Trip Report: Paddle Down the East Branch of the Penobscot

My partner, Gary, and I decided to run the East Branch of the Penobscot River during the weekend of June 16th and 17th. I recently joined the Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters as its inaugural Executive Director and we planned this trip to get to know one of the three waterways that can be paddled in our new national monument and to give me some whitewater training. In a former life, Gary was an instructor for Outward Bound as well as the Boy Scouts; he’s paddled this stretch of river more times than he can count. Back in 2013, the East Branch was the first river I had ever paddled with Gary. We were both eager to return, but we knew that the quick water, rapids, and numerous waterfalls requiring portages would test our physical and mental dexterity.

We decided to stay at Bowlin Camps, an old lodge with a series of sporting cabins on the shore of the East Branch, abutting monument lands to the west and south. Dave and his wife, Terry, manage the camps and were excellent hosts during our three-night stay. For a modest fee, Dave shuttled us from the camps up to the Matagamon Dam on both Saturday and Sunday, allowing us to run the exciting part of the river both days while enjoying the creature comforts of beds, shelter from the bugs, and even some wi-fi.

We arrived at Bowlin Camps late Friday afternoon. Jeff, the camp cook, prepared us an excellent meal of salad, lasagna, garlic bread, and the best chocolate cream pie I’ve ever had. Afterward, Gary and I headed to Bowlin Pond for a refresher on some paddling techniques and to see the sun set behind the Traveler Mountains. Bowlin Camps keeps a canoe on the pond and if you ask nicely they’ll let you use it.

Early Saturday morning we loaded up the canoe, paddles, and supplies for a day on the river. Dave dropped us off on Matagamon Lake just before the Baxter Gate, allowing us more time to practice before we headed to the dam to start our river journey. The river flowage is regulated by the Matagamon Lake Owners Association and was running at about 330 CFS (cubic feet per second) – a little low, but passable. We pushed off from below the dam on a cloudless, 78-degree day.

As we paddled under the route 159 bridge we saw several anglers wading in the water looking to hook trout and a couple of folks camped out on the shore of Matagamon Wilderness Camps. After the first mile or so of the river, we didn’t see another soul for the rest of our trip (both Saturday and Sunday). But we didn’t have to look far for signs of life; we spotted river otters, bald eagles, beavers, and even a moose along the way.  Of course, the blackflies, mosquitos, and moose flies also made unwelcome appearances, but they were mostly deterred by a stiff breeze both days.

After passing through The Oxbow, where author Henry David Thoreau and his Wabanaki guide, Joe Polis, once camped for a night in 1857, we approached Stair Falls, the first major set of rapids we would run. Some choose to portage this series of ledges, but we were up for the ride. We scouted both the upper and lower falls. The more serious lower falls are a series of ledges that can make for some bumps in low water, but we managed to successfully run them without taking much water or getting hung up. Most run this rapid river-center to just right of river-center. It’s definitely an exhilarating experience.

After passing by the Haskell Hut on river right (which you can ski to and spend a night at during the winter) and passing through Haskell Deadwater, we came to the first of four mandatory portages, Haskell Rock Pitch. After a snack, schlepping our gear, and some scouting, we were ready to run two more rapids just below the falls, Mikelic I and Mikelic II. Our planned route was to zigzag the first set of rapids, moving from river-right to river-left, and back to river-right again to avoid a number of boulders and pillows – so much for best-laid plans! As we turned the boat to river-left I felt a big bump and then the next thing I knew we were both in the river and our canoe was floating upside down at our side. Luckily, the same previously unseen rock that resulted in us dumping the boat was also providing us with a safe-harbor eddy. We managed to pull our boat up on some rocks, bailed out as much water as we could, and finished running the rapids. Aside from a couple scrapes and sunken pairs of sunglasses, we were fine. In talking with some of the locals later, we heard stories of just how serious these rapids and other spots on the river can be – those less prepared or knowledgeable haven’t fared as well.

After our swim, we made our way to Pond Pitch and a short while later the Grand Pitch. Both of these falls are mandatory portages. You can portage on either side of the river at both falls, river-right is on monument lands while river-left is privately owned. There is some quick water before and after both portages, but not rapids like the ones right after Haskell, making for a welcomed easier ride. It should be noted that both portages have some really nice campsites; there’s even a lean-to managed by the National Park Service on river-right. All of these sites, along with the falls, portages, and other helpful information, are detailed in the Map Adventures Katahdin Woods and Waters recreation map. I’d highly recommend having it before setting off on a journey in the monument. Folks that sign up to be members or renew their membership in 2018 get one of these maps as part of their membership.

Not far after Grand Pitch is The Hulling Machine, the fourth and final portage if you are pulling out at Bowlin Camps. The name comes from the time of the log drivers. Rumor has it that this waterfall is so powerful that the trunks of century-old white pines would exit the falls with their bark stripped. You can only portage this fall on river-right and, boy, is it a difficult one. The nearly half-mile portage goes uphill for a good clip and I have never seen so many mosquitos congregating in the hollow of my boat as I have on this carry. Gary and I probably switched off the canoe half a dozen times before getting back to the water. Gary told me that this portage used to make the Outward Bound students he guided cry. I can see why.

Our last leg of our river journey was down river to Bowlin Falls. You can portage this set of falls, too, but it’s much more fun to run them. We took our boat out shortly after the falls at Bowlin Camps. We prepared a campfire (Dave actually prepped the fire for us, we just had to light a match) and cooked some steaks while we enjoyed frosty cold beers.

The next morning we headed out a little later, choosing to put in just below the dam and forgo paddling on the lake. We ran the river, spending extra time scouting Mikelic I, where we bumped along and at one point got hung up on a rock, but managed to make it through with only a little water in the boat and our pride intact.

We ran the river much more quickly on Sunday. In fact, we managed to be eating dinner in our 1895 cabin (named for the year it was built) shortly after 5 pm. As we wondered what to do with ourselves that evening, Dave and Terry invited us to head out for a drive on the dirt roads of the monument just to the south of the property to scout moose and other wildlife. We managed to see five moose during our drive on roads that had us grateful for four-wheel drive and high clearance. As we drove around, I made a mental note to come back next time with mountain bikes – the dirt roads are begging to be explored by cyclists.

We slept well Sunday night after two days of paddling and portaging. We awoke on Monday to the sound of rain hitting our cabin roof and high-fived each other for having gotten the good weather during our paddle days. All told, it was a great weekend in some of the most remote and interesting waters in the state. I wouldn’t want to paddle the river with much less water, so I’d encourage folks to check the Matagamon Dam outputs prior to setting out. I’d highly recommend staying at Bowlin Camps. I left with a profound sense of gratitude and respect for the wild and beautiful public that is the East Branch, knowing that I’ll surely be back to share this treasure with others.

Andy Bossie, Executive Director