Despite the best of planning, not all trips into the backcountry come off without a hitch. Some come off better than expected, and you come away with treasured life-long memories. Some go a little awry resulting in undue hardship. And some simply go terribly wrong. Recounts of all are told with laughs in the following years, for all hold value and lessons.
But it is the trips that come off, not only better than expected, but become somehow flawlessly magical and the experience becomes engrained in the mind like a fine faded oil painting – forever – that are truly special.
I am always open to new rivers and new places to fish. Where my sons are concerned it is fairly important to be in a location where the fishing is pretty quick, for otherwise long faces develop. Years ago I spoke with a gentleman I knew to be a life-long avid canoeist, and we began discussing the Seboeis River. I asked if the fishing was any good, and in true downeast fashion he responded, “I hear it can be.” It was early spring and within a week I had spoken to my older son Luc, who was then ten, and we had a trip planned.
The plan was to put in at Grand Lake Road and camp at the first and only campsite a couple miles below the put-in. On the following day we would paddle the remaining 16-miles to the East Branch of the Penobscot, and then travel six-miles down the East Branch to the pull-out at Whetstone Falls. We had arrived in late afternoon, pushed off in a swift current, and in no time at all we were at the Grand Pitch portage – an unrunnable drop – directly above the campsite.
We cooked some dinner and engaged in small talk around the fire until dusk. At that time – mostly simply to entertain myself – I climbed atop a huge boulder above the pool that sat below the Grand Pitch Falls and began casting a Grey Ghost. I was too high above the water, did not have streamer line on and truly did not expect to catch anything. Lo and behold a giant brook trout rose and grabbed the streamer. I began screaming at Luc who was daydreaming around the fire to get the net. I was going to attempt to swing the trout onto the bank below and have Luc gather it up in the net.
After a short violent battle I had the trout where I thought I could make the swing and told Luc to be ready. I lifted the trout, began the swing and after just getting above the bank the fish dropped off the fly. I began yelling hysterically at Luc, “Net that fish!” Luc repeatedly snapped the net down over the fish only to have the trout slip out beneath the net. At this point I was pretty much jumping up and down on the rock telling Luc to hold the net the other way. Finally I simply stopped yelling and stopped jumping for I knew what was going to happen. The last I saw of that red-bellied fish was half in and half out of the water before disappearing for good with a flip of the tail.
I wound in my line and climbed off the rock and approached Luc. He was standing – head down – with a very red face. I stood in front of him for a minute and asked, “Have I ever shown you how to net a fish.” He shook his head. I put my hand on his back and said, “Forget about it, it is my fault, let me see that net and give me two minutes of your time.”
Now, ten-years later, Luc still remembers this exchange and repeats it to me periodically.
The following morning in hazy early morning sunlight we had breakfast and caught a few small trout before pushing off. The May morning was perfect as we navigated pleasant Class I and Class II rapids through an unspoiled valley.
Around midday we had reached a narrow section of river and observed fish rising on the left bank. On the right bank was a high gradual rock ledge and I nosed the canoe alongside and tied it off. For the next hour and a half we intermittently ate lunch and caught and released 13” and 14” brook trout on almost every cast. Finally we reluctantly loaded the canoe back up and pushed off.
Upon approaching the East Branch hours later the river was wide and high. Both banks on either side were flooded and the true channel was difficult to discern. Luc then turned in the bow to ask me a question that I repeat to him periodically, “Are you sure we are still on the right river?”
Late in the afternoon we pulled up to Lunksoos Camp four miles above Whetstone Falls. I had looked at the Whetstone Falls rapids when dropping the car and knew they were truly daunting. A high, very fast long stretch of Class III rapids with standing three-foot waves, however we were both tired, had a long ride in front of us and were not in the frame of mind for a long difficult portage. The owner of Lunksoos Camp pulled his head back and looked at us when realizing what we were contemplating. His words, “You cannot take a canoe in there!”
As we approached the rapids I asked Luc to kneel in the front and paddle normally, “If I ask you to switch sides, switch sides, if I ask you to stop paddling, stop, and above all keep centered and low.” We began on the left bank, and plowed into the heavy current and standing waves. We began being pushed to the right, and I thought, fine, and targeted a spot downriver beneath the bridge on the right bank. As we approached this spot I told Luc to get ready to jump – we were still moving very fast. He jumped, held onto the bowline, the canoe spun around and when I anchored the stern the trip was over. Luc looked up while holding the line and said, “That was easy.”
After loading the canoe and putting the canoe on top of the car I took my customary plunge into the 46-degree water and pulled my “going home clothes” out of the bottom of the water bag. We silently navigated the dirt road, and upon hitting the pavement Luc turned and asked, “Can we get some snacks before we get on the highway?” With a slow smile I responded, “Most definitely.”