What’s the best canoe trip in Maine? Most would respond Allagash, St. John, Penobscot or St. Croix. Having paddled them all, I believe the Machias River in far eastern Maine is simply the best.
Beginning on 5th Machias Lake in the heart of Washington County, it travels eighty miles to the sea. The wilderness voyage includes lakes, numerous whitewater rapids, a waterfall and at least one portage.
Free-flowing, after departing 4th Machias Lake it journeys in a southeasterly direction to Machias Bay. On the two occasions I paddled the entire river, six days were required for completion. However, there are numerous access points that allow for several shorter alternatives. As a result, I’ve experienced about thirty trips since my first endeavor in 1979.
The Machias has provided a plethora of exciting, challenging, unique adventures. Thrills, spills, high water, frigid swims, a couple of snowstorms and one near hypothermic event have been encountered. Despite the many obstacles, each spring I feel a compulsion to return.
Over the years, a multitude of friends and family have been recruited to accompany me on my Machias escapades. One could argue that those who haven’t participated are in the minority. Always a memorable undertaking my brother-in-law once remarked, “I only paddle the Machias every other year. It takes me two years to recover.”
River gauges were high and four of us were back on the Machias again this spring; absent my brother-in-law. I generally schedule the trip for the last of April as there is usually adequate water with no black flies. You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced peak black fly season on the Machias. Once suffered, you won’t want to revisit the ordeal. The nasty blood suckers once camouflaged a yellow canoe black.
Since we didn’t have time to complete the whole length, much debate preceded our decision on the itinerary. The preference was the most scenic section with maximum whitewater; the outlet of 3rd Lake to Holmes Falls. Access to those points on muddy old tote roads was questionable so we settled on the outlet of 1st Lake to the historic logging village of Whitneyville; an excursion that would entail nine significant whitewater descents, a scattering of easier rapids and a portage of Holmes Falls. Since only one carry was anticipated, we packed maximizing old age creature comforts.
The drive to Whitneyville facilitated scouting the only two rapids visible from the road, Whitneyville Falls and Airline Rapids. Both were higher than I recalled but seemed manageable even for heavily laden solo canoes. Then the rain began in earnest. Fortuitously, we spent the night before the trip in a cabin in Whitneyville while the weather outside was frightful with continuous heavy rain, powerful winds and periodic thunderstorms.
Leaving two vehicles at the foot of Whitneyville Falls, we transported four boats, paddlers and gear to the outlet of 1st Lake. Unfortunately, dreadful weather continued during our first day on the river. Negotiating potentially hazardous Karrick Rips in substantial waves, it was apparent the water level was rising abruptly. Airline Rapids was much more difficult than anticipated, all of us taking copious amounts of water over the gunnels. Arriving at Little Falls, one of the more difficult rapids, it was massive and dangerous. The portaging began.
Normally, Wigwam Rapids consist of four exciting Class II and III descents. Hopes diminished when prolonged First Wigwam could not be safely navigated. We carried our gear and paddled empty boats on either end of the steepest section spending the night at the finish.
The second day was much more of the same. Two of the remaining Wigwams were paddled with difficulty and the third was walked before completing the demanding Holmes Falls portage. Usually an entertaining technical rapid, Little Holmes Falls was replete with unavoidable exploding waves and perilous holes that mandated a lengthy carry. Following ten miles of flat water, we portaged around Great Falls, the longest most exacting rapid on the river, and camped below.
After struggling against gusty winds for seven miles on our final day, we approached Whitneyville Falls. Altogether different than the rapid we had previously scouted, no route appeared reasonable so we took off above. In all, six portages were endured instead of one. A review of online gauge readings indicated we had confronted near flood conditions with more than twice the volume of any previous trip.
On the fortieth anniversary of my first outing, this old man received yet another lesson on the Machias. I’ll return…..probably in two years.
The author of “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals – New England,” Ron Chase resides in Topsham. Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com or he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.