Paddling the Boundary Waters

On the St. Croix River
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Paddling on the St. Croix River
A sunlit spectacle on the St. Croix River. (Photo courtesy of Sunrise County Canoe Expeditions)

Lake Spednik empties into the St. Croix River at the village of Vanceboro, Maine, a wide spot in the road with a U.S. Customs house guarding the bridge between the two countries. As with Lake Spednik, the St. Croix is relatively undeveloped. Occasional cabins can be spotted along the banks but Vanceboro is the only major sign of civilization we see for a week. A smattering of houses and a couple of small stores huddle against the American side. The Vanceboro Dam, which impounds the waters of the lake, requires a 200-yard portage on the American side. We carry our canoe and supplies around the dam and wave at Canadians across the river. Hard to believe that this small and friendly town was once the site of international intrigue when a German sympathizer attempted to blow up the local railroad bridge to prevent Canadian war supplies from being shipped to Britain.

Below the dam, the trip changes from flatwater lake canoeing to lively Class I and II paddling through the frequent small rapids and riffles of the St. Croix. The water is crystal clear and the river bottom is lined with sunken logs, the legacy of the St. Croix's role in a thriving lumber industry. For over a century, the river was a vital transportation route for loggers; logs were floated downstream to the sawmills and many sank along the way. There they have remained a century later.

The highlight of the river is Little Falls, the most challenging water we will run. The river constricts between two bluffs forming the two-hundred-yard Class III rapid. We take out on the portage trail on the right and carry our supplies to the downstream landing, then return to our canoe to run the rapids. Little Falls is a short but exciting run requiring some skill in navigating between large boulders. Below Little Falls a series of small rapids make for fast and exciting paddling for much of the rest of the river's length. We make camp at Tyler Rips, one of the prettier rapids.

The next day we face an almost continuous series of rapids culminating in Haycock Rips, one of the last major rapids. Below Haycock Rips, the river widens and slows down into the calm waters of Loon Bay, the site of a battle between the Passamaquoddy Indians and invading Mohawks in the 1700s. An unlikely battlefield, the water separates two marshy and rather mundane looking meadows, belying the dramatic history of the bay.

Below Loon Bay, the river flows languidly, pooling into expansive marshy meadows extending back for hundreds of yards on both sides of the river prime moose habitat. These low open meadows are overgrown with lily pads, and are interlaced with open ponds connected by narrow water trails bordered by head high cattails. Irresistible for canoe exploration. We glide silently over the lily pads, expecting to come face to face with a grazing moose any moment but all we see are osprey and bald eagles wheeling overhead.

"I thought we would see moose all over this place," Michael moans."I don't think there are any moose within fifty miles of us."

Our exploration is cut short by the arrival of a fine drizzly rain, which soon turns into a heavy downpour. We hastily make camp on the Canada side, just upstream from a large bog surrounding a small brook rushing into the St. Croix. A short hike around the fringes of the bog proves Michael's speculation wrong: huge moose prints are everywhere and he stakes out the bog for much of the evening hoping to spot one. Apparently moose like the rain less than he does; he returns to camp at twilight without a sighting.

Our last day takes us across Grand Falls Flowage, a wide and confusing jumble of islands, bays, and points. We are glad that we brought a topographic map along and after frequent consultations over it, we find the take out point. As we unload our canoe, another group of canoeists pulls in behind us, the only other canoes we have seen all week.

"Until just now, we saw more moose than canoes," Michael says.

We can't argue with that, nor with the advice of Martin Brown: the St. Croix offers all of the attractions of the Allagash, without the crowds.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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