One of my main hopes heading into this 740-mile trip on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail was that I would come away with some photographs of moose on the Allagash River in northern Maine. I had read on the blog of a previous through-paddler that she had seen 50 moose on the Allagash River, so I was confident I could accomplish this goal.
Along the way, as I paddled more than 600 miles to get to the Allagash River, that vision became more developed. I wanted to take a photo of a bull moose lifting his head and antlers out of river, with drops of water dripping off his antlers and ears.
I thought that without that photo my trip wouldn’t be complete.
As it turned out, I didn’t get that exact photograph, but I had a wildlife experience that exceeded what I thought was possible.
It took place Aug. 7 on the outlet for Churchill Lake. That day, Ariel and I had spent much of the afternoon sitting under some alder trees on the shoreline between Round Pond and Churchill Lake as a series of nasty thunderstorms came through the area.
As we sat, relatively sheltered by the tree canopy above, we watched as the storm put on a lightning show north of us, which was the direction we were headed. I remember one particularly powerful lightning strike that appeared to hit the ground.
Normally, thunderstorms roll through quickly and aren’t too much of an inconvenience, but in this case each storm that came through was followed by another. Finally by early evening, the storm had subsided.
Determined to continue on our journey, we took advantage of this break in the weather to get in our boat and paddle up Churchill Lake.
A little after 6 p.m., we arrived at the north end of the lake, where a rainbow emerged after the rain had subsided. As it often is after a storm, the water was calm and the paddling was enjoyable.
As we entered the outlet of Churchill Lake, two loons swam to our left. I stopped for a second, trying to get a photograph, but the birds were skittish and kept diving under the water out of sight.
After a few minutes, we continued up the outlet a little ways, before I spotted a large brown “rock” ahead of us on the right. I told Ariel to hold up. There was likely a moose ahead. Soon after, a cow moose lifted its head from the water. It was feeding on aquatic vegetation.
About the same time, other wildlife began to appear. A flock of Canada geese came into view and started swimming in the vicinity of the moose. Then, a moose calf emerged from the tall grass on the shoreline.
As I was sitting there watching this unfold, Ariel turned and said she had just seen a bald eagle on the left. It had swooped down and taken a fish.
After a few more minutes passed, Ariel again noted there was more wildlife just upstream. A family of four or five otters was swimming near some submerged stumps. One of them ventured toward the middle of the channel, and turning toward us, popped his neck and head out of the water. It then swam back to the shore.
By about this time, the large moose started walking out of the water. After taking several steps on dry land, the calf walked up to its mother, nudged against her underside and began nursing. After a short period, we heard a sound like a popping noise, like a suction cup losing its seal. The calf was finished. The pair then moved slowly toward the forest.
Amazed that we had seen this display of wildlife within a span of about 45 minutes, we headed upstream. As we paddled, I felt satisfied that now my trip felt complete because of the entirety of this experience. Plus, I had captured some images of the cow moose in the water that I felt satisfied with.
Up until this point, the trip had been mostly fun, enjoyable and adventurous. I had met lots of interesting and generous people, witnessed some scenic vistas and seen displays of wildlife. But until this experience, the trip lacked a true peak. After that evening, I couldn’t say that anymore.
Finishing the journey
The next morning we awoke at our campsite near Churchill Dam, about 90 miles from the end of the journey. After talking to a ranger, we learned it had rained three-and-a-half inches the previous day. That was great news for the remainder of our trip because it was all downriver. We would be traveling about 60 miles down the Allagash River and 30 miles down St. John River. Both can be low in August, but not this year.
As we traveled down the Allagash River, it became clear why the founders of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail had chosen to put this section toward the end of the journey. It was by far the best section of the trip. Not only was the travel easy because we were often riding the current, but there was more wildlife here than anywhere else on the trip.
In the few days that we were on the Allagash River, we saw about a dozen moose, roughly 30 bald eagles and numerous other animals.
We actually also saw more people on the water here than any other place because we hit Churchill Dam, a common starting point for trips, on a Sunday in early August, which is prime tourist season.
The only thing I regretted about paddling in the Allagash isn’t that I didn’t stay there longer. Because of the strong currents, Ariel and I wound up putting in a few long-distance days in the 25- to 35-mile range. Those came despite the fact that we took numerous breaks to watch wildlife and enjoy the surroundings.
Toward the end of the trip I was torn. I definitely missed some of the comforts of home, but traveling across the Northeast by canoe beat the rigors of daily life by a longshot.
Strangely enough, when we arrived at the eastern terminus of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail in Fort Kent on Aug. 11, 45 days after leaving Fort Kent, I didn’t feel any sense of accomplishment for completing the trail. That would come later. At the time, I was more disappointed the trip was over. I would have preferred to take a day layover in town and then continue down the river.
Mike Lynch/Lake Placid News
A moose picks its head out of the water on the outlet to Churchill Lake in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in northern Maine.
Fact BoxIntent on Fort Kent
This is the 11th and final column of a series by Lake Placid News outdoors writer Mike Lynch about paddling the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine.