Forget the St. John, Allagash or St. Croix rivers. As far as I’m concerned, the Machias River is the best tripping river in Maine — maybe even in all of the northeastern United States.
A free-flowing river with a large watershed, it begins in the lakes region of northern Washington County. From Fifth Machias Lake, it meanders and tumbles for 80 miles to the sea in the coastal community of Machias.
Meaning “bad run of water” or “bad little falls” in Passamaquoddy, the Machias has virtually everything for the adventurous paddler. Narrow, scenic whitewater streams connect five small- to medium-sized lakes in the upper reaches.
A few miles after leaving the last downriver lake, First Machias, it joins the West Branch and becomes a much more substantial body of water. Beginning with Long Falls between Third and Second Machias Lakes, there are at least eight Class III rapids, some more difficult in high water. Depending on water levels and paddling skills, they may need to be carried. Most consider turbulent Holmes Falls to be a mandatory portage.
For many years, I’ve scheduled a Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society spring Machias River trip in late April. Weather, water levels and road access are the primary concerns when planning an excursion on the Machias. Road closings by new landowners have complicated planning in recent years.
In early April, I contacted Sunrise Expeditions in Washington County about the possibility of hiring them to shuttle us into Fifth Machias Lake or Cranberry Lake, the primary source of the West Branch. They reported roads to those locations were gated by landowners. Hence, the trip would be limited to the 56-mile sector between Third Lake and Machias.
Stormy weather complicated decision-making. A forecast for three days of exceptional weather sandwiched between two long periods of rain dictated my choice. In my opinion, the best three-day trip on the Machias is from Third Machias Lake to Holmes Falls.
Several people expressed interest in the outing, but due to conflicts only frequent outdoor companion Ken Gordon could join me. While a larger group was preferable, just two of us paddling expedition kayaks simplified logistics. We agreed to meet on the morning of April 27 at Airline Rapids on Route 9 near Wesley to begin our shuttle.
Our adventure began with disappointment. For the first time in the 45 years I’ve been paddling the Machias River, the road to Holmes Falls was gated. A review of our alternatives indicated a trip from Airline Rapids to Smith Landing in Northfield was a convenient three-day trip. This option was not a sacrifice, since any trip on the Machias is exceptional. This scenic sector of river has several exciting rapids, beautiful campsites and dramatic Holmes Falls. The shuttle completed, we were ready to paddle by early afternoon.
While preparing to launch on Airline Rapids, a party of six in three tandem canoes passed. During an exchange of greetings, we confirmed that all of us would be camping at Little Falls that night. The best campsite on the river was going to be a crowded place.
Airline Rapids is a long, pushy, complex descent. We chose a route on the right in the upper portion selecting narrow passageways between numerous boulders. After catching an eddy on the right, we ferried left through a rock garden while managing to avoid broaching possibilities. Our first whitewater rapid on the trip was completed without incident.
The five-mile paddle to Little Falls is predominantly flatwater. However, two short. entertaining rapids must be navigated. In the middle of the second, we were able to surf a feisty wave in our heavy tripping kayaks — a rewarding accomplishment.
When we arrived at Little Falls, the tandem canoe teams were preparing to complete their runs. The challenging falls is a lengthy rapid with a steep, intimidating ledge drop in the middle. The pitch can be run left or in the center, but both channels require precise maneuvering. Ken and I walked the portage trail and watched their successful descents. We negotiated the left route without problems.
Our newfound paddling companions were a joy to camp with at the foot of the falls. We spent the evening discussing the adventures that awaited us downriver.
My book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine” documents trips through the entire river.