Reprinted from the June 2011 issue of the Northwoods Sporting Journal.
The woods of northern Maine were much different in the 1800’s than they are today. A forest that was once roamed by Indians and changed only by natural disturbance soon became the workplace of the timber industry. Small farms and settlements began to pop up in the woods, and early travelers came to discover this frontier of the north.
Early explorers such as Henry David Thoreau and James Russell Lowell showed that roaming through the north woods could be done, but it was still a dangerous proposition, with no maps or guidebooks to encourage the explorer.
In the 1870’s and 80’s, the floodgates began to open. With help from lumberjacks, woodsmen and guides, mapmaker John Way and others published maps and guides of the country to the north and west of Moosehead Lake. These guidebooks beckoned the weary city dweller to head north in search of solitude and adventure. Even with the early maps and guides, much of the country was yet unexplored at this time, but a man by the name of Thomas Sedgewick Steele would soon change all of that.
Steele was determined to venture into the north country and further document this wild territory. Born in 1845 in Hartford, Connecticut, Steele always had a passion of the outdoors, and spent time dabbling in drawing and painting in his early years. He soon became weary of working in his father’s jewelry business and sought an adventure in northern Maine, where he could use his art and writing skills to describe this wilderness to others.
What began as an idea turned into two adventuresome canoe trips through the forests of northern Maine. From the trips he published two books: “Canoe and Camera” (1880), and “Paddle and Portage” (1882). Each documented a separate canoe trip, and they became two of the first guidebooks designed specifically for the canoeist. Both of the books were beautifully illustrated.
Canoe and Camera
“Canoe and Camera” documents Thomas Sedgewick Steele’s first trip into the north woods, in 1879. Tracing one of Thoreau’s early routes, this 200 mile trip began at Moosehead Lake, and followed the East Branch of the Penobscot River back to civilization. Moosehead was reached by railroad car and a short buggy ride. From here, there were three popular canoe routes: the St. John River, the West Branch Penobscot, and the East Branch Penobscot.
Steele was accompanied on his month-long East Branch trip by a close friend, a photographer, and three guides. The six men travelled in three birch bark canoes and a small portable folding canvas canoe. They were to be the first party to make this journey in 1879. Basic provisions were supplemented by fish the men caught and game they shot.
Only three habitations were seen on the trip: a 300-acre farm on Chamberlain Lake which supplied loggers, a 400-acre farm on Trout Brook on the East Branch, and Hunt’s Farm, near present-day Hunt Mountain. Steele’s surprise in seeing these farms in the wilderness was probably equal to our surprise to know that they were once there, but have since reverted back to forest.
The trip down the East Branch was quite an adventure. The men ran numerous rapids, but there were many others that were much too steep to run in a canoe. It appears as though all of these falls and rips were already named by early explorers and loggers, and Steele carefully recorded these for future maps. Sometimes the canoes were led through the rips by the men guiding them with lead ropes from shore, and other times the entire outfit had to be portaged around falls.
Several of Steele’s notes in “Canoe and Camera” were quite interesting. He mentioned the discovery of a new pond on ‘Hay Creek’, which wasn’t on any of the maps. He also noted that much of the information on the maps they used was misleading or incorrect. Finally, the crew caught numerous trout throughout the trip, but noted that their first catch of a salmon took place at Matagamon Lake. With no early records of salmon being stocked here, the question of this fish’s origin is intriguing.
“Canoe and Camera” contained 60 illustrations (many were copied from photographs taken on the trip), and the text and images are now an important piece of history about this part of Maine.
Paddle and Portage
Following the success of his first trip and book, Steele soon took a second trip and published the book “Paddle and Portage” in 1882. Beginning again at Moosehead Lake, this journey ventured north to the headwaters of the Aroostook River and then back to civilization. Steele’s friend from “Canoe and Camera” had taken this Aroostook trip the prior year, and his party claimed the title “Pioneers of the Aroostook”. However, the second trip down the Aroostook would prove to be a challenge during the driest summer anyone in the area could remember.
The trip took the group from Moosehead Lake, across a portage, and down the West Branch of the Penobscot River to Chesuncook Lake, past Chesuncook Farm, and over to Mud Pond Carry. Here, two men were operating a portage service whereby the canoes and gear were taken across the carry using horses. They entered Chamberlain Lake, stayed briefly at Chamberlain Farm, and then went on to Eagle and Churchill lakes. They then carried the gear to Marsh Pond (now known as Grass Pond) and to Spider Lake.
The group then made their way across several small ponds to Osgood Carry. At this carry, they hiked their gear over the height of land that separates the St. John and Aroostook River drainages. The crew then travelled on to Echo Lake and the Munsungan Lakes. The journey down Munsungan Stream was difficult with low water, and the guides built cedar strips to protect the bottom of the birch bark canoes to keep them being destroyed by the rocks. They dragged the canoes for 12 miles down Munsungan Stream, with water getting more abundant at the junction with Millinocket Stream.
The first sign of civilization was a house at the junction of Mooseleuk Stream and the Aroostook River, and a little further down, near present-day Oxbow, they met a gentleman who had lived on the Aroostook for 37 years. They purchased supplies in the village of Masardis and made the rest of the journey down the Aroostook and back to civilization.
Numerous interesting details of Maine woods history are evident in “Paddle and Portage”. The group spooked a large caribou on the shore of Chamberlain Lake, which was even then becoming a rarity, as the small caribou herds became extinct shortly thereafter. Perhaps even more interesting was the rare event of seeing moose in the area. The men were convinced that moose were almost extinct here. Thus, they were surprised to find a moose skull on Eagle Lake, and a live moose on Munsungan.
Another interesting feature of the trip was the caverns the men explored on Spider Lake. Low water allowed them to venture into these otherwise submerged rock caves. Steele was also astonished by the old growth forest and mass of dead trees at Marsh Pond.
Other points of interest on the trip were the extreme difficulty of portaging all of the gear and dragging the canoes across the rocks due to the low water. Steele noted that they had to build dams and sluice themselves through many reaches of stream.
A notable piece of history included in the book is the story one of the guides told about his experience with John Way, early mapmaker in the area.
Like “Canoe and Camera”, the book contained over 60 illustrations of the journey. It also contained an updated 20” x 30” map of the area.
Overall, “Paddle and Portage” was a captivating record of a canoe route that is no longer taken today. Combined with “Canoe and Camera”, these books paved the way for new adventurers in the woods of northern Maine, and today remain an important piece of our history.
Original copies of these two books are extremely rare, but reprints are available for a reasonable price. Digital copies can be read online for free. Search for the titles on Google Books, or at www.archive.org.