TOWNSHIP 5, RANGE 8 — Maps and guidebooks describe Stair Falls as a series of eight ledges that straddle the East Branch of the Penobscot River, just outside Baxter State Park. That’s at normal water levels. In mid-July, the threat of hard rain and a flash flood forced the dam operator upstream at Grand Lake Matagamon to spill three times the normal flow, washing out the ledges with 3-foot-high waves.

I hadn’t picked up a canoe paddle in five years. As I stood on the riverbank with my canoeing partner scouting the Class III rapids, it occurred to me that this was the wrong place to refresh my whitewater skills. Minutes later, I was at the stern of our canoe, trying to remember the difference between a pry and a draw stroke, as we approached the mayhem.

This section of the East Branch runs through the new Katahdin Woods & Waters Recreation Area. It has been assembled by Roxanne Quimby, one of Maine’s most ardent conservationists, and her Eliotsville Plantation Inc., a private, Maine-based foundation.

The Quimby family wants the area to become a 150,000-acre destination, split equally between a new national park and national recreation area. It’s a bold vision that has been met with both praise and scorn. Nowhere is the discourse more intense than in nearby Millinocket, where the collapse of its century-old papermaking economy has forced area residents to confront an uncertain future and consider a greater role for recreation and tourism.

Debate over the pros and cons of a national park is likely to continue for years. Whatever happens, the East Branch is one of this area’s defining natural attractions.

CHURNING WHITEWATER RIDE

From history to fishing, from scenery to paddling, the East Branch has it. This may be Maine’s most spectacular but least-paddled river. It lacks the name recognition of other premier river corridors, such as the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. That’s changing now, as word spreads about Katahdin Woods & Waters. As it does, the East Branch has the potential to brand the area’s upper section as a destination.

To get a sense of what this new recreation area has to offer, a reporter and photographer from the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram traveled the land for five days.

Aside from paddling, we trudged 11 miles to and from the summit of Deasey Mountain, the highest point, and bushwhacked up nearby Barnard Mountain, which now has a new trail. We rode mountain bikes on routes along the river meant to tempt riders and draw cross-country skiers this winter. And we sought out camp owners and local merchants who call this region home but worry about where tomorrow’s jobs and visitors will come from.

For paddlers, the East Branch has twin personalities. A lower, 16-mile stretch between Bowlin Falls and Whetstone Bridge ranges from quickwater to floodplain forest, and trekkers with enough time can float all the way to Medway. On the upper stretch, from Matagamon Wilderness Campground to Bowlin Falls, the river drops 200 feet in 10 miles over roaring rapids and waterfalls. Canoeists must carry their boats and gear at four places, a total of 2 miles. Stair Falls and Bowlin Falls are optional portages, depending on paddling skills.

We felt compelled to do that upper stretch. It seemed like the essence of the East Branch experience. But we invited along two guys who could help us better understand the river, and get down it.

Matt Polstein is a widely known rafting guide and owner of the New England Outdoor Center in Millinocket. He was among the adventurers who spent 16 days last spring retracing the water journey of Henry David Thoreau and his Indian guide to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Thoreau’s landmark book, “The Maine Woods.” That trip included the East Branch.

Galen Hale and his family operate Nicatou Outfitters in Medway. The river and woods here are in his blood. One of his great-uncles guided Thoreau up Katahdin in 1846.

Our journey began at a put-in by Matagamon Wilderness Camps, below the dam at Grand Lake Matagamon. Low clouds shrouded North Traveler Mountain as our two boats weaved through the flatwater in the Oxbow. It wasn’t long before the distant rumble of the Stair Falls East rapids previewed what was to come.

After navigating the Class II rapids, our party took out at the Stair Falls West campsite to scout the situation. Polstein suggested the best line through the froth.

Back in the boats, Polstein and Hale set off. I steered a line left of center, bracing as the bow dipped into big waves that sent water crashing into the canoe. Having 100-plus pounds of water sloshing around the boat made it very unstable, so maintaining balance was crucial, but difficult. It was a relief to reach an eddy past the rapids where we could bail out.

After drifting through the Haskell Deadwater, we put ashore at the first mandatory portage. Polstein and Hale offered to tote the boats if we carried the dry bags, photo equipment and paddles. It’s only a half-mile, but we didn’t want to step on their Maine Guide cred, so we accepted. Gladly.

Haskell Rock is a highlight of the trip. Standing midriver is a 20-foot-high formation of pebbles and stone. It’s possible to climb to the top of this conglomerate in lower water, but when we passed the pillar it was an island flanked by churning whitewater.

After a brief paddle, it was time again to take out for the quarter-mile portage around Pond Pitch. Then we approached the most dramatic feature on the river, Grand Pitch. After a three-quarter-mile portage, we paused for lunch and admired the 30-foot-high landmark, a torrent of deafening water pinched between two rock faces that pours into a furious boil.

Here’s what Thoreau wrote on his East Branch trip, on July 31, 1857:

“We had heard of a Grand Fall on this stream, and thought that each fall we came to must be it, but after christening several in succession with this name, we gave up the search. There were more Grand or Petty Falls than I can remember. I cannot tell how many times we had to walk on account of falls or rapids. We were expecting all the while that the river would take a final leap and get to smooth water, but there was no improvement this forenoon.”

MAYBE NOT FOR THE TOURISTS

As we ate lunch, Polstein and Hale talked about the river, and how Katahdin Woods & Waters could bring more people to discover it.

In their businesses, both men find that clients want to learn more about the region’s logging history and the decline of papermaking. They also find many visitors like the idea of being in a remote area, but not if their cellphones don’t work.

The East Branch, they said, can help brand the area. Guides and local businesses could offer soft-adventure packages that bring people to Grand Pitch and Haskell Rock. Most people don’t have whitewater canoe skills, so it makes sense to promote the evolving mountain bike, hiking and ski trails and the campsites along the west bank.

Polstein also made a revealing statement: After 30 years of guiding in the region, he’d only paddled the East Branch for the first time two years ago. It’s just not on most people’s radar, he said. Hale called the East Branch a “Boy Scout river,” best known for wilderness adventure trips at summer camps.

But an incident that took place a few days before our trip reminded us that an adventure can spin out of control on this stretch of river.

The next rapid is called The Hulling Machine, named for the turbulent, rocky falls that stripped bark from logs during the lumbering era. It requires a tough, muddy portage that begins at a sandy take-out. The excellent Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail map and guide, which we used, calls the portage “well-marked.”

But several paddlers from a girls camp in central Maine missed that portage and went through the raging rapids. Boats capsized. One girl hurt her leg badly enough that a work crew at Bowlin Camps and local game wardens had to carry her out to a waiting ambulance. With their gear lost, the girls spent the night in the lodge at Bowlin Camps.

They wrote in the camps’ guest book: “You saved our lives when we capsized in Hulling Machine Falls. We are extremely thankful for everything you did. So thank you with all our hearts.”

We were reminded of this near-tragedy as we got back on the river below The Hulling Machine, and saw the summer camp’s bashed-up boats washed ashore. One remained pinned in a hydraulic downstream, at Bowlin Falls.

We went ashore to scout Bowlin Falls, an optional portage. The heavy flow made this a Class III pitch, and trickier than the straight shot through Stair Falls. This one required a line run left toward an island to avoid strong currents that pull right, then a quick shift in direction a couple of times to miss rocks and hydraulics.

We watched Polstein and Hale navigate through. I made a mental video of their line and tried to replicate it when it was our turn.

In a moment, we were being sucked into the powerful current. Time for Plan B. In raging rapids, survival sometimes means just keeping your bow pointed downstream and away from obvious disaster.

It wasn’t the prettiest run, but we emerged intact. Just staying upright and dry counts for a lot on the upper East Branch.

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