Northern River, Maine’s St. John

The St. John River is just about as far north as you can go in Maine, paralleling the Quebec border where the river begins in the ponds, streams and bogs of the North Woods. It runs 418 miles from the middle of nowhere, north and then east and south to the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick. The St. John is surrounded by land owned by paper and lumber companies. You pay their fees ($24 per day per person) to run it and you spend hours rattling over their dirt roads (made for logging trucks) to get there. But the Maine branch of The Nature Conservancy has bought 40 miles of shoreline, there are no dams on the northern reaches, and the river feels wild and remote like few, if any, others in the Lower 48. For mile after mile, tinged like tea from the tannic acid of the woods runoff, the river turns past shores lined with spruce, fir, pine, and poplars and birches in their lightest spring greens. It is narrow and shallow at the top but grows wider and deeper with every branch and brook that enters. It’s northern river and shore country, but for the East, it’s also big sky country: big expanses of weather stretching out over the trees and water. It has to be run during spring runoff because, barring storms, it’s too low in the summer.

Paddling down the river last week we saw moose every day, including a calf so small it must have been only a few days old, and a big moose splashing across the river in front of us, high-stepping from shore to shore. Unfortunately, it also rained every day, culminating in an all-night rain, followed by an all-day rain, headwinds, rising water and plunging temperatures. When we pulled off, a day early, record river heights for the date, snow and temperatures in the 30s followed. We were happy to head for the Northern Door Motel in Fort Kent (La Porte du Nord, as the sign says) and burgers at the Swamp Buck. I should have more pictures of the rain and foul weather and the big white- and brown-topped waves in the Big Black Rapid, but — except for the one of Lisa and Andrew and their border collies Rigby and Nitro, below — I kept the camera in its waterproof box when the weather turned bad and stayed bad. Need to get a waterproof housing. And I need to go to Maine more often.

A classic article on the river is John McPhee’s 1976 New Yorker story, “The Keel of Lake Dickey”, which describes a trip down the river and concerns that the proposed Dickey-Lincoln dam would flood much of it. The dam was never built.


This entry was posted in canoeing, Maine, rivers, Spring, St. John River, water, Weather.


  1. Natalie May 29, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

    Very beautiful John!
    You really capture sense of place and the feeling of remoteness amidst the colorful land, river and people.

  2. Jon May 29, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

    Truly exceptional shots,. Makes me want to head north without delay (except to get my rain gear). Thanks.

  3. Michael Malley May 29, 2013 at 5:49 pm #

    I like the C1 with the Iliad paddle- a blast from the past. You really appreciate blue sky if you are lucky enough to get it on the St. John.

  4. Mike June 6, 2013 at 4:07 pm #

    We were on the river the same week! I thought I had some good pictures, but you humble me! We put in on the 12th, off on the 18th. Big Rapids was something at 28,000, but there was a far left, hug the bank sneak route. We saw moose every day but the last, and maybe the same baby! One of the moose can be seen at

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