Steaming cup of tea in hand, I wander away from camp down to the shore of Chesuncook Lake in Piscataquis County, where our colorful canoes are neatly stacked one against the other. Rising from the vast forestland across the lake is Big Spencer Mountain, its precipitous north slope resembling a shark’s tooth from this angle.
A hundred feet south along the shore puts me in sight of Katahdin. The day’s last light is glowing pink and orange on the trees, while beyond, the mountain looms large in shadowy silhouette. I stand and look for a long time, reveling in the beauty of this spot called Mouser Island.
It is final night of a bucket-list canoe trip – a grand paddle along the Penobscot River Corridor from Lobster Lake to the Boom House near the site of the old Chesuncook Dam. Buoyed with gratitude for this long-awaited opportunity and awe for these wilderness surroundings, I amble back to join my guide and trip companions, just as the big orange orb dips below the horizon.
Polly Mahoney has been guiding canoe trips like this for three decades. She and her partner, Kevin Slater, own Mahoosuc Guide Service, and come winter the pair trades canoes for dogsleds and adventures into the snowy wonderland. Based in Newry not far from rugged Grafton Notch, they are two of the hardy few who make their living guiding in the Maine woods year-round.
Mahoney’s trips are run the traditional Maine guide way, making them extra special. She and Slater make their own wood and canvas canoes, paddles, canoe poles and wannigans (wooden storage boxes). Gear is toted in canvas Duluth packs, and all cooking is done over a wood fire. Food is plentiful and delicious, coffee is brewed cowboy-style, and there’s always fresh bread and tasty desserts baked in a Dutch or reflector oven.
Around the campfire that evening, we take turns reading aloud from Henry David Thoreau’s “The Maine Woods,” finding great joy in passages where our journey coincides with Thoreau’s trips through this region in 1846, 1853 and 1857. In the company of friends and his Penobscot guides, Thoreau chose to explore this part of Maine because it was a wilderness, or at least as wild as any land he had ever visited.
“Wilderness was an important focus of his thinking and writing,” wrote J. Parker Huber in “The Wildest Country: A Guide to Thoreau’s Maine.”
“The word or its variants – wild, wildness, wildly – recurs over 100 times in ‘The Maine Woods.’ ”
We, too, have come for some of that wild feeling that only the Maine woods can impart to one’s spirit, a temporary reprieve from the daily hustle and bustle of everyday life. But even here time passes all too quickly, as Thoreau notes: “Though you have nothing to do but see the country, there’s rarely any time to spare… before the night and drowsiness is upon you.”
The Penobscot River Corridor and Seboomook Public Lands are managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands and protect in fee and easement more than 100 miles of rivers and lakes from Canada Falls Lake to Gero Island to Ambejejus Lake. This sparkling gem of conservation in the heart of Maine’s commercial timber country has changed relatively little since Thoreau’s time.
The West Branch of the Penobscot River trip is a scenic, 5-day paddle of about 35 miles. Lobster Stream is a placid thoroughfare, while the Penobscot River presents just a few stretches of mild rips and rocks. Wind and waves can be an issue on the lakes if the weather comes up, especially on Chesuncook. There are no portages. Roomy campsites with a picnic table and ridgepole, fire ring and privy, are well-spaced and numerous.
This is a perfect trip for reasonably experienced paddlers. But if you’re like me and could never cobble together a group, I’d recommend signing on to a guided trip with Mahoosuc Guide Service or any one of a number of other fine canoe outfitters.
The Maine Professional Guides Association and Maine Wilderness Guides Association are your go-to resources for this dream canoe and camping trip.