NFCT: Maine - Kennebec and Moose River Valleys
The Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) connects northern New York, Vermont, Québec, New Hampshire, and Maine, following age-old Native American travel routes across the Northern Forest Region.
Maine's 347 miles of the NFCT route traverses some of the most scenic, remote, and rugged landscapes the state has to offer. Multiple beautiful and unique kayak and canoe destinations offer paddling experiences for enthusiasts at all levels of experience and with a variety of interests. The Trail crosses lakes big and small, winds down quiet streams, and charges down brawling whitewater rivers. At times challenging, at times serene, the 6 mapped sections (NFCT sections 8-13) pass through diverse settings - historic towns and villages, and working forest and farm landscapes.
Paddling the entire Maine route is a big adventure and truly an expedition. This is the second in a series of four articles excerpted from the NFCT Official Guidebook of vacation destinations in Maine, with the intent of breaking this big adventure down into accessible trips. Each offers a great way to experience the state's natural wonders, spectacular beauty, and storied outdoors by kayak or canoe.
A region known for its outstanding outdoor recreation, the Kennebec and Moose River Valleys of western Maine offers incomparable canoeing and kayaking opportunities and contains more than 100 miles of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. The communities of Jackman and Rockwood have long relied on logging and outdoor recreation for their livelihood, and both towns are becoming known as great 4-season recreation towns surrounded by woods, water and wilderness. Whatever your paddling skill, you will savor the region's wooded hills and mountains, pristine lakes and rivers, as well as its cultural and historic attractions.
A sampling of amazing trips in this region are described below. Pick one or pick them all, and experience the wonder of one of the most remote areas along the entire NFCT route:
- 3-4 Days: The Moose River Bow Loop
This Loop, which overlaps with a segment of the NFCT, is a popular paddle that combines scenic vistas with a variety of pond and river flat water, and whitewater (Class I-II) paddling. The Bow Trip can be accomplished in a circle over a long weekend and conveniently ends where it begins.
Sally Mountain unravels across the north shore of Attean Pond south of the town of Jackman. The pond is ringed by mountain peaks and studded with islands. The Sally Beach campsite on the northern shore has a trailhead to the summit of Sally Mountain. Look for bald eagles and loons as you make the lake crossing and expect to see motorboats.
Dramatic ridgelines drop to either shore as you near the portage to Holeb Pond from Attean Pond. The 1.2-mile portage trail begins to the left of the campsite at the head of Attean's western arm. Alder-lined Holeb Pond is smaller and less traveled than Attean. Put in near large boulders and gaze at distant mountains. Southwest of Holeb Pond's Birch Island, find Holeb Stream and paddle for a mile to the Moose River.
During high water the Moose River can reverse the flow of Holeb Stream, hence the tangled delta at the stream inlet. Two small rapids form at Camel Rips where a ledge slides into the river near a popular campsite. Finding the 0.4-mile portage around Holeb Falls will require attention. The river splits as a ledge rises from the shore and boulders fill the river. Take the left channel and, once through, take an immediate right. Paddle 0.5 mile, over two small drops, and after passing a stillwater on your left take a left into an even narrower stream. Travel a short distance to the take-out.
You'll encounter a small rapid at Mosquito Rips followed by a stint of smooth water until Spencer Rips where the NFCT formally joins the Moose River. Spencer Rips can be portaged on river right. Large boulders, some the size of a VW Bug, dot the river below Spencer Rips while Number 5 Bog rests hidden behind a bank of spruce fir on river left.
As the deep-tannin-colored river meanders north, Catheart Mountain comes into view to the east. Beaver trails slide to the waterline, and near the bank you'll hear swarms of insects buzzing about the thicket. Soon, the trees are replaced by alders and silhouettes of long dead trees as the edge of Number 5 Bog spreads east.
Attean Falls is a pair of rapids separated by a pool. The first set of Class I rapids can either be portaged (0.2 mile) or scouted on river left (this 0.7-mile trail bypasses both rapids if desired). The second set of Class I-II rapids is portaged (0.2 mile) or scouted on river right (near a large pine and a nice campsite). Scout this rapid! Find a large boulder perched on shore for a bird's-eye view. Boulders funnel the current right and push a lot of water up against a large rock; canoes are often pinned here. The pool below is popular with moose.
Look for a rusty rail at the base of the scout rock. This piece is a relic from the era when a train carried boats around the rapids, thereby providing access to Spencer Rips and the road to Spencer Camps (now Hardscrabble Lodge) on Spencer Lake. As you paddle north from the outlet of the Moose River, the horizon is filled with Sally Mountain ridge. Lily pads and reed grass brush against your hull as you pass untrampled islands. Reconnect with your place of departure, Attean Landing, by watching for vehicles atop the northeast shore.
- 2-3 Days: Spencer Lake
Spencer Lake stands out as a must see. Spend a few nights at this remote jewel wrapped by a mountainous shore watching eagles, relaxing on sand beaches, and fishing. A trip down the cedar lined Little Spencer Stream and Spencer Stream (Class I-II) is an exhilarating ride through a remote and little used landscape.
Spencer Lake and Little Spencer Stream flow through land that is mostly undeveloped, and are far from any towns or roads. Vehicle access is on gravel roads and parties are pretty much responsible for their own shuttles.
Evergreen mountains and exposed rock outcrops will overwhelm you as you enter Spencer Lake. On the eastern shore, you'll find campsites atop a sandy spit that overlook the dramatic north end of the pond. If time permits, plan a few nights here beneath the birch and pine. Alluring beaches make swimming breaks the norm for Spencer Lake. Keep watch for the two resident pairs of bald eagles and expect to see loons, ospreys, great blue herons, kingfishers, and mergansers as well. Bobcat have also been seen along the shore here, and come evening keep your ears open for the haunting howls of coyotes.
As you enter Little Spencer Stream, weave your way between cedar- and moss-capped outcrops that poke into the channel. You'll encounter a series of four deadwaters, each followed by a set of Class I-II rapids.
The stream narrows into winding quickwater. Keep an eye out for old pulp logs that rest on the cobbled bottom. Maples, birches, and conifers enshroud the channel as you pass sandbar islands and pull over gravel bars. Rushing water is your constant companion, occasionally interrupted by pools with ledges; each bend separates you further from all things civilized. A lichen-covered slab of ledge slides into the water as Little Spencer Stream joins Spencer Stream. The view up Spencer Stream is highlighted by a distant ridgeline.
The 2-mile ride down wide and rocky Spencer Stream is quick and fun. Continuous Class I water keeps you moving, and the rockstrewn channel forces you to pay attention. Little Spencer and Spencer Streams are well suited to poling (snubbing when traveling downstream). Pass under the snowmobile bridge and take out at a set of steps, used by raft companies, on river left as Spencer Stream merges with the Dead River.
- 3-4 Days: Moose River
For a very diverse paddle the Moose River flows 34 miles from Jackman to Rockwood and its outlet at Moosehead Lake. If a mix of whitewater is your thing, don't miss the rapids on the Moose River (Class II-III), below Jackman between Long Pond and the Brassua Lakes, which offer some of the most challenging paddling along the NFCT. Optional portage paths around these rapids exist for more recreationally inclined kayakers and canoeists.
Past Jackman, alders, birches, and maples highlight a marshy shore along the Moose River. Expect a wide range of birds, from kingfishers to raptors and warblers to whip-poor-wills. The gentle current enables you to easily retrace your paddle strokes at any point between Jackman and Long Pond.
Diving swallows, croaking frogs, and marsh grass welcome you to Long Pond where a low-lying shore of mixed wood creates a narrow, elongated pond. As you cross the pond, you'll notice a transition from a marshy shoreline spotted with cabins to one less developed and pebble strewn. There is a nice beach and primitive campsite at the lower narrows (on the western side of the northern shore).
Along the southern shore near the end of the pond you'll find a series of large boulders that provide a nice resting spot for swimming, snacking, or fishing for brook trout. In the southeastern corner the pond returns to river. As you leave Long Pond, alder grows from a dense shore along the Moose River. You'll paddle a few Class I rapids, pass an island, and run a few more sets of Class I-II rips.
Several miles of challenging whitewater (Class II-III) connect Long Pond with Little Brassua Lake. Take out on river left 25 yards above Demo Bridge. The Demo Bridge rapid is a Class III rip formed as the river funnels through opposing slabs of ledge. The rapid is followed by a river wide ledge and hydraulic. A portage trail along the left shore bypasses the rapid and ledge. Below the bridge Class II-III rapids continue for 2 miles. This entire stretch (3 miles) can be portaged by following the Demo Road and then a trail.
As the rapids ease you are granted a moment to breathe and appreciate the wild thickly vegetated shore where old pines rise to the sky. Long Pond Mountain climbs from the southern shore as you enter Little Brassua Lake. The Moose River is undeveloped immediately below the dam. Class I riffles carry you along, and you will likely see fishermen casting for brook trout and landlocked salmon. The banks of the river soon become more developed with cabins, boats, and even a marina. The numerous wood-and-canvas canoes along the shore are evidence of the important role paddling plays in northern Maine's heritage.
Shortly, in the distance, you'll notice Big Spencer and Little Spencer Mountains and the mass of Moosehead Lake spreading out, with its shorelines to the south and north beyond view with the rugged Cliffside of Mt. Kineo. Paddle south to the Rockwood Public Landing.
The Northern Forest Canoe Trail website has numerous trip planning tools to help you create the trip that best fits your interests, timeframe, budget, and paddling skills. Visit Plan A Trip, our Map Tool, and our Itineraries and Packages, selecting information on Sections 8 and 9 cover the Maine Lakes and Mountains Region. And, of course, every good paddling trip needs a good guidebook and good maps, all of which you will find at the NFCT Web Store. You are always welcome to call our office for more personal trip advice or to purchase maps over the phone:
Addition resources and attractions in the region include:
- Old Canada Road Scenic Byway
Following the old river trading paths of Wabanaki, early settlers, and one of the first major routes to Canada, Rt. 201 and the Old Canada Road Scenic Byway offer mountain and lake vistas and glimpses back in time. Scenic turnouts offer kiosks with ecological and historical information.
- Kennebec & Moose River Valley Tourism
- Jackman-Moose River Region Chamber of Commerce
- Maine Office of Tourism