A canoeist avoids a dangerous hole on Great Falls on the Machias River. Ron Chase photos

Four of us were on the third day of a Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society Machias River expedition. We had just spent the night camping at Holmes Falls and were headed for Little Holmes Falls, a complex, challenging whitewater rapid.

For the third consecutive day, we benefited from sunny skies and mild temperatures. While fishing in a pool below the falls, canoeist Rick Farnsworth caught a sizeable brook trout. Fried fish would be an appetizer on the evening menu.

The short distance to Little Holmes Falls passes through a narrow impressive sector of cliffs that has the character of a small canyon. Just beyond, we arrived at a wooded island in the center of the river called Dead Man’s Island. This is an excellent place to stop as it provides an opportunity to investigate the upper falls area while paying a visit to a memorial for Obadiah Hill, a pioneer who died in 1786.

A kayaker skirts a log while descending Little Holmes Falls.

From Dead Man’s Island, we had a partial view of the two entrances to the falls separated by a rocky prominence. The left channel is very difficult to scout and contains potentially boat-flipping holes. The right passage is a technical rapid that can be closely inspected from rugged terrain on the right.

The right channel was our choice. We paddled through a short rapid next to the right side of Dead Man’s Island and ferried to the right shore to scout.

The decision was a wise one. The narrow entry was partially blocked by a fallen log. Canoeists Rick and Morgan Baxter lined their larger boats over rocks adjacent to the initial pitch. Paddling smaller expedition kayaks, Ken Gordon and I were able to maneuver around the obstruction and complete the entire falls.


The difficult cataract behind us, we began an extended stretch of flatwater. For several miles, we benefited from a tailwind. After passing the confluence with Old Stream, the river angles southeasterly, and we encountered a moderate sea breeze. The pesky headwind would continue for the remainder of the day.

Morgan Baxter lines his canoe around a pitch on Little Holmes Falls.

We stopped on ledges next to gentle Getchell Rips for lunch. A few more miles of flatwater brought us to Smith Landing where we bid farewell to Morgan, who needed to return home a day early.

Three remaining Chowderheads persisted into the headwind to Great Falls, the longest, most challenging big-volume rapid on the river. The portage trail is on the right. We used it to access cliffs overlooking the more difficult upper sector.

From the rocky prominence, we studied the falls and debated the best route. The collective decision was to skirt large waves and intimidating holes on the right and catch a substantial eddy on river right. Our plan worked flawlessly. From the eddy, we ferried left through a wave train at the bottom.

The scenic campsite at the foot of the falls is exceptional. A triumphant descent accomplished, clouds and a few sprinkles didn’t dampen our spirits. We returned on the portage trail to retrieve heavy gear Rick had left behind.

A tarp was erected in anticipation of rain. The fish was delicious.


Concerns about a change in weather were unnecessary. We awoke the following morning to clear skies and warm temperatures but no blackflies.

Large breaking waves are encountered on Great Falls.

We encountered varying winds during our circuitous flatwater paddle to the old logging village of Whitneyville. Ancient logging booms marked the approach to a technical Class II rapid that passes under a bridge in town. Concerned about the possibility of debris in the falls, we carefully boat-scouted down the steep gradient.

A short section of calm water brought us to a small island with easy rapids on both sides. Beyond, we passed under an old railroad bridge that is now part of the 87-mile Down East Sunrise Trail.

Soon after, we observed two hikers on the left shore. They were workers performing trail maintenance on the Machias River Preserve Trail that connects Whitneyville and Machias — a potential adventure for another day.

Munson Pitch, a Class II ledge drop, was next. We navigated the entertaining rapid on the left. Farther down, the river makes a left turn and passes through easy rapids to a steep narrow gorge. Descending the lengthy stimulating falls that leads into the town of Machias was the perfect culmination to another outstanding Machias River expedition.

My book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine,” narrates five more exciting Maine river trips.

Ron Chase resides in Topsham. His latest book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine” is available at northcountrypress.com/maine-al-fresco or in bookstores and through online retailers. His previous books are “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals – New England.” Visit his website at ronchaseoutdoors.com or he can be reached at ronchaseoutdoors@comcast.net.

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