A Multidiscipline Exploration of Maine’s Pristine Backcountry

Article by Zach Mccarthy

A Multidiscipline Exploration of Maine’s Pristine Backcountry

Photography by Andy Gagne
Hard to beat the fun of planning a project and plotting your routes.

Sitting down together one evening early this summer, the idea came to life over a few beers.

As we started to plan, my mind began to wander with thoughts of setting up camp along a pristine waterway in the late September sun.

It started with three friends — Andy Gagne, Stuart Hickey, and myself — who all share a mutual passion for adventure and pushing our physical limits. We had to keep a few things top of mind as we started planning our adventure. Though we wanted something that could be manipulated to suit different ability levels, we set out with the intention to test our endurance and push ourselves mentally and physically. We wanted to incorporate multiple disciplines — as well as to #AdventureInPlace and highlight some of the less explored, pristine wilderness right in our backyards.

Creating a local route to show the world-class backcountry terrain at every New Englander's disposal was one of the highest priorities.

Thank goodness for our saving grace, Margaret, and her key role of meeting us with a van full of supplies and gear along the way.

The trip would be composed of three parts. First, a 7k 20.74-mile hike/run along the Appalachian Trail in Maine from East B Hill Road in Andover to Height of The Land in Rangeley. Second, roughly a 24-mile canoe/kayak across Mooselookmeguntic, Upper Richardson, Lower Richardson, Pond in the River, and into New Hampshire on the Rapid River. Third, a 1.9k 19.56-mile bike on almost entirely gravel/dirt roads from the Rapid River take-out in New Hampshire back to the Appalachian trailhead on East B Hill Road in Maine to complete the loop. We would put in 9000 feet in elevation change over 65 miles across land and water, all in just over 36 hours.

After collectively deciding to make it happen in September, we dove into figuring out gear drops, food, and all of the specifics with transitions. Margaret Adham would be our saving grace. Without her, this would have been a different trip and much more difficult to plan. So, on a Tuesday in late September, we loaded up all of our gear into a van — everything we needed for the trip. At the end of each leg, Margaret met us with the van full of gear, hot/fresh food, and a well-earned beer. And every time we arrived at a meeting spot, the van had a hypothetical halo floating over it — packed full of everything we needed and wanted. Thank you, Margaret.

Hike, First.

Those serene, low-incline starts, and beautiful scenery, quickly blend into the background as soon as the pace ratchets up.

The three of us and my husky, Bane, headed out Wednesday morning, setting foot on the trail with full packs at 6:05 am. This was physically the hardest portion of the trip. The group started up Wyman Mountain, over to Hall Mountain, and down into Sawyer Notch.

We refilled water in Sawyer Brook, quickly climbed out of Sawyer Notch, over Moody Mountain, and back down into Black Brook Notch for 10:00 am. We had put in 10 miles over a 4-hour stretch and group morale was high ... all of us were beyond excited to start the first leg of the trip.

This excitement transferred into a fast-moving pace pushing hard on every uphill, jogging the flats and downhills when possible. Though at a trail running pace this would be slow. Still — with full packs and over 20 pounds of gear I felt good with the pace we'd established and collectively we felt strong.

With perfect conditions, we were off to a great start.

The brook makes a bend at the trail crossing and from there flows through an endless tunnel of fall color highlighted by the sporadic rays of sunlight breaking through. We could have relished in the glory of finally being on the trip for hours at this location, but that wasn’t quite the purpose so we had to push on.

We always make time to take in the views — even if only for a few minutes.

Unknown to us at the time, Black Brook would be the last water source until we reached the van due to this summer's severe drought. We refilled and began our way up to Old Blue Mountain — once above the treeline at the summit we stopped to refuel and eat lunch.

Here the three of us added Nuun electrolyte tablets to our water, rationed what we had left, and continued to push forward. Besides some stagnant pools, water was nonexistent for the next 8 miles ... each pool passed got the comment “we aren't that desperate yet.”

At this point on the trail, the conversation became silent. All of us were feeling dehydrated and each handled it in their own way. I ended up out front as I had to keep moving. I knew stopping or moving slowly wasn't an option for me — my legs lock up if I do this and I bonk. It was time to get off the mountain. Stuart was in the middle. He also had to keep moving but not being a runner, his pace was slightly slower than mine.

Going light and fast, and filtering minimal amounts of water can be risky during drought conditions.

Out of the three of us, Andy was in the worst condition.

The following describes the final mile in Andy's words: “Just before dropping below treeline, I knelt to grab one last photo, as my knee touched the ground I was stung by a bee. There was minimal swelling and only a moderate stinging/itchy sensation. After the group made sure I was okay with the sting, everyone stretched out over the following mile and I found myself grasping onto a tree to keep my balance. I’ve bonked before, but this felt different. I wasn’t sure if I was going to vomit, defecate myself, or fall asleep. My head began to spin and I found myself on the ground for several minutes. I felt as if I had been drugged.

I called out for the others with no response and realized I was on my own. After several minutes with much internal conversation, I coached myself back on my feet. After 20 slow minutes down the trail, I was greeted with a warm welcome at the support van around 4:30 pm. Without any appetite and a strong sense of nausea, my temperature began to drop. For the next 45 minutes, I lay still ... wrapped in a 15º Riff™ sleeping bag contemplating whether or not I would be able to continue the project.

I eventually rose, vomited twice, and walked around. Shortly after, a switch was flipped in my body and I was back. I ate a warm meal, prepped another liter of Nuun water, started cracking jokes, and directed a blue hour photoshoot. I was in disbelief that I felt so sick just moments before.”

Then, Paddle.

We had finished the first leg of our project, it was dark, we were tired ... we were heading out onto the water — and it was go-time.

Bane stayed back with Margaret and at 8:30 pm we set out onto Mooselookmeguntic. This was mentally the toughest part of the trip. Stuart and I had an Old Town Guide and Andy, feeling better, was in a WaveSport Ethos crossover kayak.

High winds, light fog, and being on the water in the dark made for an eery start. About an hour into the paddle, Andy pulled up alongside us with an identical sensation to what he felt before. As a group, we decided to pull to shore as he was dry heaving before curling up into a ball on the rocks. It was the same feeling that passed just a few short hours before so he wanted to ride it out.

Our Riff™ 15° offered great sleep and provided a safety net of warmth and recovery when Andy hit rock bottom.

Stuart and I prepped a bed on the floor of the canoe for Andy using a foam pad, a Tensor™ Alpine air pad, and a 15º Riff™ down sleeping bag. For the following hour, he rested there while Stuart solo paddled the canoe and I paddled in the kayak.

Even with Andy feeling sick, he was concerned about me in the kayak. He needed to ensure that the pull tab was out on the skirt and that I knew what to do if by chance it flipped. An hour later he was searching through his drybag for food and was good to go.

“I contribute the two waves of illness to the Nuun recovery drink or perhaps it was the bee sting? Or maybe I was just that exhausted? All I know is that from there on out I felt totally fine and grateful that my crew had my back.”

Recording stats and notes from the journey so far, while we regroup.

With Andy feeling better, he was back in the kayak. We pushed forward to the first portage at Upper Damn. By 2:15 am, we finished the portage into Upper Richardson where we followed the bank down for a mile or so before setting up camp utilizing Richardson Lakes South, part of Maine Public Reserve Land, at 3:00 am before waking up at 6:00 am.

A moment to take it all in before turning in.

We all were surprised to wake to a bobcat groaning and growling from around 5:00 a.m.–6:00 a.m. It was on the other side of the bank of the cove we stayed in, about 100 yards away from us. I lay in my tent reluctant to get up, running on only around 2 hours of sleep. It was chilling to know the bobcat was that close.

As the sun came up it disappeared back into the wilderness and we started prepping for the day. A few freeze-dried meals and some coffee later and we were back on the water.

"My day is going fantastic ... hiked yesterday, camped last night, about to head out on the water now, and I'm taking a nice casual bike ride with some friends later."

A few freeze-dried meals and some coffee later and we were back on the water.

Putting NEMO's Divvy™ Sack to good use helped split the load and fit everything nicely in the boat.

We arrived at Middle Damn around 11:30 a.m. and began our transition to whitewater on the Rapid River at 900CFS. The Rapid River is divided into two sections by Pond in the River — the first section is a mile-long class II whitewater that runs from Middle Damn to Pond in the River. It was fun and made for a good warm-up.

We regrouped at Pond in the River, reiterated safety protocols, and waited for a rainstorm to pass. The second portion, which is commercially rafted, runs from the remainder of Lower Damn at Pond in the River a few miles down and feeds into Umbagog Lake.

Stuart stated, “After a mile or so, this bumps up from the fun class II+ to a very channelized class III+ run”.

After a serious conversation, we started our way down around 1:30 pm. Again, the class II+ whitewater was super fun, nothing crazy and enjoyable.

We went from no water moving in the streams along the trail to a lot of water moving on the river — quickly.

As we got to First Pitch, the first major rapid where the river shifts to class III+ whitewater, we pulled off to regroup together. It was substantially larger than everything else we had done so far, and I was vocal about my fear going into it. Not that I didn’t want to do it, but I had my concerns and that the only person I would even consider doing it with was Stuart. He has my confidence.

After talking it through, we decided to run it all together with Andy directly behind us as a safety boater in his kayak. As I am no whitewater expert, the following is Stuart's recount of the descent.

We started as far right as the current would allow and had a fairly dry line as we got further into the First Pitch. The nature of the run pushes most water left throughout each rapid so we were looking for a shallow technical escape to river right with no luck."

"We were forced more towards the main flow of the run, began to take on water, and slowly felt the boat sink.”

My fear was fully recognized. I was being held up by my PFD moving down the river with my legs still in the boat that somehow was still directly online. We scrambled to get control of the canoe as we began to wash out of First Pitch.

Stuart managed to pull everything off to the right bank. I was petrified, shaking with fear. While both Stuart and Andy have substantial whitewater experience, I have been on it a handful of times in my life. This was a huge first for me and though I knew the protocols of what to do, I hadn’t ever truly been in any situation like it.

Stuart and I portaged the rest of the Rapid River taking turns with the canoe over our heads, while Andy ran it solo in the kayak.

Andy feeling the glow after his solo paddle through the rapids.

This was a surreal and beautiful experience paddling amazing whitewater surrounded by misty sunlight and peak foliage. I was solo on a river I had paddled many times before but this time it felt different. It was an adventure.

Finally, Bike.

Our pit stop before the final leg filled our tanks and lifted our spirits.

Margaret was waiting for us at the takeout just after the rapid section with the van, some hot food, and clean water to make our bike transition. After filling our stomachs we hopped on bikes excited to make the final push.

It felt good to let gravity propel our progress and just cruise down the hills with little effort.

The bike route started with a long gradual uphill, and though I didn’t say anything, I was concerned about my ability to push hard.

And at some point, that beautiful foliage came back into view — back into our awareness.

By the time we crested the top my legs were firing — but I pushed forward and, to my delight, the downhill was an absolute blast. From this point on the ride shifted. It went from being the last portion of an endurance push to a fun ride out with friends. Every uphill was a buildup of excitement to the downhill that would follow. We got to East B Hill Road with a few miles left on pavement, made the last 500’ climb, and coasted our way back to the Appalachian Trail Head.

And, Unwind.

Basking in the glory of success, exhaustion, and knowing our trip planning played a key role in our completion.

Sitting by the car we collectively unwinded over a few beers and proudly looked back at what we had done. Overall we accomplished everything we had in mind. We had physically pushed ourselves to #AdventureInPlace using a multi-sport loop right in our home range.

This loop is capable of being adjusted for any ability level, while still exploring the backcountry of Maine. During our time out there we only saw one other hiker, two paddlers, and one car while biking. On top of this, we saw two moose, a bobcat, a handful of eagles, along with a ton of other, more common species. It was an incredible experience, and it is possible for anyone with the desire and will to make it happen.

As I write this, I have a sense of pride in what was accomplished. We overcame adversity, explored a new remote area, and physically pushed ourselves to a point that most sane individuals may question. I cannot wait for the next adventure and to see what more we can do.

Always, Safety.

Reflecting on how good fresh, cold water tasted after miles of going without.

Going into a trip like this you would be foolish to think there won't be any obstacles — that everything is going to go as planned. Things always change. What is important to remember is not just about any individual but the group overall.

Overcoming these obstacles is part of what makes something like this so memorable. We had not planned on Andy getting sick ... or any of us feeling as exhausted as we did after the hike. The mental challenges we faced — being on the water at night or submerging the canoe in the Rapid River and having to portage it a couple of miles out, were not on our radar. It’s how you handle a situation that leads to your success.

Risk mitigation is crucial, as there are many inherent risks in these activities. Ensuring everything is done as safely as possible is of the utmost importance. Communication between the group and helping each other in times of need is essential. When things get hectic it is important to keep safety protocols in place, always have the necessary emergency gear on hand, and carry a more than sufficient amount of medical supplies. While having fun and enjoying ourselves is important, taking care of one another and maintaining every individual's safety is more important than how fast we can do something or even completing it. This always remains the priority.

Zach McCarthy enjoys trail running, backcountry skiing, and pushing as many miles or laps as he can into any given amount of time. He will always choose human-powered transportation and has a knack for introducing others to the backcountry and encouraging those around him to step outside of their comfort zone. Andy Gagne is our photographer extraordinaire, capturing the true essence of a backcountry experience. Andy is a certified Maine Guide and has spent a number of years leading sea kayaking trips. He is a solid whitewater kayaker and proficient backcountry skier — it’s always impressive to see him pack both for the sport and to photograph the sport. Stuart Hickey is an avid outdoorsman and part-owner of Northern Waters Outfitters in Errol NH. Growing up in the woods has left him with an uncanny ability to move through the backcountry in any manner. He is certified in Swiftwater Rescue and as a Wilderness First Responder and is willing to lead anyone to the edge of their limits and do it safely.