Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on a paddling trip down the Seboeis River.
Forty years ago, my wife, Nancy, and I paddled the iconic Seboeis River canoe trip from Grand Lake Road west of Shin Pond to Whetstone Falls on the East Branch of the Penobscot with our friends John and Diane Stokinger. Twenty years later, I descended the turbulent upper Seboeis to Grand Lake Road with a group of whitewater boaters.
The two trips are distinctly different river adventures. The upper is about five miles of almost continuous technical Class III/IV whitewater that would be difficult to navigate in a loaded canoe or kayak. Below Grand Lake Road, the Seboeis is the quintessential tripping experience consisting of easy rapids and quick water until reaching Class III Whetstone Falls.
For the last several years, a group of friends and I have completed a northern Maine canoe/kayak trip in May. This year, I suggested a combination whitewater and tripping excursion on the Seboeis. Everyone seemed enthusiastic. Perhaps they were just humoring an old man, because only three of us made the trip.
A dual Seboeis trip is a logistical challenge. Small whitewater boats are preferable on the upper part, whereas larger tripping vessels are needed for the remainder. Therefore, two separate shuttles are necessary. The folks at Matagamon Campground provided the help I needed.
When I spoke with one of the owners, he confirmed they could transport our vehicles from both launches to Hay Brook kayak/canoe facility in Grindstone. He also suggested using Matagamon Tote Road to access the upper.
A plan was in place. Three of us would take six boats on three vehicles to the Grand Lake Road put-in, where we would leave our tripping vessels on two vehicles and transport three whitewater boats to the launch for the upper on the third. Once the upper was completed, we would exchange crafts, load gear and begin the river trip. Yes, it’s confusing.
We selected three outstanding spring weather days for our early May excursion. It was sunny and breezy when we arrived at the boat launch on Grand Lake Road. Negotiating the Matagamon Tote Road to a snowmobile bridge over the upper was an ordeal. Five recent blowdowns had to be dislodged, one required towing. The bridge was a welcome sight.
Rousing Tiger Rips, a long section of continuous, demanding whitewater that required precise maneuvering, began almost immediately. It was a delight.
We alternated running probe while navigating a succession of abrupt turns, complicated ledge drops and boulder-strewn descents. Tumbling from eddy to eddy, we boat-scouted down the steep, narrow freshet while remaining alert for Godfrey Pitch, the most difficult falls on the river.
As we entered an attenuated gorge, exploding waves below a horizon line marked our arrival at the pitch. After catching a tiny eddy on the right side, we carefully scouted the cataract. Consisting of three precipitous ledges, the second formed a menacing hydraulic. We carried around the hydraulic and plunged over the final ledge. More exhilarating rapids continued to Grand Lake Road.
We stopped at the landing to switch boats and load gear. Sawtelle Stream enters the Seboeis at this location, and it becomes a more substantial body of water.
Easy rapids followed for a mile to Grand Pitch, an impassable gorge. A prominent sign marked the beginning of the portage trail on the left. Upgrades made by Butler Conservation Trust when it constructed the Seboeis Riverside Trail have substantially improved the carry.
More rapids continued for another mile to Snowshoe Lodge, recently built by the conservation trust. Open to hikers and paddlers on a first-come, first-served basis, we toted our gear to the hut. To our chagrin, another blowdown had wreaked havoc. A sizeable tree recently fell on the cabin, tearing off the chimney. The sturdy structure was able to withstand further damage, and we enjoyed luxurious accommodations for the night.
It was a clear night and stargazing was exceptional. Plans were discussed for the coming days. A primary topic of conversation was the anticipated water level on the East Branch of the Penobscot. It had been flowing at about 5,000 cubic feet per second, more than three times the highest level any of us had experienced.
Whetstone Falls was going to be cranking.