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The Guide and the Allagash

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.

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Updated Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

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