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The Guide and the Allagash

The Guide and the Allagash
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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.

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.

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