If you’re looking for a delightful day trip in the car or on the motorcycle to start off the summer, or you’re up for a nearly 80-mile bike ride (requiring a couple of cars, one at each end of the ride), Old Canada Road (Route 201) skirting the east bank of the Kennebec River from Solon north to Jackman and beyond toward the Canadian border crossing in Sandy Bay ought to be high on your must-do list.
You might consider taking along the canoe or kayak, and even some camping gear if you want to make an adventure of it and squeeze in some paddling along with an early-season night or two out under the stars, as there are multiple launch sites and some choice places to pitch a tent.
The trip up Old Canada Road is a journey back in time, following the footsteps of Benedict Arnold on his ill-fated Revolutionary War venture when he led a tough band of soldiers up the Kennebec and Dead rivers in flat bottom bateaux to lay siege to the French settlement at Quebec. Prior to that, the road served as a trading route for the Abenaki tribe and later as a major route for goods and immigrants to follow from Quebec to Maine and the Atlantic Ocean.
Originally on the west side of the Kennebec River, it was first developed as a road with the help of money appropriated by the Massachusetts Legislature in 1813. The river itself had long served as the chief mode of transportation for logs harvested in the woods of western Maine and bound for sawmills.
Now on the east side of the river, Old Canada Road – a portion of which is also known as the Kennebec Chaudiere – has served for generations as the principle overland route from Maine to Quebec, conveying commerce, immigrants and an ever-increasing number of tourists in both directions. In fact,between 1813 and 1859 an estimated 500,000 immigrants used that route while bound for the manufacturing centers of Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
With national designation as a scenic byway, the road from Solon north justly deserves the honor of such a name, and its selection for such distinction among only 120 similarly scenic routes nationally.
Scenic it is, it skirts the east shore of the Kennebec from Solon to Bingham, then winds its way up the side of Wyman Lake until the river narrows again above Bingham on its way to the junction of the Kennebec and Dead rivers at The Forks.
If your timing is right, you may see kayakers and rafters along the upper portion, and even some river runners pulling out after successfully navigating the upper reaches of both waterways through some daunting rapids.
Commercial rafting operations abound in the area, and you’re assured of an exhilarating adventure if you take the time to participate in what has now become a well-regulated and professionally managed summer industry.
You’ll stop often along the way, as do we, at informational kiosks and historic markers, such as the one below Carratunk marking the spot at which Arnold and his small army abandoned the Kennebec, hauled their heavy bateaux up a daunting slope to reach the Carry Ponds, then to the Dead River at what has now become Flagstaff Lake.
This shortcut knocked several miles and some non-navigable rapids off their trip, but accounts reveal it was one of the most difficult portions of their march.
A must-stop overlook is the one just below Jackman on a height of land with a view to the west that I’d nominate for one of Maine’s 10 Best without fear of contradiction.
If you want to do some quiet water paddling along the way, here are a couple of my choices:
n Put in at the Moscow boat launch about six miles above Bingham and explore the shoreline of Wyman Lake for a couple hours.
n About halfway between The Forks and Jackman, you’ll spot pristine Parlin Pond on your right, where there’s a public launch site inviting you to slide your kayak or canoe into the water for a short break before you continue your journey.
Should you decide not to backtrack down beside the river on your trip home, you could pop over to Greenville on Route 15 from Jackman, where a moose spotting is virtually assured, then work your way back south to Newport.
John Christie is an author and year-round Maine explorer. He and his son Josh write in Outdoors about places to enjoy the beauty that only Maine has to offer. He can be reached at: