The Aging Adventurer: Allagash River Canoe Trip

Active & Adventurous - The Aging Adventurer

Five Seniors on a 70-Mile Wilderness Canoe Trip 

Allagash portageI struggled to keep upright as we dragged our canoes through the narrow, rock-filled stream—too shallow for paddling. It would lead us to Eagle Lake, where we would begin our nine-day, 70-mile wilderness canoe trip on the Allagash River in northern Maine. This adventure, sponsored by Elderhostel, was led by Chewonki Outdoor Center staff. Alana and Colin, both in their mid-20s, were leading five seniors, two women and three men, ranging in age from 70 to 80.

I stumbled along holding onto the stern rope. My canoe partner, Dave, was in front pulling the bow rope. He was wading fast, and I leaned on the boat for support to keep up. It was heavily laden with supplies for nine days on the river. “Don’t lean on the canoe—it might tip,” Alana warned. “Just hold tight to the rope.” After a quarter of a mile of dragging our canoes, we finally reached Eagle Lake. Stepping out of the muck we boarded the canoes and paddled through tall weeds to enter the lake. Thus began our adventure.

Allagash with glass-like waterThe Allagash is a remote river edged by tall conifers spotted with deciduous trees—splashing reds, yellows, oranges and maroons against the dark green background. One evening we looked down river and saw a huge moose standing in the water—his large rack adding to his height and power. On another occasion a moose clopped through our campsite during the night, banging his rack against the trees. It was not unusual to see golden eagles and bald eagles flying high above. Groups of mergansers and solitary kingfishers followed us down river. The soothing calls of loons lulled us to sleep each night as we camped river-side. We saw very few people—the Allagash was all ours.


Allagash campsiteOur campsite held a long wooden table with poles above to hang tarps in case of rain, and a one-hole toilet. Upon arrival we hoisted our heavy yellow packs, holding all our personal gear, onto our backs and carried them to our tent sites; we then returned to help tote the boxes of supplies.

After setting up tents we gathered firewood which was usually plentiful. With saw and axe we cut it into fireplace-size pieces and soon flames leapt skyward. After cleaning up and organizing our nighttime stuff we gathered for the cocktail hour. Boxes of red and white wine appeared along with cheese and crackers, and conversation flowed as we pitched in to help with dinner preparation. If it was warm enough some of us would go for a swim.

It happened that in her other life Alana worked as a “personal chef.”  The gourmet meals she created over the campfire and the two-burner Coleman stove were the best outdoor eating I have ever experienced. For dessert she placed a covered pan on the grill over the campfire. Some nights she cooked chocolate cake, or gingerbread pineapple upside-down cake, or cornbread. The chocolate cake she made for Colin’s 26th birthday was a brownie mix with eggs, chocolate chips and butter added. A layer of bananas underneath the creamy chocolate frosting made for a real gourmet finish.

My favorite lunch was curried chicken salad with celery and apples. Snacks were plentiful at our rest stops. We ate fresh fruit right up until the last day—peaches, pears, apples, and oranges. Every once in a while yummy chocolate bars appeared.

Allagash serenityMornings we sometimes woke up to a lumpy fog, silhouetting the dark green shadows of distant evergreens. Sometimes its murkiness delayed our start. One day the ranger arrived in her boat and declared a “wind warning.”  The trees shook wildly in the 35-mile-an-hour wind. Our leaders  paddled down river to see Umsaskis Lake. They could hardly make it there, the wind was so strong. As they drew nearer, they could see that the entire lake was punctuated with three-foot-high white caps. They returned upstream using their paddles as sails. It was not safe to move out so we settled down to a rest day.

Pretty soon I noticed great activity around the fire. Dave, Colin and Alana chopped up piles of wood and built a blazing fire. They had made a sauna—three bent tree limbs formed a circle, covered by our rain tarps and pinned down with large stones. The sauna rocks were heating in the fire. When the rocks were heated through after many hours in the fire, Colin put them into our large cooking pot and carried them to the center of the sauna. Gathering a pot of water from the river, he slowly poured it over them.. Steam filled the space. We sat for ten minutes soaking up the steam and sweating in every pore. We continued to splash river water on the rocks, causing more and more steam to rise. Then overcome by the intense heat, we dashed out and jumped into the river. I never felt so alive!  We whooped and hollered and splashed water on each other as we sank our steaming bodies into the ice-cold water. My body tingled in every muscle. The sauna made our day off the river special.

Allagash reflectionsOur leader, Colin, played his fiddle around the campfire at night singing songs he had composed. I had the privilege of being his canoe partner for two of our paddling days.  I found Colin to be a seeker, and a kind and loving person. The youthfulness of the leadership was a unique feature of the trip. It was a rich experience sharing our lives with Colin and Alana. They said they had never laughed so hard or learned so much on a canoe trip.

Our “perfect trip” as Dave called it had to come to an end. Back at the Chewonki Center we struggled to answer the question the leaders put to us:  “What did the trip mean to me?”  Some spoke of loving the immersion in nature, and feeling the distance from civilization. Others mentioned the confidence it gave them to participate in such a challenging adventure. Alana and Colin said this had been a favorite trip for them. They admitted being a little apprehensive about leading people who had lived five decades longer than they—people who had so much more life experience.

After breakfast the next morning there were hugs all around and a few tears as we said goodbye. I will long remember the richness, the comradeship and the excitement of our nine days on the Allagash.


Emily_closeupEmily Kimball, the Aging Adventurer, makes her dreams happen. After retiring from a career in Parks and Recreation she rode her loaded touring bike 4,700 miles across America, and hiked the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.  Now approaching 80, she continues an active life of biking, hiking, backpacking, tennis and water sports––though at a slower pace.

Emily is also a writer and speaker. Her recent book, Appalachian Trail Stories and Other Adventures: Living Your Dreams at 60 and Beyond, describes many of her exploits. It can be ordered from her web site In her professional speaking business, Make It Happen! Emily relates life lessons learned from her adventures in powerful presentations on Risk Taking, Creative Aging and Making Dreams Happen. She can be reached at or 804-358-4959.


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