Navigating the Shrinking St. Francis River

6 years ago

Fellow retiree Brent Elwell and I met at Pelletier’s Campground in St. Francis on a warm spring evening. The rural northern Maine village is located at the confluence of the St. Francis and St. John Rivers about fifteen miles north of Fort Kent. The goal was to canoe the St. Francis and our journey would end at the campground.

This would be an exploratory adventure as neither of us had paddled the remote seldom traveled river. Campground owner Norm L’Italien had agreed to provide a shuttle but he wasn’t familiar with it either. Following Delorme Maine Atlas maps and using the Appalachian Mountain Club Maine River Guide for directions, my techie companion would be measuring our itinerary on his GPS.

The guidebook, not updated since at least 1976, stipulated that the St. Francis was a 56 mile trip with several sections of whitewater, two lake crossings and a probable portage. Water was high and the blackfly forecast favorable; windy days, cold nights and a chance for occasional showers. The blackfly prognostication was crucial as both Brent and I share an aversion for the nasty little critters. Only a couple of warm days separated us from a widespread invasion.

Early the following morning, Norm shuttled us to the Quebec village of Estcourt on the southern shore of Pohenegamook Lake. Don’t trouble yourself with the pronunciation as Norm told us the locals just call it Sully, an eminently sensible alternative. We began our voyage about a mile north of the crown of Maine where water flowing from the outlet of Sully is the start of the St. Francis River trip. The waterway would be the border between Maine and Canada until we arrived at St. Francis.

Departing in solo canoes, a friendly Estcourt resident wished us a safe journey speculating that we would probably make it to Beau Lake in time for dinner. Since it was midday and the guidebook indicated Beau Lake was 34 miles away, he seemed to have quite a high opinion of our paddling abilities.

Immediately experiencing fast currents, significant river debris created hazards that required vigilant navigation. About an hour downstream, beavers conspired to completely block the river necessitating a portage. Fears of more obstructions were unfounded as none were encountered.

After approximately seven miles, we engaged a protracted stretch of continuous whitewater called Kelley Rapids. Class II in difficulty, the waves approached three feet. Fortuitously, they were absent any technical obstacles. Soon after, we met Turtle Man.

Rounding a bend in what appeared to be a remote area, we encountered a scientist conducting turtle research for the Province of Quebec. Wondering aloud where he’d come from, the herpetologist observed that the Town of Bleu River was just a short distance away and Beau Lake was ten kilometers beyond. According to the guidebook, we had traveled 28 miles in under three hours. Something was amiss.

Just before entering Beau Lake, we found a very windy campsite on river left. Gusty northwest gales forced us to erect barriers in order to cook and set up tents. According to the GPS, we had traveled a mere sixteen miles. When we awoke in the morning, there was a layer of ice in the water container but no blackflies!

A headwind, the most common of all canoe trip winds welcomed us to Beau Lake. Even using kayak paddles brought specifically for lake crossings, we endured a grueling six mile paddle against an unrelenting adversary. Remembering kayak paddles was one of those isolated positive senior moments. Without them, I doubt we could have completed a lake traverse on that blustery day.

Beyond the lake, our search for Cross Lake Rapids began. According to the guidebook, the choice was a half mile portage beginning well above the falls or negotiating a long Class III descent that was “dangerous or impossible for a loaded canoe” in high water. Unwilling to commit to a carry before viewing the rapids, we gambled. We made the right choice. The reportedly perilous falls were no more than easy Class III.

With overnight rain predicted, the need for tarps at our next campsite seemed a certainty. The river gods smiled on us as we found a perfect ten site on the left just above Glacier Lake. Situated on a narrow peninsula with a covered picnic table, it was a gem. Viva la Canadienne!

Surviving the rainy night quite nicely, we negotiated Glacier Lake and paddled an entertaining six mile stretch of Class I/II rapids to the St. John. The quarter mile upriver effort to Pelletier’s Campground provided an invigorating finale.

According to the GPS, we’d traveled forty miles. Sixteen miles had vanished over past four decades.

Did I mention blackflies? There were none!

About Ron Chase

At age 70, Ron Chase is old. But, he’s not under the grass…yet. Retired from a career with the Internal Revenue Service, he has embarked on a new life as a freelance writer and tax consultant. Don’t be misled; in reality, he works a little and plays a lot. When not busy kayaking, canoeing, biking, mountain climbing and skiing, he sometimes finds time to write and assist his tax clients. A lifelong Mainer now living in Topsham, he is the recent author of The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery, a biography of Vietnam War hero and bank robber Bernard Patterson.