October 20, 2017
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Paddling the West Branch of the Penobscot River: a step back in time

By Mahoosuc Guide Service, Special to the BDN
Updated:

Abridged from an article by Steve Pinkham.

Steeped in Wabenaki lore, lumbering history and sporting adventures, the West Branch of the Penobscot River is one of Maine’s most scenic and beautiful rivers.

On a recent Thoreau-Wabenaki canoe trip down the West Branch with Master Guide Polly Mahoney of Mahoosuc Guide Service and Jason Pardilla, a direct descendant of Joe Polis (who guided Thoreau through these waters in 1857), we were able to share the camp experience the way it was in the 19th century. Delicious breakfasts and dinners were cooked over an open fire, with a surprise dessert each evening baked in a Dutch oven.

This reminded me of how much the lay of the land has changed since the days when Henry David Thoreau and other sportsmen paddled this river. Caribou Lake and South Twin Lake, which were separated from the river, were seldom ever seen by the early adventurers.

Our trip started at Lobster Lake, one of Maine’s most beautiful lakes. Louis Neptune, who guided Joseph Treat up Katahdin in 1820, called it Peskabejick, meaning “branch of a dead water.” John G. Dean’s 1841 Map of State of Maine labelled it Lake Matahumkeag, and this name, or variations of the spelling, were applied by other mapmakers for another 40 years, then changed back to Lobster Lake.

We paddled down the West Branch, having lunch at a site where Thoreau had once camped, then moved on to set up our camp at Big Island, where the river splits. Here Jason taught some of our group the art of poling a canoe.

The next day we passed the site where Joseph Smith had a halfway house, stopped for snacks, and then paddled into Chesuncook Lake. It was a short paddle to our lunch site at Graveyard Point at Chesuncook Village. We visited the old cemetery, which has been moved uphill to a beautiful grove in the woods to avoid any flooding. Here many of the early lumbermen and guides are buried.

On our third night out, while camping at Cunningham Brook, we experienced a once in a lifetime scene. At sunset, as we watched Katahdin across the lake, one of the campers noted a halo around the top of the mountain. This was a full moon rising directly behind the mountain, bathing it in golden light. As the moon rose, the orb hovered over the summit momentarily, then rose straight up, creating a magical and breath-taking effect.

We canoed down Chesuncook, getting occasional views of Soubunge Mountain and Katahdin then camped at Mosher Island, a beautiful setting in the southern end of the lake. After an afternoon rest and a hearty dinner, we sat on the rocks and watched the sun set over Chesuncook Lake.

If you love the outdoors and are looking for a memorable vacation, taking a guided trip down the West Branch and Allagash Rivers is the most comfortable and enjoyable ways to experience the Maine Woods as Thoreau and many others did in the nineteenth century.


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