The rush of wings was so loud, so close to my head -that I involuntarily ducked down and took a knee on the hard granite ledge. As my arms rose up to protect myself I sensed, more than saw, the six-foot wing-span of the huge bird as it climbed hard from its perch on the broken stub of a lightning-struck pine.
It was only after the big raptor gained some altitude that I dared to look and could identify the morning sun glinting off the pure white headdress and tail feathers of the bald eagle. I found that my heart was racing as I watched it wing away over the vast landscape to the west of Umsaskis Lake. The reptilian core of my brain had my body primed to either run like hell or fight for my life.
The eagle’s perch was only ten or twelve feet off the deck of the nearly-flat granite slab where I had pitched my tent the night before. We were camped at The Ledges campsite on the east side of Umsaskis — and I had taken down my tent before sunrise in hopes of getting an early start. The eagle must have landed on the pine stub while I was packing the canoe. I had returned to search for any overlooked gear — and of course for the sunrise view.
The adrenaline rush was still making me shaky as I traced the path of the big bird across the early-morning sky. Down the trail a short ways I could hear Kevin and Bob putting together breakfast. But up here on the ledge the Neanderthal shadow of my
brain was convinced that I had narrowly missed becoming breakfast.
These stabs of fear are a vital part of any wilderness trip. To be completely unplugged from the modern digital world takes a great deal of effort and the effect — the serenity and simplicity — is transforming in itself. But the flip-side, the darker side of remote trekking is just as important.
The natural world is not up to code. The invisible safety net of man-made laws and regulations that we take for granted in modern American life are non-existent out here. The precipitous lip of the granite ledge I was standing on had no fence , rail or warning signs. The good folks at OSHA would never approve.
At Chase Rapids, on the previous day, nobody was pointing out the safest route through the whitewater. When the blustery wind blew my canoe sideways and the boat prepared to wrap itself around a mid-stream boulder — there was no rewind button or man-made cushion to rely on.
Sometimes outdoor enthusiasts carry this theme too far and we get dramatic stories like – “My Death-Defying Attempt to Toast the Perfect Marshmallow”. What we really mean is that we have visited a part of the world which has not yet been sanitized and stripped of its ability to inspire, at least in short bursts, the primal “fight or flight” reflex.
Our camp on Umsaskis was a welcome respite from two days of windblown canoe travel. A hard overnight rainstorm we experienced at the north end of Eagle Lake (Little Eagle Campsite) had slowly given way to clearer weather. But it was a stubborn
transformation accompanied by occasional blustery showers on Tuesday (8/28) as we navigated Churchill Lake.
At one point, during a showery lunch stop, I eagerly accepted a kind invitation to take shelter under a tarp at a campsite on Schofield Point. Three generations of a Canadian family from Halifax were gathered there around a campfire. I enjoyed my first cold beer since forever as we exchanged stories.
Later that day the sky blew itself clear but the wind never stopped and also never stopped changing directions. Hugging the shoreline too closely meant struggling through mud flats and weed mats. Cutting across open water meant challenging a rising blow from the northwest that had no compunction about switching around to the west or even to the northeast. Eagle sightings and loon calls kept us going. We landed
exhausted at an extraordinary site named “The Jaws” at the northern outlet of Churchill Lake.
We planned to run Chase Rapids the next day (Wednesday 8/29) and at dawn the wind was completely calm. A cow moose grazed in the thoroughfare near camp, while a blue heron fished nearby. It couldn’t last — and it didn’t. By 8:00 AM the wind was back. I
pressed on early, ahead of Bob and the Commander, hoping to avoid the worst of it.
Arriving at the dam early, I had a chance to scout the rapids and meet the ranger stationed there. Waterway Rangers offer a portage service for gear (and sometimes canoes) to be transported by truck around the rapids below the dam. This was a point in the trip that I had been nervously anticipating.
Chase Rapids is a Class II run that would ordinarily not concern me, especially if my gear was being transported by truck. But my 1953 wood and canvas, Old Town canoe was giving me pause. I worried about maneuvering through whitewater with the 3/4″ keel that runs the entire 17-foot length of the boat. I worried about green paint, canvas, aged and brittle cedar ribs.
The Commander and Bob were slow to arrive, probably due to the wind. Churchill Dam was once a village that was the hub of logging operations in this part of the state. It had a school and a post office along with the ubiquitous company store. A museum has been installed in one of the surviving barns — it holds mementoes large and small from the glory days. I took a quick look but I was distracted.
I had a canoe pole with me — I told myself I would use it to pick my way slowly down through the worst of the rapids. But I agonized over this. I walked along an old portage trail on the east side of the river. It was obvious that it was never used anymore. I scouted the rapids for a mile downriver — still no closer to a final decision.
Back at the dam the boys had arrived and were packing the gear from the
Commander’s super-sized Old Town into the ranger’s pickup truck for the shuttle. It was decision time. Although I had owned the canoe for three years, I had never run it in any kind of whitewater. I pulled the boat up onto the dock and prepared to heft it onto my shoulder — still undecided . The varnished interior gleamed in the mid-morning sun.
“That’s a beautiful boat,” remarked Matt Larouche. Matt is the supervisor for all of the
rangers on the AWW. He just happened to be at Churchill Dam that morning and was assisting Rachel, the young ranger assigned to the Dam for the summer months, in transporting our gear.
I explained my dilemma. His exact quote was: “If that was my boat I wouldn’t take it down through those rapids.” I have made canoeing decisions based on much less reliable authority in the past — and I had no intention of ignoring such direct advice.
In the end I borrowed a 17-foot Royalex canoe from the ranger camp to make the solo run through the rapids. I used my canoe pole for the first mile and it was heaven. To be able to play in rapids — unencumbered by the bundles of gear that had been my lifeline for the last several hundred miles — was a vacation.
About a mile below the dam the Allagash makes a sharp bend to the left, which on this day meant a turn directly into the howling northwest wind. Poling became hopeless. I dropped to my knees, to lower my profile, and paddled hard. But the unloaded boat skittered across the river on every fickle gust of wind. The last half-mile of the rapid was pure misery. Between the wind and the current it was almost impossible to control the empty, keel-less canoe. I got blown sideways repeatedly –scraping across partially-submerged boulders.
I consider myself a fair solo canoeist on water like this. I have soloed both the northern half of the Allagash and the St. John River on several occasions. And those trips were in a boat that was identical to the canoe I had borrowed. But the wind was relentless here — at one point in the quickwater section below the main rapid – I actually moved up to the front of the empty canoe in an attempt to paddle against the wind and maintain control.
We landed at Bissonette Bridge –
a washed out road crossing that served as an end point for the ranger shuttle. Our gear and my canoe had arrived ahead of us. I fretted over the fresh scars I had made in the Royalex hull of the borrowed canoe during the run. After lunch we reloaded both canoes and moved on toward Umsaskis Lake — leaving the borrowed canoe at the shuttle spot.
It actually felt good to be loaded with gear and to have the big wooden keel to help me keep a straight course. I began to realize that the keel had become my silent paddling partner on the trip. One that I would have been lost without on more than one occasion.
Five miles later, Umsaskis Lake proved to be the perfect example. The wind was fierce
as we entered the southern end of the lake. We ducked behind marshy islands and considered stopping for the night — but we moved on and fought the wind to the very end when we finally landed, exhausted at The Ledges site.
I pitched my tent at the top of the ledge, unaware of the eagle perch just above me, and fell into a deep sleep.