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The Guide and the Allagash

The Guide and the Allagash
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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.

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Updated Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

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