Kennebago to Katahdin: Back in Thoreau Country
Henry David Thoreau was badass.
Many people think of philosophers, naturalists and social activists as what, shall we say, soft? But Thoreau’s three trips to The Maine Woods were impressive feats of endurance and woodcraft. This was not glamping.
In 1846, he traveled by boat, buggy and boot from Boston to Bangor to Mt. Katahdin (above), where he camped at 3800 feet and ascended the summit ridge, although he never reached the highest peak (5269'), which was shrouded with clouds for several days.
In 1853, he traversed Moosehead Lake by steamer, then paddled to Chesuncook Lake and back with guide Joe Aitteon and several companions in birch bark canoes. He participated in a moose hunt on this trip. And fished for trout!
In 1857, Thoreau, his friend Ed Hoar, and guide Joe Polis completed his most ambitious trip. The left Greenville on July 24 and paddled the entire lake, then circumnavigated what is now Baxter State Park back to Bangor. They paddled and portaged to Eagle Lake and Chamberlain Lake, down the East Branch of the Penobscot River from Grand Lake Mattagamon to Medway, then continued past Sunkhaze Stream (much later the setting for a fishing story by Edmund Ware Smith) all the way to Old Town on the main stem. They completed the almost 300 mile trip from Greenville to Bangor in 11 days.
In his writing, Thoreau doesn’t dwell on the hardships of these wilderness "excursions," as he called them. Most of his descriptions are matter-of-fact. Weather, water, mud, bogs, and bugs – they came with the territory.
Nature Is Thus Merciful
Well, okay, he did (sort of) complain about the bugs. Who wouldn’t? For example, on the night of July 31, on the East Branch of the Penobscot below Seboeis Stream:
“It turned out the mosquitoes were more numerous here than we had found them before… I noticed, as I had done before, that there was a lull among the mosquitoes about midnight, and that they began again in the morning. Nature is thus merciful. But apparently, they need rest as well as we...As soon as it was light I saw, through my veil, that the inside of the tent about our heads was quite blackened with myriads, each one of their wings when flying, as has been calculated, vibrating some three thousand times in a minute, and their combined hum was almost as bad to endure as their stings. I had an uncomfortable night on this account…”
I can relate. We were tormented by mosquitoes at dawn in the Dartmouth Grant. Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz… Slap! ....Ahhhhh!
On Tuesday, June 20, I started my day with another spectacular sunrise on Kennebago Lake, as the rain clouds gave way to morning light. I had spent Monday night at a camp owned by my good friends, Lou Zambello and Lindsey Rustad. (The mosquitoes even found me here, coming down the chimney on a muggy night.)
In the fall during the spawning run, Lou and I are up and out before first light, so we see our share of gorgeous sunrises across the lake. Lou has many stories (some featuring yours truly) about his years of fishing for trout and landlocked salmon here, which you can read in his remarkable book Flyfishing Northern New England’s Seasons.
On this morning, though, I was at Lou & Lindsey's camp by myself and got up early to do a little fishing before the long drive to Thoreau country, where I planned to visit the brand new Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument.
With the rain overnight, it was no surprise that the Little Kennebago River was quite high, right up to the willows. There were no other footprints as I descended the steep gravel bank, so I knew I was the first to this pool, where the river makes a hard right. I was hoping a big trout or salmon would slam my Black Ghost on the first cast, as often happens here.
No such luck this time, although I did have a nice trout, maybe 10 or 11 inches, chase my fly to my feet. I couldn’t convince him or her to give that fly or several others a good chomp.
I was perhaps a bit lackadaisical about my fishing here, as I knew I would be back again in September. Nevertheless, I wanted to include this, one of my favorite places to fish, on the Storied Water tour.
I drove down to the dam and made a few perfunctory casts into the big Kennebago, again half expecting a big salmon to rush my fly from beneath the tailrace. Didn’t happen, even when I tried a couple more streamer patterns and a few nymphs before deciding to get on with my journey.
I’ll give these fish a more focused effort in a couple months, I said to myself, as I climbed back into my car.
Our Sporting Heritage
After grabbing a coffee in the Oquossoc store, I wandered over to the Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum (OSHM) across the street, where Bill Pierce, the director, was wrapping up a discussion with a TV crew from Channel 8 about the upcoming Lupine Festival and Carrie Stevens Weekend. The museum was not officially open, but Bill invited me in to see the changes and new exhibits they’ve added since I was there last summer.
The OSHM is an absolute gem. After visiting five other fly-fishing and outdoor sports museums in the last six weeks, I can say for sure that OSHM is a world-class experience. In their beautiful building, they showcase the rich and diverse history of the Rangeley Lakes region, which includes some of the biggest names in US sporting history:
- Carrie Stevens, the fly-tying legend who developed the Gray Ghost, on which she caught a 6 lb 13oz brook trout in 1924. You can learn more in Graydon Hillyard's biography: Carrie Stevens: Maker of Rangeley Favorite Trout and Salmon Flies (Stackpole Books, 2000).
- Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby, the first official Maine Guide (license #1), who was as big a personality in her day as Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley, who visited Crosby in Rangeley in 1905. (See her biography by my college classmate, Julia Hunter: Fly Rod Crosby- The Woman Who Marketed Maine).
- Herb Welch, the renowned taxidermist and fly-tyer, who developed the Black Ghost.
- Ed Grant, Rangeley outfitter and teller of tall tales during the 1800s.
I should also mention that they have a new exhibit on Louise Dickinson Rich and Forest Lodge, where I had just stayed two nights before.
I wish I'd had a couple more hours to enjoy all the exhibits, but I had to get moving if I was going to make it to Medway by dinner, and my ultimate destination, a camp on Caribou Lake near Mt. Katahdin, by dark.
Nose To Grindstone
Four hours later, I turned north from Medway toward Grindstone, following the East Branch of the Penobscot on my left, just as a huge, dark thunderstorm rolled in south of Mount Katahdin. The rain pounded my windshield so hard that driving was dangerous, so I pulled into the Maine DOT rest area at Grindstone Falls.
As I sat there, thumbing through The Wildest Country- Exploring Thoreau’s Maine by J. Parker Huber, Henry’s ghost appeared in the seat beside me. I hadn’t seen him since the Adirondacks.
“August 1, 1857,” HDT said, “Joe Polis proposed a race over the carry during our portage around these falls. I won.”
“You know, Mr. Huber here points out that you actually say you raced at Whetstone Falls, but your mileage and description seem to indicate it was here at Grindstone Falls.”
“Yes, I was in error,” HDT admitted. "One cannot too soon forget his errors and misdemeanors. To dwell long upon them is to add to the offense."
"Yes, but didn't you also say: 'To forget all about your mistakes adds to them perhaps.' Which is it?"
He ignored my reply. “And," he added, "I didn’t have Google Earth back then to double check my notes, like you do.”
I pulled out his account in “The Allagash and East Branch” and re-read how Polis carried the canoe while Henry lugged the gear: frying-pan, plates, paddles, and a sooty kettle. Even after dropping his load once and having to repack his bundle, Henry arrived downstream ahead of Polis, who had purposely handicapped himself by going barefoot over the rocks. Still, Polis got a laugh out of it: “O, me love to play sometimes,” quoted Henry.
After the rain subsided, HDT and I continued upstream toward the entrance to Katahdin Woods & Waters.
“You like music, don’t you, Henry?”
“Yes,” he replied. “When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest.”
“OK, good.” I cranked up the tunes: an Allman Brothers playlist on Spotify.
“Hey, I like this song!” HDT beamed, and he starting singing along at the top of his lungs: “Lord I was born a ramblin’ mah-han!”
We passed several “NATIONAL PARK NO” signs in yards and along the logging road. Many of the locals, as well as our own Governor Pottymouth, have no appreciation for the generosity of Roxanne Quimby, co-founder of Burt’s Bees, who purchased (at fair market value) 87,500 acres of timberland on both sides of the East Branch of the Penobscot River, and donated it to the people of the United States to enjoy. She even agreed to allow hunting and snowmobiling on large parts of it, and provided $20 million for improvements.
Last year, President Obama accepted the gift and designated it a National Monument. Last month, our forward-thinking governor went to Washington to ask President Pottymouth to give it back.
Somehow, the specter of federal ownership blinds these folks to the fact that this was fully within Quimby's rights as a private property owner. She could have put a fence around it and told everyone to stay the hell out.
But instead she chose to make an incredible gift that adds to the ecological and recreational importance of the 200,000 acre Baxter State Park, which abuts the KW&WNM to the west. It is also worth pointing out that National Park Service branding adds millions of dollars in economic value and goodwill.
I didn’t have time to fully explore the new National Monument. Heck, it would take days or weeks to canoe all the beautiful rivers & streams and hike the mountains. But I was glad to have made its acquaintance.
HDT and I stopped at the bridge over Whetstone Falls on the East Branch.
“Yes, you are right, I confused the names,' said HDT as we pulled up, "but I did say 'probably called Whetstone Falls'.”
I was impressed to think he had paddled through this section in a birch bark canoe. I climbed down onto the rocks, and cast a streamer along the edge of the big rapids as the sun began to sink behind the trees. The water temperature was 68°F – fine for swimming, but too warm for trout.
I thought maybe I’d hook a smallmouth bass or a “chivin” (Leuciscus puchellus) as Thoreau called the species, which we now call fallfish (reclassified as Semotilus corporalis), or chubs in the vernacular. I tried a couple different streamers and nymphs with no action. After 30 minutes, I stowed my fly rod, ignoring HDT’s suggestion that I try a worm, and headed back out the rough road to Route 11.
Another Act of Generosity
When I visited Orvis headquarters at the start of my trip, I met Jim Lepage (no relation to the guv), the ex officio head of manufacturing for the esteemed fishing and hunting retailer. Jim offered me the use of his rustic camp on Caribou Lake, right along the Golden Road west of Millinocket, for the final leg of my journey.
This was beyond generous. I couldn’t turn it down, of course, especially when he mentioned the view across the lake to Mt. Katahdin.
Caribou Lake is now connected to Chesuncook Lake thanks to the construction of Ripogenous Dam in 1920, which raised the water level, joining the two lakes. Coming west on the Golden Road along the West Branch of the Penobscot, we crossed Abol Bridge just below Abol Stream, where Thoreau's party had camped on their way to Katahdin in 1846.
When we stopped to get a photo from the bridge, HDT barely recognized the spot, now a popular campground. Suddenly, he remembered that here, he and his party had caught numerous trout. So many, in fact, that...
"In the night I dreamed of trout-fishing; and, when at length I awoke, it seemed a fable that this painted fish swam there so near my couch, and rose to our hooks the last evening, and I doubted if I had not dreamed it all. So I arose before dawn to test its truth, while my companions were still sleeping. There stood Ktaadn with distinct and cloudless outline in the moonlight; and the rippling of the rapids was the only sound to break the stillness, Standing on the shore I once more cast my line into the stream, and found the dream to be real and fable true. The speckled trout and silvery roach, like flying-fish, sped swiftly through the moonlight air, describing bright arcs on the dark side of Ktaadn, until moonlight, now fading into daylight, brought satiety to my mind, and the minds of my companions, who had joined me."
Comforts of Life
It was not lost on me that we were traveling by car, as I tried to imagine what it was like traveling upstream on the West Branch by bateau from Medway. I have to admit that HDT was one tough traveler. And I could hear him say: “It is far more independent to travel on foot.”
We arrived at Jim's camp at deep dusk. I found the key, and I lit the propane lights.
HDT looked around the cabin, while I pulled out my sleeping bag and brushed my teeth. Even without running water or electricity, these digs were fairly luxurious compared to his hut at Walden Pond.
He couldn’t help himself, “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”
“Yeah, but there are no bugs in here," I replied.
"Touché," I heard faintly, as HDT's aura faded into the darkness.
"Good night, Henry" I murmured as I nodded off to sleep.
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Note: Thoreau quotes in italics are actual quotes. The others are figments of my imagination.