I pulled into the campground around 7pm. My friends from southern New England arrived about an hour later. This extra time allowed me to setup my tent, repack my gear, and settle into a quiet weekend away. The boys arrived around dark. No one really knew which site I had. Two vehicles approached slowly. Guys emerged from their trucks darkened by the night. We exchanged hugs, handshakes, and salutations. After a few hours of tomfoolery, we conked out for the evening.
We awoke early, around 5am, gathered our gear, and hit the road. We ate at a local cafe in town. The service was slow and food was just ok. One weary worker looked a bit lost in life. His job at the time was to transcribe Appalachian Trail hiker's notes onto a drop down ceiling tile. I hope he didn't have a college loan at this point in life.
We escaped this scene and traveled north. A familiar road led us to parking at Ambajesus Lake. Here, I dropped my car and warily reviewed my car contents before I remembered my keys and locked it up for a few days. I loaded my gear into D's SUV and we traveled along the Golden Road, a "highway" of sorts into the North Maine Woods, an actively managed forest and recreation area. The road alternated abruptly from pavement to gravel without warning. Huge potholes emerged as if this was normal. As a kid, I traveled this road probably a hundred times (without exaggeration), and I could not recognize it at all this day. Logging of wood, new skidder trails, and a 6 year absence contributed to my astonishment.
We traveled south of the West Branch of the Penobscot River, also south of Baxter State Park. Many times we enjoyed views of the river and 3000-5000 foot mountains hovering in the distance. The road finally became dirt without a surprising reversion to pavement. We pressed forward into the early summer heat and haze. Eventually, we met the Caribou Checkpoint, where we spent about $250 on 3 days of access. Being a Maine resident was cheaper for me, but I subsidized my southern New England friends.
We continued towards Lobster Stream, unpacked our gear, and eventually met my friend who assisted with the shuttle. He and I drove in his truck and two other vehicles followed. We saw a momma bear and two baby bears on the dirt road. One baby bear separated and climbed a tree. We watched this bear for a few minutes, took pictures, and departed. We next saw a bobcat at a small swamp and few deer running along the road. The road was bad and not fit for cars. My friend D punctured a tire. We fixed it with a plug so he would have a spare as backup. Many places were washed out, culverts were smashed, and deep ruts recklessly carved the road.
Eventually we reached the Chesuncook Lake. We dropped our vehicles and quickly checked out where we would take out. The state recently installed a boat dock and provided parking. Previously, this was somewhat manhandled by the local lakehouse. The lakehouse recommends that people fly in via seaplane and stay. The village has a population of 30 people, a small church, and an abandoned schoolhouse. The village was originally settled in the 1800's. Henry David Thoreau paddled through here in the 1800s.
After dropping vehicles, we piled into my friend's truck and we traveled an hour back to the start. The other three guys waited three hours for us to arrive. We packed our gear, said goodbye to my friend, and headed downriver.
M and I shared a boat and we eventually separated from the group. On the paddle, we saw 8 eagles, 4 moose, and many ducks on this section of river. We pulled into the campsite well ahead of the rest of the gang. Eventually the other two canoes pulled in. Most of the boys were not in a hurry at all. M and I had already setup tents and were enjoying some relaxing time in camp chairs on Big Island. M cooked a nice meal of breaded chicken, broccoli, coconut rice, and blueberry crisp -- all cooked on the campfire. I slept outside under the stars at the top of the cliff.
The next morning we awoke, cooked and ate breakfast and hit the water. We paddled for a few hours, stopped for lunch, and continued our way down river. Eventually the river opened up into Chesuncook Lake. We paddled towards Gero Island, a 3200 acre island. The island is now a preserve, having been last harvested for wood in 1920. We setup camp, made a nice dinner of steak and vegetable wraps, and enjoyed some quality time on the beach watching the sun eventually become a full moon evening. I pulled my sleeping bag and pad onto a rough beach and slept under the stars. A tumultuous evening of wind, waves, clouds, full moon, and stars interrupted my sleep.
We awoke not as early as the previous day, enjoyed a nice breakfast, and packed our gear. We paddled across a slightly choppy lake to our takeout. A hazy sky shrouded a normally clear view of Maine's tallest mountain. The gang begrudgingly departed from the canoes for the last time. We visited our vehicles to find another flat tire on the same vehicle that had this problem before. We replaced it with a spare and loaded all the gear and canoes onto the vehicle. Sadly, we missed seeing the 1800's cemetery on the way out. However, we saw our fourth bear, which is always a treat for me. I am happy if I see one bear per year.
After two hours or so of dirt roads, we finally made it back to pavement. I gathered my gear and two canoes from my friends. We hugged and vowed to canoe again in the fall. I know it will be tough. Some will make it. Some will not. Hopefully, I am on the right side of the equation. I drove the interstate slowly to my home. I vowed never again to travel with two canoes on top of my car.