A kayaker goes down a waterfall
A kayaker plunges down Little Falls on the Machias River. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

Planning a spring paddling trip on the Machias River in Washington County requires evaluating a combination of factors. Weather, ice-out, road access, water levels and blackflies are all issues that need to be investigated. After about 30 trips, I’ve become discriminating about my expectations. Experience suggests a trip beginning in late April and ending in early May is usually the ideal timeframe, so that’s when I scheduled a Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society club trip this year.

As anticipated, all the necessary components fell into place. The water level was moderately high, most of the roads were open, a quality five-day weather forecast was predicted, ice was out on the lakes and the dreaded blackflies had yet to appear. My longtime friend and frequent outdoor accomplice, Ken Gordon, enthusiastically agreed with the planned schedule. Unfortunately, several other interested club members were unable to participate during the narrow window of opportunity. Time flexibility is one of the few benefits of being old and retired.

A kayaker maneuvers around an obstruction at Long Falls on the Machias River. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

Selecting the segment of river to paddle was the next step. The Machias has several access points providing a variety of options. Trips can be from one to seven days in length and begin at various points between Fifth Machias Lake and the village of Machias. Since the road to Fifth Lake was closed, we chose a five-day trip from Third Machias Lake to Machias. Our 55-mile itinerary entailed traversing two lakes, portaging a major waterfall and navigating eight challenging whitewater rapids plus many easier ones.

The means of river travel has changed for Ken and me. We no longer use tripping canoes. Instead, we’ve migrated to expedition kayaks. The primary reason is to avoid physical discomfort. After a knee replacement, I can no longer kneel in a canoe without pain. Expedition kayaks have other advantages besides comfort. They’re quicker, drier and more maneuverable. The primary disadvantage is less space for gear.

After leaving my vehicle in Machias, we transported kayaks and gear in Ken’s car to Third Lake. Fortuitously, the dirt roads were in good condition. The weather was cool, windy and gray when we launched at the outlet.

A trip on the Machias River begins at the outlet of Third Machias Lake. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

The scenic sector of river between Third and Second Lakes is a succession of narrow technical rapids interspersed with flatwater. The most significant rapid, Long Falls, consisted of three pitches that warranted careful attention. After thoroughly scouting the twisting descent, we set up safety with a throw bag for the first pitch and then continued to an eddy on the right above the second where a fallen tree blocked part of our preferred route. Following careful inspection, we negotiated around the obstruction, ferried out into large waves that plummeted through the third pitch and successfully dodged numerous rocks and a strainer during the extended runout. My latest book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine,” relates tales of two substantial misadventures on Long Falls.

A delightful series of technical Class II rapids followed to Second Lake. A strong tail wind quickly propelled us south to the outlet adjacent to a sandy beach that has been a campsite during trips past. A large eagle provided entertainment and methodically scrutinized us during much of the 2-mile stretch of calm water to First Lake. The welcome tail wind again assisted our traverse to the southern end of the lake and a convenient campsite.

The campsite at the bottom of Little Falls is one of the best on the Machias River. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

The weather improved on day two with warmer temperatures and partly sunny skies, but pesky northwest winds persisted. Our first challenge was Class III Carrick Rips. We again set up safety before proceeding tight right, ferrying left around a menacing boulder, and finishing in a substantial wave train.

Shortly after, the West Branch entered on our right. Several exhilarating rapids followed as we paddled through an expansive stand of tall pines to complex Airline Rapid just below Route Nine. We maneuvered through breaking waves and around several potentially hazardous obstacles to a lunch spot at the bottom.

Flatwater continued for a few miles to Little Falls, which is not little. We carried our gear to what I consider the most picturesque campsite on the river at the foot of the falls and navigated the demanding rapid along the left shore in empty kayaks before settling in for a relaxing evening.

Many more adventures awaited us during the remaining three days of our trip. The exciting Wigwam Rapids were on the agenda for day three.

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Ron Chase, Outdoors Contributor

Ron Chase resides in Topsham. His latest book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine” is now available at northcountrypress.com/maine-al-fresco.html. His previous books are...