· Dates: 8/18-8/20
· Max. Size: 8
· Tuition: $350
Goal: Pole Up The Most Challenging Mile And A Half Of The Allagash Wilderness Waterway
If you’ve ever run the Allagash, or even just read one of the guidebooks or trip descriptions, you know that the most challenging water on the waterway is the first few miles below Churchill Dam. Called Chase Rapids, the first mile and a half is the trickiest. This is the section from the big pool below the dam to Big Eddy. It’s fast, with a steep gradient, lots of standing waves, and is where most people dump their boats.
In ages past, people would routinely pole and line up this section. Before the logging roads were common, there was no other way to get upriver. In the modern world, maybe a handful of people have used muscle power to get up this section of river. Maybe less than a handful. This is our challenge for summer 2021: poling up Chase Rapids from Big Eddy to Churchill Dam.
Our plan is to head into the woods and base camp at Churchill Dam. It’s a great site with lots of history. The dam controls the water level, so even if we get a drought like the past few summers, there will be enough water to pole the rips. The rangers usually open the dam at 8am, then close it at noon. This gives those going downriver enough water to get through Chase Rapids. It will help us in our quest to come upriver, because if we do so in the afternoon the water level will be much lower; perfect for poling up through the rapids.
In order to prepare for the challenge, we’ll run the entire Chase Rapids a few times. Because we’ll be base camped at the dam, we can drive to Bisonette Bridge and pick up people and boats and bring them back to the dam.
The little rip just below the dam is a great place to practice basic poling. The pool is also a good place to catch brookies, I’ve been told.
Last summer (2020) we were camped at Churchill Dam for a few days when I came up with the idea for this program. Seth Walton and I snubbed down the first drop of the rapids, then poled back up it. Seth did great, but it was shallow and fast and I had to put everything I had into getting the boat back up to the dam. It was the last (or first, if you’re headed downstream) drop that took me 15 minutes to solve. Afterwards, talking with Allagash ranger Ed Palys about poling up this drop, he mentioned it was challenging. Ed is one of the few people I know who have poled up to the dam from Big Eddy. I’m hopeful that by the end of next summer I’ll know a few more.
If you want to participate, you’ll need your own boat and pole (extra pole would be good to bring, as I’ve seen a few poles broken in the rips over the years), in addition to camping gear. Tuition for the course will pay for North Maine Woods fees, Allagash fees, food, and the drive into and out of the woods, as well as shuttles to Bisonette Bridge.
This will be physically hard. If you want to be successful, start physical training soon. Weights, cardio, etc. I’m not joking when I say the hardest I worked during the summer 2020 season was poling up one drop on this section of river; we’ll be trying to pole and line up the toughest 1.5 miles of the waterway.
My experience poling has been marked by periods of rapid growth and improvement followed by periods of stagnation. What has caused the periods of rapid growth and skill development has been challenge. The greater the challenge, the greater the growth. It goes without saying that there will be rapid growth and skill development on this trip.
Unlike other races or competitions, there won’t be any fans cheering you on. But you will have a small group of like-minded polers supporting you. Not many people try things like this these days. To head to a remote stretch of river knowing it’s going to kick your ass is something our culture of comfort doesn’t do. But if you’re the type to enjoy a challenge, to see this as an opportunity for rapid growth and skill improvement, and to put your name among those who have attempted something truly challenging, consider this trip.