(Photo by Steven Hyde)
(Photo by Steven Hyde)
You don’t want to get near that hole. 

All of us cluster on a ledge, river right, looking downstream at Bowlin Falls, the last of the big water in this section of the river. We beached the canoes just upstream in order to scout the rapid. 

Stay close to the cedar on the left.

The upper East Branch of the Penobscot has rapid after rapid in a nine-mile stretch where it pours over Stair Falls, Haskell Rock Pitch, Pond Pitch, Grand Pitch, the Hulling Machine, and Bowlin Falls, losing 200 feet in elevation along the way. 

This last major run for the next twelve miles or so is deceptive; possibly more challenging than the ones we have already run. Just downstream, the river pours over a ledge. If the ledge were deeper, the river would create a standing wave with no foam and lots of friendly fun.

Instead, the river rolls over it, makes a drop that creates a hole, then rolls back in on itself, flowing upstream to fill in the hole.

Pour, drop, roll back.

Two-thirds the width of the river pushes towards that hole. It’s not really the direction a boat wants to go, even if the hole isn’t a keeper where the upstream backwash does the job of recirculating the water and its occupants.

There’s a hard bend left, then right, then left.

The guides point out the line through the foam.

Hard left towards the cedar.

Right.

Then left.


We go first, following the expert line.

My sternman has been at this for nearly 40 years and going down Bowlin Falls with him in a loaded expedition canoe is like riding down a windy mountain road in an old Chevy with a race-car driver at the wheel and his teenage daughter in the passenger seat. 

I function as ballast in the bow.

We eddy out, taking advantage of the dead stop behind a rock as the current parts and flows around and past the canoe. He keeps the bow pointing upstream into the eddy so we can watch the others make the run and be ready to lend a hand, should the need arise.

The third canoe takes a line closer to the middle. 

Too close.

They’re too close to that hole.

Almost 32,000 miles of rivers and streams flow year-round through the state of Maine. Fewer than a thousand of those river miles offer exceptional whitewater recreation and backcountry water travel opportunities.

In 1982, the Maine Department of Conservation worked with the National Park Service on a Maine Rivers Study that identified the East Branch and its sister rivers as exceptional places. Together, the three rivers were one of seven places in the state where an entire river system was still intact in a mostly undeveloped landscape. 

The Seboeis travels south and west through a narrow gorge before joining the East Branch about 20 miles downstream from where we put in for this four-day trip at Grand Lake Matagamon. The Wassataquoik tumbles out of the Klondike wilderness of Baxter State Park to the west and flows through the longest stretch of unfettered expert whitewater in the state before pouring into the East Branch a few miles downstream of the Seboeis.

Class V water in both of them, by the International Scale of River Difficulty, which is to say don’t expect much help if you end up swimming.

The Maine River Study concluded that the East Branch river system should be designated as a National Wild and Scenic River. It never happened. The Allagash, a far different river than the East Branch, is the only such designated river in the state.

Thirty-five years on, not much has changed on the East Branch. Access is easier. It’s not necessary to helicopter in, as it was in the 1970s. The logging has been heavy in places. More logging roads cross the East Branch country and some bridges. 

Still, there is only one footbridge that crosses the river and only about a dozen camps that can be seen from the water in the 26-mile stretch between the road bridge at Matagamon and the road bridge at Whetstone Falls.

The river system remains one of the least developed watersheds in the Northeastern states.

On the second day,we portage canoes and gear on a decommissioned logging road and an old logging tote path for about a third of a mile around Haskell Rock Pitch.

At a glance, Haskell Rock looks like one of those house-sized boulders flung around the landscape by glaciers that melted away about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. The retreating glaciers left piles of fine gravel in sinuous curves in the East Branch country where streams once flowed beneath the mile-thick ice. But, no. Haskell Rock is not from the recent glaciers. It formed at the shore of an ancient sea that washed here over a hundred million years before the dinosaurs. 

While the strange old rock resisted the weight of the ice and the pounding of the river, it apparently didn’t save its namesake: a logger who is rumored to have been stranded on the rock midriver during a log drive and subsequently washed off and into the current.

If they retrieved him, it is likely he got the river driver’s funeral: the man’s feet stuffed into a flour barrel and another barrel shoved over his head before he was buried with a short prayer in a shallow grave in the wilderness while the silent river men gathered around and the river growled the dirge.

Plenty of rum-drinking ghosts on this stretch of river, I’d wager, and even more of them bones on the Wassataquoik.

Haskell Rock Pitch is a Class IV or V rapid — a difficult piece of whitewater. A kayak could run it, but not an open canoe and certainly not a long and flat expedition canoe full of gear. 

We scout and the two of us run a tough little rapid right below it, heading toward the left side of the river, while everyone else takes a line to the right, then we all pull out to portage around Pond Pitch.

It’s another  third of a mile to carry the gear, another Class IV bordering on Class V rapid that can’t be run without flotation bags and precise maneuvering.

It’s not for us.

You could do it in a shorter canoe if you are competent and gutsy, my guide says. 

From the stern, he’s looking at the river, listening for a change in its voice, watching the horizon of the river ahead, looking for features. Can you see all the way down the rapid, or does it disappear? Because, if it disappears, that’s a sign of a precipitous drop.

That’s the thing about the East Branch. You don’t see the drops. You see a horizon line and that’s all. That’s the sign of a drop you probably don’t want to run.

The portages in the middle of the East Branch weed out the less determined, the unprepared, or the just plain weak.  One man each carries the heavy canoes, flipped overhead and with the middle thwart resting on his shoulders, down  the carry path as sweat pours into his eyes. The bugs biting, now that the day has grown warm.

We shoulder dry-bags with tents and personal gear, lug   canoe poles, paddles, and coolers. One man hoists the Wanigan — the wooden box with the kitchen pots and camp gear — onto the back of another, who places the tump-line strap around his forehead and sets off down the carry path, hunched beneath the weight of it. Down the carry and back again we go, making several trips. The third of a mile becomes a mile, with each third feeling longer than the last. 

We dip our hats and bandannas in the water, reload the canoes, strap down the gear fitted in to the middle and tie it all down.

Unlike Thoreau when he ran up into the Allagash in 1857, then across and down the East Branch with Penobscot guide Joseph Polis in a 18-foot birch canoe that was one foot deep and two feet wide, we didn’t throw our dishes loose in the bow so they remained handy-by. It would be a bit rattly while running the fast water, although much of the fast water is simply too fast for us to run.

No matter how loaded his birch canoe, Joe Polis was known to never flip a boat, though he chastised Thoreau and his companions for stepping too heavily into the canoe, thus causing the spruce root seams to leak. Polis had recently built the canoe, which carried about 600 pounds and was stuffed full as a market basket, according to Thoreau, who sat on the floor with his shins about up to his chin, while Polis sat on a crossbar in the stern.

Not too far upstream from here, in quiet water, Polis stood up in the canoe and shot a moose. 

He cut moose tongue and lip and some sirloin from the moose, then skinned it; all of it adding an extra hundred  pounds of weight to the canoe.

Joe’s canoe must have had about an inch or two of clearance between the water and the gunwales when the three men and a moose set off for the series of rapids and portages in the middle of the East Branch. Thoreau said it was packed so tight that if they had flipped, they wouldn’t lose so much as a dish.

As usual, our smooth progress erelong came to an end, and we were obliged to carry canoe and all about half a mile down the right bank, around some rapids or falls, wrote Thoreau. It required sharp eyes sometimes to tell which side was the carry, before you went over the falls, but Polis never failed to land us rightly.

Then, like now, it’s to the river again.

After this rough walking in the dark woods it was an agreeable change to glide down the rapid river in the canoe once more.



A half mile farther down from the last portage, we pull ashore, river left, for the next portage; a half mile times four around Grand Pitch, a Class VI rapid and the single longest drop we would see on the river.

Unrunnable. 

Which is to say, expect a barrel over your head and feet and a quick fare-thee-well.

Grand Pitch Falls roars below the horizon line out of sight  when we pull up to shore and start unloading. Glen and Beech take the Wanigan and start setting up the kitchen while Steve, the Massachusetts lawyer who may ditch it all to become a river guide, chops wood for the fire. Having done the heavy lifting in the portages, three of the canoe carriers set up their tents and crawl inside to nap. I head for the interior to botanize and see if my orientation skills will get me back to the river, as I trust they will, even if I lack the interior compass of Joe Polis. 

Thoreau had incomplete maps for the East Branch, anyway. Of course, he also got lost and Polis had to track him.

I take note of the landscape features and head east.

Grand Pitch and the surrounding forest feel remote, more so, the guides tell me, because of the serious work of the carries and the skill needed for the rapids to get here, into the heart of the East Branch.

By the time you get to Grand Pitch, your shoulders hurt. You’ve worked hard and you know you’ve accomplished something. 

Polis saw signs of caribou nearby — now long gone. A failed reintroduction effort nearby in 1990 recently yielded a random caribou antler, now on display at Big Spring cabin on the west side of the river. None of the 20 caribou survived.

Another larger track startled Polis.

What’s that? 

The foot of an animal had sunk into a small depression in the rock that was partially filled with soil and grass.

Well, what is it? asked Thoreau.

Stooping and laying his hand in it, (Polis) answered with a mysterious air, and in a half whisper, “Devil ledges about here — very bad animal ...

Mountain lion.

I find nothing so mysterious. Tall white pines, big red spruce, and large yellow birch. Moose tromped through recently. Bear, too, and coyote. Across the river, in winter, lynx tracks crisscrossed the snow, following snowshoe hare tracks through the young poplar stands.

Making my way through the twilit shade of the evergreens, I come out on the riverbank at still water downstream and around a bend from the falls. A quick cold dip in the river puts the blackflies off for two minutes, then I work my way back upstream and uphill on the carry path, passing trees that looked like a cousin to the familiar service berry, and then out to a point overlooking Grand Pitch.

Sitting down in a cushion of moss and wintergreen, I put my face over the edge.

Mist rises from the biggest drop, where the river tumbles twenty feet down over rocks along a stretch of river two-hundred feet long and less than half that wide. Upstream, the deep green water flows fast through the corridor of forest then falls, white and full-throated,  over Grand Pitch, sounding like a good preacher thumping the Good Book and calling the congregation to rise up and be saved. It’s the waterfall effect; all those negative ions spinning around like sparks created from the tumbling water, bouncing off one atom and into another, humming, making me feel caught in a Shakespearean midsummer’s dream; happy, half-drunk on river mist, and just plain lucky.

Hallelujah. 

I fall asleep in the moss, waking up in time to walk back to camp for dinner, where we have been joined by two other guides in a single canoe. Glen dishes out something so delicious that it silences the endless stream of bad river guide jokes. Then Hal breaks out his harmonica at a seat in front of the fire as the full Flower Moon of May rises over the river. Steve passes around the blueberry moonshine, which could effectively double as a cleaning product, making me wonder if the mythical squirrel-like creatures of the lumberman era — the Will-am-alones — will visit the sleeping men in the night to stuff little balls of poison ivy or lichen in their ears.

Tomorrow will tell, with its resulting Will-am-alone induced headaches and hallucinations that only the preacher can mist away. 

After the morning portage around Grand Pitch and a short river mile, we pull into shore above the Hulling Machine, a rapid so named because the rocks could strip bark off the logs flowing down the East Branch during spring river drives.

The Hulling Machine doesn’t look like much from upstream, because there’s a bend in the river that hangs a left and the rapid hides around the corner. It can be heard, though, and the second a canoe gets around that bend, it is in Class VI unrunnable whitewater trouble. That’s what happened several years back when a guide for a girls camp missed the portage stop on the right side upstream and a flotilla of canoes came around that bend right into the Machine.

Our guides take us to an older carry path, the Indian Carry, on the left side of the river. Shorter and more dangerous, because boats come closer to the dangerous side of the Hulling Machine before they take out, the Indian Carry cuts off 200 yards of the portage. It’s an ancient route. 

We line the canoes, tethering them together, and set out along the shore, our feet in the river sometimes, and sometimes on the bank a foot above it. I hold the bow line of our canoe to keep the nose pointed downstream. My companion holds the stern line to keep the tail straight to the bank. Walking in the river up to our shins, the upper part of the Hulling Machine roars past to the right. 

It takes no stretch to think that native Penobscot carried their birch canoes along this path before Polis brought Thoreau this way. The East Branch and the Seboeis River, too, are old canoe routes used for centuries by native people moving between the coast and the interior waters to the north and west, long before the loggers and the first white men came to the wild woods in search of big pine.

My river boots are a size too big. Inelegantly, I trip over one of my toes and aim face first off the bank towards the river. My companion happens to be in the way. Fortunately for both of us, he is much bigger than me, so instead of me knocking him into the river, he calmly sets me back down with my feet in the river and we carry on down the line.

One of the girls in the canoe party that crashed into the Hulling Machine ended up in front of Dave, the manager at Bowlin Camps, a century-old outfitters camp a mile or more downstream.

Their canoes were scattered up and down the river. Flotsam everywhere. One girl had snapped her leg, but no one drowned. Dave helped haul her out on an ATV.

After wading with our canoes past the upper Machine, we get to shore, unloading for another half-mile portage,  before running another mile of river. The river starts to change. The walls get higher, the trees taller, and the banks steeper as we take faster water down to the ledge above Bowlin Falls.

The land that the Quimby family wants to give to the National Park Service to turn into a Maine Woods National Monument borders the west side of the river for about 20 miles, from just below Grand Lake Matagamon where we started to about another 10 or so miles beyond Bowlin Falls. 

On the eastern bank, the Quimby family owns isolated parcels of about eight miles along the river in three different places.

Much of the sense of earned isolation that all of us felt at Grand Pitch was an illusion. A look at Google Earth shows that industrial timber harvesting is close by to the east. The closest logging road to Grand Pitch is about two miles away. And yet, two miles is not a bad buffer when the alternative could be having a grand private house with locked gates overlooking Grand Pitch or the Hulling Machine. 

Those pieces of river frontage will likely remain protected from development, whether or not the petition to declare a national monument is approved. But the East Branch flows on beyond the Quimbys’ ownership. The remaining unprotected areas along the East Branch prompted the Butler Conservation Fund to buy frontage to keep it available for river recreation and free of development, except to improve access and outdoor recreation and education.

 In June, they announced the purchase of almost nine miles of river frontage from a timber investment firm on the East Branch south of the Quimby ownership. The Open Space Institute will own the land, Maine River Trails will make improvements for river recreation and hiking trials, and the Maine Outdoor Education Program, which takes students from local schools outside to learn, will use the river and its banks as outdoor classrooms.

They’re too close to that hole.

Is it a wild river?

Well, compared to what?

They need to come left.

The sternman says it to himself, quietly and a bit tight. The hole in Bowlin Falls starts pulling the canoe towards it and then they’re past it into swifter, deeper green.