“Ktaadn,” September 1846
“From this elevation, just on the skirts of the clouds, we could overlook the country, west and south, for a hundred miles. There it was, the State of Maine, which we had seen on the map, but not much like that—immeasurable forest for the sun to shine on . . . no clearing, no house. It did not look like a solitary traveler had cut so much as a walk-stick there. Countless lakes—Moosehead in the southwest, forty miles long by ten wide, like a gleaming silver platter at the end of the table; Chesuncook, eighteen long by three wide, without an island; Millinocket, on the south; and a hundred others without a name; and mountains, also, whose names, for the most part, are known only to the Indians.”
—Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods (1864)
Steaming cup of tea in hand, I wander away from camp down to the shore of Chesuncook Lake, where our colorful canoes are neatly stacked one against the other. Rising from the vast forestland across the lake is Big Spencer Mountain, its precipitous north slope resembling a shark’s tooth from this angle.
One hundred feet south along the shore puts me in sight of Katahdin. The day’s last light is glowing pink and orange on the trees, while beyond, the mountain looms large in shadowy silhouette. I stand and look for a long time, reveling in the beauty of this wildly remote spot known as Mouser Island.
It is the final night of a bucket-list canoe trip, a grand paddle along the Penobscot River Corridor from Lobster Lake to the Boom House near the site of the old Chesuncook Dam. Buoyed with gratitude for this long-awaited opportunity and awe for these wilderness surroundings, I amble back to join my guide and trip companions, just as the big orb dips below the horizon.
Polly Mahoney has been guiding extended canoe trips like this one for three decades. She and her partner Kevin Slater own Mahoosuc Guide Service. Come winter, the pair trades canoes for dogsleds and adventures into the snowy wonderland. Based in Newry not far from rugged Grafton Notch, they are two of the hardy few who make their living guiding in the Maine woods year round.
Mahoney’s trips are run the traditional Maine guide way, making them extra special. She and Slater make their own wood canvas canoes, paddles, canoe poles, and wannigans (wooden storage boxes). Gear is toted in canvas Duluth packs, and all cooking is done over a wood fire.
Food—from eggs, bacon, and home fries at daybreak, to salmon, chicken, burgers, and fresh veggies in the evening—is plentiful and delicious. Coffee is brewed cowboy-style, and there’s always fresh bread and tasty desserts baked in a Dutch or reflector oven.
Around the campfire that evening, we take turns reading aloud from Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods (1864). We find great joy in the passages where our journey coincides with Thoreau’s trips through this region, which he took in 1846, 1853, and 1857. In the company of his friends and his Penobscot guides, Thoreau chose to explore this part of Maine because it was a wilderness, or at least as wild as any land he had ever visited.
“Wilderness was an important focus of his thinking and writing,” wrote J. Parker Huber in The Wildest Country: A Guide to Thoreau’s Maine. “The word or its variants—wild, wildness, wildly—recurs over one hundred times in The Maine Woods.”
We, too, have come for some of that wild feeling that only the Maine woods can imbue to one’s spirit, a temporary reprieve from the daily hustle and bustle of everyday life. But even here, time passes all too quickly. As Thoreau notes, “Though you have nothing to do but see the country, there’s rarely any time to spare . . . before the night and drowsiness is upon you.”
The Penobscot River Corridor and Seboomook Public Lands are managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands and protect in fee and easement more than 100 miles of rivers and lakes from Canada Falls Lake to Gero Island to Ambejejus Lake. This sparkling conservation gem in the heart of Maine’s commercial timber country has changed relatively little since Thoreau’s time.
The section of the Penobscot River from Lobster Stream to Chesuncook Lake is part of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, a grand paddling route ranging through the wild woods and waters of the Northeast, from Old Forge, New York, to Fort Kent, Maine. At 700 miles, it is the longest inland water trail in the United States.
The West Branch of the Penobscot River trip is a delightfully scenic, wildlife-rich paddle of some 35 miles in five days, though it would be easy to dally for a week or more. Lobster Stream is a placid thoroughfare, while the Penobscot River presents just a few stretches of mild rips and rocks. Wind and waves can be an issue on the lakes if the weather comes up, especially on Chesuncook. There are no portages. Comfortable campsites, each with a picnic table, ridgepole (to support the roof of a tent), fire ring, and privy, are well-spaced and numerous.
This is a perfect trip for reasonably experienced paddlers. If you are like me and could never quite cobble together a group to make it happen, well, then I’d recommend signing on to a guided trip with Mahoosuc Guide Service or any one of several other fine canoe outfitters. The Maine Professional Guides Association and Maine Wilderness Guides Association are your go-to resources for this dream canoe camping trip.
Canoe Trip Planning Resources
Penobscot River Corridor & Seboomook Public Lands: www.parksandlands.com
Mahoosuc Guide Service: mahoosuc.com, (207) 824-2073
Maine Professional Guides Association: www.maineguides.org
Maine Wilderness Guides Association: www.mwgo.org
Northern Forest Canoe Trail: www.northernforestcanoetrail.org
Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail: thoreauwabanakitrail.org