Rangeley to the Forks
Finally, the wind is abating.
It is time to carry from the Androscoggin watershed in Rangeley to the dead river and Kennebec watershed over a height of land that marks the highest point in Maine along the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. I arrive at the south branch of the Dead River to find what I would call a minimum navigable flow that looks more like culvert water than the origins of an actual river.
The narrow watercourse meanders through alders and marshy areas with blowdown’s requiring passing the boat over the dead trees in midstream. Class one and two Rapids are barely negotiable with a 17 1/2 foot long canoe and such little water. I come to the first challenge of the river: Fansanger Falls Gorge. There is not enough water to even align my canoe for the first ledge drop without damaging the boat. There is not enough water to provide cushioning, so I elect to portage one mile to blow the gorge. As I step out onto the road, a vehicle comes to an abrupt halt. I notice a Northern Forest Canoe Trail bumper sticker. A driver with a spring in his step comes over to me if I am John. (I seem to be getting that question a lot this trip!) As it turns out, John Carey is the trail maintainer for this section of the trail. He and his wife, Patty, are headed to Saddleback for a hike. Had they not forgot their trekking poles, we never would have met. I was invited to spend the night at their home on Flagstaff Lake, and happily accepted!
I reentered the river below the gorge to find that there has been no more water added by any sidestream within the gorge. My hope was that as I continued downstream, I would pick up a little water here and there, making the river more negotiable. As I progressed downstream, I found more rapids and side streams that are adding a bit more water, however, the rivers became wider and dispersed water into various channels. My challenge was to find the deepest channels to keep from scraping up or damaging my beautiful Wenonah Voyager canoe.
For miles, the rapids are continuous, with some increasing in difficulty. With such little water creating genuine challenges, I seem to be able to navigate without sacrificing my boat. I am so grateful that there is enough water to canoe instead of having to walk the 20 miles between Rangely and Stratton, Maine, as many who travel the Northern Forest Canoe Trail must do. If there were 50 CFS less of water, I would have had to opt for carrying down the road to Stratton. I was blessed to have just enough water to be able to paddle. The trick was to not wreck my boat in the process.
This 20-mile river run is as beautiful a waterway as one could ever paddle, giving me some of the best paddling days I have had on the trail. The south branch is free-flowing, so nature dictates how much water you get. I saw several nets in midstream placed by a fisheries biologist studying some type of fish population. As I near the end of the river, it enters Flagstaff Lake. I am able to see hundreds of suckers darting away from my boat as I pass over them in the shallows. Above me are six to eight bald eagles taking advantage of this banquet. This place is wild and beautiful. Around the last corner onto the lake a vista opens, revealing the Bigelow mountain range framed by white pines on either side of the river. the moment will be burned into my memory forever.
I easily found John and Patty’s house on Flagstaff Lake and was treated to a wonderful quiche dinner and Shipyard Monkey Fist India pale ales. What could be better after an epic day on a beautiful river?!
The next day, I crossed the length of Flagstaff Lake, Maine’s fourth largest.It should have been about a 16 mile paddle. However, the wind picked up and the lake became rough, requiring me to hug the shoreline for protection and increasing the mileage for the day. I arrived at the Maine Huts and trails Flagstaff Lake hut in the late afternoon after a spirited crossing over open waters.
There was a young couple staying there who started in Stratton, Maine. They’re paddling a section of the Northern Forest Canoe trail from Stratton Maine to Spencer stream. They ran a shuttle, so that there is a car waiting for them at their end point. I had a nice comfy night at the hut and departed early in the morning for Spencer stream. The lake was absolutely calm and the views of the Bigelow Mountain Range, spectacular.
I portaged Long Falls dam and put in to the whitewater below the next bridge to continue my way down the Dead River for the next portage around Grand Falls. Again, I was treated to an eagle show although with fewer birds this time.
I portaged around Grand Falls and took a few moments to soak in the specialness of the place and the grandeur of the waterfall. I continued to Spencer Stream, where my friends from Northern Outdoors were picking me up to take me to the Lodge in the Forks. My plan was to pull maintenance on my boat to make sure it is in good shape for the upstream travel up Spencer Stream on Sunday. To my delight there was no damage to my boat as a consequence of paddling the south branch of the dead at low water. I just need to touch up a few scrapes and add some resin to the bow and stern where they were most likely to get scraped in the shallows.
Nicole met me at the lodge on Friday night and joined me and my raft on Saturday when I guided a lower Dead River high water dam release raft trip for northern outdoors on Saturday. I love that 15-mile stretch of continuous Class 3-4 big water and thought it would be a super cool addition to my expedition to take a day to guide a raft trip!
The hospitality at Northern outdoors was terrific. It was nourishing to see good friends, have great food and micro brews and to spend time in the hot tub. Needless to say my body was very happy about the hot tub!
I mixed up epoxy and touched up my canoe so the maintenance was complete for the next segment of the trail.