The key to any good trip is planning. Planning is even more important when that trip is to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, where there are no stores, service stations or cellphone coverage.
A canoe trip down the Allagash River can be the trip of a lifetime. Once you have visited this remote area and experienced its natural treasures you may become like many other visitors and return year after year.
A good place to start planning your Allagash adventure is by reading “The Allagash” by Lew Dietz. This book will give you a really good background and history of the waterway. If you haven’t been on many multiday canoe trips, “The Allagash Guide,” by Gil Gilpatrick, is invaluable for preparing menus and recommending equipment. It also includes a sample itinerary.
The Division of Parks and Public Lands maintains a website at: http://www.maine.gov/doc/parks/ which includes a map of the waterway, rules, watercraft restrictions, fees and other helpful information.
If you have specific questions about the waterway, you can call the Parks and Public Lands office in Bangor at 941-4014.
As you begin planning, you will need to figure out how many days you can actually spend on the water canoeing? Ideally, you would have a weeklong vacation. This is enough time to experience most of what the Allagash Wilderness Waterway has to offer.
If you only have four nights, you could start at Churchill Dam, the midway point of the waterway. In fact, you can plan anything from a 10-day trip to a day trip depending on how much time you have. I personally recommend that you plan at least a three-night trip so that you can experience that feeling of getting away from it all.
In my experience, during that first day on the water, most people are still feeling uptight from the pressures of our modern world. By day two, most people are starting to relax and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature. By day three, they are feeling at peace with themselves and are more interested in what’s around the next bend in the river than what is happening in our fast-paced world.
One of the most important decisions you will need to make is who to invite along on the trip. Do you really want to spend a week canoeing with that know-it-all brother-in-law of yours who has never spent a day without being connected to the Internet? Choose your canoe partners wisely; it can make the difference between pleasant memories or pure frustration.
If you have never been canoe camping before, I suggest that you give it a try somewhere close to home before heading to the Allagash. You might find out that you don’t have room in your watercraft for all that gear that you plan to take.
Essential equipment for the trip includes canoe, paddle and life jacket. My recommendation: Bring at least a 16-foot canoe. My preference is the Old Town 172 Tripper. These canoes are tough, stable and are rated for carrying a maximum load of over 1,500 pounds.
Your paddle should be about as long as the distance from the top of your shoulder to the ground, with a nice wide blade. I prefer a wooden paddle because the wood is warm to the touch and quiet. There is nothing wrong with the aluminum and plastic paddles but they just don’t have the same appeal as a nice wooden paddle.
A good-fitting life jacket is a must. The better it fits, the more likely you are to wear it. That life jacket won’t do you any good in the bottom of the canoe. Please make a habit of wearing your life jacket whenever you’re in any watercraft.
Some other important equipment to take on an extended canoe trip: Good rain gear, water filtration pump, dry bags and a good tent.
An Allagash canoe trip is not an inexpensive vacation. You have the expense of driving to the waterway, camping fees, North Maine Woods road use fees and outfitter fees for transporting you back to wherever you started your trip. The outfitters that operate on the Allagash are all listed on the North Maine Woods website at www.northmainewoods.org. Credit cards are not accepted at the checkpoints; you will need to bring cash or check to pay these fees.
Last but not least is the water level on the river. The Allagash usually has good water right through July. In August and September the water can be low but usually still canoeable. Trevor O’Leary, who is the ranger at Michaud Farm, has a saying: “When the water is high everyone is running a day early, when it is low they’re running a day late.”
The perfect water level for canoeing the Allagash is about 1,000 cubic feet per second. When the level drops below 500 cfs, sandbars will appear that need to be dragged over. When the water level drops below 300 cfs, you should consider taking out at Michaud Farm rather than canoeing all the way to the town of Allagash. Another option for low water conditions is to stay on the headwater lakes rather than doing the lower Allagash River. You can check the current water level online at the U.S. Geological Survey’s WaterWatch site.
The AWW is managed by the Division of Parks and Public Lands which is part of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
Matthew LaRoche is superintendent of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.