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.
So, let’s break it down.
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.
The western end of the Valley
There is no right or wrong way to explore the St. John Valley. You can go east to west, west to east or start dead center and pick a direction. For now, I am going to take you on a tour from Allagash eastward.
In fact, it’s worth getting up early and heading — as we say here in The Valley — “up river” for breakfast at Two Rivers Lunch (75 Dickey Road, 207-398-3393, two-rivers-lunch.business.site). But be warned — you may end up having so much fun chatting with the locals and hearing stories of life in the Maine woods, you’ll end up staying for lunch.
After a hearty breakfast of a pancake — served one at a time as they are large enough to cover an entire plate — or the combination of eggs, bacon, baked beans and fried potatoes fit for a lumberjack, you might want to walk off those calories. Consider a hike to Allagash Falls. But be sure to get really good map directions from someone who knows the way. Or, better yet, arrange for a guide to take you. Heck, at Two Rivers they will even pack a lunch for you.
Heading back downriver, there is also a really fun historical society building in St. Francis ( stfrancisme.com). It, too, is a testament to the area’s agricultural and lumbering past. I’m not sure what I enjoy more — looking at the collection of artifacts or chatting with the volunteers, some of whom remember using those artifacts in their daily lives.
St. Francis was the end of the line for the old Bangor and Aroostook Railroad, which made its last run to the town in 1990. A short walk through the woods from the historical society building takes you to the old “turntable,” the circular configuration of railroad tracks on which the cars turned around for the return trips east.
Following US Route 1
Right next to the United States Port of Entry and international bridge in Fort Kent is the monument to America’s First Mile. It showcases the fact that U.S. Route 1, the major highway running south for 2,369 miles to Key West, Florida, begins in Fort Kent. It’s also our route for the next 50 or so miles as we now head downriver.
But first, take some time to explore this town that includes a branch campus of the University of Maine and which has hosted numerous national and international sporting events.
At the University of Maine at Fort Kent you can visit the Acadian Archives (23 University Drive, 207-834-7535, umfk.edu/archives) to learn more about the area’s French history while looking at maps, books, artifacts, textiles and other items that are on display. The staff at the archives is always ready to answer your questions and show you around.
If that is not enough history for you, be sure to visit the Fort Kent Blockhouse and the restored train station that houses the Fort Kent Historical Society Museum.
Fort Kent is a town dedicated to the outdoors. There are trails for hiking, biking and skiing into the woods or along the rivers.
In fact, you can ride your bicycle, ATV, dog sled or snowmobile — depending on the season — along the old rail bed that runs from Fort Kent all the way up to the turntable in St. Francis. This flat, smooth trail runs through woodland for about eight miles before crossing the road and then continuing along the St. John River for another few miles. The final leg of this 16-mile trail is back in the woods. In the winter it’s groomed for snowmobiles with trails that branch off leading to Allagash and beyond.
If you are looking for trails upon which you have zero chance of sharing with a motorized recreation vehicle, head to the Fort Kent Outdoor Center, formerly the 10th Mountain Center, home of world class nordic ski trails and a biathlon range. The center has hosted two World Cup biathlon events in addition to numerous nordic events including Olympic trials and international ParOlympic games.
When not hosting events, the 10 miles of trails are kept groomed for classic and skate nordic skiing. There are also several miles of groomed snowshoe trails and a 1-mile “poop loop” for walking your four-legged friends. At the end of your ski or snowshoe, the 10th Mountain Lodge is a great place to come in and warm up. There are even saunas available for public use inside.
Summers are almost as busy on the trails which are great for running, hiking, walking or mountain biking.
The trails are fairly well marked, though I did manage to get a bit turned around snowshoeing there last winter. Luckily, the maps are posted in various locations along the trails so I was able to figure out where I needed to go.
Make sure to bring your camera as several of the trails lead out to amazing views of the St. John River. Plus, you never know who — or what — Maine character you will meet around the next trail corner. Moose, deer, foxes, rabbits and a variety of birds are frequent visitors along the trails.
You get to the Fort Kent Outdoor Center by driving out of town on Route 11 toward Eagle Lake. The turn off to the center is several miles outside of town and is well marked with a sign.
Not as well marked, but equally impressive for hikers, are the Fish River Falls.
Drive out of Fort Kent on Route 161 toward Caribou. In two miles, you will take a right hand turn on to Sly Brook Road. Then look for the next right in about a quarter mile. Follow that dirt road all the way to the end.
There you are going to part at the Fort Kent landing strip — a parcel of land used for small, private aircraft. Crossing the grass runway gets you to the trail leading to the falls.
It’s about a quarter mile walk mostly downhill to the falls. Along the way are interesting plants, birdlife and maybe a moose. The falls themselves are impressive and the perfect spot for a picnic. In the winter, it’s also fun to snowshoe down and see how the freezing conditions transform the rushing water to ice sculptures. And keep your eyes peeled for the resident otters who slide down the banks into the river.
There are more great trails to explore as we head downriver into Madawaska, another valley town that shares a bridge with neighboring Canada.
Madawaska is also home to the Four Seasons Trail Association, which maintains close to 15 miles of hiking, biking, snowshoeing and ski trails at its outdoor center right in town on Spring Street near the high school. Trust me when I say they have something to do there all four seasons. I’ve had a blast hiking the trails, snowshoeing on my lunch hour and feeling like a kid again zooming down a hill on a sled. And don’t worry if you forgot to pack skis or snowshoes — they are available for rent onsite at the lodge. And some of the best photos of sunsets over Canada have been taken from the hills above Four Seasons Trail lodge.
As you drive east out of Madawaska you pass through Lille, a tiny community between Madawaska and Van Buren.
A jewel in the Crown of Maine
Lille is home to what many — myself included — feel is the crown jewel of the St. John Valley’s historical buildings — the Musee Culturel du Mont Carmel (993 Main St., 207-895-3339, nps.gov/maac/planyourvisit/montcarmel.htm). It’s part museum, part historical building, part ongoing renovation project and part performance venue.
The former 19th-century Catholic church was purchased in 1984 by L’Association Culturelle et Historique du Mont‑Carmel, a nonprofit organization, which is restoring the church building as a museum and a performing arts center headed by Don Cyr. Cyr lives in the former rectory, which was purchased along with the church. The rectory is physically connected to the church by a series of twisting hallways and short staircases of three or four steps each leading up and down different levels of the floor. It gives Cyr easy — albeit somewhat circuitous access — to the church. Cyr has put his life and resources into bringing the old church building back to life. And talk about a work in progress.
Sometimes working with the help of outside restoration specialists or volunteers, but mostly on his own in his spare time, Cyr has painstakingly uncovered original woodwork, frescoes and paintings that had been covered by latter-day “improvements.” The original wood-carved angels that once adorned the twin spires are now safely in the entryway with gorgeous reproductions on high in their place. Throughout the year the old church hosts musicians and performers from around the country and Canada.
I love stopping by and just walking up down the nave up to the altar where, if you look up, you see the original artwork of celestial stars. As for Cyr? Well, when it comes to local and Acadian history or music, if he does not know it, it’s probably not worth knowing. The man has an encyclopedic mind when it comes to all things Acadian. Not to mention he is a delight. Spending time with Cyr learning about history or culture never feels like a lecture. It’s more like a kitchen conversation over coffee with a good friend.
So there you have it. A weekend getaway to the very top of Maine. Friendly, international, adventurous and fun. What more could you ask for?
Where to eat
Even though I have lived in the area for close to four decades, going out to eat locally is still a treat. In Fort Kent, I divide my time and appetite often between The Swamp Buck Restaurant and Lounge (290 West Main St., 207-834-3055) and Mooseshack II (76 East Main St., 207-834-4444). At Swamp Buck my go-to item is their Reuben. I love a good Reuben sandwich and a Swamp Buck they pile on the corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese in perfect proportions. Meanwhile at Mooseshack, for me it’s all about the pizza. Specifically the Potato Pickers’ Pizza with alfredo sauce, bacon and potatoes — no picking required. When I am in the mood for wings — really, really good wings — I head down to Madawaska to Big Ricks Burgers & Wings (280 Main St., 207-728-9098). It’s a dizzying selection among traditional wings, boneless wings, fried wings or naked wings. As for the sauces? Big Ricks currently offers 27 different options like barbeque, honey mustard, roasted garlic, habanero mango and, my personal favorite, maple bourbon.
Where to stay
In Fort Kent, there is Northern Door Inn (northerndoorinn.com, 356 West Main St., 207-834-3133). This hotel was formerly known as Rock’s and a fun fact — there really was a Rock Ouellette and he was my husband’s uncle. The inn has pet friendly rooms and includes a continental breakfast. It’s location across from the international bridge provides great access to the Heritage Trail and downtown Fort Kent.
In Madawaska, check out and check in to The Inn of Acadia housed in a former convent of the Filles de la Sagasse — the Daughters of Wisdom. The inn has 21 rooms with four kitchen suites. Plus there is the inn’s Voyageur Lounge on the top floor with an amazing menu of specialty dishes like prime rib, lobster ravioli or the “poutine of the week” — that Quebecois creation layering French fried potatoes, cheese curds and gravy. My pic? The Guinness poutine with dark beer gravy and tender chunks of beef.
There is also plenty of space for recreational vehicle camping at Riverside Park in Fort Kent. Or at Lakeview Camping and Resorts in St Agatha. Here you can park your RV or pitch your tent in one of the 80 sites, and then walk over to the Lakeview Restaurant, where it’s tough to decide what’s better — the comfort food served there or the views of Long Lake.
Getting to The Valley
Driving to the St. John Valley is a bit of an adventure on its own. Start by heading north on Interstate 95. In 80 miles at Sherman, you have the option of taking the exit and continuing on up Route 11. This twisty, winding, hilly road provides some great views and plenty of opportunities to see wildlife such as moose and deer. For that reason — drive with caution. Taking Route 11 lands you in Fort Kent You can also stay on I-95 to its very end in Houlton and head to the St. John Valley by way of U.S. Route 1 and 1A, taking you to Van Buren.
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s November 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.