Paddling The Allagash

"Paddling the Bark Stream"
Journal Entries and a 35mm Perspective

Words by Jake Dombek
Photos by Dana Ambrose〡 Sept 1st, 2023

“Pull over”, Liam says as I swerve past a few damaging potholes on the Golden Road in the North Maine Woods. I steer off the patchwork of pavement and dirt, and my 2009 Rav-4 clunks to a halt. The trunk is filled with river tripping gear, and a 17 foot red canoe is strapped to the roof. My three friends and I whip open our doors and jog across the road towards the deep thrum of swift moving water.

We’ve been driving for over 7 and half hours and our first glimpse of whitewater was too enticing to ignore. It’s September 2nd 2022 and my friends Liam, Luke, Dana, and I have come to paddle the infamous Allagash River, a name that for some means the possibility of adventure by canoe, and for others an image of hazy white belgian style beer floats immediately to the surface. The associations with the Allagash are endless and unique. Paddling the Allagash may be a yearly spring tradition, a proud lifetime achievement, or the beginning of more trips to follow. No matter the immediate association, the Allagash is one of Maine’s most renowned rivers and rightfully so. In many ways it is a quintessential canoe trip, offering a mix of lake paddling & river travel, a fun taste of whitewater, and a feeling of wildness. 

For nearly 11,000 years it was the home of the Wabanaki peoples (it still is), a confederation of indigenous nations formalized in the 1600’s consisting of the Abenaki, Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot tribes. In the late 1800’s the area was heavily logged and altered by dams that reversed the flow of massive lakes on the waterway, altering the waterway significantly. Before all of this (about 12,000 years ago) it was covered by a mile of ice.

To dive into the depths of the story of the Allagash would take many words. The river has been through many phases of life and endured much to get to where it is today. As I sat down to plan the trip over the winter months, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to my own friendships and be inspired by the resilience of the river.

Padding the Allagash was a chance for my friend Liam and I to share our love for extended canoe tripping with two of our oldest friends and first time paddlers, Luke and Dana. The four of us grew up in Vermont together, went to the same high school, played on the same sports teams, and subsequently went our separate ways for college. 7 years after high school, and one pandemic sprinkled in, here we were in our mid twenties all living together back in Vermont. We had just endured a pandemic together and been stretched both mentally and physically to adapt to a new way of life. Everything felt different and fragile, but amongst the turmoil the stars had aligned for us all to embark on a paddling trip together.

Now back to the trip….

Day 0: Travel Day

Our morning started in the Green Mountains of Vermont and we’re now about 45 miles North of Greenville, Maine. We stand on the bank of the Penobscot River enthralled by the emanating energy of a rather tasty C-2 rapid, exchanging quips about what line looks the most runnable. The power of the river is striking, and I can see a blend of excitement and uncertainty on Luke and Dana’s faces. After 10 minutes or so we head back to the car and drive the remaining mile to our camp for the night, The Big Eddy Campground. We have about an hour drive to our put-in tomorrow and will officially enter the North Maine Woods through the Telos checkpoint. Liam, Luke, Dana, and I are stiff and a little tired, but mostly excited and eager for what the Allagash holds. A 5am wake up awaits.

Day 1:

It feels amazing to finally have set out on our journey. We awoke at 5am to break camp and make our breakfast of oats and coffee. Liam and I still got it, although the machine that we once were could use some lubrication. That said, all went smoothly today. We passed through the Telos checkpoint after paying our fees and were the first ones through the gate for the day. After driving a bit farther, meeting ranger Jay, we grabbed our 2nd canoe and were paddling out from the Chamberlain Bridge by 8:40 am. We did a little over 10 miles today and had a very relaxing afternoon at our campsite at Lock Dam. We almost didn’t know what to do with ourselves, our afternoon was so relaxing. We’re all pretty tired and in our tents at 8:30pm.

Day 2:

Today was my ideal paddling weather. Light rain giving way to mist with clouds nestled in comfortably. It was another day of mostly lake paddling besides our short stint on the stream after Lock Dam. Wind really picked up on Eagle Lake in the early afternoon and we ended up waiting a while for it to calm. It did not however, or was a miniscule reduction, but we pushed on regardless making the decision to paddle on to Scofield Point (our original plan for the day). We saw two moose, a cow and her calf just after Johns bridge. Scofield Point is beautiful, we camped by the beach because an older couple was camped at one of the other sites.It’s been fun introducing Luke and Dana to what Liam and I have done so much. I can see the start of them settling into the experience. I’m excited for more on all fronts.

Day 3:

The last couple days of lake paddling have started to add up. Definitely feeling a bit sore after the rapids today. Speaking of that, we had a great run through Chase Rapids and our first section of the Allagash River today. Even at “higher water” it was pretty bony and most definitely not C2. It was super fun nonetheless and a good reminder for me what it feels like to be on a river. This is my first time sterning on a trip like this and I am definitely still learning the ways. Our plan is to take it easy and just have fun for the rest of the week. We’re camped at Chisholm Brook just before Umsaskis Lake. Weather has been perfect and the campsites are extremely luxurious. Time for my book and bed. It’s 8:45pm.


Day 4:

We clocked 20k today which Luke and Dana are proud of, me too! We left camp at just after 8am and paddled into our camp just past Round Pond at Turk island, just after 5pm. It’s a great spot just after the first set of swifts as the Allagash continues from Round Pond. Everyone is having a great time despite soreness, which was my number one goal. It’s been so nice to be unplugged and just be present where we are. I’ve missed that feeling a lot and hope to continue to integrate it into my life. We plan on taking our time for the rest of the journey. We’ve been saving eggs and bacon and tomorrow is going to be a delightful breakfast. For now, I need rest. 


Day 5:

The Allagash really is a peaceful and relaxing river. It’s beauty is apparent but not overwhelming like some places are. We had an excellent slow morning with eggs and bacon cooked over a fire for breakfast. We camped at Ramsey Ledge today and are a bit disappointed. It’s not much of a ledge as the name would suggest. We did hear some coyotes howling across the river from us just as dusk was turning to night.The trip has been awesome so far. It’s been fun helping Dana and Luke learn the ropes of canoe tripping. The camping has definitely been exceptionally nice, and having outhouses at every site is mind blowing. I think it’s been an easy transition for them and hasn't been too stressful. Tomorrow we have a quick paddle to Allagash falls and then a day to play.


Day 6:

Today was not a big paddling day. We left our camp at Ramsey Ledge at 10am and were paddling into our new camp by 11:30. We’ve spent most of our day exploring around Allagash falls. I can hear the deep thrum of the falls as I write. We boldly decided to make our own campsite on the rocky beach near the end of the portage trail. It’s a beautiful spot but the bugs have been a bit obnoxious. Seeing the falls in person and swimming and climbing around them has been one of the highlights of the trip for me. The falls are split in the middle by a rocky island and mist is constantly in the air. It’s been weird taking time like this to really relax and play. It’s a bit of a foreign concept to Liam and I. I think especially Liam. I hope this can be a good reminder that going slow can be fun too. The Allagash hasn’t been some wild wilderness adventure, pushing down mental barriers to accomplish the impossible, but it was never meant to be. For me it’s been about relaxing, enjoying, and teaching. I’m super happy that Luke and Dana have had a canoe tripping experience for themselves. I think it’s been a great intro for them. Dana especially seems eager for more. The trip isn’t over yet but it feels like it’s about to come to a close. We still have tonight and tomorrow night, but I can’t help but dread the coming of the last day. A week really is such a tease of a trip. I think moving forward a 2 week minimum would be nice. One week in you are just starting to settle in. We sit within 20 miles from the town of Allagash which feels like nothing. I miss Jess and family but I will do my best to cherish the simplicity of life our here for the last couple days. It’s 8pm and bugs have driven us to tents. I’m excited to sleep with the rush of the falls and wake up to a new day on the river. 

Day 7:

Our last day on the river flew by. The remaining miles melted away as the current carried us swiftly towards our take-out just before the confluence with the St. John River. The magic of the Allagash faded somewhat abruptly as the last few miles of river are flanked by a dirt road. Altogether we had paddled around 93 miles from the Chamberlain Bridge to the town of Allagash. Ending a trip is always a bittersweet feeling for me. I like to describe it as the turning of a page in your book of life. It’s a page that cannot be read again, only remembered. Finishing a trip is always a great feeling, but it’s the little things along the way that forge the trip into what it was. The Allagash was rejuvenating and peaceful, as much as it was challenging and wild. For our friend group, it will without a doubt represent the beginning of more trips to come. It’s comforting to know that as time trods on, the Allagash will continue to flow resiliently towards whatever phase of life comes next. 


More photos From the trip: 


Jake Dombek is a photographer, filmmaker, and canoeist living in Portland, Maine. He grew up in the Green Mountains of Vermont, but spent many summers paddling rivers in Eastern Canada. You can now find him paddling, biking, hiking, or skiing with a camera close-by. He’s always dreaming about getting back on the water and enjoys sharing his outdoor experiences to encourage others to enjoy, appreciate, and protect the world that we call home.  

Browse more recent work from Jake & Dana here



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