Nugent’s Camps were started in 1936 when Al and Patty Nugent put a wood cook stove and all their other worldly possessions on a log raft and made their way down the length of Chamberlain Lake. When the found a suitable spot they landed the raft and built their first log structure on the eastern shore. They did not have a deed. They did not have a lease. They did not have permission.
Even in 1936 this caught the attention of the State of Maine which owned the public lot. Despite repeated requests, and then orders, from the Maine Forest Service — Al & Patty simply refused to leave. The Nugents kept cutting wood, building camps and inviting guests.
Eventually the state conceded that the camps where here to stay and granted a lease for the property. Thirty years later, when other structures along the newly-designated Allagash Wilderness Waterway were being torn down or burned — the state didn’t even put up a fight to have the Nugents removed.
Today Al & Patty are gone. But their spirit of defiance in the face of purported bureaucratic authority over these wild lands and waters is alive and well along the entire length of the Allagash. And the set of camps they established here remains as a monument to their hard work and philosophy.
The camp was a real luxury after so many nights on the trail. But I set out along the lake ahead of Kevin and Bob, hoping to have calm winds, and knowing that they would quickly overtake me with Kevin’s small outboard. The outboard is a concession to Chamberlain’s reputation for heavy northwest winds that have sometimes kept canoeists windbound for days at a time. It will allow the Commander more flexibility in dealing with the time constraints and the reality of moving a 20-foot canoe, with a 1000 pound payload against a heavy chop.
Small outboard motors (under 10 horsepower) are permitted on almost all of the Allagash waters. The Allagash Wilderness Waterway was envisioned, in its purest form, as a nearly-100 mile cross-section of Maine’s most remote lands. It would have one permitted entry point and one exit — in between there would be no bridges, no motors and no signs of human habitation or industry. This vision is still promoted by some groups in the ongoing political machinations that inevitably accompany any wilderness designation.
The futility of that kind of extreme view is evident in a land where loggers, who did not care for God’s hydrologic choices, simply changed the direction of an entire watershed to meet their needs. The modern-day ancestors of those loggers from the 1800’s — and their corporate assignee landowners — have a limited amount of patience with extreme wilderness advocacy.
And so the Allagash is a compromise. For the folks from down south it is a week-long expedition through a pristine wilderness setting interrupted occasionally by the sound of an outboard or the view of a logging truck crossing a bridge. For the locals it is a part of their backyard playground, suitable for daytrips or weekend excursions, surrounded by a commercial forest that has sustained them for generations. As in any compromise, each party’s view harbors contradictions, hypocrisies and petty grievances that will outlive us all.
The stop at Nugent’s positioned us on the eastern shore of the lake, subject to the wind and waves that have the entire length of the huge water body to gain speed and strength. Fortunately, the whitecaps were steady and intimidating but not unmanageable. For months, I worried that the substantial keel on my 1953 Old Town, wood and canvas canoe would make solo paddling on this trip a misery. Today, I was thankful for every last inch of it as I hugged the shoreline and worked to keep a straight course through quartering waves and gusty cross winds.
Tall pines hugged the shore and pocket-beaches beckoned me for a swim along the
seven-mile paddle to Lock Dam. But I resisted all temptations to stop except at the site of the former Chamberlain Farm. The farm was a depot that once supplied hay, garden produce, equipment and other supplies to the logging camps that dotted the area. It is reduced now to a single building, salvaged from the old structure, and used as an outlying camp for Nugents. One of the steamships that towed booms of logs across the lake in the
early days was abandoned here and the remains of the boiler and the gears rust quietly among shoreline brush.
Lock Dam is also much reduced from what it was in its heyday. At one time a series of locks here allowed booms of logs from Eagle and Churchill lakes to be raised more than 20 feet in elevation and floated out onto the surface of Chamberlain. Today an earthen dam simply holds back Chamberlain’s waters, maintaining an artificial but long-standing lake level, and requiring a short portage to a brook that feeds Eagle Lake. This brook is our first inkling that low-water will be an issue for the rest of the trip.
By the time we reached the open part of Eagle, threatening clouds , gusty , variable winds and a heavy chop had become the norm. Again, I was thankful for my wooden keel that made solo-paddling in the 17-foot Old Town a possibility under these conditions. A possibility… but a difficult, strenuous one. I got blown ashore by a thundershower near the Pump Handle campsite. Here, I ran into a father/son team from the Sebago area on a two-week trip that had started at Chamberlain Bridge. They were cheerfully trimming brush to make the campsite sign more visible from the lake.
After Kevin and Bob caught up to me in the support boat we moved on to the Little Eagle campsite at the north end of Eagle. It was an eighteen-mile day, with a short portage, and through tough conditions — we were grateful to make landfall. The tarp was barely up over the picnic tables before a heavy rain shower began pounding it. We set the tents between showers and managed a campfire despite occasional dousings from downpours.
I have been canoe-camping on a regular basis with Kevin Regan for more than 15 years, much of it on the Allagash and St. John Rivers. We’ve hunted and fished together all across the state, and our camp-setting routine is said to sometimes resemble the well-practiced dance of a long-married husband /wife team.
Bob Goldman, on the other hand, is a novice canoeist and this trip is his very first on the Allagash. He has a wealth of backcountry camping experience in Yellowstone,
Baxter State Park and other venues. He also has a great sense of humor — which is maybe the most important piece of camping gear ever invented. It is amazing to be able to experience the Allagash again through the eyes of an eager newcomer. And the campfire conversation is much more interesting when one participant is a wolf-advocate and a supporter of the Maine North Woods National Park.