Mankind has walked these woods for more than 11,000 years, from Native Americans to the woodsmen of Maine’s historic logging industry. Rumor has it Katahdin Woods & Waters is a place of pristine wilderness, dark skies, and miles of beautiful river. However, we struggled to find convincing evidence. As Mainers and Photographers, we knew we had to go see this place for ourselves. And if the rumors were true, share it with others.
We designed a human powered route circumnavigating the monument that would allow us to see as much as possible in 5 days. In all we would cover 64 miles in three stages: A 22 mile canoe trip down the East Branch of the Penobscot River, a 21 mile bike ride along the Katahdin Loop Road, and finally, a 21 mile hike up the International Appalachian Trail back to where we started. From start to finish, we would climb over 5,000 vertical feet.
Our journey began on a beautiful September day at the Matagamon Campground. With water bottles filled and permits obtained, we loaded our bags and camera gear into our canoes and set off down river. We had no idea that from this moment on, we would only see two other people.
For the next three days we would canoe from Matagamon to Lunksoos Camps. I was honored to join my friends Chris and Jamie on this adventure to explore and document the new monument. Chris, an accomplished mountaineer, has traveled the world as an expedition photographer. Jamie is an action sports photographer with a knack for capturing legendary moments in the backcountry, most preferably on skis. As for me, I work and play as an outdoor adventure photographer and women's hiking guide. Our passions have taken us to different corners of the globe, but we all grew up here in Maine. We were excited to get out and explore our backyard again.
Before long, the glasslike river turned into rapids. The first of four portages was upon us.
At the end of our first day we pulled up to our campsite at Grand Pitch just as the late summer sun was beginning to set. I could see the tired smiles on everyone's faces as we cracked open some ice cold beers and raised them to a successful first day on the river.
When you’re in the backcountry, away from the amenities of home, good food is all too often underrated. Fortunately, we came prepared with Good To-Go meals—a fitting dinner for any Maine adventure. We sat around the fire and dug in, recapping the day's events until only a glowing ember remained, a gentle reminder it was time for a well earned nights rest.
Carrying a canoe through the woods on your back is NOT easy. But as I walked down river, stepping over roots with the boat teetering on my shoulders, we came upon one of the most serene sections of Maine woods that I have ever encountered. Suddenly, the weight on my back didn't feel so heavy.
It took teamwork to maneuver our way down the East Branch. We got stuck on rocks, had to walk our canoe many times, and took on a lot of water. People may have had a chuckle at us, but we didn’t care - we were havin’ a good time.
It felt as if I had known these guys my entire life. The Maine wilderness has a way of stripping down barriers between companions. Good conversation and laughter were integral to our long days on the river. Our second night was spent under the stars along the riverbank at the Elbow Campsite, 15 miles into our journey.
After three beautiful days on the East Branch, I was ready to trade in the canoes for bikes, but was going to miss the calming effect the river had on me. We reached Lunksoos Camps just after lunch, where access to cold clean water was a welcomed treat. We uncovered our bikes and set out on stage two of our journey.
With 19 miles of riding and plenty of daunting hills ahead, it didn’t take long to realize that biking wasn’t exactly my favorite. While the wilderness can push you out of your comfort zone and test your limits, my friends always kept my spirits high. I’m grateful they were by my side as we pushed through the last few hills together.
After another good night’s sleep at the Sandbank campground, we were happy to begin the morning with Good To-Go’s granola. Perfect for a quick breakfast, as it can be prepared with cold water. The next part of our journey lead us to Orin Falls trailhead, where we stashed our packs for a joy ride on old logging roads and a section of single track to the falls.
At this point, we’d already covered 43 miles by boat and bike, and we still had another 21 miles of trail back to Matagamon. We didn’t have much daylight to waste knowing we had a long hike to get to our next campsite before dark, but I was relieved to finally be on foot.
The mountains in the monument may not have the same reputation as nearby Katahdin, but I quickly realized that summit elevation doesn’t always determine significance. These trails were remarkable in their own way...they felt...untouched.
As we took our final steps to the summit of Dacey Mountain, there was a chill in the air. With a whipping fog and low visibility it felt otherworldly. We lingered in hopes the fog would clear and reveal incredible views - it didn’t. Watching the clouds roll by the window, darkness set in.
Flipping through the pages of the summit register, it dawned on me that we were nearing the end of our journey. I could already tell that this was truly a trip of a lifetime.
Despite the serenity of the Dacey Mountain fire tower, we still had to push through another summit and three miles of trail to reach our campsite for the night. Hiking in the dark was a welcome change that brought us new energy.
We reached the Lunksoos lean-to in a daze of happiness after 16 hours and 20 miles covered by bike and foot. Collapsing into the shelter felt like home. We were on the last leg of our journey, and we all felt an overwhelming sensation of accomplishment and fellowship.
I didn’t know what to expect when we set off down river that first day. Was there anything to see and capture here? Would I come home empty-handed, with no photographs to share? And is Katahdin Woods & Waters really a place worth celebrating?
We emerged from the backcountry having discovered more than just a beautiful part of Maine. We found endless potential for world class outdoor recreation, and after five days, we were completely in tune with the unquestionably wild place that surrounded us. I walked away with a deeper appreciation for Katahdin Woods and Waters, and a connection to three friends that couldn’t have been made without this place.
We believe that public lands bring people together, and feel fortunate to have such an area in our own backyard. The rumors of beauty were true. But don’t take our word for it - get out there and see it for yourself.
In August of 2016, President Obama proclaimed 87,563 acres of historic land to establish Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument in Northern Maine. The land, which sits adjacent to Baxter State Park, was generously donated to the government by the Quimby Family Foundation, along with $20 million in initial funding to support its establishment. Its designation grants the use of federal funds and resources to maintain the new monument for public recreation, along with protection and conservation.
The area’s was first inhabited more than 11,000 years ago, when Native peoples established themselves along the East Branch of the Penobscot River. More recently, the region was home to part of Maine’s thriving logging industry from the early 18th century to the late 19th century. Now, the monument offers spectacular views of Mount Katahdin, protects ecological features and historic cultural resources, and hosts a variety of outdoor activities like hiking, canoeing, camping, fishing, and hunting.