Saturday, May 27, 2017

Running the Upper St. John River

It started back in October of 2016 as most canoe trips do, planning early so you can get a crew together.  Somehow a lot of folks say yes and then as the date approaches they bail out.  This year we were lucky.  We got a dedicated crew together and had a date set so it was finally set in stone.

May 17, 2017

Today we were all leaving from our abodes to meet at the first rest area in Maine.  I was ahead by a bit but it was good to get out and stretch.  The players in this trip are as follows in no order:

Mike Bussel, Rhode Island paddling a no name Prospector
Chuck Hobert, Rhode Island paddling a well worn Mad River Explorer
Jim Cole, Florida paddling a sweet Kevlar Mad River Guide
Kevin and Nick Allsworth, Rhode Island paddling an Old Town Tripper tandem.  Father/son
Doug Doremus, Penacook, NH, paddling a Mad River Malecite

After a quick meet and greet we headed up to St.Francis, Maine a long trip.  With short stop in Ft. Kent for a meal at Swamp Buck which I thought was excellent.  From there it was up the long and windy road to St. Francis.

Have to always take a picture of this bridge

L-R Kevin and Nick, Jim Cole, Mike Bussel
Rt 11 from Ft. Kent to St. Francis, Maine
 Coming up I-95 we stopped a rest area with a nice view of Mt. Katadhin.  It still had snow on it.

We had Norm Pelletier run us shuttle into Baker Lake and were staying at his campground for the evening with a take off at six in the morning.  Norm met us after a quick phone call and we asked about the cabins he had as we really didn't want to set up tents.  Turns out it was a house that he rented out rooms in for a fair price with television, two bathrooms and two coffee machines.  It was heaven.

We loaded up the boats on the trailer and van before calling it an night.  The rest of the gear would be loaded into the trailer in the morning which of course we did all wrong because we were ahead of Norm and had to off load and reload.  Norm is a very forgiving gentleman!

May 18, 2017

Six in the morning saw us off loading all the gear so Norm could pack it correctly for the four plus hour drive to Baker Lake.

Norm and Mike

Kevin and Chuck practicing for the long ride
We checked into the North Maine Woods check point.  I knew this ahead of time but we each had to cough up one hundred and ninety-two dollars and twenty cents for entrance fees.  That one hurt.  The shuttle I can understand being pricey but the fees into the NMW was...well judge for yourself.
A long dirt road
At Baker Lake there was a quick off load with everyone kicking in to get the van and trailer free of gear and boats so Norm could head back home, a long drive for him solo.  When I got to my canoe I found that two bolts holding the seat had come loose on the bumpy drive in and said goodbye, they were missing.  In a hurry to get on the river I scabbed two bolts from the front seat with the spacers and called it good leaving the front seat hanging loose with a dry bag under it and we took off.

More damage was found in a cooler from the drive in.  Kevin had a bottle of whiskey and jam in glass containers.  Both broke in the cooler and made a hell of a mess.  I declined the sip of whiskey though.

Broken whiskey bottle and jam bottle
 The river was narrow and winding with some chop to it in the beginning which is lots of fun.  Since this is my side of the tale I'll add that I knew right off I brought the wrong boat.  The MR Malecite is a long boat at sixteen six with a shallow V hull and I was having a rough time with the load and making the twists and turns with the current. It was doable but a lot of grunting went on for me.  The others looks like it was a breeze and were having a good time of it all.

Flaws Bogan Campsite
 We paddled eight and half miles give or take to Flaws Bogan Campsite which hosted a cabin which was empty and called it a day.  We settled in and relaxed with the good weather and cooked up some dinners.  Small site but with the cabin five of us where able to sleep in that while Chuck pitched his tent and called it good.  For the record the take out is pretty narly, steep, a quick mud path and the water is deep so one has to pull the loaded canoe up onto the bank before unloading.

The Cabin at Flaws Bogan
Now the one thing I had to attend to was that seat with two missing bolts and spacers.  The solution was to use some cable ties to hook it all back in and I was pleased with how well that worked.  You couldn't plant your ass in the seat and call it good but I wanted it to add some kind of stability to the seat as a thwart kind of action if you follow me.  

One last thing.  This was my first trip using a blue barrel for food storage.  I had eggs stored in it along with a couple of mesh bags with lunches and breakfast foods along with bisquick.  On the shuttle drive in the eggs broke covering everything in the barrel.  What was worse was the bag of bisquick also broke and with all the shaking a batter was made at the bottom.  It took a while to clean everything off of that nasty ass mix.

Face in the clouds

Happy Doug

The crew

May 19, 2017

We woke to gray skies with some blue mixed in but the rain would start later after breakfast.  Chuck happened to notice a nice view in the sky, a rainbow decided to visit us and make a good start to the day.

Today we were headed to Knowles Brook campsite. Due to the bank we had to load the boats on shore and then slide them in and almost jump/drop into them.  A beautiful site with a lousy takeout/put in.

The current was good, somewhere around three miles per hour but of course we had a headwind.  Not a little one a big one.  We watched the surface of the water as the blasts came and all we could do was keep our bows pointed into it.  Due to the river winding nature we sometimes were floating downstream but our bows were pointed quartering towards shore to keep our boats from turning upstream from the winds.

Downstream we came upon a moose and her baby on shore.  They were polite enough to stick around for a few pictures as well as a couple of geese that were very vocal about our presence!

Chuck approaches Mrs. Moose


We stopped at Morrison Depot campsite and it was terrible.  Fallen trees everywhere, the picnic tables had a growth of moss on them and it clear no one had stayed here for a long time.  We moved on to Knowles and it was overgrown and nasty as well so we decided to head to Northwest Branch campsite.

In camp pictures just relaxing and enjoying being there.

Kevin and Nick next to Mike in the snore zone

Kevin is the ultimate cook

Old traveling friends Mike and Chuck

Nick the young buck and Jim Cole the long time River Rat

Last folks here left some nice fire starters

Our view

Mr. James Cole

The nights muffin mix

The site is listed as room for two to four people but we made due.  With tents up we got a fire going and soon had dinner going and then we sat around the fire enjoying a few adult beverages.  One of the themes of this trip was if you went to bed before nine you were considered an unsavory word so we each managed to make it to the deadline and one by one we wandered off to our tents me of course being the first man down.

 Also every evening Kevin got out his relector oven and made a muffin mix which was great!

Enjoying the fire

We covered twenty point four miles today.

May 20, 2017

Woke up to a nice day but of course wind again and of course a headwind!  Cooked up breakfast and packed the boats and headed out with our destination being Nine Mile Bridge.  The wind made for some interesting paddling and if I have the right day in mind while running a lively set of rapids the wind came roaring in and while on the top of a wave twisted my bow around and the next wave was almost taken sideways.  I wasn't a lone in this happening.

By now the river was widening out quite a bit but the current was still strong and we made good time again despite the winds.  I will admit to some tantruming and finally let the wind have it's way with me drifting downstream backwards just looking out for rocks.  It was a tremendous amount of effort to swing my bow around and I cursed myself for choice of boats but this would have been the case if I had brought my Courier or my Disco.  Headwind doesn't care what freaking boat you have. 

Nine Mile Bridge was a nice site with a good view across the river.  The bridge had been wiped out by ice years ago and the only thing there now was a cable across the river for hikers to use to get across or so we guessed.  We set up camp and lounged around.  Had a rabbit come visit us as well as a moose across the river and some gray jays.

Gray Jay
Rabbit was around but a bit shy


A decent landing for a change

My boat has some new scars

Mike and Charles
A nice evening in camp with some more Kevin reflector oven muffin mix.  Now this is a man who likes to cook!  We did sixteen point two miles today.

May 21, 2017

Today was going to be a short day for mileage.  Our goal was to make it to Seven Islands campsite.  Today was a blessing as well with a tailwind for a change and a beautiful day it was.  Sunny, warm and not fighting a headwind was, well, a blessing, I don't think I could have taken another consecutive day of it.  Too many years of plying the rivers into headwinds was putting me into a sour mood.

We muckled up and drifted for long spells and just enjoyed where we were.  Sailor Jerry may have made a round or two.


Seven Islands campsite was impressive.  There was room and then some for us all but I will say the bank up was a bitch.  Kevin and his son stood on the top while the rest of us humped our gear up and tossed it to them.  Once up on the site the view was outstanding and we all spent time finding a place for our tents, set up a tarp as weather was moving in and then relaxed.

Boats dragged up and tied off

Beautiful view

Old logging machinery and solar lights


Tarp for the next mornings weather

Lots of graffitti

tarp set up over tent, rain the next morning sagged it

Off in the woods

Mr. Cole napping in the hammock

Old logging machinery everywhere

Short days are nice.  A nap was in order and I wasn't disappointed at all.  Time to rest the back that was aching like the devil.  Now I will say this, Kevin's son Nick was a ball of fire and every night on the trip he would cut enough firewood for the night and then take a nap while Dad cooked up dinner.  They had a great arrangement.  The afternoon was filled with a lot of laughter, some walks and
 just sitting and enjoying the solitude of where we were.

I should mention the river at this point in time.  This is a water dependent river meaning rain and snow melt dictate it's levels.  As we traveled down it's path the water was dropping, not a lot but enough to wonder about the end where it really widens out.  Plus we had two sets of rapids to run that depending on water levels can be a class three run with big holes to rock dodging.  Those two sets of rapids played heavily on my mind as my boat choice was far from suitable for running whitewater but that is for another day.  We all made it until the nine o'clock mark and I of course was first man down.  It was great to have a relaxing day.

Miles traveled were nine.

May 22, 2017

Our plan for the day was to find an elusive campsite just above Big Black Rapids called Bashford Rips or something like that.  In the end we ended up scouting Big Black and ran it.  At the water levels we were at it was a rocky affair and I had a tough but good time.  There were a lot of rocks showing and the current was pushy but from scouting we could see a clear path in the river.  My Malecite just didn't want to turn and I had to use a lot of off color words to turn her.  In the end no one flipped and swam, no one collected water and just a quarter mile downstream was our next campsite, Big Black.  It was agreed it was around a class two rapid plus a bit and with rocks a little technical. It wasn't a very long run and like rapids with names and reputations one, meaning me, can get a little antsy about it. 

Earlier in the day we did pass and looked at Simmons Farm as a campsite but it was such a long walk into the campsite through a field we opted out.  In the Priestly dead waters we ran into the ice I was looking for my cooler about three days back.  A huge thing and I can't believe it survived as long is it did.

Big Black campsite was nice, big open and spread out with more options for tents that you could count.  I opted for a site next to the confluence of the Big Black River and the St. John with my own picnic table and away from the group.

My tent with tarp over it.  Two tent poles made a nice roof.
The second canoe field repair happened when Chuck was climbing out of his canoe and stepped on his gunwale and it cracked and separated as the screws let loose.  Hey Chuck, time for new gunwales!  His fix was to use an awl on his knife and drilled two holes through the hull just below the gunwale and then using cable ties cinched it tight which held for the rest of the trip.

With that done it was time for dinner.  I had pre-cooked a bunch of dinners with the lunches and breakfast being the standard fare.  I froze all my dinners and then put them in a bubble wrap bag filled some ice and then that went into the cooler filled with some frozen beers, non frozen beers and ice.  I was hesitant about them lasting six days but every evening I unwrapped them they were still partically frozen.  I will use this method in the future!

Shephards Pie

Part of the cook kit
We all made it to the nine p.m. mark and I dropped.  I haven't slept that hard in a long time and didn't wake until almost eight o'clock the next morning which is rare for me.

May 23, 2017

Today we were headed to Long Rapids campsite another short day of ten miles or so.  I believe we had a tailwind this day and it was rather warm and sunny out.  I wish I had brought a journal!  The river was widening some more and the ripples were less in size.  The campsite was nice again but a bit rocky.  I didn't bother with a tarp over the tent and called it good.

As soon as we landed and inspected camp Chuck did the right thing, pulled out his chair, a beer and sat back and enjoyed the sun and the view for a while!

The other very nice thing about this site was no steep banks to hump gear up.  Just a nice gentle slope.  A brook ran at one end where Chuck and I set up.

Following a road down the side of the river was another smaller campsite still part of Longs Rapids.  What made it a bit different what was on the shore line.  Tied up was a beat and chewed up OT Camper.  It had a tough last journey down this river to say the least!

Long Rapid wasn't long but it was pretty rock chocked and I spent a fair amount of time picking a line I could run.  We had either one big party of paddlers come through or two separate parties paddle through. 

After everyone had their abodes put up we gathered around the fire for dinner, tale tales, rehash of the day and what was up next.  Kevin got out his oven and made more muffin mix. A nice dessert!

Kevin needs a new shoe!

Master Cook Kevin tending to the muffins

 Perhaps the most asked question to two of those wearing a watch was, "What time is it?"  No one wanted to miss the nine o'clock deadline!  Our destination for the next day was Poplar Island campsite just above Big Rapids.

May 24, 2017

We woke up to some fog but we were all up early.  I roused at five-thirty and got the fire going.  Waiting for the fog to burn off we got our stuff packed headed downriver.

No headwind for a bit.  The river was much wider then where we started but was still flowing fast despite dropping a bit.  We made good time to Poplar Island but here's where things got, well, confusing.  Two GPS's showed where the site should be as well as two maps.  Well, nothing there, no sign, no visible path and the shoreline over grown.  In the end we went as far as some of us scouting by climbing a step path onto a cluster of buildings but no sign of the site.  We paddled back upstream against the current and by some of us following the shore and others out further in the river we finally spotted at the same time a structure and then a orange blaze barely visible.

The takeout was by a stream and fairly muddy as it had been filled by river earlier in the week.  Now the path up to the site was nothing more then an alder overgrown patch and a very muddy path.  The site was tight but doable for tents and with a stream nearby we didn't have to walk the mud puddle to the river for water filtering or clean up.

Since I can't upload a the short video here's a link to YouTube of the path up to the site.

 After we humped all our gear up Mike set up his cot tent, OK just the cot and crashed.  Guess he needed it as he was out for a good two hours.  With my tent setup and thinking about Big Rapids I had dreamed of nap all day but gave that thought up quick.  Too wired.

Didn't take long for everyone to get setup and then fire and dinners were the rest of the evening.

Poplar Island

Jim and Chuck

This was our last campsite for the trip, tomorrow being a long paddle to the takeout.  We had a good fire and of course Kevin's muffins.  I do recall hearing, "What time is it?"  We did fourteen miles today. 

May 26, 2017

Woke up to more fog.  Got the fire going and took our time loading and waiting.  Big Rapid was a short way ahead of us and we needed the sun to burn through.   Now here's the interesting thing.  I have back problems, have for the last six years since I broke my back.  I had some tests done before this trip and found out I have arthritis and degenerative disk disease in L4 and 5 which on this trip was causing me a lot of pain.  This morning when I went to pick up my Duluth Pack my entire spine crunched, snapped and made some gawd awful sounds.  I dropped the pack and stood there for a minute waiting for I didn't know what.  When I dared move it wasn't pain at all, things were loose.  Yes, pain was still there but highly diminished and I actually felt good.  Go figure!

We got loaded and took off.  This rapid had built up into my head to be a monster.  Reading about it at different water levels and the such didn't put me at ease at all.  Never seeing this legendary rapid before I didn't know what to expect except that it was long and at the bottom it was "lively".

Since the boat I choose wasn't the best for running whitewater and being kevlar I was worried about finding that one rock that was going to do me in.  At the top of the rapid we spread out, giving each boat to get a good lead before the next left.  I was sweep and it was very cool to look downstream and see a tiny little canoe bouncing in the waves with another and another and another behind it.  The river was narrowed in the rapid but still wide. I can only judge this river from this one time but there sure were a lot of rocks showing and needed to be dodged.  One had to be at the top of their game and it all worked out fine.  I came within a whisker length of hitting rocks but managed around them.  As usual when running rapids it seems like a long time but we were at the bottom in no time.  A short break and we were on our way.

From the bottom of Big Rapid to St. Francis the river widens out a lot and as that happens the water get a little shallow and then more shallow and there was more then one time I scratched.  We seemed to have to follow the channels a bit which kept us meandering all over the river for a bit.  Oh yes, we had a headwind!  At quarter till two we pulled into Pellitier's and ended the trip.

It didn't take long to load up our cars.  In my case it was putting on some fresh clothes, loading the dry bags however they fit, racking the boat for a long drive, saying our good-byes and heading out.

Five of the group, all from Rhode Island, well actually Jim Cole moved to Florida and drove up for the trip but he moved from RI so it counts, decided to drive to Bangor and stay at a hotel.  I had a shorter drive and drove straight through arriving home around one in the morning after a detour due to a tree blocking the road.

I've been on the St. John from St.Francis river confluence down to Ft. Kent a couple of times but never had done the upper section.  At the levels we hit it was fast, pushy in sections and even in the dead waters we were making some time.  The biggest bear was the headwinds.  Despite the current and bends in the river they seemed to find us.

The banks can sometimes be steep and bear to hump gear up as well as tying off your boat.  But for most once you get there the sites, the ones we chose, were very nice.  I certainly had my favorites.

It was a great run and with the back problems I have this could very well be my last long distance trip till things tip back in my favor.  I'm so glad to get another new river or section under my paddling belt.

I did a short video each day while on the river.  Below are links to each one from day one to day seven.  I did forgo day six as the wind drowned out anything I was saying and the river was well a river.  Day seven was of the path up to Poplar Island listed above. 

Day One:

This one is Chuck (Riverstrider) singing his beer song: 

Day Two:

Day Three:

Day Four:

Day Five:

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