The evening arrival in a new location has its benefits. You awake in a whole new space. New boundaries, new sights, smells and sometimes, a new sense of being.
After a full day paddling and portaging across Maine's Flagstaff Lake and down the Dead River, we'd arrived at the palatial Grand Falls Hut. Exhaustion yielded limited scope, with blinders fixed on the self-sustaining, off-grid lodge's immediate amenities—from the staffed full kitchen whipping out hearty dinner plates and cold beers to the warm showers and comfortable beds.
Maine Huts and Trails has outdone itself with such a thoughtfully designed structure with a significant degree of luxury. But as with any real estate, the location defines the space. And this space is all about the larger, exterior open spaces. Only upon waking does our small group of four realize our immediate surroundings, deep in north-central Maine's woods. We're rested, wide awake, well fed and caffeinated, all ready for another full day—already in the middle of the backcountry.
It is those woods, the river rushing below, that greater open space that is exactly the point.
As Zand Martin, our expedition-leading local source of all things paddling, puts it: "It is not about the hut; it is about what happens because the hut is there."
Because this hut is here, we can take a leisurely morning walk up the hiking trail along river-left to join two new members of our crew at the put-in where the nearest dirt road ends at the Dead.
Here we meet Karrie Thomas and Noah Pollock, the executive and stewardship directors, respectively, for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. At this intersection in the 740-mile pan-New England trail, the NFCT veers to the north on Spencer Stream. Thomas, however, has never taken the other route, following the Dead on its rollicking 16-mile route east to meet the Kennebec, which then flows south all the way out to the Atlantic.
It is certainly not a path that is un-beaten. In 1775, the river corridor took a near-devastating toll on Col. Benedict Arnold's troops during their ill-fated 350-mile wilderness trek to attack British forces in Quebec City. While the Continental Army's costly attempts to row and pole leaking bateaus up rain-loaded surges of high water put the river in the history books, it's the downriver route that has kept the Dead alive for northeast paddlers. They can thank the local outfitters working with land owners/management agencies and the utility provider to negotiate releases from the Long Falls Dam. Now the Dead River benefits from a series of scheduled summer recreational releases (including eight high-water releases of 3,000+ cfs) that keep a corps of private paddlers (and commercial rafters with the high water, respectively), returning to this isolated intersection in the woods.
For a peak summer day on a lower-volume recreational release of 1,800 cfs, we only encounter a couple of other private paddlers at the supposedly popular put-in. On the water, that sense of space expands in an instant. The bald eagle is a helpful reminder, flying over the river as we head into the first Class II-III drop of the day.
After that initial drop, the rapids ease in technicality while the gradient remains. Our group of six, paddling a pair of tandem canoes and two inflatable kayaks, spreads apart, the steady current shuttling us through a thick green gauntlet.
Sitting below the ripples of short rapid, I eddy out and shift gaze to the fixed shore.
Light strafes into thick woods. The forest feels deep, alive. As my mind wanders into deeper terrain — "whose woods are these?" — Pollock and Thomas paddle by and provide some context: How we're in the cradle of the healthy, intact Northern Forest ecological region that sprawls across much of northern New England and Quebec. As if to punctuate the point, another bald eagle launches over the river. I'm starting to lose count of the sightings.
So whose woods are these? Who is keeping these woods intact? It's a complicated answer, but the short version is that they likely do belong to someone (90 percent of Maine's land is privately owned). Any consideration of protected lands is rooted in the legacy of land transfers from the vast holdings of the timber industry, where access and conservation require a lot of proactive forethought, partnerships and connected easements.
Putting on and running the Dead is no public gimme like you might find on other Western rivers. Taking full advantage of the limited release, we see a few more paddlers playing in the wavetrains of the 30-some rapids that continue to build in length and technicality to the stretch's finale: Big Poplar Falls, pitched to intrepid rafters as the "longest rapid in the Northeast."
The mile-long maze of boulders requires full attention. Reading and running, picking lines, scrambling to make moves, our crew makes it through upright and smiling, without too much green Royalex on the rocks.
On the float out to the signs of civilization that mark The Forks area of Maine, Thomas reflects on her first heads-up run of the Dead.
"That was ridiculously fun in a canoe," says Thomas, who's kayaked her share of classics across the Americas. "There's Class Easy and Class Hard — that can become Class Scary — and this is just Class Fun."
We opt to float past the typical Forks takeout and meander down the broader Kennebec an additional five miles. Our day ends pulling our boats right up from the river to the front of the cabins at Northern Outdoors.
The sprawling adventure resort is a lot of things to a lot of users. With space for RV and tent campers to rustic cabins and log condos, the campus of facilities offers a year-round foothold to step further into the surrounding area for hiking, biking, snowmobiling and paddling adventures. We step into the lively lodge, with its full kitchen/restaurant cranking, band setting up, and cornhole tournament kicking off on the huge back patio, excitement based on the most obvious offering: an on-site brewery.
Before we can even select a brew, Suzie Hockmeyer appears and with the snap of a finger, has cold IPAs in our hands. Hockmeyer, the so-called Queen of the Kennebec, who co-founded Northern Outdoors 1976 with then-husband Wayne, is eager to hear about our day on the Dead. It wasn't always so simple, the spry "kinda retired" 67-year-old tells us over the din of thirsty rafting guests filing into the lodge. Back in the early '80s when she was pioneering the area's whitewater runs as Maine's first licensed female raft guide, Hockmeyer had no idea when the Dead releases would occur. Sometimes it would be a "bit of a card game" with only a single chance to learn the lines in a summer season.
As the timber industry stopped sending logs down the Kennebec in the mid-'70s, the Hockmeyers and private boaters began working to open dialogue with land owners, utility and paper companies. Together they established more releases, fixed schedules, and year by year, opened up new access points and more consistent releases, first on the Penobscot, then the Kennebec, and finally the Dead. With the rivers a more knowable quantity to plan a business around, Suzie Hockmeyer helped establish a scene, now thriving with a staff of 60 guides ushering busloads of rafting guests for each release. We're lucky to even find seats to wolf down hearty pub burgers after a long day.
It's not until leaving the lodge, stepping out into the silence of the night and the sounds of the river, that I appreciate the asset of an outpost in a such a quiet area. Obviously the chicken wings were a big bonus — well beyond duplication in a camp kitchen.
But the setting itself is another, the infrastructure providing that key stepping-out point to one of the largest tracts of wild lands east of the Mississippi. After rafting took her to watersheds around the globe, I can see why Hockmeyer settled here, with rivers to paddle in every directions: from the Kennebec’s varying stretches up to its headwaters where the East and West Outlets drain Moosehead Lake, to the canoe-tripping draw of the famed Moose River loop, and back to the Dead.
When there’s open space, you want to move to fill it. And the next day, we use the welcome pitstop as the perfect refueling point to head even deeper into the Maine woods.
RESOURCES IF YOU GO:
Maine Huts and Trails: Grand Falls Hut
Paddling the Dead River: American Whitewater
Northern Outdoors: Rafting Info
Northern Forest Canoe Trail (Section 11): NFCT Trip Planner/Map
Wenonah–Current Designs // NRS // Kokatat // Bending Branches // Mitchell Paddles // Werner // Exped // Alite // Northstar Canoes // Hornbeck Boats // Placid Boatworks // Granite Gear // LL Bean // Garmin // MPowerd Lights // Pocket Disc // Thule // Honey Stinger // Gritty’s // Allen’s
Connections Across Maine — Part 1, Lakes & Mountains
Inside the NFCT: A Case for Maine
25 Days on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail
Linking the NFCT and Maine Island Trail
The Maine Barn of Birchbark Builder Ken Weeks