Sunday, August 20, 2006

West Branch Penebscot River

It was after midnight and 4 dozen oysters later before we finally made it to bed on Wednesday, August 9th. We had analyzed, discussed and re-analyzed the trip itinerary, gear, maps, food and supplies. We felt supremely confident that we were more than prepared for this 4 day epic adventure across the northwoods of canoe.

Earlier that day, my brother Dave had traveled some 700 odd miles from metropolitan Detroit to embark on an east coast tour of seafood, booze and exploration. Having over-indulged ourselves Wednesday evening on oysters, mussels, vino and micro-brews, we woke around 5:30 A.M on Thursday, August 10th. Destination: Greenville, Maine. Greenville would serve as our base camp/rendevous point. It was a quick and uneventful 4 hour drive from Boston that included one stop at a local grocery store and our last chance to pick up "mission critical supplies" -pancake mix, water, bacon, and junk food. We finally arrived in Greenville around 10:30 A.M. and checked in with our outfitter. After a quick breakfast and trip to the local fishing shop, we sat down with the outfitter to review the trip details including drop off and pick up times and points, the map and general information on the river and lakes we would "bask in glory" in. Everything the owner Mike shared with us seemed very straight forward, nothing confusing. We were poised to "drift, sip beer and enjoy the scenery." So naturally, we passed on paying the extra $9.99 for the very detailed, waterproof map. In the spirit of adventure, we opted for the freebie which was nothing more than a few lines and marked campsites. Mind you....the night before we lived as if we're on top of the Saudi oil empire sparing nothing and spending everything. The good life!!

From Greenville, we packed our gear in the outfitters shuttle van and drove another 1.5 hours through old logging roads. We did catch an enoroumous bull moose eating lunch from a distance. Shortly after, we put in on the Penebscot River just North of Lobster Lake in mid afternoon. We weren't in the canoe for 5 minutes nor did we even get a chance to crack our first beer before mother nature unleashed an intense down poor. The rain would continue on-again, off-again for the remainer of the afternoon and evening. Fortunately, it did stop briefly enough for us to enjoy unbelievable views of Big Spencer and Little Spencer Mountain and Lobster Mountain. However, navigating across Lobster lake in a heavy fog and pelting rain in the face was a tough way to start. After an extra trip across a small bay in the lake (we wanted to make sure we had the "really cool" campsite) we finally decided on "Boy Scout" camp site. It came equipped with an excellent fire pit, tarp pole, flat area for the tents and most imporantly, an amazing view of the lake and mountains. The wood left behind by the previous party didn't hurt either considering we were soaked and needed to start a fire. After establishing camp, enjoying the views and calls from the nearby loons, we wipped up dinner. A pair 1.25 lbs. rib eye steaks. Specially seasoned by your's truly. Dave fried up some potatoes to go with it and we were in business! Although the food was great, Dave really was never the same for the rest of the weekend. After dinner we relaxed by the fire and soaked in the events of the long day.

Friday, August 11th, 2006. Awake at 7:30 A.M. and giddy like two kids on Christmas morning, we enjoyed the morning sun coming over the mountains across the lake. Dave pursued to brew what seemed like 8 pots off coffee. That kid REALLY likes camping coffee. It was at this point that we realized we forgot 1 gallon of water and our pancake mix. No biggie though, we had "plenty of food and water." We had a classic camping breakfast, 4 fried eggs, tons of fried potatoes, and yummy bacon.

Our adventure truly began when we shoved off that morning at 11:30 AM. It didn't take long for us to make our first wrong turn of the day-up Little Lobster stream. No worries though, it was a sunny summer day and the wrong turn allowed me to go up two-zip catching a pair of perch. After canoeing for several hours, much of which was through a heavy rain, we finally stopped for lunch on Thoreau Island. A small little island in the middle of the river with a camp site. We had paddled all morning. We kept waiting for the current to carry us so that we could "sip beer and enjoy the scenery" but it never came to fruition. So we were tired and hungy. While lunch cooked, Dave pulled out the fly-rod but to no avail. Scoreboard: Dan 2, Dave 0. That is a goose-egg for the big guy!! With the rain behind us, we canoed several more hours, exploring several much smaller rivers feeding into the Penebscot. At one point we got out of the canoe and left it behind in true Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn fashion so that we could walk up the river and wade with our rods in hopes of landing brook trout. The area certainly seemed prime for the catch but we came up empty. A little further down the river we came across another river with a large beaver dam. We docked the canoe on the side of the river, walked up the bank and explored thea area. Bushwaching through 4 foot tall saw grass, we came across an aboslutley amazing wet-land area that had to of been several hundred acres in area. In the backdrop were multiple 4,000 foot peaks of Maine's best. What a beautical view! After exploring the area and finding the tributary that led to a small pond, we decided to go back to the canoe for our fishing rods and camera. Amazingly we didn't see any moose or catch any fish. But it was sweet! We did come across an area where it was clear a family of moose had bunkered down for a nap earlier in the day. After that side trip we canoed another hour and made it to our camp for the night. Like the previous night, we procrastinated whether to stay or go further in puruit of a "cooler campsite." Ultimatley we decided to stay because we were wiped out from paddling all day. Paddling was not part of our original plan.

Upon pulling our canoe into our site, not 30 yards away was a moose on our side of the river getting a drink of water. We drifted down stream slowly and quietly for a closer look and a couple of pictures. Unfortunately that was all the time the moose gave us, she got spooked and took off into the woods. But Dave got a couple of pictures. However, for the first time all day we actually had a current to contend with. And unfortunatley we had to go against it to go back up-stream to our campsite. In that process, the camera fell into water that had built up in the boat from all of the rain. There went our pictures! Not a good ending to an otherwise awesome day. The camp site was fantastic, perched right over the river with a nice flat, open grassy area for our tents, picnic table, fire pit and tarp pole. We feasted on a pair poterhouse steaks that night over an open fire and more potatoes. Stuffed, we sat by the fire, sipped scotch, looked at the stars and listened to the wild coyotes howl and cry in the distance. It was awesome!!

Saturday, August 11th. We woke to a beautiful morning with steam coming off of the river. Dave had the coffee brewing, another 3-4 pots! We scrambled some eggs, more potatoes and bacon. We would need every carb and ounce of fat to get us through this day.! There were some serious clouds in the sky so we decided to start the day with our rain gear on. That proved to be a smart move as it rained most of the morning. At times it came down so hard that we had to pull to the side of the river for cover. By late morning the rain had passed through and the sun came out. It was now early afternoon and we had reached the upper wet lands where the river got considerably wider and rougher and the surrounding land opened up. Up until that point the river was heavily lined with pine trees. It was easy to see why it was called the wet lands, we we're surrounded by it. Prime moose viewing country! We actually thought we saw one about 1 mile out. What were we thinking? Spotting a moose a mile away! Once we arrived at the point where we thought we saw a moose the river made a turn to the Northwest and opened up even further-essentially looking like a lake. To make matters worse, the wind was very strong cutting straight across the river from left to right. The good news (so we thought) was the wind pushed us all the way down (at least a couple of miles) to the mouth of the river where it narrowed again. Shortly before entering the narrows, we both commented on the fishing boat (with motor) coming from the very far left side of the river, as if the river became a lake over there. It was only the 2nd boat we had seen so far. But we didn't care, or think anything of it, we just wanted to get out of the wind and on the narrower part of the river. "Sip beer, enjoy the scenery." Slowly paddling now for another hour beyond the windy wetlands the river narrowed dramatically and the current suddenly started moving against us. Quickly we realized we had made another wrong turn. Only this time the wrong turn cost us 2 hours. But the bad news was still to come! After 45 minutes of intense paddling to backtrack our trail we reached the mouth of the river. And at the mouth, it took just about all of our effort to prevent our canoe from being blown back down river from the wind. We were now facing, for as far as our eyes could see, a 20 MPH head wind blowing in our face with 2 foot swells. This was not river canoeing. This was like canoeing up the coast of Lake Michigan in Chicago in the middle of January. After another 2+ hours of very, very intense paddling we finally decided to stop. It was now 4:00 pm, we had not eaten since 8:30 AM and both of us were dehydrated, and running low on water. We stopped, unloaded our gear to make lunch and pull our trusty freebie of a map to figure out where the heck we were. The map however was another story. At this point the map was in about 6 or seven pieces and soakd through from water in the boat. So it required very delicate handeling as to not rip it up any further. After piecing the map together as best we could and refeulling on some pasta, beef jerkey and trail mix, we were maybe 65% confident that we knew where we were and where we were going. Fortunatley, that boat of fisherman we saw several hours ealier came by as we were setting off. They confirmed what we thought-the village of Chesuncook was just around the corner and Gero Island, our final destination for the night, was just beyond that. Back into the canoe-the last thing we wanted to do at that point. Our bodies were sore. It was time for back medicine but we had more work to do.

As we came around the final corner the river opened up again even further, dumping into Lake Chesuncook, an 18 mile long beast of a lake. The mouth of the river had to be at least 3-4 miles wide. We were battling a 20 MPM+ wind that was now cutting against us constantly wanting to push the rear of the canoe out around the front. Dave was in the front and he kept getting water in the boat from the 3 foot+ swells. But our biggest fear was the fact that we had to go perpedicular to the waves, putting us at risk for tipping over. We paddled long and hard. For a time it seemed like we were just paddling in place. We could see the village but were not getting any closer. Finally, we could start to see the progress we were making. We finally arrived on the island at our campsite. It was an 8 hour+ day of hard core paddeling. We were dead tired, thirsty and hungry.

After a brief nap in the hot sun and cool breeze we set up camp. Like the previous two nights, another amazing campsite. Our camp was perched on top of the island right on the water with a breath-taking view of the lake and sun set. We were ten foot from walking into the lake for a nice swim and cleaning up. We had a plentiful supply of drift wood which turned out to be fantastic for the fire. It burned super hot and long. We endulged on huge helpings of pasta, fruit, and potatoes for dinner. The big treat of the night though was the sky. We could see the entire milky way and every constellation you can think of. We saw plenty of shooting stars too. What a view. It was a lot of work but well worth it. It was our last night and tomorrow was just a short 1-2 hour paddle back to our pick up point. That was a bit of relief, knowing we didn't have much paddling to do the next day.

Sunday, August 12. Another early morning with beautiful skies and good greasy brekfast food. We had polished off all of the water during yesterday's workout from hell so we had to boil lake water for our food and drinking water for the day. That didn't deter Dave from making another 4 pots of coffee. We departed at 10:30 AM with a planned pick up time of 12:00 P.M. The wind was blowing just as hard if not harder today as it was yesterday. Fortunately we were just going down the coast of the island and under the bottom and around the corner for our pickup. The wind carried us down quickly with little problems. Once we made it to the bottom of the island we were a bit surpirsed with how much further we had to go to get across the channell to land. But we made it. We had the binoculars out scoping for our outfitter to flag us down but we didn't see him. We went up the coast (against the 20+ MPH wind we had at our back) for at least 1 mile. We still didn't see him. We concluded that we had to of missed the point so we turned around and back tracked down coast. Still nothing. It was now 11:45. We went down coast about 2 miles. Nothing. We then concluded we must had stopped just short when wen't further up coast. So we turned the canoe around for the 3rd time and went back up against the wind. After about another 1-2 miles of paddling we saw some people on the coast and said "at last" we can get out of the canoe. However, when we got closer we saw that they were not our ride but campers. The good news was they pointed out where we needed to go. The bad news was they pointed out where we needed to go. It was ridiculous. A total joke. I couldn't believe it. There is no way anyone could canoe that far in this wind I thought to myself. On top of the two hours we already put in and the 14 miles we did yesterday, 1/2 of which were into the wind! But we didn't even talk about it or complain about it. We just put our heads down and hammered it out. It was pretty impressive actually. We finally did find our pick up point but our ride was long gone. We were so tired at this point we didn't even really care. In fact, Dave fell asleep on the trail and I did the same on the bank of the lake. About 1 hour later the Ranger in a 20 foot Boston Whaler had to wake us up. No, the noise from the motor didn't wake us up. He had to yell at us to wake us up! A little groggy but standing, we piled all of our gear into the boat including the canoe. The Ranger gave us a ride down to the bottom of the lake, 18 miles, where our outfitter picked us up. This three hour set back blew up our original plan of a lobster feast in Portland, Maine on our way home. But what the heck, we got our money's worth!

On Monday night we were able to laugh at the whole thing over another dozen oysters and some fine vino. There were some lessons learned but no regrets. Just the way I like it. I can't wait until next summer to do it again!