Exploring Maine: Katahdin Woods and Waters

Regardless of where you stand on whether or not Maine needs another National Park, The Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is beautiful wilderness adjacent to the north end of Baxter State Park around Patton, ME. Encompassed within the monuments boundaries is the East Branch of the Penobscot river trip known as the Henry David-Thoreau and Wabanaki Trail starting at Grand Lake Matagamon to Whetstone Falls in North Penobscot, Maine. Approximately 30 miles of what is traditionally a canoe trip, this trail is home to miles of class I/II moving water with some beautiful class III/IV rapids along the way. In preparation for the trip, Erin and I had a goal not only to tackle this river via kayak but also run what are considered 5 mandatory canoe portages, all during Norther Maine peak foliage season. With some help from fellow JK Exploration member Chris Audet, we chose to use the 10’ Traverse and Karma RG, both of which had the length to tackle the long stretches of slow moving water and the whitewater capabilities of what we may run into along the way.

Using the boat’s stern hatches we were able to fit our tent, cooking supplies, sleeping pads, food, safety gear, extra clothing, camera equipment, and water with room to spare. Because of shorter length of the trip (2 days) and the ease of it, we decided not to load up the bow and offset the weight of the packed stern by moving our seats forward and letting the skegs do the rest of the work. As we pushed off from the campground and paddled under the last road we would see for the day, we immediately became thankful for skegs. Without those, it would have been a different trip.

Our first 1.5 hours we were moving at about 6 mph down a class I section of the river through small valleys and surrounded by trees of all colors, after which, we came across a small rapid known as Stair Falls. It is a small stretch of river that offers 7 river-wide ledges with easy lines through the middle. It was a fun geological feature to see, interesting to run, and a great way to break up the flat water setting us up for our first class III rapid, Haskell Pitch.

At Haskell, we stopped for lunch and gave ourselves time to stretch our legs. The rapid was broken out into two main sections, a steeper, bouldery class III down the middle along with an open line to river right followed by a series of waves and boulders rounding a blind corner. Although the water proved to be quite low, Haskell Pitch along with the following Pond Pitch were super fun and no problem for the RG and Traverse. We each took turns scouting and running different lines (skegs up of course!)

Shortly after Pond Pitch we came to Grand Falls, the largest and most well-known rapid on the river. It is a 25-foot, river wide waterfall with from what I could see, two potential lines. Unfortunately for us, it was running too low. This was the drop I was most excited for on the trip and after pondering for 20 minutes, we decided to leave it for another day. Like the remainder of the rapids, there was a portage sign at the top and a trail to match it bringing us back to the river and on our way to the Hulling Machine.

The Hulling Machine rapid gets its name from infamous days when Maine loggers would send the delimbed trees down the East Branch where they would be stripped of their bark going through the chute at the bottom. There are two holes back to back on river left that feed into each other forcing a must-make boof stroke that after a long day was too I was too tired to try. I still stand that my biggest regret on the trip was walking The Hulling Machine, but at the end of the day, if that is all I regret, life is good. Next time.

Our last bit of whitewater was a small class 2 section called Bowlin Falls which brought us to our tent site for the evening. We had the good fortune to get a tent site right along the river at around 4:30 which concluded our 5-hour day of paddling.

Our second day began around 8 in the morning where we spent the next 15 miles and 4.5 hours paddling through winding class I moving water. This was a slow-moving section perfect for talking about life, enjoying each other’s company and the picturesque Northern Maine wilderness. We spent hours paddling around sand bars, through confluences of the E.B and nearby creeks, watched countless birds all surrounded by the beautiful New England Foliage. Our final rapid was also our take out at Whetstone Falls. A simple class 2 with a few rocks to manage moving under a bridge where our vehicle was waiting.

The roughly 9.5 hours on the water solidified the need to continue to explore the New England water ways via my Karma RG along with the Traverse. With a rear hatch, skeg and some extra length, they are ideal boats designed for multi day class 1 and 2 sections with the ability to handle the big stuff if feeling worth it. I am also excited to get back to the East Branch and further explore the northern end of Baxter State Park and the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Like most areas in Maine, it can be a haul to get there, but every bit worth it.

For more information on Baxter State Park and the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument see the links below:

Katahdin Woods and Waters: https://www.nps.gov/kaww/index.htm

Baxter State Park: https://baxterstatepark.org/

– Justin Varney

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