Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Aroostook River Maine 2014

This is the account written up by Mike Bussell of the trip on the Aroostook River, Maine 2014.  The players were Mike Bussell, Marshall Moore, and Ken Corbett. 

Aroostook River, Maine 2014
Written by Mike Bussell

After doing 150 miles on the Allagash to Ft. Kent last Sept. and pretty much wrapping up almost all of the 740 mile NFCT in segment's over the past 7-8 years, I thought I had retired from down river canoe camping. I really was, and still am, tired of setting up and tearing down camp every day while covering miles. My canoe camping was going to consist of 'base camping' from now on.
Well, on that drive up to the Allagash back in Sept. We crossed over the Aroostook river way up in Ashland and I took a mental note to 'read up' on it. Now come January this year I'm bored and start throwing around the idea of getting out on a multi-day trip with DougD and maybe two others to have a nice small group of four. I throw the idea out to Doug early in January because it seem's it's alway's too late by time we get around to planning time off together.

So I start researching the trip and looking for shuttle driver possibilities up that way and sending out email invites to my other canoe camping buddy's. One by one my regular crew of guy's couldn't make it for one reason or another. More talk with Doug and we send out invites to a couple of guy's he's traveled with before but I hadn't, but knew they were top notch experienced traveler's, Marshall Moore and Nanook of the Nashwack, aka (Ken), from New Brunswick. Now come March and disaster strikes Doug as we all now know with his house burning down and effectively prying Doug from the trip along with his life's possessions. At this point I had lost some of the excitement of planning and let it slip by for a few week's. Marshall and Ken were still on board and I felt I owed them the time to keep plugging and get the detail's worked out.

Up to this point I hadn't had much luck getting a shuttle for this river. There were plenty of Sporting camp's, and Maine Guides and Outfitters, but none did shuttles and each were pryed for information of the phone number of someone they might know that could do it. Finally I got in touch with a Leo Freeman of Presque Isle, the finishing point on our trip. Leo owns 'Perception of Aroostook a small canoe and kayak shop right across the street from the boat launch ! He told me straight off that that wasn't his usual shuttle service, but yeah, he'd drive us in. He likes long drives on Maine's back logging road's just like everyone else up there. Leo Freeman is a Jack of all trades, he's a Registered Maine Guide, extremely avid road bicyclist, and back country skier, and many more I'm sure I'm not aware of.
O.K., so the day arrives where I get up to Presque Isle on saturday and meet Marshall at the Motel where we split a room for the night and hook up with Ken in the morning. We meet up with Leo Sunday a.m., load up and we're on our way into the headwater's of the Aroostook.

We take the logging roads in to the put-in by the Ashland check point. Aptly call the '6 mile' check point, it's 6 miles in. Here you have to sign in and pay a fee to 'North Maine Wood's'. After successfully confusing the woman gate attendant as to the number of day's and camping night's we would be in NMW we succeeded in keeping an extra $24 in our pocket ! NMW manages the campsites and collect's the fee's for the logging companies that own the forest. It's a co-operation that allows public use of the vast forest for camping, canoeing, hunting and fishing, and shared use with the logging company truck's. There are Sporting camp's that have been out there since the 1880's when the only method to get there was a Maine Guide poling up the Aroostook with the 'sport's' into the headwaters and the camp's.

After leaving the check point we were about a mile or two down the road when there was a loud bang and something dragging in the gravel. We stopped in the middle of the road and jumped out, Leo was rushing to check the boat's on the trailer and I bent over and looked under the truck. Well,.. the full gas tank had dropped to the road ! The band's holding the tank had rusted and the obvious jolting of the gravel road did them in. To keep it short, another elderly couple were on their way into their camp and had some 4x4 block's of wood to help leverage the tank up where Leo used some cam-buckle straps and got it seated pretty good and we were back on our way. We still had about 50 miles of gravel road to travel and kept an ear on any noises from underneath, it stayed quiet.
Finally getting into the Chase lake drive-in campsite around 2:30 we unloaded boat's and gear, opened a beer and said our goodbyes to Leo.

The back side of the Chase lake drive-in campsite is a 3 cell area with outhouse a picnic table pavillion at one site and two regular sites with fire ring and table. We had company already set up at the other two sites and we tucked into the smaller site that was still available.

Come morning we broke camp and were paddling out into Chase lake by 8:30 a.m. All the other fisherman camper's at the site were still snoring away as we paddled off down the lake. Chase Lake is about 1 1/2 miles long and there is a open outlet at the end that run's about a quarter mile into Munsungan lake. I took lead at the outlet and ran a sweet quarter mile of CL-I into the next lake.
Munsungan lake is 5 miles long and a Maine gem for fishermen. Considered one of the top 5 in the state for catching native Brook trout and land locked Salmon it's a destination for the truly serious fly fisherman. And also the location of Bradford Camp's. Built around 1880 they are one of the top notch remote fishing camp's. They built a strong reputation over all those years and the current owners are just as friendly and good as any place you could stay.

After crossing Munsungan lake you go through the thoroughfare into Little Munsungan. There is a nice campsite at the thoroughfare that is only canoe accessable and look's like it doesn't see much use (still nice). There is another site on Little Munsungan that we didn't stop at but is also car accessable.
At the outlet to little Munsungan is the beginning of Munsungan stream and another single cabin that is still called the 'Old Timers camp' even though all the old timers have passed away and somebody else has the title now. It too was built around 1880 and is the real deal, still looking great.

Munsungan stream quickly goes on it's way at the outlet and at about 1 1/2 miles the current pick's up as it rushes to Munsungan fall's, a portage. I had been told the beginning of the portage was hard to find in swift current on the left bank. I was in lead and was close to the left bank and there was a serious looking ledge rapid just ahead that had caught my attention. I was just going into my lining up for the rapid when out of the corner of my left eye I saw a faint notch in the river bank woods, the trail ! But I was already at that point and a quick few strokes and I was hugging branches about 15 yards downstream from the path. I made motions to Marshall and Ken where the trail was as they were still above it and would be able to get to it easy enough. Soon enough I was pulled up onto the trail and started humping my gear down the portage trail. A fairly short portage of less than a quarter mile,maybe 2/10th. The put-in being right at the base of the 'fall's'. In my WW boat, or my empty 17' Explorer I would see no problem running this drop as there is a runnable center line over the 3-4 ft. ledge drop. Not sure I'd run it in my loaded Kevlar Prospector though.

Theodore Roosevelt fished for Salmon at the base of Munsungan Fall's when he was a young man on his trip to Maine. It's the farthest he'd gone up river and some say this area is where he got the idea of preserving our nation's resources in later years for our National park's.

Once back in the boat's you cross under the only logging road bridge the entire trip. As you head down river the current pull's you along with nary an blowdown to block your way. The wooded riverbank's also start to steepen into a fir and Cedar lined wilderness and the gradient start's to pick up. Soon we were really flying along a swift, fairly straight river course that I'll alway's remember. CL-I, full river, no bumping bottom, Pines and Eastern Hemlock's and a beautiful forest all around. After several non-stop continuos miles of this we came apon the remain's of the Old Oxbow road crossing, now campsite. (drive-in)
There were a couple of truck's parked and 2 guy's were fishing near the old rock crib remain's of the bridge. After some intro's and small talk they were only there to fish and we would have the sites to ourselves that night. It was a nice evening with the group tarp easily pulled over the decrepid pavillion over the picnic table which kept us dry in the sporatic showers that evening. And another well kept outhouse is located here too.

That morning we were out and loaded up on the river by 9:30 a.m. an easy slow morning. We were headed to the LaPomakeag stream campsite just 8-10 miles downriver. As we headed down river that day (tuesday) we were going to be connecting with several large feeder stream's that are also considered headwater trip's, Millinocket stream, Mooseleuk stream, LaPomekeag, and many smaller stream's. Marshall was interested in the Munsungan Branch NMW campsite at the confluence with Millinocket stream. We found it. It was trashed by lack of use and upkeep and the ravenges of ice-out. It would be hard to describe how wet and overgrown it had become. Just a fire-ring with a wet grassy overgrown area in aldlers that couldn't take more than one small (wet) tent. This was the beginning of many campsite dissapointments as we headed downriver. Next was the Mooseleuk Branch campsite. Not used, overgrown, terrible location. We found the fire-ring and a box toilet. But there were obvious issues with over grown brush, tree's down (a long time) and lack of a landing beach (steep drop off in swift current). The next site was our intended destination for that night, LaPomekeag stream. We found it just down stream from the stream's confluence and it was destroyed by ice-out that year. Although, I tend to believe it was already decrepid and overgrown from lack of use. The ripped up tree's from ice-out laying across the open area's where you would be setting up your tents needed a chainsaw, and the 'rut' that was blocked by tree's to get up into the site needed some serious stair building if you didn't want to break your leg trying to climb up into the site.

We made the decision to move on downriver several more miles to the boat launch at the Oxbow check point. Once at the boat launch we were greeted by a open area with no outhouse or fire-ring and a small brush line to set up tents along the river bank field. (not an official camping area) A muddy, dusty pick-up truck slowly ambled along the gravel road and eventually he drove over to the boat launch to chat with us. We explained about the wasted campsites upriver and he assured us we would be just fine camped there for the night and nobody was going to bother us. He left us and we continued to set up tents. About a half hour later he drives up, jumps in the back of his truck and throws out a fire-ring and more split dry wood than we could use in one night. As he climb's back into his cab he say's "Ain't no fun camping without a good fire. I'll be back in the morning for the fire-ring". And away he went. Thank you, thank you !

Now the next morning (wens), we pack up and are looking at our next night's camping option's because our travel segment's are now out of whack. It was decided to just head down river and keep an eye out for acceptable bootleg camping.There was one more NMW site we could check on but it was only a few short miles down river and it was our intended destination (short day) after the LaPomekeag stream campsite. Once we got to the Houlton brook campsite we were extremely disappointed with how the NMW has done nothing to upkeep the sites along this river. Having talked to quite a few local's on this trip about thing's like the tourism trade and lack of yearly visitors to this area of Maine, there are thing's they need to do to get folk's to visit this area more. I'll stand on my soapbox later.

As we left the Houlton brook campsite (multiple downed tree's, over grown) which was probably the prettiest location the whole trip we were just a few miles outside the first town settlement, Masardis, we stopped at the boat launch for lunch. Our discussion was that we would continue to look for an acceptable bootleg site if nesissary but we also had the option of paddling all the way to Ashland where a couple of old timers I had talked to on the phone week's earlier had said we could stay at the Ashland Hunting and Fishing Club right next to the river. As we continued after lunch the miles flew by and before long we passed the confluence with the Machias (the northern one, not the coastal Machias) river and were in Ashland and pulling up to the Hunting and Fishing club riverbank. After scouting the immediate area we determined we would set up camp behind the club's building and kind of 'tuck-in' and keep a low profile while there. Ken started walking up to town about a mile up the hill to get more beer and Marshall had gone for a walk. I was still messing about setting up and had to walk down to the boat for something. As I crossed the club's gravel road to the back lot, another big pick-up truck had pulled in and up to me and stopped. First thing I did was ask him if he was a member here and he say's "Yup, I'm the Chairman of the board, and I've got no problem with you staying there. There some firewood you can use and the outhouse's are right there too. If anyone ask just tell them Charlie Tucker said it was o.k.". Next he say's to me "You ever hear about that show Mountain Men ?" I tell him yes, I've watched it. He say's" Well I'm the Maine representitive on that show". Of course once I get home I look it up and yup, he's the guy ! So we were good to go for another night with the good Karma getting cashed in some more.

Later that night I was the last to zip into my tent about 9:30 p.m. Not 5 minutes later I hear the crunch of gravel on the driveway and hear voices getting out of the vehicule. So I start unzipping my tent door and here comes the big bright flashlight of two Ashland Police officers."Sooo what's going on here?" is the first thing he say's. I tell him Charlie Tucker said it was o.k. He say's "Oh , you met Charlie ? No problem then" and they immediately turn and start walking away. The one I talked to hesitated and turned and said " If you see Charlie again, tell him Jeffrey said Hi". I said o.k. and thank you for checking in on us, goodnight. Did I also mention that it was a 30 mile day ?

Next morning we are up and out the door and on the river by 9:30 a.m. again headed for the Beaver brook campsite about15 miles downriver and the last MFS site on the map before Presque Isle. The Aroostook at this point is a pretty big river, high scoured river bank's, fast moving current and still wild outside of Ashland. There is a channel that break's off to the left above where Beaver brook enters the river. I had been told this was a small site by one of the outfitters I had called earlier, who had actually stayed there and wasn't sure what to expect. Well, we found it and you could maybe fit one solo tent and the gear for one guy, and barely have enough room left to get the fire ring of stones rebuilt to be able to sit around. Another big '0' zero for a campsite. We had our lunch there and discussed our option's. Again, we could keep an eye out for an acceptable bootleg site. But it would have to happen soon because in a few miles we would be hitting our first town of Washburn and there were house's along the river from that point on, and our odd's of stealth camping would have been gone. As we pulled out into the main flow of the Aroostook again out of the corner of my eye I see a break on the opposite shore in the thick brush. we ferried over and were getting out to check it out but there was huge amounts of Moose fur all over the river bank floating and just all over. We get up there and it's a very accomdating location. Just one thing, I didn't feel like sharing it with a Moose carcass just off in the woods from the clearing (skeletal). Otherwise we would have just started pulling gear up at that point and staying there. The other guy's were so-so and we decided that we would probably just finnish in Presque Isle that day. (another 30 mile day, back to back) The rest of the miles flew by, we saw many, many folk's wandering the remote shoreline picking Fiddleheads, the river stayed swift to our take-out and we were at the boat launch next to our cars parked up at Leo's by 6 p.m. Problem, Leo had gone home for the night and our cell phones were in our cars. We had given him our car key's for safe keeping and they were locked in the office.

Keeping it short, I was able to borrow a cell phone from a Fiddlehead picker as they got to the boat launch and finally got ahold of Leo who came down and got us our car key's. We loaded up and went back to the Motel we stayed in the first night we got there. Marshall and Ken were gone the next morning before I woke up (single room, they doubled). Overall a great trip. I actually liked it more than the Allagash trip I did back in Sept. I feel it's more remote and prettier than the Allagash. There are no Ranger cabin's every 15-20 miles (none) like on the Allagash. There is a serious issue with the upkeep of the NMW primitive campsites. If they want more tourism dollars they need to make a gem of a river like the Aroostook more people friendly. It cost a daily fee of $12 a day as a user fee, and $12 a night on top of that as a camping fee, $24 a day! Those are the out of state fee's. Maine resident's pay considerably less for both. I do understand the economic's and labor involved. I also believe the NMW attitude is that those are 'primitive' sites and the wilderness traveller is responsible to keep it user worthy. However, when even a seasoned traveller like myself see's a destructed, neglected site, I won't consider it, and will move on. Thus allowing the site to continue to get overgrown. This was a 90 mile trip over 4 day's, originally planned for 5 day's on the water.
NMW was due to have a meeting shortly after we left up north. Leo is going to bring this issue to the board about getting better service (campsite reconstuction) for the money that out of stater's bring in. I may also be getting contacted by a reporter from the Aroostook county news. She will want my view point in story for the paper on what we encountered on our trip. Charlie Tucker (Mountain men) also is interested in what they can do to start getting 'Sport's' to start coming back to the region. We'll see.
Ken and Marshall were great to travel with. I was excited because I'd been traveling in my comfort zone with my NFCT boy's for many years and we all know each others routines. Going with Marshall and Ken was like being out with new classmates.

Leo Freeman is the guy to call for the shuttle if this TR gives anyone the urge to go. His rate is fair. He's the only show in town for this, in the entire area.

I would love to post my pictures but my camera is not responding to the connection to my computer for some reason. Marshall has his pictures posted to his Facebook site and maybe he'll link them up to here. I've yet to see Kens photo's (alot). (Google search- Nanook of the Nashwack) he may have them posted at his personal site.)
AMC Maine guide book is the best reference for this trip.

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