Jim Mitchell of Old Town stands near his tent while talking about the new campsites he has built on his land as part of the Penobscot River Paddling Trail. Trail organizers are getting closer to a goal of establishing a series of river-accessible campsites that will stretch from Medway to Bucksport. Credit: John Holyoke | BDN

When Jim Mitchell heard two years ago that a group of paddlers was trying to establish a network of campsites along the Penobscot River, he looked at his backyard — a formerly tangled mess of bushes and overgrowth on the southwest side of French Island in Old Town — and decided he’d like to play a role in the plan.

Today, Mitchell’s one-acre backyard parcel has become a gem of the Penobscot River Paddling Trail, featuring seven tent sites and a spectacular view of the river.

“It shares some commonality [with other sites] in that there’s camping by the river, but other than that it’s a little different,” Mitchell said as he gave a tour of the grounds.

“This was land that wasn’t open, and for five years I’d been clearing it by hand,” Mitchell said. “This was a line here, an impenetrable tangle. I lived here for 15 years and never knew what was down here. It wasn’t until the dams went out [as part of the Penobscot River Restoration Project] that I got curious.”

What he found was a gradual grade to the river that would make a great campsite. And now, it’s open for river travelers, complete with a pile of firewood, an outhouse, and, if needed, a shuttle service from the upstream portage at Milford Dam.

“I liked the concept and the idea, and since I was working on my own little campsite here, I said, ‘I can share this,'” Mitchell said.

Jim Mitchell of Old Town shows off one of the tent sites he has established on his land on French Island as part of the Penobscot River Paddling Trail. The trail now consists of sites from the south side of Lincoln to Brewer. Credit: John Holyoke | BDN

A group of paddlers launched the ambitious effort to provide camping options on 100 miles of the Penobscot River stretching from Medway to Bucksport four years ago, and built a site in Brewer in 2018.

The hope was that the Penobscot River Paddling Trail would let adventurers spend a day on the river, then find appropriate spots to stop and camp out along the way. Organizers set a goal of providing at least one campsite every 10 miles along the route.

The group’s website now lists eight campsites, including one that’s four miles off the actual trail and suggested as a place to camp the night before beginning a paddling trip. In addition, 25 boat launches or put-in sites are listed.

And Mitchell said the site on his land, just beyond his sprawling assortment of raised garden beds (and a friendly flock of well-fed ducks) offers some amenities you won’t find at more rural sites.

First, since it’s on private property, fires are allowed at the site. Second, there’s WiFi available. And third? Well, are you hungry and sick of cooking for yourself?

“You can get on the phone and get a Thai restaurant [in Old Town] and they will deliver,” Mitchell said. “Suppose you’ve been on the river for four or five days and are really tired, and you’ve got one more night on the river before heading to Bangor. Why not splurge? Let’s have a dinner and some wine? It’s different.”

Linking sites together at a convenient distance from each other has made river adventures more than a dream for the future. Now that eight sites over more than 50 miles of the river are open, paddlers can begin to take multi-day trips on the trail.

And that’s a great step forward, according to PRPT president David Thanhauser of Swanville.

“We really haven’t done any publicity, because until this summer there was really nothing to publicize,” Thanhauser said. “This is our first stab at getting the word out that there’s now a series of campsites that people can use. You can now go from South Chester, opposite Lincoln Center, [with camping] more or less every 10 miles to Brewer. So now it’s canoeable from there to here.”

And with the ongoing pandemic creating some logistical issues for people trying to plan vacations, Mitchell said he thinks a trip on the PRPT makes perfect sense.

“To me, this is a unique time. There’s nothing more physical distancing than being in a canoe on a river, and we’re trying to promote Maine tourism for Maine people. Here’s our home-grown idea of paddling down the river. Let’s start promoting it and see what happens,” Mitchell said.

Thanhasuer said the group has a plan, and hopes to continue the trail’s expansion.

“We hope to try to identify two [new sites] upriver to Medway this summer, and then probably three sites downriver to Bucksport next summer,” Thanhauser said.

John Holyoke

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their...