Most people are familiar with the Allagash Wilderness Waterway as a unique, wild and scenic waterway with breathtaking views and the rich history from a century ago that still can be seen.
Many come to enjoy canoeing and fishing opportunities, camping on one of the 81 campsites, touring the history center at Churchill Dam, seeing the locomotives on Eagle Lake, the splendor of Allagash Falls and the views of Mount Katahdin.
What many don’t think about is that some of these attractions are still just as unique when seen during the winter months.
Though most sections of the waterway are quiet during the winter, this is not true for its southern sections. Chamberlain Bridge receives most of its use during the winter season.
When visiting the bridge in the summer months, most visitors will see a large, quiet parking lot filled with several vehicles parked by people who have started the AWW trip, and not much is going on.
During the winter, that parking lot comes alive with a special community moving in. Campers and homemade trailers are lined up, and snowmobiles haul ice shacks and fishing equipment.
No matter how much snow we have on the ground or what the temperatures are that second weekend in December, it is truly the start of winter for the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. Winter camping is allowed at the 48 sites in the Chamberlain parking lot and Kellogg Brook from the second Saturday in December to May 15. Sites are given out on a first-come, first-served basis. People can pay by the day, week, month or for the season.
Registration for these limited sites has become a yearly ritual for many people, and most sites are filled during the first day of registration. Several days in advance, campers start lining up in the day-use parking area and along Telos Road.
Why are these visitors so anxious? Many people who come to Chamberlain Bridge to ice fish have been coming for decades and have sites that they desire every year. Some have friends and family that like to have the site next to them. Others like to be close to the outhouses or to water. For others, it’s the distance from the main road.
For a large number of these people, this weekend is the first time they have seen each other since the previous winter. There is a lot of visiting and catching up and talking about how this year might measure up with snow fall and fishing while they enjoy hot coffee and refreshments provided by the AWW staff.
Many people choose to set up for the winter at Chamberlain Bridge for many reasons. It’s an excellent starting point and provides great access to other great fishing lakes in the area. From Chamberlain heading southeast, you can fish on Telos and Webster lakes. Southwest is Chesuncook Lake. And to the north are Eagle and Churchill lakes.
February opens a special, one-month ice fishing season for Allagash Lake. Some of the nicest and most colorful fish that are caught come from Allagash Lake. Also, no mechanical equipment is allowed. This includes snowmobiles on the lake, generators and power ice augers.
Marc Terrian and his family have been coming to Chamberlain to ice fish for 22 years. They say that they come for the excellent fishing opportunities that the area lakes offer, the solitude and beauty of the area during the winter months, the group of people that camp here year after year, and the fact that there is no cell phone coverage.
It’s always an adventure coming up here to fish, Marc says. Once he and his brother came up for a weekend of fishing and ended up getting stuck for five days due to a snowstorm. One of Marc’s more memorable experiences was catching a 24-inch brook trout.
Ice fishing isn’t the only winter activity in the Waterway. Snowmobilers travel to see the old Tramway on Chamberlain Lake and the locomotives on Eagle Lake. Other activities include cross-country skiing and snowshoeing — Allagash Mountain is a great snowshoe hike for the more hard-core winter recreationalists. Also, Nugent’s Camps sit right on the shore of Chamberlain Lake and are perfect for people who want a warm cabin during those cold, winter nights.
Living at Chamberlain Bridge year-round is amazing, but winter is my favorite, and it is something that I always look forward to. I love the interaction with the fishermen, and I enjoy going around meeting and talking to them out on the ice. It’s really a great place to enjoy the best of what winter has to offer, while at the same time, being among great people who share the same respect for the outdoors and for the area and what it has to offer.
Christopher Silsbee is a park ranger in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.