We’re fresh from another adventure in northern Maine, our first visit since 2018. The slogan “Vacationland” is on a lot of the license plates up here, and that’s about right. Our vacation kicked off with visits to good friends in Albany (New York), Lincoln (north of Bangor) and Cutler (on the far northern Maine coast), and then followed with lot of paddling and hiking in the North Maine Woods.
Our trip highlight was a multi-day float on the West Branch of the Penobscot, a few hours west of Millinocket. The crystal clear and remote West Branch has inspired people for a long time–including the Penobscot Nation for perhaps thousands of years. In 1846, American poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau was led down the river by Penobscot guides, and he described it as “primeval, untamed, and forever untameable nature.” Souzz and I were similarly inspired on our trip (although perhaps not as eloquent about it).
The West Branch popped onto our radar thanks to Kevin and Polly from the fantastic Mahoosuc Guide Service in Newry, who shared stories of past trips. Once we’d chosen our destination, Bryant at Maine Quest Adventures in Medway hooked us up with a rental canoe and a shuttle. Lastly, major props to Ranger Tammy Bishop of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, who helped a ton in our trip planning (thanks, Tammy!).
We launched at Lobster Stream and paddled upstream through slackwater about three miles to Lobster Lake, where we set up camp on a beautiful sandy beach. The water level was about 425 cfs, not booming, but pretty good considering the low winter snowpack and dry-ish summer. From Lobster, we worked our way downriver over the next several days, lunching on Thoreau Island and camping on Big Island and then at Boom House near the outlet to Chesuncook Lake. All of our campsites were well maintained and had fire pits and picnic benches.
The West Branch above Chesuncook Lake is pretty lazy, just a few riffles–or “rips,” as they call them up here–but there’s enough current and enough wildlife to create plenty of interest. Over the next 25 miles, we saw moose, deer, otters, bald eagles, ospreys, gulls, loons, herons, ducks, chipmunks, and one terrified deer mouse (oh, and two startled campers).
We enjoyed beautiful sunsets every night, as well as a ton of solitude. After Lobster Lake, the only other person we saw on our trip was Ranger Tammy, who we just happened to run across in the section just below the Golden Road (we think we get why she knows this river so well).
Canoe camping offers the chance to bring along a cooler, so we ate very well. Dinners included pizza, jambalaya, and our new favorite dish: frybake chicken with pesto, now christened “Big Island Chicken.” We also enjoyed some leisurely breakfasts, and we certainly didn’t lose any weight on the trip.
Oh, and since it’s a lazy river, that meant we could be lazy loading our gear, right?
Four days and three nights later, we were back at our car–which was waiting for us in Chesuncook Village (thanks, Bryant!).
It’s always great to unplug, but even more so this year. There has been so much loss and uncertainty lately, and we’ve been keeping a frenetic pace–so we appreciated the chance to focus on only what was in front of us. Looking out at the calm water and listening to the loons felt ambitious enough.
We left the river physically tired, a little sunburned, and with a few more bug bites–but mentally recharged. We might imagine what it was like in Thoreau’s time…but we know exactly what it was like for us–which was fabulous, a dream trip. Thoreau once wrote “things do not change. We change.” I’m no philosopher, but I know I feel more centered after these kinds of adventures. Borrowing his words, “our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.”