My first trip on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway was so powerful that I can say without question that it changed the course of my life forever. I was 23 years old. Having grown up in a beach town in Southern California, I was athletic (a surfer), but certainly not skilled in canoeing, camping, or fly fishing. I was a novice, but I had a great teacher and I possessed an adventurous spirit.
My first trip down the Allagash started at Telos Landing and ended in the Town of Allagash. It was mid-May a little before the hatch. In all, the trip comprised 10 magnificent days of scenic beauty, quiet reflection, and a fair share of giggles and fun.
Because I was handy in the kitchen, I was tasked with packing all of the food. It’s a miracle to me today that I was able to manage this without failing entirely. I still remember the aroma of homemade granola wafting from our apartment, and the piles of zip-lock bags and menus.
Luckily there were only three of us on the trip: me, Andrew Weegar (my boyfriend at the time), and our springer spaniel Emily. Andrew was quite adept at foraging, so I recall that we foraged for fresh water clams, fiddleheads, cattails and trout to supplement my food packing shortcomings.
The memories of my experience are sharpened by the fact that Andrew is no longer with us here on earth (he died years later in a tragic accident on his farm in Fayette). So, recalling my trip with him on the Allagash (we paddled many more rivers after that one) is tinged with more than a little sadness over his untimely death.
Nevertheless, some of the memories are so powerful that they have stayed with me for life:
- Getting up at 3 AM to paddle across Eagle Lake in the moonlight, because the winds were so high during the day that we couldn’t get safely across the lake.
- Hearing my first ever loon call. The call of the loon was the most haunting birdcall I had ever heard. I still remember sitting on the shores of the Allagash on a soft bed of pine needles and listening in amazement to those deep calls.
- Catching a Brook Trout on a fly. That was pure magic. The beauty of an eastern brook trout cannot be understated.
- Swimming/bathing in the river. At that time of year the Allagash is downright frigid, but I still remember the feeling of exhilaration of those afternoon swims and the reward of a warm, campfire and sleeping bag.
- Pulling into the Town of Allagash Village. After being in the wilderness for 10 days, the return to civilization was disquieting. I will never forget walking into the small supermarket and beholding – with some shock – the excess of bright fruits and vegetables from around the country. What a contrast from the brown grasses and dull hues along the river.
- Looking into a mirror. Ten days of not reflecting on one’s own physical identity was healthy for a young woman in her early 20s. My pure focus had been on my relationship with the natural world, the teamwork of paddling with my partner, and our travels along one of America’s most beautiful and special rivers. We read William O. Douglas, Henry David Thoreau, and Euell Gibbons along the way.
Looking back, I can see that travelling on the Allagash and other great Maine rivers, hiking its mountains, becoming a raft guide and taking on the big waters of the Kennebec and the Dead rivers, learning to winter camp…these were the skills that transformed me from a sun-tanned western girl into a woman who would never leave the state of Maine. Next year will mark 30 years since I arrived here in Maine. I have never regretted my decision to live here and my attempts to be a contributing member of the state. The Allagash River and Maine’s abundant natural wonders are my case for staying.
If you ever have the chance to paddle the Allagash, do it. There is no better place to be on earth.
Betta Stothart is a writer and editor living in Falmouth, Maine. She is also on the board of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.