The East Branch of the Penobscot River — an essential waterway for the Wabanaki for thousands of years — is rich in history, scenery, whitewater and (most importantly, to some) fish. But today, it no longer holds the importance it once did as a main route of travel, and it’s difficult to estimate how many people paddle its waters each year.
In an effort to revive interest in the river, Maine Woods Forever recently created a detailed map of the upper portion of the East Branch as a part of the Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail.
The map, published by The University of Maine Press in June, displays a 26.4-mile stretch of the East Branch from its northern end at Grand Lake Matagamon down to Whetstone Falls.
“This is a section of the river where there aren’t a lot of maps available,” said Paul Johnson, co-author of the map with Bart DeWolf.
The Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail was created by Maine Woods Forever in 2007 to honor Henry David Thoreau, who traveled throughout the Maine wilderness in the mid-1800s with the help of Penobscot guides. The map traces Thoreau’s three trips in Maine — on foot, by wagon and by canoe — in 1846, 1853 and 1857.
The new East Branch map is just a section of the trail, which Thoreau traveled in 1857 with Penobscot guide Joe Polis.
The map includes river access points, campsites, sporting camps, rapids, falls, historic sites and natural features, as well as nearby roads and trails. On the back of the map is an essay about the trail’s cultural heritage, written by DeWolf; an essay on the river’s fisheries, written by Johnson; notes about the river; and small maps of each portage trail.
“This stretch of the river really hasn’t changed much in all these years,” DeWolf said. “It’s still a very wild stretch of river.”
“Most of the places [Thoreau] went to are still very similar,” Johnson added. “You can see the same things and same type of environment he saw.”
In mid-June, DeWolf and Johnson embarked on a weeklong canoe trip on the upper East Branch to tidy up the tent sites, brush out the fire circles, check signage and clean up portage trails.
During their trip, they often thought of Thoreau and his 1857 trip down the same river.
“The first night on the East Branch, they stayed at what’s called Checkerberry Tea Camp,” DeWolf said, pointing to the historic site marked on the map. “Thoreau and Polis got some checkerberry and made tea out of it, and Thoreau thought it was pretty good.
“Then they came down the river, and their second night was spent right here,” he continued, tracing the river with his finger. “Here he had hemlock tea, so we call it Hemlock Tea Camp. They said the bugs were terrible.”
“They still are,” Johnson said.
“Yeah, you can experience the bugs just as Henry did,” Bart said, smiling.
Between Matagamon and Whetstone Bridge, the East Branch can be divided into three sections: 10 miles of rapids, waterfalls and portages; 10 miles of small whitewater without portages; and 6 miles of quiet water, meandering through floodplain forest.
“To me, it’s a very special stretch of river,” DeWolf said.
Both Johnson and DeWolf are board members of the nonprofit Maine Woods Forever, which was founded in 2004 to protect the legacy of Maine’s forests and woodlands.
“We got started close to 10 years ago with the feeling that there needed to be more communication among the various parties with an interest in the forest — whether it’s recreation or the forest products industry, whether it’s tourism, history, arts, photography or conservation,” DeWolf said. “We’re trying to promote gathering where we all can find our common ground.”
The organization sponsors three round tables a year and is currently working on their second project, a yearlong event. Beginning in September, they will collaborate with organizations, businesses, libraries and schools to plan events throughout the state to “Celebrate the Maine Woods.”
In the meantime, work on the Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail is ongoing.
Maine Woods Forever is planning the construction of educational kiosks along the trail, and DeWolf and Johnson are already thinking of other sections of the trail for which they can create detailed maps.