Progress on the Machias
By Randy Randall
I don't normally shoot Class III rapids backwards, but I seem to do it often enough so my friends think I'm pioneering some new canoeing style. It's all too easy to do, I find. You and your bowman approach the head of a nice Class II or III pitch and promptly misread the river. The bow grounds out on a ledge and he can't react fast enough to get us off, so the current catches the stern and swings us sideways. The canoe pivots on the rock, and we slip off and proceed in reverse, helter-skelter down through the rapids, trying to navigate by looking over our shoulders. We have since come to call this debacle the "awe shit maneuver." I'm pretty sure it's not taught in any American Canoe Association course either.
But with some luck we'll bounce through into quiet water, where we can get ourselves straightened around. Otherwise, we fetch up against the foundation of an old pulp driving dam, the current pushes up against the side of the canoe and lickity-split, we end up swimming in ice water watching our gear float downstream. I know you can relate because I bet you've been there too.
That's how it was as we were progressing on a three-day trip through the five Machias Lakes. Back before I became a real card-carrying old fart, my friends and I had some good times canoeing the Machias. Back then the river was largely undiscovered, unspoiled, and uncrowded. It was great even if our progress was occasionally impeded (see paragraph one above). For this particular trip, the water was high with spring runoff and our paddling skills were pretty dull after a winter of wrestling with ice augers and snow blowers.
We had put in at Fifth Machias Lake and lined our way down Fifth Lake Stream to Fourth. There were four of us long time friends in two canoes. Our goal was to get to the State Forest Service campsite on the west shore and camp there for the night. There are many beautiful wilderness campsites to be discovered in the Maine woods and this site is one of them. But we didn't get there easily. When we poled through the marsh and out onto the lake we found rolling whitecaps pounding the shore. Nothing we could do but get on our knees and lay into the paddles. I'm sure you've been there; quartering into the waves, water slopping over the bow, wind fetching your paddle away. After awhile it just became a test of pig-headed endurance, but we made it and as I said, that campsite is one of the nicest.
Next day we found some challenging whitewater. Most times it was exhilarating, and we congratulated each other when we regrouped in the slack water at the foot of some frothing pitch.
"Boy, did you see that rauncher of a rock just to the right?"
"Yeah, I think we just kissed it with the stern." "How about that haystack part way down?"
"Yeah, good one. Bill lost his hat."
I think we cheated and lined the canoes down over some falls, but once we ran the first couple of rips clean we threw caution to the wind and bounced on through. Our indestructible Old Town canoes gave us a false sense of security and we were soon challenging each other to run this side or punch through that haystack. All in all, we were just a bunch of guys having a good time. Until we hit one set of rips, did our famous "awe shit maneuver" and ended upside down in a trout pool. My bowman popped to the surface, slung his arm over the upturned boat and sputtered something about a sucking or bucking canoe. My ears were full of water and I couldn't quite make out what he was so upset about. Well there was nothing to do but to come ashore and start a fire, bail the canoe, sort out the gear, find the dry clothes and avert hypothermia. Our progress on the Machias had come to a standstill.
Good thing we had the olive jars.
Most canoe trippers today use dry bags of various sizes to keep their gear safe and dry. We depended on olive jars; big olive jars rescued from a restaurant's trash. These heavy-duty plastic jars have large twist lids with black rubber gaskets to seal out water. One jug is just right for stuffing in the sleeping bag. Others hold clothes, camera and matches. Our olive jars have bounced their way down through a number of rips, and have come up safe and dry each time. They're easy to spot too when they've floated downstream and got caught in some eddy.
So the whitewater was pretty good. But the beaver dams nearly killed us. Progress over these dams was a royal pain, until we discovered the "beaver dam scoot". When we hit our first beaver dam we canoed up alongside, and stepped somewhat gingerly out onto the sticks. Then the two of us grabbed the gunwales and slid the canoe over and down. That routine worked OK until we hit the second and then the third beaver dam. That's when we basically said, "Frig it," and full speed ahead. We paddled like hell aiming for the spillway and drove the canoe up and over the dam. If we had enough speed on the bow, we would project out over the downstream side of the dam. Then the two of us would just lunge forward and tip the canoe past its balance point. The bow would touch the water, we'd dig in our paddles and the stern would bounce and skitter down over the sticks and we'd be off. We perfected the "beaver dam scoot" so well we didn't even pause anymore when we ran into a dam. We just rammed ahead, threw our weight forward and kept on trucking all in one motion. We learned later that our "beaver dam scoot" was far from being a new technique. Actually Henry David Thoreau had described doing basically the same thing years and years ago when he made his sojourns into the Maine woods.
But "the scoot" sure as heck improved our progress on the Machias.
As the day slipped by we were all feeling pretty chipper until the rain started. This was a slow, persistent drizzle accompanied by falling temps, which soon had us pulling on the woolies and fleece. Progress was going south fast. We plodded along. I know you've been there too, with water dripping off hats and noses, wet feet freezing in all that loose water sloshing around the bottom of the canoe, spirits sagging lower then a prize Holstein's udder. Gloom and doom took the place of the camaraderie and bonne temps of the morning. No one said a word as we grounded on the little sand beach where we planned to camp that night. Everything was soaked. The trees dripped water. Puddles lay on the level ground.
No doubt about it, we needed a fire. We found a semidry patch of ground beneath some pines and strung up a small tarp to keep the rain off. We scavenged the low dead pine branches, pinecones and birch bark. Our fingers were frozen stiff but we whittled a few fuzz sticks, and piled it all into a ragged pyramid. The rain showed no sign of letting up and the slight wind blowing off the marsh snuffed out match after match. Mother Nature was a bitch and she wasn't giving us any breaks.
But you know, desperate situations sometimes call for some really stupid ideas, and that's when someone thought of the Coleman lantern. I know you've done this too. We just kept flapping our wet arms trying to restore circulation while we all watched Bob dribble fuel from the lantern all over the tipi fire. But those damp matches refused to light. Again and again he struck them against the side of the box. Then magically, one burst to life, burned his fingers and he dropped it onto the fire.
Kaboom! Flames engulfed our feet, the ground around and the tipi fire. Someone hollered "Gawd dam." You see, the white gas fumes being heavier then air had spread out over the ground while we fussed with the matches. Probably the general dampness and our wet outfits kept us all from being toast. But the fire was burning, dammit. We began to add more dead pine branches.
Someone said, "Well I'll be darned. "
"Yeah" someone else said. "Let's bring up the stuff."
"Keep that fire going."
We rubbed our hands over the growing flames. Our jackets began to steam a little. We rigged another tarp. Thanks to the olive jars we had dry socks and shoes. We flipped the canoes over, put the tents up and before long we all felt like living again. We snarfed a few snacks and chugged a few beverages. Progress on the Machias was definitely on the upswing.
Sunday dawned clear and bright and made for some glorious canoeing the last few miles to the taking out place where we had spotted one of the trucks. We taxied people to Fourth Machias to retrieve the other car. Things were looking good for us to be back home by late afternoon. We helped each other load the canoes and stow the gear, and then with some hearty handshakes said "thanks" and "good bye" and "see you at work," and we all headed for Bangor. Yeah, it had been a good trip despite the dunking and the rain.
Our friends were soon out of sight and we just settled back, letting the old van motor along at 55 mph. Only we couldn't keep up, even that slow pace. We began to loose speed on the hills and had to downshift. What was going on? Maybe the added load of the canoe on the roof was putting up too much wind resistance? Progress was definitely headed for the dumper. We found ourselves shifting down and nursing the gas just to make it up a small grade. Something was dreadfully wrong. We coasted to the side of the road and shut down. By now the idiot light had winked on and we knew we had just encountered a new kind of "awe shit maneuver."
The damned old van had run out of oil. Nothing much to do about it, so there we sat, on the gravel shoulder of "the airline" on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of the Machias river valley. We sat and sat. But our buddies didn't let us down. Twenty minutes later, they came driving back looking for us and wondering what the heck had happened.
"We kept checking for you guys in the rearview," they said, "but when you never showed we figured you were hosed up."
OK, so where do you find 10W40 on a Sunday afternoon in the Maine puckerbrush? We left the van beside the road and resigned ourselves to driving all the way to Brewer if we had to. Progress on this trip had definitely come to a screeching halt.
Then we hit the Halfway Diner in Beddington.
"Hey, lets stop" we said. "Maybe they've got oil."
But the place was closed. Not a soul in sight. A grimy sign hung in the front window said, "Closed on Sunday." I heard Bill mumbling something about sucking or bucking storeowner, but he was too far back for me to hear clearly. Then we heard the TV. Out back of the store coming from the mobile home was the sound of a television. We knocked on the door. In a moment Mr. T-Shirt-and-Missing-One-Tooth opened the door.
"Whadda ya want?" he said.
"Don't' have any. Th'store's closed anyway. It's Sunday".
So I said something like, "How about chain saw oil? You sell that don't you?"
Mr. Strappy-T-shirt-and-stubble-beard thought on that for a minute.
"I've got a little snowmobile oil," he said.
Yeah, I knew he was smarter then he looked.
"Great," I said, "We'll take it." He unlocked the store and we paid him for eight quarts of two-cycle oil.
Back at the stranded van we dumped in our treasured oil, and fired it up. The idiot light went out and the motor sounded normal.
"We'll follow you," our buds said.
So we put her in gear and rolled out onto Route 9, headed for home. Progress on the Machias had just improved, 100 percent.
Randy Randall and his family have owned and operated Marston's Marina for over 50 years. Find them on the Saco River, two miles downriver from the village of Saco, or on the web at www.marstonsmarina.com
Email nick [at] noumbrella [dot] com with your questions, comments and concerns.
Design and Content © 2002 to 2006 No Umbrella