The East Branch of the Penobscot River

The East Branch of the Penobscot River drains the region North and Northeast of Maine's highest peak, majestic, mile high, "Katahdin". The East Branch has also been a recipient of part of the Allagash drainage since the construction of Telos Dam in 1841.

The trip covers a total distance of 72 miles from the Telos Lake landing to the takeout at the confluence of the East and West Branches in the village of Medway. If poor water conditions exist in the upper section, a shorter trip on the East Branch may be run from the outlet of Grand Lake Matagamon, a distance of 48 miles. Six to seven days should be allowed for the full trip and four to five for the shorter version.

The upper section begins with a 2 mile paddle down Telos Lake to its outlet, then it's a 1 mile flush down a man-made canal built back in the 1800's to sluice logs into Webster Lake (often a ride that can get your attention!). After an hour's cruise across Webster Lake we enter the 10 mile descent of Webster Stream which contains several very difficult class III ledge drops which can be run by experts with the exception of one drop that cannot be negoitated. So the experts get one portage on Webster Stream, intermediates and novices get a few more.

Webster Stream empties into Grand Lake Matagamon, an Indian name meaning "the old, exhausted lake". Hawks are believed to have bred on the ledges of nearby Horse Mountain in such numbers that they depleted the population of partridges and ducks. Consequently the Indians found little or no food on their hunts here (hence the name).

The 26 mile section from Grand Lake Matagamon to Whetstone Falls demands skill and strength, but it offers incomparable scenery particularly as the river descends along the bases of Horse, Bald, Billfish, North Traveler, The Traveler, Lunksoos, and Daisey Mountains (some soaring to over 3,000 feet in elevation) as it enters the cataracts of the "Grand Falls" region. The unnavigable waterfalls and rough pitches must be carried and the whitewater between them requires proficiency in technical maneuvering as well as swift decision making. Moreover, the four portages become burdensome not so much because of their length as for their proximity to one another. This is a fairly difficult but splendid river. This is one of Maine's truly classic trips.

After leaving Grand Lake Matagamon, the river follows a sinuous course through "the Oxbow" and into "Stair Falls", a succession of shallow ledge drops, ranging in height from 8 inches to 2 feet and resembling a low flight of stairs. The rapids beyond Stair Falls deliver you into "Haskell Deadwater", a final respite before the river really tests your skills. Haskell Rock Pitch is the first of the four portages and the first of the four "Grand falls of the East Branch", full of strong eddies, steep pitches, river sculpturing. and fossils; a possible campsite for the night.

After running the rapids below Haskell we reach the second of the "Grand falls", the 10 foot drop of Pond Pitch and another portage (the shortest), then we paddle on to the third and most spectacular of the Grand falls of the East Branch, "Grand Pitch". Grand Pitch itself is one of Maine's rare "Horseshoe" falls, some 30 feet in height. Because of the awesome spectacle of this natural wonder, (and having portaged three times), we most always camp at this spiritual site. I use the word "spiritual" because of an incident I experienced while camped here many years ago.

A TRUE STORY:   I awoke about 5 a.m. as dawn was just breaking. After getting the early morning fire going, at about 5:30, I walked down to the quiet, mist shrouded pool at the base of Grand Pitch to fetch water for the breakfast coffee. After filling my pot, and not hearing a sound, I stood up and there, in the morning mist, standing in the middle of this quiet pool at the base of the falls, sat an Indian, bareback, astride his silver and gray colored horse. We stared at each other for a moment. I waved a sign. Not speaking a word, he nodded, raised his hand in return, whirled his mount, and walked out of the pool, up over the bank, and into one of the most cherished memories I have in all of the years I've spent guiding on the wilderness rivers of Maine. Cool, huh.

Shortly after wetting the paddle the next day, we reach the fourth "Grand fall" of the East Branch, a place called "The Hulling Machine". The Hulling Machine is so named because in log driving days because it removed bark from the logs being driven down the river. It's easy to see how it might have ripped the bark from a log. What's hard to imagine is that there was anything left of a log after it was tossed like a matchstick through this frothing, violent falls. This is the last and also the longest portage of the four Grand falls of the East Branch, a portage effort broken up by a cool refreshing swim and our lunch stop for the day.

The next class III drop, "Bowline Falls", will not overwhelm you if you have successfully negotiated the rapids upstream in the preceding days. (There is a remote sporting lodge here and is probably where the Indian came from that I saw in the mist of the early morning). The next 15 miles is mostly quickwater and smoothwater with the chance to spot moose, eagles, beaver, and other wildlife.

Next comes "Whetstone Falls", which consist of two sets of rapids separated by fastwater. The upper section, class III, can be run by experienced canoeists. The second half is easier. Even if you get wet here, it's our campsite for the night, affording an opportunity to get dry and comfy again.

The next day, a 20 mile paddle presents us with another big challenge, and I mean really big. This comes on our last day on the East Branch, at a spot called "Grindstone Falls". This rapid is created by a moderately narrow gorge and is normally class III to III+. It runs for over half a mile in length, contains an abundance of heavy rapids with hugh waves, many of which are likely to enter your canoe uninvited and is runnable by experts only (which you will be by the time you get here, right?). The remaining 9 miles to the takeout is mostly smooth water interrupted by "Meadowbrook Rips" and "Ledge Falls" just to keep it interesting.

This river trip terminates at a public recreation area near where the East Branch meets the West Branch to form the main stem of the Penobscot River. The takeout offers a nice sandy beach for another refreshing swim, and a nearby restaurant provides food and drink, a welcome oasis after the strenuous but rewarding challenges of the preceding week.


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