Family canoe trip in the Maine North Woods

My friend Amanda’s idea of adventure is to disconnect from the world in order to reconnect with her family. She has shared her itinerary for this canoe trip in Maine with many of our friends, and I asked her to share it on Adventure Travel Mom, too, because it’s sounds like such a beautiful experience. Enjoy!

Sometimes going away together on vacation isn’t enough. As life becomes more complicated, it’s not easy to truly escape the day-to-day stresses and spend quality time with your family. Two years ago we faced this dilemma when planning our annual summer vacation.

How could we make the most of our seven-day vacation allotment?

Going to the beach or even renting a lakeside cabin left too many potential “holes.” Holes are what I call chunks of time lost to the mundane —driving in a car, shopping, watching T.V.,  playing a video game. Anything that interferes with our time together as a family.

We decided to eliminate the holes altogether.  And so we began to carefully plan a weeklong canoe trip in the remote wilderness of the Maine North Woods.

The plan: After consulting a couple of river guides in the area, we settled on the West Branch of the Penobscot River as a good first-run for our family. Our kids at the time were ages 5 and 8. Our trip would begin near Lobster Lake, about 28 miles as the crow flies from Greenville, Maine. We would spend a couple of nights on the lake and then follow the Penobscot River to our pickup destination at the far end of Lake Chesuncook —all together, an approximately 50-mile journey on water.

The state of Maine oversees the upkeep of primitive campsites along popular water routes in the North Woods. Each site has a fire pit and outhouse. But it’s first come, first served. So you’re wise to get an early morning start.

The Penobscot is mostly flatwater, with a nice, steady current in sections. Unlike most multi-day canoe trips, there are no portages, which is a huge upside.

Preparing: Canoe camping is not like car camping. We were heading into the wilderness. There would be no driving to the general store to grab forgotten items. Once our guide dropped us off on the river, we’d be on our own for the next six days.

The huge advantage of canoes (over backpacks) is the amount of space a canoe allows for luxury items like camp chairs, stoves, and decent food. I prepared a handful of backpacking meals in Ziplock bags (just add water, heat, and stir) and bought some of the pre-made varieties at the local camping store.

Other key items: bug dope, first aid kit, water purifier, canoe bags (which we rented from the outfitter), garbage bags (useful in more ways than you can imagine), rain gear, tarps, tent, sleeping bags and pads, lots of Ziploc bags, flashlights, etc. We each brought a couple of easy-dry shirts and shorts, and some warm clothes for chilly nights and wet/cold days. The clothes went into Ziploc bags and then into the waterproof canoe bags. Staying dry would be key.

Getting there: We worked with Northwoods Outfitters in downtown Greenville to fine-tune our route, arrange transportation, and rent canoes. The morning of our departure, they reviewed our route with us, made campsite recommendations, and then loaded our gear into a truck, with two 17-foot Discovery canoes on top. A colorful local named Buddy drove us two hours on bumpy dirt roads to our drop-off point near Lobster Lake. Along the way, we stopped to pay the state of Maine (cash only) a nightly fee for use of the campsites.

When Buddy drove away and we were standing by the riverbank with our canoes, I remember thinking, “Wow, we’re really out there.”

Figuring it out:  The first couple of days we spent cataloguing all the things we forgot to bring. Namely, high-quality rain-gear and a large enough tarp. Within minutes of setting up camp the first day, the skies opened up into a torrential downpour. Not just rain. A flood. Everything was soaked. But miraculously, the sun came out before nightfall and dried everything out. This is how the next six days would go – rain followed by sun, followed by rain, followed by sun.

Getting comfortable:  As a mom, the most difficult realization I faced within the first day or two was that if something happened, emergency help was very, very far away. In fact, it was nonexistent. No unnecessary risks were allowed. As a family, we had to think smart. But after I got used to the idea, I began to relax and savor the isolation.

Falling in Love:  I woke the first morning to the sound of loons. Through the mesh window of our tent, I saw a papa and mama swimming past our campsite, as the sun peaked above the stillness of the lake. I was in love.

The great thing about canoe trips is that once you get to camp (some days we paddled for eight hours, other days for three), there’s not much to do except set up camp and relax. We did a lot of swimming, fishing, reading, and game playing. The kids came up with all kinds of imaginative ideas, including “art galleries” of stones and sand drawings they left behind at every campsite.

For six days, we were together in the truest sense. Together with our own thoughts as we paddled down the river, together in our misery as we set up camp in pouring rain or paddled through a downpour, together in our joy as we swam and played in the beauty of untouched nature, and together in the peace of sitting around a campfire at night soaking in the night sounds.

With no watches and a daily rhythm that followed the coming and going of the sun, the days seemed to last forever.

Saying goodbye:  Over the course of the week, we encountered 40 mph headwinds and whitecaps that almost capsized our canoes, near hypothermia as we paddled through a rainstorm in search of a campsite, and aching arms and backs as we essentially solo canoed the entire 50-mile route. But we also experienced a sense of solidarity and shared accomplishment that comes from conquering adversity together. Everyone had a vital role to play. We now knew the true meaning of “family unit.”

On the last morning of our trip, my husband and I yearned for one more week on the water.  We weren’t ready for the interruption of real life. To face the complications of modern living and the “holes” that would swallow up so much of our family time in the coming weeks and months.

But after that final paddle to shore, I’ll admit it was a welcome sight to see Buddy standing on the edge of Lake Chesuncook with a bag of locally made doughnuts in his hand. Maybe civilization wasn’t so bad, either.

And yes, the next year …. we went back for more.

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