By Wanda Curtis

One very popular hobby for outdoor enthusiasts today is paddling. Whether canoeing or kayaking, paddling is a fun way to explore the landscape and waterways in any geographic area. It also provides a great opportunity to get away from it all for a day or two.

The East Branch of the Penobscot River is a favorite waterway of many paddlers. It’s one of the major attractions of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument located east of Baxter State Park. The main stem of the East Branch drops more than 200 feet over a stretch of about 10 miles through rapids and waterfalls including Stair Falls, Haskell Rock Pitch, Pond Pitch, Grand Pitch, the Hulling Machine and Bowlin Falls. The name “Hulling Machine” originated from the fact that the force of the water there used to strip bark from large logs driven down the river during log driving days.

Many lumber jacks and log drivers earned their living on the river. Some lost their lives during the dangerous log driving operations. Before that, Native Americans used the waterway to transport food, furs and medicines. Artists and authors have been inspired by the beauty of nature there. Henry David Thoreau traveled the Penobscot when he visited Maine during the 1800s. 

After Teddy Roosevelt crossed the East Branch of the Penobscot with a guide in the late 1800s, he developed a commitment for land conservation. In 1906, he signed into law the Antiquities Act which gave U.S. presidents authority to create national monuments on federal land to protect natural, historic or cultural features from destruction. Presidents can also accept private land to be reserved for that purpose.

Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters’ executive director Andrew Bossie said that nothing compares to paddling on the East Branch. He said that, besides the excitement associated with paddling through swiftly moving waters, the scenery along the way is beautiful. He added that the multitude of fiddleheads growing beside the river in the floodplains create an awesome scene beneath the shimmering silver maples and at the right time of year can also be harvested for personal consumption. 

“The rushing waters flush these areas of most plant life in the spring, leaving well-rooted ferns and maple trees to enjoy the nutrient-rich soils,” said Bossie. “The result is towering tree trunks, a thick canopy of leaves high above and a lush green carpet of ferns. It’s like standing in a cathedral, complete with bird song. There is a silver maple floodplain along much of the calmer sections of the river and there area notable areas by the Oxbow picnic area on the northern stretch of the river and then again further south where the Wassataquoik Stream meets the East Branch.”

Many wildlife species can be viewed traveling along the river. Deer, moose, river otters, beavers and even an occasional black bear may be seen peeking through the bushes. Mergansers, chickadees, thrush, grouse, woodpeckers and even an occasional bald eagle can be seen flying overhead.

Mandatory Portages on Northern End of River

According to Bossie, there are at least four mandatory portages on the northern end of the East Branch of the Penobscot River—Haskell Rock Pitch, Pond Pitch, Grand Pitch and the Hulling Machine. Portaging refers to carrying one’s canoe over dry land to the next navigable section of the river. He said that only experienced whitewater paddlers should attempt this section of the river or be accompanied by a registered Maine guide. Haskell Rock is named after a 20-foot pillar of stone in the middle of a downstream torrent of water. Grand Pitch drops 30-40 feet almost straight down. Bossie said that, for the most part, the portages are short. He said the longest is the Hulling Machine, which is last.

“For someone looking for a peaceful flat-water day paddle, I’d recommend launching from Lunksoos Camps and paddle up river about two miles to Big Seboeis campsite,” said Bossie. “There’s a nice view, good swimming and bald eagles are known to frequent the area. If no one is using the campsite, you can picnic at the shaded table. Always wear a PFD and paddle with others. Check with the National Park Service for the latest conditions.” 

Great Fly Fishing on the East Penobscot

According to Bowlin Lodge and Camps website at www.bowlincamps.com, the East Branch is a great place for fly fishing with naturally reproducing brook trout, landlocked salmon and smallmouth bass. The website says that, in 2012, Maine started removing dams in the Penobscot River making it possible for salmon, shad, sturgeon, alewives, eels and smelt to return to their native spawning grounds in the Penobscot River Basin and the East Branch is a part of that. 

Driving north, Bowlin Lodge and Cabins are located off Exit 264. They have a lodge and dining room where hot meals are served. They rent private 1- and 2-bedroom log cabins with a kitchen, bathroom and wood stove. The cabins are a good base camp for anyone traveling to the area for paddling, hiking or hunting out in the wilds. They offer wildlife tours, waterfall hikes, registered Maine guides, canoe rentals and more.

Planning A Paddling Trip

When planning a paddling trip, the following supplies are recommended—plenty of water, food, necessary medications, life jackets, a first aid kit, map, flashlight, pocket knife, light tent, sleeping mat, bug nets and repellent, matches, a dry bag (waterproof bag which rolls shut to form a seal to keep water out), sunscreen and warm, dry clothing. It’s important to prepare for being in the water even if paddlers don’t plan on getting in the water, said Bossie. As an added precaution, he said that it’s always important to notify someone else of the trip agenda before leaving, in the event that help is needed.

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