This is part two of a two part series. See the first part here.
On the third day of our expedition from Depot Lake to Allagash Village, we awoke in our tents under a protective carpet of tarps to cool sunny weather. Situated on the remnants of an ancient logging road at the site of a washed out bridge on remote Depot Stream, we were about nine miles downstream from Depot Lake.
As a result of effective tarp installation, our tents and gear had remained relatively dry despite heavy rains the night before. More importantly, based on a tiny island in the stream I had observed when we arrived the previous day, the water level had risen about three inches as a result of the storm. The additional flow was much needed as our crew of five canoes and two kayaks had 13 more miles to paddle on the shallow Depot Stream before arriving at the more substantial Big Black River.
After breaking camp, we began our foray down Depot Stream.
The benefits of the storm were immediately apparent as the continuous steep Class II rapids were difficult to navigate despite the added depth. As had been true the day before, the only tandem team in the group had more difficulties maneuvering the narrow passages as a result of the added weight of two paddlers. Despite boat scratching and a couple of rock collisions, we successfully completed Depot Stream and joined Big Black River early afternoon.
One thing was obvious when entering Big Black — it was a much larger body of water. Strong winds and occasional rain drops were experienced during our afternoon of paddling. My old Appalachian Mountain Club guidebook indicated there was a potential campsite at the bottom of a long rapid called Connors Sluice. That was our hopeful destination.
After a few miles of flatwater, we passed Connors Brook on the right. Shortly beyond, the 2.5 mile Class II Connors Sluice Rapid began. The added volume in Big Black provided an exhilarating whitewater escapade.
Clockwise from left: Eggman DeCoster canoes a section of Connors Sluice on Big Black River; Paddlers take a break on Big Black River; and Adam Chase and Christian Patrick begin a rapid on lower Depot Stream. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase
A meadow on the right below Connors Sluice appeared to be the only camping option. Completely exposed to any wind or rain, we had misgivings. Fortuitously, the skies cleared and the winds diminished. Cloudless skies that night ushered in sub-freezing temperatures and by morning there was a layer of ice in our canteens and the tents were covered with frost.
The cold weather quickly warmed as we embarked on a section of river called Ninemile Deadwater. While the extensive flatwater was a bit mundane, it ended with the most exciting whitewater yet encountered on the trip beginning at the site of a washed out dam. Sporadic rapids continued as the search for a potential campsite ensued. Several prospective locations ended in disappointment. A collective decision was made to push on and gamble that we could find open space on Big Black Campsite, a popular stopover on the busy St. John River.
The river gods smiled on us as we arrived at the luxurious campsite just a few minutes ahead of a group descending the St. John. Since the site included a wooden canopy over a picnic table and an outhouse, we were living large. We shared tent space with the latecomers but not the deluxe picnic table.
The character of the trip changed dramatically on the St. John. Wider, steeper and higher volume, the frequent rapids and powerful flow propelled us along at a much faster pace. On the fifth day of the journey, we traveled more than 20 miles in less than four hours to another exceptional campsite at Fox Brook. An early arrival and unusually warm weather provided an opportunity for some of us to refresh ourselves in the chilly river. A cold water sissy, I tiptoed along the shore.
The highlight of our final day was Big Rapid. A two mile Class III stretch of whitewater, it was a challenge with gear laden canoes and kayaks. Everyone successfully negotiated through the surging waves and around potentially boat busting boulders in the daunting falls. The 11 mile paddle to Allagash was finished midday.
Thanks to organizer Captain Al Gaskell’s vision and persistence, we had experienced one of Maine’s most unique canoe undertakings. More remarkably, it hadn’t seemed possible only a week before. For me, it was the culmination of an inspiration that originated with my late friend Terry Tzovarras 31 years ago.
And it was a black-fly-free voyage.