Paddle Thoreau's Maine Woods

In July 1857, Henry David Thoreau journeyed north from his beloved home on Walden Pond and pushed off for what would be his third and final foray into the Maine woods. Wedged tightly into an 18-foot birchbark canoe with a friend, a Wabanaki Indian guide, and 166 pounds of gear, the great naturalist began an 11-day sojourn through the region that today forms the southern segment of Maine's showpiece river-and-lake route: the 92-mile Allagash Wilderness Waterway, one of America's most famous canoe trips.

The water of northern Maine were celebrated by Thoreau in The Maine Woods, published posthumously in 1864. The popularity of the region would probably surprise (though not necessarily displease) Thoreau, a lover of solitude whose work was far and widely read during his life: Walden, his masterpiece, sold just 2,000 copies. In it, he wrote, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach..." Thoreau said he looked to wilderness to tell him if life was mean or sublime. In Maine, he found it to be the latter.

On the 1857 journey, Thoreau's party put in on Moosehead Lake and paddled north to Chamberlain Lake. The largest body of water along the route, 16-mile-long Chamberlain feeds the northward flowing Allagash river and is a common starting point for modern trips up the waterway. "Think of our little eggshell of a canoe tossing across that great lake," Thoreau wrote at the start of his voyage, "a mere black speck to the eagle soaring above it."

Both then and today, the full range of North Country wildlife roams the banks of the region's rivers and lakes: bears, bobcat, fox, coyote, and moose, the last of which Thoreau termed "God's own horses." With luck, present-day paddlers can hear coyote howls harmonizing with the spooky cry of the loon. Throughout his journey, Thoreau took meticulous note of birdcalls and wildlife sightings. And he didn't overlook the North Woods' tiniest creatures. "Here first I was molested by the little midge called the No-see-um," he wrote of his first night on Chamberlain Lake, at a camping spot not far from today's Mud Brook tent site.

Thoreau slept on a bed of grass, with his feet to the fire and his body exposed to the starry sky, and paddled across the lake in the morning. After an easy portage, the group reached Eagle Lake, and that afternoon they pulled ashore on Pillsbury Island---just as a storm was blowing in. "We listened to some of the grandest thunder which I ever heard---rapid peals, round and plump, bang, bang, bang, in succession like artillery from some fortress in the sky," Thoreau wrote. "The lightning was proportionally brilliant. All for the benefit of the moose and us, echoing far over the concealed lakes." They would spend the next day and a half there before heading back to Chamberlain and south on the East Branch of the Penobscot River toward Old Town.

Today's Wilderness Waterway, meanwhile, continues north on the Allagash beyond the region Thoreau explored (see map). It runs through a sylvan landscape that seems to have changed little in 160 years (although some regions, out of sight of the river, have been heavily logged). About half the Allagash route traverses lakes, but the river sections are sprinkled with sporty, technical whitewater. There are four portages---three short ones that skirt dams, and the quarter-mile slog around Allagash Falls. Along the way, paddlers can see the remnants of the early lumber industry, including rusting locomotives, abandoned buildings, and huge cogwheels from a turn-of-the-century tramway.

While the Wilderness Waterway trip takes most boaters six to eight days, rangers recommend allowing ten to account fo rain or choppy conditions. But even the heaviest weather didn't dim Thoreau's ardor: "If I wished to see a mountain or other scenery under the most favorable auspices, I would go to it in foul weather, so as to be there when it cleared up," he wrote. "We are then in the most suitable modd, and nature is most fresh and inspiring."


The nearest airport to the Wilderness Waterway is in Bangor, Maine. From there, it's a two-and-a-half-hour drive to the put-in at Chamberlain Lake. The paddling season is mid-May through October (but be wary of black flies during the height of summer).


Paddlers should contact the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands (207-435-6213) for information. For a list of outfitters, shuttle services, and guides, call the North Woods Association (207-435-6213). Allagash experts and retired guide Gil Gilpatrick (207-453-6959) offers trip-planning services.


Must-reads include Thoreau's The Maine Woods (Penguin Nature Library, $13) and The Allagash (Down East Books, $13) by Lew Dietz and Edmund Muskie. "The Allagash/St. John Map and Guide" (DeLorme, $5) is the top-on-river resource.  

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