team agreed on the time we’d be waking up and the time we’d shove off each morning. This is very important for me as a guide as I have simmered in the frustration in the past when there is no set morning schedule. I find this is a decision best made through group consensus instead of solely by the trip leader because it is a personal issue that takes personal commitment to follow. For a short trip it is alright to be the alarm clock for a group but on a long trip not only would that role become burdensome but could also become resented and I think ultimately you would end up with time entropy, each day getting a later and later start. It is good practice for an outdoor leader to be able to understand and utilize the theory of situational leadership, group investment, and to some degree the idea of the full value contract. The more you can allow a group to self govern and self regulate, the more you raise the functionality potential of that group.

July 22nd

Camp south of Caribou to camp south of Fort Fairfield (18 River Miles)

Padded today through Caribou, past the dam to a bluff camp ½ mile past Ft. Fairfield. Cart is amazing, but how durable is it?

Portaging, or carrying as it is called out east, is the ancient practice of moving all your gear and boats around an obstacle (think beaver dam, land separating two bodies of water) and is one of the core skills any wilderness paddler should master along with up and downstream poling, paddling and reading whitewater, lining a canoe up and down river, rescuing an overturned canoe, and the fundamental wilderness camp crafts like fire, water, shelter, navigation and cooking.

To be efficient in portaging is the name of the game. Too often I have seen groups approach a portage trail without a plan which usually results in a garage sale of boats, paddles, and gear not only strewn about the landing (bad in case another group lands and also bad because it is easy to leave gear behind, not that that happened to one of my fly rods back in the day) but that requires too many trips back and forth along the portage trail. Ideally a boat of two paddlers should be able to make the trip once depending on how much food is on board. One paddler takes the boat, paddles, and a small pack while the second paddler carries the main load of packs. This is of course the ideal, when in reality two tripping a portage is more common and unless the trail is extremely long (a mile or more) is more enjoyable.

We had along on this trip a two- wheeled canoe cart, that  I was skeptical of since I had never used a portaging cart before and honestly the whole idea didn’t sit well with my background of wilderness canoe tripping. I was mostly suspicious of the construction, fearing under the weight a weld would crack, but even with a full food box, paddles, PFD’s and some other small odds and ends the cart rolled the loaded canoe effortlessly around the Caribou Dam, which was only a quarter mile but it was our first portage of the trip so it was good practice for the long portages to come.

We had a set date to meet Canadian Customs officials at the border just downstream of us for the 23rd of July, which was an amazingly generous offer from the Perth- Andover Customs Office that saved us 4 miles of portaging down a busy highway. All along out route we met incredibly helpful and kind individuals who added to the continuity and relative ease of what could have been a long and complicated trip. I approached the Customs office earlier this spring just to give them the heads up that I’d be coming through in July with a group of dudes carrying canoes through the border check point . After the meeting I received an email from Officer Dirk Bishop who not only proposed a remote crossing but who championed our cause and made this idea happen despite some (understandable) push back from other officials outside of the Perth office. It took a couple months of cooperation by ultimately the idea was green lighted and we waited on the banks of the Aroostook River south of Ft .Fairfield wondering just what legal scene we were about to run into..

July 23rd

Camp south of Ft. Fairfield to 1924 camp south of Perth (15 River miles, 2.5 Portage miles)

Passed through customs at 9am.  Paddled the rips from the put- in below the (Tinker) dam past the 2 bridges.  Upper rapids were easy, big ledge, run river left, the drop past the bridge required some maneuvering.  Found a great campsite 2 miles past Perth.  River right, small beach.  Portage around dam (2.5 miles) took 2.5 hours.

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Remote Border Checkpoint

I had a meeting with Canadian Customs a few days before we left to coordinate the border crossing.  In this very tactical meeting I was shown maps detailing the meeting site, the various access roads and the portage route we were supposed to take in order to portage around the Tinker Dam on the Aroostook.  As we paddled away from camp that morning I told the guys to go slow so as not to incite an international situation and also to be on the lookout for the flashing blue and red light I was told would be waiting for us.  Sure enough, as we rounded a slight bend there on the right bank were two border vehicles with lights flashing and a few border guards ready to process us.  One by one we presented passports and carried all of our gear up to a running mobile x-ray truck .  I loved the scene of a black ash pack basket getting sent through this monstrosity of technology.  I have portaged many miles over the last 15 years but this one will hold high rank as the most unique and memorable carry of my life.  After all the boats, gear and dudes were given the ‘all clear’ we shook hands with the border guards ( who were probably happy for a morning out of the office), snapped a pic or two and prepared for our first long carry of the expedition.  

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Mobile X-Ray Portage

From the border checkpoint to the area the dam operators said we could access the river down stream of the dam was around 2.5 miles of rolling country road.  We took two trips to get all gear and the 4 boats over the portage but it went very smooth with the portage cart really coming in clutch.  After a quick riverside lunch we scouted the class II rapid directly across the Aroostook from us and loaded up for some white water fun.  The first rapid was fast and deep but easy enough which was good for our group since we were all paddling at different white water ability levels.  Downstream from the ledge rapid is short set of class II+ rapids that we poled and paddled through without a lot of issues, although I made the mistake of following the 16 foot canoe through a gap between two rocks that was clearly only 16 feet wide as my 18 foot canoe banged a tad trying to shoehorn through a tight spot.  Just downriver is the confluence of the Aroostook and the St. John River which we’d be paddling for the next four or five days.  

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It was great to see the end of the Aroostook for me since I have paddled every river mile upstream to its source.  Turning onto the St. John we were instantly in big water susceptible to big wind and big waves.  The day was hot and calm as we paddled among raging thunderstorms that built all around us but seemed to part ahead of our group giving us calm water and outstanding scenery in the towering clouds and lightening.  Past Perth we found our first “hobo” camp of the trip.  Pulling off the St. John on a small beach we crested small ridge and found a hobo’s paradise in the form of a clearing on the woods bisected by a little creek shaded by cedars and birch.  Sure it was technically someone’s backyard-ish area but for us it was a great little campsite dubbed “1924 Camp” in reference to an ancient culvert overgrown now but that had 1924 stamped in the old cement arch.  General consensus was that it was a time portal to 1924.  

July 24th

South of Perth to Florence (20 River miles, 1.5 Portage Miles) 

21 miles paddled.  Hot and still weather, making great mileage.  Portage around Beechwood Dam, mile or so of easy portage along paved sidewalk then down rough boulder bank to river.  Camped on island north of Florence.  Great campsite, looks like others have camped here recently.

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Well Marked Portage Trail?
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Looking Upriver Towards the Beechwood Dam

Two thoughts on this day, nope, three.  

1. Always bring sunscreen.  Even if you are the “I brown and don’t burn” type sitting in a canoe for 6 hours will roast the tops of your shoulders, tops of your knees and tops of your feet.  It was hot, clear and still on this stretch of the trip which was a boon for making miles on the St. John which can erupt in 3 foot waves in a south wind but that left us feeling pretty cooked by mid afternoon.  Long sleeve hooded shirts are great for escaping the sun as are full brimmed hats and sunglasses.  We escaped sun burns for the most part although we all felt a bit crispy after a week under a blaring sun.

2.  It is amazing how many times campsites, which you have picked seemingly out of the need to stop hiking/paddling have already been used as camps by other hikers/paddlers.  We camped on an island that from the river looked unused by people but that was perfect for us: private, wooded, and without the high banks that line most of the St. John.  We pulled around the head of the island to an easier landing site with gentle grass banks and a good gravel beach for holding the boats.  I jumped into the woods directly up from where we landed and found a fire pit and some detritus from other campers.  I guess it’s cool in a way that multiple groups of canoeists saw the island as a great campsite and were drawn to this specific part of the 2-3 acre island.  Historically campsites were chosen where there was an abundant resource i.e animals, plants or medicine, where multiple waterways/trails came together or that was just a comfortable place to spend a night that gave shelter from weather, bugs or other humans.  

3.  Make hay while the sun shines on a long trip.  I wasn’t expecting such perfect paddling weather on the St. John and had planned accordingly.  When you are putting  a trip together for longer than a few days it is good practice to build in a few days to accommodate rough weather, injury, or for general R&R.  What I realized after two days on the St. John was that this group was able cover miles that were beyond my expectation that when combined with glass calm water would be putting ahead of schedule by a few days if we were able to keep getting so lucky weather and water-wise and also if we were able physically to keep putting in 20 miles paddling days.  I was hesitant to expect the same pace throughout the trip, especially in light of the fact that we had a 6 mile portage waiting for us at the end of our time on the St. John which would mark the beginning of our time following a part of the Ancient Maliseet Trail

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

The Waterlogged Journals: Page 9

July 20th 2016

Day 1

Jack Mountain Field School → Beaver Brook Campsite on the Aroostook River – 19 miles

We left the Jack Mountain camp this morning at 8 am to clear skies and a stiff north west wind. The Aroostook was choppy with waves coming upstream/ in our face. Thanks to some recent rain the water level is up allowing us to make good time despite the wind. All the planning over the past few months is finally paying off.

With any long back country trip, there is a feeling of great relief that comes when the bags are packed and the hours planning logistics are over. There is something to be said for “winging it” and there is indeed great joy that comes with haphazardly putting yourself out there in the world without a plan or agenda, but then again there is beauty in the precision of planning. Anyone who has spent long periods of time on trail knows that no matter how much you plan there are always the demons of chaos lurking just over the next contour line so the idea of planing a trip out shouldn’t be a deterrence to those who fear control. To organize is hedge your bets that you’ll have a sporting chance at getting to a destination safely and with a great story to tell, which when you’re guiding a 24 day canoe expedition is a good thing.

On a side note, wind has a defiant way of following a river so that you can be paddling into a head wind all day no matter which direction the river turns. The Aroostook has that capacity and on our first day we had to push into the wind for most of the day. We paddled 3 18′ Prospector-style Nova Craft canoes for our tandem boats and one 16′ Nova Craft solo for this trip. Due to the total miles we had to cover (350-ish) and the size of some of the water we’d be on that could get pretty mean if we caught a stretch of south wind I chose to fill both seats and paddle all tandem canoes. A couple days before we left one participant had to drop out leaving us with one solo boat (see, no matter how well you plan something usually pops up that challenges the idea that you have any idea what’s gonna happen).  This was not a problem in the end and gave everyone some much needed quiet time when it was their turn to paddle solo.

Wind, waves through the river grass, poison ivy quietly waits, my legs burn from the sun. We all move and are influenced by those who move around us. I move fast like smoke in the wind, here and there 40 miles away on the breeze.

We made it to Beaver Brook Camp by 1:30 today, good time indeed! Beautiful little camp at the confluence of the Aroostook and Beaver Brook. Good hammock sites but as expected there is poison ivy everywhere.  Caught a couple little brook trout holding in the confluence on a small hopper fly, nothing for the fry pan but a nice way to end the day.

-Dynamics of first campsite- can be clunky until everyone learns the systems

The first campsite on a long trip is usually a cluster ‘f’ of gear, people, and food. We camped on a rocky beach this first night which brought out a complication to this trip that I hadn’t really thought about since we usually occupy established campsites on canoe trips which offer both flat ground for tents and trees for hammocks. Most of this trip we “hobo camped” as we called it meaning at the end of the day we paddled until we found a promising stretch of riverbank that was usually someone’s backyard and that forced us to hack out a campsite that worked well (flat ground) for the 3 ground dwellers and that also had good tree cover to give the 4 “aerial campers” room to stretch out our hammocks. It never turned out to cause a problem but there were a few nights where us lofty ones were forced to slum it and sleep on the ground…

High functioning group performance on trail usually takes a few days to develop but once everyone knows the score, knows what needs to happen when and knows where everything lives efficiency prevails and daily chores that once might have taken an hour are whittled down to minutes.  I love watching groups develop from individuals taking care of individual needs to solidifying as a group taking care of group needs and each other without the need for direction.  For the first half of the trip we split up camp chores into 4 groups: the solo paddler had no chores since they were having to work harder all day to keep up, two people were responsible for cooking, two for getting the fire going and collecting and cutting up firewood and two for camp clean up.