The river flows north out of wild and remote Maine headwaters: Allagash Lake, Chamberlain Lake, Eagle Lake, where Thoreau once camped. Below Chase Rapids, the current quickens and turns riverine; the lakes become smaller and farther apart. By the time it joins with the St. John some 92 miles after starting out, the Allagash runs broad and fast and shallow. It has cut through some of the most beautiful and unforgiving landscape in the lower 48.
I can call up any number of images from my last trip there: straining into whitecaps and making barely a mile an hour against a northwest wind; sliding through early-morning mist on water so smooth it looked like glass; the river braiding through grassy marshland at the entrance to Umsaskis Lake; lining the canoe through the fast water and washed-out wooden remains of Long Lake Dam; seeing moose, loons, eagles, otter runs, the purple-pink of joe-pye weed in blossom, the massive bulk of Katahdin off to the southeast; smelling lake and wood smoke and fir. Sitting here at my desk, just writing the place names gives me an itch to get north.
The Allagash waterway has long been an almost spiritual route for wilderness canoe paddlers. In 1966, the river system was set aside for protection by the Maine legislature, and four years later it became one of the nation’s few federally recognized Wild and Scenic rivers. No one could dispute the scenic part.
As for wild, well, the designation overlooked the dam at Churchill, the temporary logging bridges that spanned the river, the old tramway and junked steam locomotives, and other shoreline relics of the Allagash’s lumbering heyday. It also overlooked the heavy logging just beyond the edge of the 500-foot-wide “beauty strip” of forest lining the water.
Still, the river was hard to get onto and hard to get off of. Most canoeists had to commit to a five- or six-day trip, and in New England that counted for wilderness of the first degree.
From the beginning, though, there has been conflict between the river’s inaccessibility and the desires of both industry and the residents of the St. John Valley. Since 1970, under pressure from various fronts, the Bureau of Parks and Lands and the state legislature have approved or created 16 new road access points, along with state-funded parking areas. There has been a steady, inexorable dilution of the original guiding statutes of this “wilderness area” toward an approach encompassing multiple use and ever-greater access.
“Dilution” is probably too slight a word. The controversy over the regulation of the Allagash has been heated and rancorous at times; the burning of the waterway’s management building in 1988, just to pick one example, was suspected arson, although the case was never proven. The total number of “visitor days” on the river has fluctuated over the decades, but the number of nights spent camping has steadily declined. Increasingly, the mighty Allagash is becoming a day-trip. As one of the guides up there put it, “People are using campsites for picnicking and partying. It’s getting to be like Saco River North.”
In February of this year, two Maine residents filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a state statute that guarantees 11 vehicle access points and redesignates six temporary bridges as permanent structures. The law, they argue, conflicts with the core protections built into the national Wild and Scenic river system. The suit marked a watershed in the battle over the riverway’s future. For the first time ever, the fight has been taken away from the people of Maine, and a new place name has emerged in the Allagash: federal court.
To learn more about the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, including a downloadable natural history guide, go to: maine.gov/doc/parks and click on “Find Parks and Lands.”
Read a 1986 Yankee Classic: An Allagash Love Story