Read more: Wooden and Canvas Canoes
This Yankee Classic is from July/August 2001
Gil Gilpatrick lifts the last of the coolers into his varnished cedar canoe and shoves off from the banks of a rutted logging road, down Indian Stream. The stream emerges from a culvert behind him; ahead of him it curves and slips into a thicket of alders. Within minutes the eight of us in Gilpatrick’s party are dragging canoes over rocks and gravel, wading in the stream’s cold riffles. Our weeklong journey on the legendary Allagash River begins with a third-of-a-mile slog down a trickle of water barely wider than our canoes.
The spot isn’t well known, but many Allagash guides put in here to avoid the wind on Chamberlain, the largest of the lakes in the Allagash headwater. Fully half of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway consists of lakes and ponds, and wind is a far stronger force than current. Gilpatrick knows several ways onto the river system. He doesn’t believe you have to paddle the entire 92 miles of wilderness section to “do the Allagash.” If driving around Chamberlain and slipping in just north of the lake’s outlet into Eagle Lake shaves off eight or ten miles of paddling into a head wind, well, who wouldn’t want that? He also packs a small outboard motor — extra insurance against the wind. He’s proud that in more than 30 years of guiding on the Allagash, he has not once been late getting his clients off the river.
Gilpatrick is not the classic Maine guide full of backwoods character and endless yarns. Romantic notions don’t interest him much. He doesn’t impress his clients with his memory or map work. He rarely volunteers information. His guiding is so quietly efficient, actually, that it could be taken for granted. On many trips, with fair weather and plenty of water, with no urgency or danger, it could feel as if Gilpatrick is just another member of the group — as if the group naturally took every right line across the bigger lakes, was lucky to find empty campsites just when and where they were needed, and whose food and firewood (and the odd Band-Aid and extra batteries) appeared by magic.
Not all trips are like that. The Allagash flows through northern Maine in some of the most remote and unforgiving country in the Lower 48. Wind on the big lakes comes up dangerously fast. Rocks pepper the shallow rapids. Each trip risks drowning, injury, hypothermia, heart attack. Guiding on this river is a serious business. On average, over the past 25 years the Allagash has claimed a life every year. “No matter what happens,” says Tim Caverly, who managed the waterway for 18 years, “it’s a long ways out.”
This is the first week of August and it is Gilpatrick’s third and final run down the Allagash this season. Retired after 26 years of teaching at the vocational center in Skowhegan, Gilpatrick is “easing back on the guiding, writing, making paddles, not too much of any one thing.” He’s feeling his age. He wears his glasses full-time. His hair and beard have gone gray. He can still throw a canoe around, though, and paddle 26 strokes a minute for hours on end.
One by one, our canoes reach the marshy inlet of Eagle Lake’s southernmost arm. Ahead, whitecaps break on a stiff northwest wind. The paddlers hit the broad water. Shoulders strain into the wind — we instantly appreciate the slog down Indian Stream. Gilpatrick’s wife, Dot, paddles from the bow of his boat. Since retiring a few years ago, she’s become a regular on these trips. His three-year-old Border collie sits upright and alert near the center thwart. She’s been in the canoe with him every trip since she was a pup. He made the 20-foot canoe himself, out of blond- and honey-colored cedar strips coated with clear fiberglass. Up and down the waterway and across the state, paddlers spotting these strip canoes know they represent Gil Gilpatrick, who has taught hundreds of high-school and adult students to build them. His book Building a Strip Canoe has sold thousands of copies. Gilpatrick’s design is based on an old E. M. White guide-canoe model. It’s heavy (90 pounds or so), but it carries gear well, and in the slanting afternoon sunlight it glows with presence and authority.
For two hours Gilpatrick guides us three miles to the eastern campsite on Pillsbury Island — half his average speed on calm flat water. Among the paddlers, a pair of old friends, Polly Wilson and Celia Hyde, have made trips with Gilpatrick before. Their banter takes an edge off the nervousness, gives the group an early camaraderie. A 48-year-old science teacher from upstate New York, Tom Saxton, has brought his son, Daniel, a teenager with severe hearing loss and an encyclopedic knowledge of mountains and geography. For the past several summers, the two have made special trips together. Last year they paddled in the Isle Royale National Park in Michigan.
In 1857 Pillsbury Island was as far north as Henry Thoreau reached on his three trips into Maine. Gilpatrick doesn’t make much of this; he says only that the “Thoreau Campsite” on the west side of the island is misnamed. Thoreau made it to here, he says, on the east side. The lake has turned soft, surprisingly gentle after the afternoon’s whitecaps. Lavender light drains from the darkening sky. Beyond the far southeast shore, the solitary bulk of Mount Katahdin disappears into the night. Everything is on schedule, according to plan, and Gil Gilpatrick is in his element.
Dinner the first night is quick and straightforward: low-fat hot dogs over the fire, low-fat potato chips, high-fat Oreo cookies for dessert. “Dot’s helping with meal planning,” Gilpatrick says, explaining the low-fat part. He sets up a folding aluminum reflector oven in front of the flames, and gets some raisin bread going for tomorrow’s lunch.
On a thread of land separating Eagle Lake from the northern tip of Chamberlain, the rusting iron cable and engine remnants of an old tramway hint at the Allagash’s lumbering heyday. The tram operated for just six seasons at the turn of the last century. Before mechanical log haulers arrived in the North Country, the tram’s 6,000-foot-long cable moved 100 million feet of timber from the north-flowing Allagash watershed into waters that eventually carried it southward to the insatiable mills lining the Penobscot River in Bangor.
On the morning of the second day, Gilpatrick leads the group ashore. We look at the logging relics, which include a pair of junked steam locomotives that pulled logs in the watershed during the 1920s and 1930s. He knows their history as well as anyone in Maine, knows the work was made possible by Chamberlain Dam and the Telos Canal, which in 1841 artificially diverted the drainage of the headwater southward. His book Allagash includes a detailed narrative of the river-driving era; he also wrote the historical notes that accompany DeLorme’s widely used map of the St. John and Allagash rivers. Those credits, along with his “Canoe Country” column that ran for 16 years in the Maine Sportsman, have displayed Gilpatrick’s authority on the river and have spread his local celebrity. A couple of times on this trip, young canoeists approach and request his autograph.
Gilpatrick, from the old school, doesn’t care for the attention. Except for four years at the University of Maine and six years in the army, he’s lived his whole life around Skowhegan and these northern Maine rivers. He learned how to handle a rifle, snowshoes, and a paddle from his father, Volney Gilpatrick Sr., an outdoorsman and mill worker whose schooling stopped at eighth grade. “Gil reminds me of the old-timers,” says Harry Vanderweide, who edited Gilpatrick’s column at the Maine Sportsman. “He’s a right-way-to-do-it kind of guy, but very quiet. He’s all show and no tell.” Gilpatrick simply shrugs when you ask him about his tendency to say less than he might. But he comes from a background that distrusts knowledge cheaply bought; as a teacher he made his students learn by doing, recognizing that power.
Another group of paddlers walks up the muddy path to the tram. They must wonder at what they see. They see Gilpatrick in his bright-red flannel shirt, the guide’s patch prominent on his left shoulder. The most knowledgeable guide in the state smiles politely and offers a bare explanation, then gently moves his own group along.
Few parties beat Gil Gilpatrick onto the water. None did this morning. He had his troops fed, packed, and pushed off before 7 a.m. He’ll calculate our departure times throughout the week, considering how many miles we’ll need to cover, adjusted for wind and weather. Seven o’clock, in fact, will turn out to be our latest start, 5:30 our earliest. Gil rises at 4:00 each morning, gets coffee and breakfast started, and grabs some time for himself. On these trips he shows little sentiment, but in the solitary firelight he sits with his dog close by his side, talking gently and rubbing her fur. He sips from an aluminum cup his father gave to him in junior high.
“There are all kinds of good reasons to get an early start,” he says. “You beat the wind. You get most of your miles in before the hot part of the day. You usually get your pick of campsites. You have lunch where you camp.” Generally, his groups finish paddling by lunchtime. At 12:30 we beach our canoes in the shelter of Scofield Cove on Churchill Lake, with 12 miles behind us and the rest of the day for exploring.
In the middle of the thoroughfare between Eagle and Churchill, our canoes passed under an iron-and-wood logging bridge called John’s Bridge. It has been the subject of the river’s most recent controversy. The officials who govern the uses and protection of the waterway are considering upgrading the old woods road and creating an official parking area and boat launch here. Environmentalists and others have protested.
Gilpatrick is on an unofficial advisory committee reviewing the access. His view is pragmatic, but ambivalent. “If they were talking about taking out the bridge and making the waterway seem more like wilderness,” he says, “that would be one thing. But the bridge is there. And people are already using the access unofficially. And the ones with motors will still motor up from Churchill, anyway.” Eventually, Gilpatrick will join a group of guides who oppose the access, worried about the incessant, incremental loss of the wilderness character of the Allagash. The state will eventually clear the way for the access, and a court will need to resolve the issue.
Easing access to the river will continue to be the waterway’s biggest source of tension. As one guide puts it, “People are using campsites for picnicking and partying. It’s getting to be like Saco River north.” Two groups — Citizens to Protect the Allagash and Allagash Partners — critical of the general lack of enforcement and monitoring of the waterway’s “wilderness” regulations, have asked the National Park Service to review the state’s management.
The whole notion of wilderness on the Allagash is curious. The river system received the federal government’s Wild and Scenic River designation in 1970. Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Land manages it — not as a state park, but as a unique, state-owned “wilderness waterway.” A 500-foot “beauty strip” along the shorelines creates the illusion of a vast, unbroken forest stretching back from the water. Some prohibitions on cutting and development apply beyond the beauty strip. But paper companies own and heavily manage most of the surrounding land. Their logging roads crisscross the region; five bridges cross the river. Just south of Round Pond, we will watch an empty logging truck rattle across Henderson Bridge, then a skidder. We’ll hear the sounds of distant cutting off and on throughout the trip.
Only 80 authorized campsites, complete with picnic tables and pit toilets, handle all the camping in the waterway. The traffic on the river has shifted since the wilderness designation in 1970. The annual number of summer “visitor days” over three decades has fluctuated between 40,000 and 50,000. The traditional, long wilderness camping trip, though, has slackened. In the early and mid-1970s day use of the river was almost unheard of — in part due to the gates that blocked much of the logging-road access. In recent years, day trips comprise some 20 percent of the river’s traffic. Times are changing, some say; people’s lives are busier. And the opening of gates and the seven sanctioned “motorized access points” along the waterway (not including John’s Bridge) make day-tripping easier.
Gilpatrick would like to see the Allagash go back to nature, though when asked about its use, he says only, “I guess more people are on the river these days. But it was harder to find a campsite back in the 1980s.” He likes Septembers on the river best. This week, at the height of the busy season, our party will see just 15 or 20 other canoes. Long hours will pass without any sightings at all. On only one night — at Chisholm Brook, with a brutal head wind holding paddlers back from Umsaskis Lake — will a campsite seem crowded.
The gates of Churchill Dam open at 7:00 a.m. during the paddling season. Canoeists get water they need then to set out on the nine-mile stretch of Chase Rapids. Gilpatrick reaches the dam minutes after 7:00 — the first canoe party of the day, ahead of the bottleneck. A new ranger, Tom Coon, meets Gilpatrick’s group at the dam. For ten dollars a person, Coon will transport canoes and gear around the rapids. Polly and Celia have run the white water with Gilpatrick before; this trip, with Celia’s bad knee bothering her, they join their gear in Coon’s truck.
Chase Rapids — winding, rocky, Class II-plus white water — roar below the dam, the most daunting runnable white water on the Allagash. Canoes upset here every week during the season. Tom and his son Daniel have nervously anticipated these rapids since the start of the trip. Gilpatrick gives us brief, crucial instruction. He recommends kneeling in the canoes and suggests ways to read the vees in the water and take standing waves head-on. There’s hefty volume in the rips today, and a blustery wind blows upriver. The heaviest water comes at the start of the rapids. One at a time the canoes shoot through . . . without trouble. Below each set of rapids, we regroup in eddies, gaining confidence. At the end of Chase’s serious water, Daniel beams, relieved, ecstatic, exhilarated.
North of Chase Rapids the Allagash turns riverine. The current quickens; the lakes grow smaller and farther apart. Gilpatrick’s group watches loons at sunrise. The river braids through grassy wetlands at the entrance to Umsaskis Lake. We line our canoes through the fast water and washed-out remains of Long Lake Dam. We watch moose, eagles, the purple-pink of joe-pye weed in blossom; smell spruce and fir. We paddle through early-morning mist on water so smooth that Daniel calls it “Allaglass.” We float quickwater that, in many years, Gilpatrick has had to drag. Close to the lee shores, the wind pushes at our backs. The weather is fine, changeable, squally, warm in the sun, pleasantly cool, soft. In the long afternoon, at Pelletier Deadwater South campsite, we swim. Clowning around, Polly demonstrates gunwale-bobbing, pumping up and down while standing on the sides of her canoe. We slide past old logger’s camps, meadows, marshes, otter slides. Looking up, we watch rounded mountains, long wooded ridges, the distant nubs of old fire towers, brilliant, star-studded night skies. Blessedly, there are few bugs.
An ease comes over the group. At some point, as so often happens on long canoe trips, time takes on a natural rhythm of its own. Nobody wants to go home. In The Survival of the Bark Canoe, a book set in the Allagash, John McPhee writes, “There is a time of change in a wilderness trip when patterns that have been left behind fade beneath the immediacies of wind, sun, rain, and fire, and a different sense of distance, of shelter, of food. . . . The change back will bring a feeling of loss, an absence of space, a nostalgia for the woods.”
The roar from Allagash Falls extends a quarter mile upriver. Heading into the 40-foot drop, the river curves, turns frothy and serious. Only a few years ago the fast water here sucked a canoeist down and over the falls. Days later rangers pulled her body out downriver. We take out above the churning water and portage our canoes and gear along an ancient carry path. The carry is hard, but bonds the group even more tightly. We linger below the falls, feeling proud, knowing we’ve accomplished something together. The collective feeling is powerful — and one that doesn’t automatically come to every guided canoe group. Gilpatrick’s approach, away from the center of our attention, has set up the subtle chemistry that allows it to happen.
That evening at the Big Brook East campsite, on a high bluff looking west over the widening river, Gilpatrick surprises Tom with a birthday cake. Each paddler has found or made some small rustic gift. For the first time, Daniel stays up with the group past dark. He understands by reading lips; we shine flashlights on each other as we talk to make sure he’s included.
The final stretch of river, up to its confluence with the St. John, will offer some of the finest paddling of the trip: brilliant blue sky, sun sparkling on rips that now seem easy, rapids named Twin Brook, Eliza Hole, Casey. But thick morning fog blankets the start of the day. We try to keep close to each other; our canoes ghost in and out of view. The world narrows further: in lightening grayness, just the sound of the river and a view of fast-moving water that extends only a precious few feet ahead of the bow. Gone is Gil Gilpatrick’s gleaming cedar canoe, his bright-red guide’s shirt.
In a sense, his mission — everything he stands for — is complete. He has brought another group down the Allagash safely, and is headed home on time. The guide himself has disappeared, leaving his paddlers to themselves, to their growing confidence, and, especially, to the river.
More information about Gil Gilpatrick: gilgilpatrick.com