The Machias River Trip

The Machias River was long a vehicle for the lumber trade. For many years the town of Machias exported all sorts of sawed wood products, much of it on British vessels. When the British schooner "Margaretta" arrived in Machias in June of 1775 to pick up Machias River lumber to help build British barracks, the town captured the schooner, thereby engaging this country in its first naval battle of the Revolution. The most important topographical feature of the Machias River occurs in the town of Machias and gives both the river and the town their names. "Machias" is an Indian word that means "bad little falls" and refers to the steep, rough falls in the heart of the town where the river makes its final plunge. Subsequently the name was applied to both the town and the river.

The Machias rates with the Allagash, the Penobscot, and the Saint John as one of Maine's most scenic waterways. It offers semi-wilderness travel with lakes, swamps, intermittent rapids up to class III, ledges, waterfalls, and portages - all in a region that has much less use than the Allagash, and which is more accessible than the Saint John.

The trip, in its entirety, is 77 miles in length. It begins at Fifth Machias Lake and reaches tidewater, emptying into the ocean at the coastal town of Machias. The trip requires a minimum of six days with favorable weather. It is possible to split the trip distance almost exactly in half and paddle either the upper section which would include all 5 of the Machias Lakes with their interconnecting thoroughfares and river sections or the lower section which is entirely river travel. Three days are needed for either section.

There are 8 miles of river between 5th and 4th lakes, 3 miles between 4th and 3rd, 4 miles between 3rd and 2nd lakes, and 2 miles between 2nd and 1st Machias Lake. The river is quite narrow in this upper half and those sections between the lakes contain many interesting rapids and ledge drops ranging from class I to class III. There is also a likely portage around the "Long Falls" area between 3rd and 2nd lakes.

Approaching the half-way point of the trip there are two challenging drops to negotiate after scouting. Carrick Pitch is a class III boulder strewn obstacle of a couple hundred yards and the class II-III half mile long Airline Rapid has swift current, big waves, and a complicated right-left-right S-turn. The upper half short trip ends here and the lower half short trip begins here. If paddling the entire long trip, we camp overnight at the Airline.

Since the "West Branch" of the Machias joins the main river flow a few miles upstream, the river from here to the ocean is a much larger river with many sections of flatwater separated by falls and heavy rapids.

About four miles after leaving the Airline we reach the first of the potentially dangerous drops, "Little Falls", a series of rugged and ragged ledges. In another four miles we reach "Wigwam Rapids", a series of four distinct pitches extending over a distance of 2 miles. The sections are of varying difficulty including class III which can contain severe wave formations in high water conditions.

Three miles beyond the "Wigwams" we reach "Upper Holmes Falls", a 15 foot waterfall requiring another portage. Just around the next bend is "Lower Holmes Falls". This drop may be run by experienced paddlers after scouting or may be portaged. There are two islands in the middle of the falls, the lower of which is at the severe pitch of this drop. The upper island that leads into the fall has upon it a stone monument honoring Obadiah Hill, a pioneer of early Machias who died here in 1786. One can stop to see the monument and then ferry to the right shore for the portage or, if the water is not at a high level, to the upstream end of the lower island to view Lower Holmes Falls. The worst part of the fall is on the left side of this steep- sided island and is not visible from the portage trail which follows the right bank. This is a geologically interesting site which offers examples of irregular jointing, irregular granite veins and basalt dikes, and curved fracture surfaces. The river runs forcefully through a fairly narrow channel here. Don't hesitate to portage around this very difficult pitch if your skills or the water conditions are not conducive to a successful attempt.

In the next section you'll meet "River's End", so named because as you approach it from upstream the river seems to disappear underground. About 12 miles from the ocean we reach the last major rapid and possible portage at a place called "Grand Falls". This rapid is runnable by experienced canoers at the proper water level or may be portaged. It is our final campsite on this river trip to the Atlantic.

The last day begins with 6 miles of flatwater followed by nearly a dozen class I and II rapids spaced out along the rest of the river before it drops precipitously to tidewater near downtown Machias.


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