Wilderness Water Trails: Paddling the Moose River in Maine

Moose River, Maine

Situated in the northwestern mountains of Maine, a mere stone’s throw from the Canadian border, lies the Moose River, a classic Maine “must run” river perfect for those who want to enjoy a laid back river trip in the stunning scenery of the north Maine woods, as well as those who are new to canoe camping and seek a gently flowing river to develop skills on.

In mid-June a couple friends and I embarked on a four day, three night paddle where we met several families, as well a few couples, but overall experienced a vast wilderness all to ourselves.

Because it contains over twenty-one first come, first served campsites along the river, and several more remote sites on each pond, the Bow Trip presents multiple options to extend one’s wilderness vacation into into a relaxing 5-6 day trek, building in layover days, which afford trippers the opportunity to hike nearby mountains, explore the unique geological features of the riverway, work on camp skills, or simply read, relax, and play in the river.

The river is primarily gently flowing flat water, with a minimal amount of current. There are several short and easy class 1 rapids to mix up the pace, and keep things interesting. None of the rapids should be considered advanced, though they all require scouting as conditions can change daily. There is only one mandatory portage to the shorter river only trip, but it is situated at one of the campsites and can be done at a casual pace.

For the traditional Bow Trip groups put in and take out at Attean Pond, making this a convenient 34 mile loop. Starting on the eastern shore of Attean pond this classic route paddles west/northwest for approximately four miles, eventually entering the narrows, reaching the far western shore.  There trippers encounter a 1.25 mile long required portage over rough trail to Holeb Pond, where they then continue paddling west for an additional 3.25 miles to the outlet stream and the confluence of the Moose River, which then flows east back into the southeast corner of Attean Pond.

Our option for this trip – and the one generally recommended – was to park our vehicles at the Attean pond landing and hire a shuttle service to carry us and our gear around Attean pond to the put in on the western shore of Holeb Pond, avoiding the long portage, and the all too frequent paddle into challenging headwinds out of the west. Afternoons on the both ponds are notoriously windy, and though both are shallow bodies of water, the winds are capable of creating sizeable white caps that challenge the strongest, and most capable, canoeist.

To note: the Moose River can be run in as little as three days and two nights, however our group opted for a more laid back trek by building in an additional night on Holeb pond to take advantage of the seasonal swimming in the warm water, and an afternoon of relaxing at the fire with beers. After all, who wants to rush a good thing?

By choosing this second option our group was rewarded with a relaxing first day at a secluded site, midway on Holeb pond where we were able to watch a stunning sunset over the mountains.

 

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Here’s how our story unfolded…

Our group met up at the Wilds of Maine base camp in Monroe, Maine on Wednesday evening. A hunting camp owned since the 80’s by my uncle, a Master Maine Guide, this spot is both sacred and secluded, and is the only cabin on the pond. A pair of nesting bald eagles can often be spotted fishing the waters. Deer, wild turkey, coyote and the occasional moose are all frequently spotted. A warm fire and cold beers welcomed the group into camp, and as the night wore on we all grabbed a bunk and settled in with excited anticipation of the day ahead.

We woke early in the morning, broke camp, and rode three hours north to meet our shuttle for a 10:30 rendevous. The weather for the next few days was slated to be warm and sunny, with highs near 80, and cool evenings in the low 50’s. Spring had been unseasonably dry and while there was concern about flowage, our shuttle service assured us that the river had plenty of water.

After an hour long ride over bumpy, dusty logging roads we finally emerged on Holeb pond. Our shuttle driver helped us unloaded and wished us farewell, while commenting on the amount of gear we carried. While we didn’t pack backpacker light, we certainly were far from going overboard with gear. For us this was a pleasure cruise and was to be treated as such.

True to prediction, water levels on the pond were low, noticeably low. Holeb pond, and much of the Moose river, is littered with large glacial boulders and each rock showed watermarks several feet lower than normal. The only concern I had putting in was how much portaging would be necessary due to the conditions. Would the few rips be too shallow to paddle without damaging the canoes?

These thoughts were quickly dismissed as the wilderness beckoned us. The shuttle’s diesel engine faded into the background, as the van bumped its way back to the dirt access road. For the first moment I felt that open spirit of adventure knowing that the only way out of the woods was a three day paddle back to society.

We loaded our canoes, and took to the water shortly after noon. Stopping at the most northwestern site we made a quick lunch while the notoriously familiar afternoon wind kicked up. It would be a rough ride to our evening camp. Sure enough, as we rounded the bend into the open pond the wind had produced mild white caps across the water. I had flashbacks of last August’s paddle on Attean into this same wind. With fully loaded canoes – and kids in tow – it was one of significant exertion. Not to mention the driving rain that added insult to injury. This time around, with the wind to our backs, and myself paddling solo, we were able to enjoy bouncing over the waves towards our secluded site at the middle of the pond.

We had the pond mostly to ourselves that evening. One other family was posted up at the western shore near our put in, but could barely be seen from our camp. Unbeknownst to us several groups were also making camp to the east, and we would meet them in the coming days. For the evening they were miles away and could not be seen, nor heard.

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As the winds calmed down we built a campfire and cooked a hearty dinner of salmon, wild rice, and a fresh spring green salad with dried cranberries, walnuts, and feta cheese. It was hard to believe this is what many might call roughing it. Cheers were exchanged and dinner was enjoyed. With clean-up complete we gathered on a rocky westward outcropping to sit and enjoy the last rays of sunlight over the pond. After a quiet, contemplative sunset viewing we slowly ambled off to sleep to the sound of calling loons.

The following morning I woke with the sun at 4:30. I took the opportunity to scout the coast near camp for signs of Moose feeding in the early morning light. Seeing none, I found a place to sit and meditate for a half hour. Meditating in nature always seems somewhat superfluous. Yet, having practiced sitting meditation for many years I find it takes on a new form in the wilderness. It slows the mind down even further, allowing one to sink into the environment deeper, and see the many details so easily missed when the mind is consumed with schedules and organizational details. Instead of frantically plotting every next step, I was able to fully enjoy the moment. As with any contemplative practice, the goal is to simply arrive fully in the present moment, to sense the details, and to build in space, even when space seems to be a given.

Emerging from my meditative state I returned to the campsite to spark up the stove for breakfast and to make morning tea. Within minutes my travel companions would be awake, camp would be broken down, and the trip proper would be underway.

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We were on the water by 7:30, and would maintain this schedule for the remainder of the trip. It felt natural, waking with the sun and taking some time to enjoy the morning. If we were at home we might have still been lying in bed, but we were on nature’s schedule, and we seemed fall into the rhythm easily.

Unlike the windy evening before, the morning paddle was marked by silence and a calm, near glassy lake. Eagles perched in the distance, watching us as we quietly glided across the water, leaving only faint, fading ripples as our tracks. We worked our way 1.5 miles across the pond to its outlet, stopping to observe moose tracks and other animal markings on the shore line. The sun, now having fully risen, was hot and the outlet stream to the Moose river meandered lazily. In the back of my mind I couldn’t help but wish for some rapids. Thoughts of the St. Croix popped into mind, but I kept them to myself as we paddled on.

As the water grew quicker we found ourselves finally on the Moose River and paddling east. I consulted the map only a few times to check on markers, and to get a sense of our pace. We needed to cover significant mileage, and though June days are long I jealously wanted first pick of the prime campsites near Holeb Falls. Letting go of desire is a wonderful practice, and instead of pushing ourselves at a faster pace we chose to keep things intentionally lazy. The Moose River wanders slowly as it is. No reason to make a race of things, and we had no reason to hurry, even when our neighbors from the pond passed us as we paddled.

As the day wore on we arrived at Holeb Falls, and the long portage to our camp. To our dismay the coveted prime sites at the falls were occupied. Our option was to either get back on the river and take the next set of sites down river or find an alternate spot near the falls. We found the alternate in a form of a rustic cabin high on a hill above the falls that was open for campers. Best deal ever. No camp to set up. Just toss our sleeping pads and mattresses on a bunk and get to cooking.

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Our group decided to hike down to the falls for a pre-dinner swim, and along the way I made a point to casually chat with the groups camped out at the portage trail. It turned out to be a large father-son weekend that spanned multiple generations. They were a welcoming group and we swapped stories of our respective journeys thus far. They then informed us they intended to take a layover day and stay at the falls. This meant we’d be the only ones heading back onto the river in the morning. I couldn’t have been more happy. While I enjoy the company of others in the wilderness, I would just as soon not see another person.

As with the day prior we broke camp early the next morning for the push to Attean Falls, and our last overnight of the trip. While one might say there’s no such thing as a bad day in the outdoors, the river barely moved, giving us plenty of opportunity to bake in the June sun.

The few rips that we hoped to run, to liven the trip up, were nearly dry as a bone, and the canoes had to be lined through. Even the notorious Attean Falls, which rates as a class two in high water seemed to be barely a trickle. We ran our canoes through the first section which was speedy and had just enough water that we didn’t bottom out. The second set of rips, and the most fun, was completely unrunnable, a boulder field and a disaster waiting to happen. We ended up portaging our gear to camp and walking our canoes through where they would wait for us in the morning.  

Camp on the final evening was truly a highlight of the trip. The Attean Falls sites are the best of the river. There we enjoyed a pesto pasta dinner, topped with smoked salmon from Patagonia Provisions. We took inventory of the last of the beers, rationed them out amongst ourselves, and proceeded to empty the cooler. A river client once asked my uncle how long he could stay in the wild. His answer was a dry response: “About a day after the food runs out.” From that point of view we knew we had about reached the end.

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On our final morning we stayed true to our routine. We broke camp, loaded the canoes, and hit the water in silence. As the river ended we emerged into the southern corner of Attean Pond. Our vehicles were now only a few miles to the northeast, yet we weren’t in any sort of hurry. The morning was gorgeous, and the water on the pond a glassy mirror. We took time for photos as we glided along, listening to distant loons, and soaking in the final moments of a fantastic four days. Wilderness affords us the opportunity to disconnect from the troubles of a society hell bent on speedy-busyness. While I could have spent several more days out in the wild, and was tempted to do just so, the responsibilities of home were calling, and that too was a call that needed answering.

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For those readers interested in a guided trip of the Moose River, or to inquire about resources for planning your own adventure please be sure to comment or email. All inquiries are welcome. Enjoy the collection of photos from our adventure, below. 

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