Part I – Depot Stream
During the winter of 1990, my late friend Terry Tzovarras and I planned an ambitious canoe trip in far northern Maine beginning at remote Depot Lake. From there, our intent was to travel down tiny Depot Stream to Big Black River, then follow Big Black to the St. John River, finishing our adventure with about 30 miles of paddling on the iconic St. John to the Village of Allagash.
Our grandiose scheme failed because the roads were impassable the following May when the other necessary ingredients were present: ice was out and the water levels sufficiently high for navigation. A few years later, we made another attempt with the same result.
Terry passed away a decade ago never realizing his dream.
Without any suggestion from me, last November another long-time friend, Allen Gaskell, began organizing the same trip. When he invited me, I enthusiastically agreed. However, given my history planning the undertaking, I was skeptical and informed him that achieving the elusive combination of ice out, passable roads and decent water levels was a formidable task.
Dismissing my pessimism, Allen audaciously scheduled a shuttle for May 9. Since it was months in advance of the intended endeavor, I questioned the wisdom of what I believed was a premature decision. Allen continued to ignore me while assembling a group of 10 canoeists and kayakers for the excursion.
In the weeks leading up to our predetermined departure, an exceptionally dry warm spring resulted in early ice out and good road conditions. Water levels became the concern. The pertinent river gauges rose and fell with snow melt, periods of drought and sporadic rain storms; but overall they steadily declined. Prospective participants expressed apprehension and alternatives were explored but our goal remained unchanged.
When we met at Pelletier’s Campground in St. Francis on the night before our departure, owner and shuttle driver Norm L’Italien was doubtful about Depot Stream but thought Big Black was doable. He proposed transporting us on the long journey to Big Black where we could decide to embark from there or continue to a bridge for a partial descent of Depot Stream, possibly persisting to Depot Lake if we desired.
Early the next morning, we loaded boats and gear and began our drive on logging roads deep into the woods of northern Maine. Big Black had adequate water and the abbreviated version of Depot Stream appeared passable but questionable. A consequential issue was whether the heavy rain forecast for the following day would come to fruition and provide higher water levels. A majority decided to risk starting at the lake. After taking a time-consuming wrong turn at a confusing intersection and building a rock ramp over a washed out sector of road, Norm delivered us to a muddy trail about 100 yards from Depot Lake.
Since it was midafternoon, eight of us decided to camp there while two opted to return to Big Black. We were now eight: four solo canoes, a tandem team and two expedition kayaks.
Once camp was established, we dragged our boats to the water and most of us explored Depot Lake. The pristine wilderness setting was devoid of any signs of civilization. Accompanied by a canoeist, I paddled my kayak to the northern end of the lake and located the outlet for Depot Stream.
Paddlers rarely wish for heavy rain but given the low water, that was precisely our hope the following morning. After crossing the lake, dark storm clouds increased while we navigated a circuitous three mile stretch of flat water on Depot Stream to an old bridge where a short Class II rapid began. Everyone had triumphant descents, but after dragging back up, one solo canoeist broached on a boulder while attempting to surf. The unpleasant result was a frigid swim. Fortunately, with assistance from fellow paddlers and a herculean self-rescue effort by the canoeist, the situation was quickly remedied.
About a mile of whitewater followed. The twisting channelized routes required substantial maneuvering but everyone successfully negotiated the scratchy sector. The chances of broaching on hidden rocks were significant and the narrow passages were particularly challenging for the tandem canoe. It began to rain during another stretch of flat water. Shortly after entering a long rapid, we found an adequate location to camp.
Erecting a small tarp city to shelter our tents and gear from the pouring rain, we settled in for the night. One thing was clear, with a multitude of rapids to be encountered in the following days, substantial rainfall was necessary.
Stay tuned for part two of this adventure.
Author of “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals – New England,” Ron Chase resides in Topsham. His latest book, “The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine” is scheduled to be released by North Country Press later this year. Visit his website at ronchaseoutdoors.com or he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.