Have you ever wanted to toss a few things into a bag, hop in your car, pick a compass point and just start driving? That’s really not a bad way to start a weekend getaway. If I may suggest a compass point from Bangor, head due north.
Four hours of driving north will bring you to the St. John Valley, a region of the state where all northbound roads do, in fact, end. Unless you want to cross into Canada to keep going, that is.
The St. John Valley stretches roughly 92 miles along Maine’s shared border with the Canadian provinces Quebec and New Brunswick. Looking at it from west to east, it starts in Allagash and runs along the St. John River to the town of Van Buren. First along Route 161 and then U.S. Route 1. I’ve done the drive from Allasgash to Van Buren — with a few side stops along the way — in a single drive. It’s doable and takes several hours. But a pleasure drive through the St. John Valley should not be a rush job. You want to take time to soak up all the history, culture, cuisine, scenery and recreation the region has to offer.
Long before the first European colonists arrived in what is now northern Maine, the area was home to the indigenous Maliseets, a branch of the Algonquin people. In fact, the municipality of Madawaska — the northernmost town along the St. John Valley — comes from the Algonquin language: “madawes” for porcupine and “kak” for place. And, yes, there are still plenty of those prickly critters in and around The Place of Porcupine.
Missionaries and French fur traders began exploring the region in the 1600s, but it was in 1785 that the big land rush started with the arrival of the French Acadians who had been forced off their lands or deported by the British government from parts of Maritime Canada. This action became known historically as “The Great Expulsion,” or “Le Grand Derangement.” The first wave of deportations in the mid-1700s formed the basis for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “Evangeline” in which the title character searches for her love Gabriel after they were forcibly placed on separate boats bound for separate ports.
After arriving and colonizing the St. John Valley in 1785, Acadian farms, homes, businesses and towns sprung up along the river. Many of today’s residents of the region are descendents of those early Acadians or from Quebecois who arrived later.
Oui francais parle ici
There was a time when French was the dominant language in most of the St. John Valley — a result of the Acadian and Quebecois influence. You are still going to hear French in a lot of the valley’s businesses and homes, but more and more it’s spoken only by the older generations.
For many of these people, French was their first language and the only language spoken in the homes. This was disrupted in the middle of the last century when French-speaking children of the St. John Valley were forced to speak only English in school — a move meant to “assimilate” them into American culture. But that does not mean it’s a dead language by any means.
Go into a restaurant in Fort Kent, an auto parts store in Madawaska or a grocery store in Van Buren and you are going to hear business conducted in French, English and often a combination of the two. It’s a truly international experience right in our backyard.
What about Allagash?
At the western terminus of the St. John Valley is the tiny community of Allagash, population 267. This area was settled in the early 1800s by Scots-Irish so it has a very different heritage and culture than the Acadian portion of The Valley. There is one road leading in and out of the town, which is 30 miles west of Fort Kent. Many of today’s residents are direct descendents of the loggers and farmers who came to work and live at the confluence of the Allagash and St. John Rivers two centuries ago.
It’s a community I love to visit and the drive to Allagash is one of the prettiest in the state. Heading out of Fort Kent on Route 161, you have the St. John River on your right the entire way. For the first 20 or so miles to your left are potato fields that butt up against the rolling, tree-covered hills beyond. The closer you get to Allagash — passing through the even smaller communities of St. John Plantation and St. Francis — farmland gives way to forestland, with evergreens and maples bordering the road.
In the spring and summer, it’s every shade of green you can imagine with the blue waters of the river slicing through it. Fall brings the colors of autumn, and in winter, snow and ice create a wonderland fit for a Disney movie.