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.
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.
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..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.