Friday, July 24, 2009

Paddling the Allagash Wilderness Waterway

A Father-Son Paddling Trek
Ten of us just returned from paddling the Allagash Wilderness Waterway (AWW) in northern Maine. The ninety-eight mile AWW is composed of streams, rivers, and lakes, and shines as the brightest among the jewels of Maine’s wilderness state parks and historic sites.

This was a father-son trip with four dads and five sons. Linwood "Loon" Parsons ( was our guide. Loon’s knowledge of the history and special sites around the Allagash meant many side trips and unique Allagash lore.

We entered the AWW at Indian Pond Stream on Saturday July 11th and exited Saturday July 18th at Allagash Village where the Allagash River and the St John River meet.

Wildlife was plentiful and we stopped counting Moose at twenty-five, and eagles at ten pair. Another thrill was having a loon land within feet of our canoe as we paddled. The loon landing took a long time before it settled on the water - it was like a big seaplane without skis coming in low with its proud chest up and no legs showing. This long landing time and style was magnificent to see, as the loon got lower and lower to the water. Finally, the loon gently became one with the water.

A special treat for me was hearing the ”snort” sounds of a moose, and the shriek of the eagle. One evening a cow moose and her calf spent nearly an hour across the river from our camp, and we heard her many snort calls to her calf. Another time two eagles perched in trees across from camp and made frequent eagle screams.
This was my son Tim's and my third trip into the AWW in six years, and the water level was the highest and fastest we have seen. My earlier trips required us frequently to get out of the canoe due to low water. This time we fought headwinds on Eagle and Long Lakes. Chase Rapids are five miles of Class 2 and Class 1 rapids with many thrills. We did short stretches of class 2 rapids over Long Lake Dam and below Allagash Falls.

My biggest thrill was paddling with my son, Tim. We did the first three days with me in the stern, including Chase Rapids. On day four, we switched ends of the canoe for the remainder of the trek. Tim's ability to read fast moving water, along with his paddling strength, resulted in an adventurous, fun, and safe trip though the rapids. Our last day, the eighth, poured rain, but since we were on our way out, rain was no issue.

Gourmet Meals

Our meals were simply delicious, well planned, and cooked by “The loon”. Steaks and potatoes cooked over our open fire pit are just a sample of our eight days of gourmet meals.

Allagash History and Our Itinerary
Without a doubt, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway rates as one of the grandest wilderness areas east of the Mississippi. Its mystique draws canoeists from all over America and the world. First roamed by native Abnaki Indians in search of food and furs, then in the 1800's by lumbermen in search of virgin timber for logs and pulpwood, it is today visited by the adventurist paddler seeking a deep wilderness experience.

The Allagash Wilderness Waterway is rich in historical points of interest from those by-gone eras. It abounds in wildlife of every description, from the majestic Moose to the ubiquitous White-throated Sparrow. Extending some 98 miles end-to-end, the Waterway offers the canoer both lake and river paddling environments.

Our trip began at Indian Pond Stream, flowed into Eagle Lake, and then proceeded northward for eight days ending at Allagash Village on the Canadian border. "Pongokwahemook", an Indian name meaning "woodpecker place" and today called Eagle Lake, is a most interesting spot on the Allagash. We pitched out tents at Thoreau campsite on Pillsbury Island, the northernmost point reached by Henry David Thoreau in his expedition of 1853. It is from this base encampment that we launched our exploration of the "Tramway" that connects Eagle Lake with Chamberlain Lake and of the old locomotives that ran between Eagle and Umbazooksus lakes in the early 1900's lumbering era. A strange sight indeed to see these 90 and 100-ton locomotives sitting alone in this vast wilderness.

By now, everyone's paddling skills have became finely tuned and in two days or so, we will be running the canoes down famous Chase Rapids, a beautiful and exciting run of nearly 5 miles ending at Umsaskis Lake. As the river enters Umsaskis Lake it meanders through an attractive marsh where we see moose feeding on the plant life. Canada geese often stop over here also on their great migrations up and down the Atlantic flyway.

We next cross Round Pond, the last pond on the Waterway and spend the next few days being carried along by the current through easy rapids as the Allagash River descends toward the Saint John. Trout fishing at the mouths of the many brooks and streams offer Eric and Garrett enjoyment to wet a fly and we enjoy Garrett’s fresh 14” brook trout over our open campfire.

We portage the most awesome spectacle on the river; 40-foot high Allagash Falls, a thundering, boiling cauldron of power and beauty.

Never say, “I wish I had …”
Fourteen river miles below Allagash Falls through class 1 rapids, the Allagash River delivers us back into civilization and our wilderness river adventure becomes a treasured memory.

A special notation on this trip. We had planned this trek two years ago, but one of the Dads was diagnosed with throat cancer. We had made all the arrangements, and two weeks before the trek, we had to cancel on the advice of his doctor to begin aggressive treatment. Two years later, cancer free, he and his two sons, made his Allagash Wilderness Waterway dream come true.

We now never have to say, “I wish I had paddled the Allagash Wilderness Waterway”.
For more information go to Allagash Wilderness Waterway

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

FAQ from the July 5, 2009 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon Post

As a result of my July 5, 2009 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon posting, I received many emails with additional questions for Jim Graham and Tim Wolf. Their responses to these inquiries are posted below.

Jim and Tim, we learn all the time from fellow outdoor enthusiasts. In fact, this sharing is a major reason for this blog. As such, I have follow-up questions for you to expand a bit on details of your EFA.

Q. You said it was ¾ miles from where you exited the water to the bike transition area. Did you wear your bike shoes in this run from water to bike – or did you wear running shoes?
• Jim: I used an old pair of running shoes. The EFA organizers suggest using a different pair than you are going to run the race in as they get soaked and full of sand. No socks either.
• Tim: There is a transition area just out of the water where you have a bag of stuff. In mine, I had water to wash out the salt, a towel and a pair of old running shoes that I put on for the run to the bike. You could not run that far in bike shoes, nor would it have been smart to try to run it barefoot as a large section of the course was on concrete with lots of little rocks, glass etc

Q. The current/tide factor obviously makes it an entirely different length than an ordinary 1.5 mile swim. Any idea what the current was and how far you might have swam? In other words, how would you describe swimming one direction against the current in order to reach another direction? Does this course mean you can never relax in the swim, because if you might never recover to get back?
• Tim: A lot depends on the weather conditions on the day of the swim. I have seen times that indicate the swim to be more like a mile (in terms of time in the water), up to 2 miles. In this EFA, I was out of the water in 35 minutes. In a normal flat 1.5-mile swim, I would expect to be out of the water in 31 to 33 minutes, so it was not far off.

While it is true that the current is pushing you towards the Golden Gate Bridge, many other factors slow you down, so in this case it worked out that time in the water was about equal to a 1.5-mile swim.

The things that made the swim tough were:
o You had to sight at the top of the wave, otherwise you could not see the point that you were aiming at.
o You had to swim for a point way to the left of where you were planning to exit the water. This was tough mentally because you really "wanted" to swim to the exit. We were warned repeatedly that if we did not swim to the left we would miss the exit point and would not be able to swim against the current to get back.
o When the sun came out it was in your eyes if you took a breath to the left, so sighting your swim marker was often very difficult, if not impossible.
o The wind was from the right and caused you to be hit in the face with water when you breathed to the right. I was forced to drink a little seawater when this happen.
o There were a lot of people that jumped off the boat in front of me and therefore a lot of people that I had to get around
o No Sharks but I saw jelly fish the size of basketball that would scare the hell out of you if you ran into one.
o The cold was not really an issue as you were so worried about the above to be worried about the cold.
o From what I saw there were a number of people pulled out of the water by rescue staff.

Q. Tim, how difficult was the EFA compared to other triathlons you did?
• I was pleased with my effort. Jim's description is accurate, and from my standpoint, it is the toughest race I have ever done both mentally and physically. There was never a point in the race where you could mentally relax and regroup; you had to stay focused the entire time. It was definitely NOT just a run of the mill triathlon.

Q. Steve, do you intend to do the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon?
• Absolutely not! The EFA is way beyond my skill and endurance level. I posted Jim and Tim’s EFA experience on my blog because as a triathlete I knew this extreme event took an exceptional triathlete. Knowing these two men, and hearing their account of the EFA, was a chronicle I wanted to share with other outdoor enthusiasts. To me, hearing their tale was like sitting with Neil Armstrong and hearing him talk to me about what it was like to go to the moon.

    Sunday, July 5, 2009

    Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon

    I have always been intrigued with the Escape from Alcatraz (EFA) triathlon. The strong currents passing Alcatraz Island make a swim to the mainland unthinkable. I heard many years ago about this extreme event, and envisioned attempting it only in my dreams. Last week I listened, enthralled and full of questions, as Jim Graham, a fellow member of the triathlete club (, excitedly shared with me his recent “up front and personal” conquest of the EFA race.

    The Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon includes a 1.5-mile swim from Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The race continues with an eighteen-mile bike ride out the Great Highway, through the Golden Gate Park, and concludes with an eight mile run through the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

    Last month, in addition to Jim, club members Tim Wolf, Jeff Litchfield, and Carlo Carluccio participated in the Escape from Alcatraz (EFA) Triathlon (

    Jim Graham gave permission for me to publish in my blog his narrative of the race. Jim’s account of the race is also found at the Athletic Alliance web site (, which Jim, Tim and I am members. I encourage all Outdoor Enthusiast Blog readers to send ECA questions and comments to this blog. I will forward them to Jim for his response.

    As described by Jim Graham

    Tim Wolf, Carlo Carluccio, Jeff Litchfield and I traveled to San Francisco to do the “Escape from Alcatraz” Triathlon on Sunday June 14th. Carlo, Tim and I got into the race via the lottery, having put our names in online in December. Jeff qualified racing in New York last fall.

    I was impressed with the EFA race on so many different levels: venue, organization, and difficulty, and I felt compelled to do a detailed write up. I have this great urge to go back and do it again next year, so I figure I will plant the seed now for people to think about joining me.

    Jeff and I arrived in San Francisco on Thursday June 11th - a few days early to do a little reconnaissance. Our 1st stop after we left the airport at noontime was China Town, for a nice lunch.

    After lunch, we drove the bike course in the car to check it out. It was a bit difficult to follow the course with the map we had as it lacked a bit of detail, but we managed. Our first impression was, “wow, this course is hilly!” We were staying at Jeff’s cousins’ (Jon Porter – brother of Athletic Alliance Member Jason Porter) house in Mill Valley on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Each day we had a beautiful ride back and forth over the bridge.

    On Friday, the plan was to pick up Tim at the airport, then swim in the bay and run part of the run course. We also found out we could pick our bikes up as well. We had shipped our bikes using “Tri Bike Transport”. The out and back service cost about $250 round trip and was definitely worth it aside from the fact that you are without your bike for 10+ days on either end of the trip.

    When we arrived at Aquatic Park for our swim, which is a couple of miles east of the transition area, there were a few dozen EFA participants already there doing practice swims. We put on our wetsuits and dove right in. Much to my surprise the water temperature was not that bad and there was only a little bit of rolling chop. This was a sheltered cove, but it gave us a taste of what we were up against.

    Jon recommended we get a feel for the terrain and run the middle 4 miles of the run course, the “sand ladder”. We dried off, changed into our running gear, and headed over to the “Warming Hut”, which is right under the Golden Gate Bridge. We were starting our run about 2 miles away from transition, all of which is flat and straight. From underneath the bridge, you begin to climb, first on steps, which then changes to a narrow walkway, which then changes to a dirt single track trail. I estimated there to be about 250’ of elevation gain over a mile. Once at the top you make a fast trail decent down onto Baker Beach where you run on the loose sand for about 3/4 of a mile before climbing the Sand Ladder back up to the top to reverse course back the way you came. We were running the course alone, except for a few people hiking and some people fishing along the beach. Most of this section of the course was tight, with little possibility for passing people.

    We picked up our bikes at the “Sports Basement”, a gigantic outlet selling all types of sporting goods that included an entire Triathlon section! Jeff could not control himself, purchased a new short sleeve wet suit, while I for the first time in a while was able to exhibit a sliver of self-control, and kept my wallet in my pocket.

    Saturday we went to the Muir Woods to check out the giant Redwood trees and had lunch at Joes Tacos (Great pre-race meal). In the afternoon, we went for packet pickup and a mandatory athlete meeting where they went over how to sight on the swim and several other details about race morning. Tim had the foresight to get a hotel room four blocks from the transition area for Saturday night. This way we would not have to drive into the city early Sunday morning and could get some extra time staring at the ceiling waiting for the alarm to ring!

    Sunday – EFA Race Day!

    The alarm went off at 4:30am. Pre-race jitters, along with fire trucks, late night party goers etc, kept me awake for most of the night. Since we could not get a late AM checkout, we had to put all of our bags in the rental car to store them because we were heading back to Jon’s house after the race. We rode our bikes down to transition with our transition bags. We had to drop off our T1-A bags that includes shoes and water bottle needed after exiting the water. It is about 3/4 of a mile run from the water to the bike transition.

    You then rack your bike and set up your bike transition area. There were coach buses waiting to take you from transition down to Pier 3 where you boarded the boat that take you to Alcatraz Island. You get body marked and wait in the usual “porta-potty” lines before getting on the boat that was set to depart at 7am sharp. I was wondering how the boat would look with 2000 Triathletes lying around, and it was impressive.

    There are three floors on the boat, and the second floor we were on was a large ballroom that was empty of all tables and chairs and triathletes were sprawled and napping all over the floor.

    Somehow, despite the crowd, Tim, Jeff, Carlo Rich Eichorn from Hopkinton, and I managed to come together and hang out for the 60 minutes it took to get out to Alcatraz Island and get positioned from the swim exit deck.

    As the boat slowly made its way out I was surprised at how calm the water looked, which as it turns out did not reflect what we were about to jump into. People were supposed to depart the boat based on their swim wave. I started heading for the door as soon as they were finished with the National Anthem, and I was surprised to see all different color caps on the way down the stairs. It occurred to me that nobody really cared about their wave time and was heading for the door. Chip timing and going over a timing mat before you jumped in took care of timing issues. I approached the doorway where everyone was leaping off the boat in chaos, and before I knew what hit me, I was leaping off the boat and hitting the water. I remembered to hold my goggles and scissor kick as I entered the water so I did not go very deep. My next thought was to get out of the way so nobody landed on my head.

    The first few minutes of the swim seemed to be smooth water and I felt good, although I had a tough time seeing the radio tower we were supposed to be sighting. All of a sudden, the water became very choppy with very large swells. The water temperature was the least of my problems, as I was concerned with gulping seawater, sighting my line, and staying calm. I kept being caught in the wave’s rhythm and getting hit in the face every fifth breath making it difficult to get a fix on my line. At one point I swam over the top of a large “something” that my hand hit that really scared the crap out of me. It was tough to swim a straight line at the radio tower because you were being knocked around by the swells and having to dodge other swimmers.

    I ended up overshooting the perfect line by about 50 yards and forced to swim the final 50 yards perpendicular to the beach against the tide, and that forced me to have to work hard.

    As I exited the water, I was psyched that I had made it through the swim. A glance at my watch had my time at 44 minutes, which under the circumstances, I was happy. I quickly found my transition bag in T1A, stripped off my wetsuit, put my shoes on, grabbed my bottle of Heed and started the 3/4 mile run to T1. I was VERY glad I had that bottle of HEED in my bag. I really needed to wash the ocean water out of my mouth and dilute the pint of salt water I had swallowed.

    I managed to find my bike and made my way out of transition and onto the course.

    The first couple of miles on the bike are straight and flat, but there was a hardy head wind. It was about this time that you hit the first of what are many climbs. We had ridden the bike course in the car a couple of times, so I knew what to expect. Actually riding it on the bike was a rude awakening! I tried to temper the climbs and not blow up while trying to be aggressive on the descents to try to make up a bit. Between the number of people on the course, the nasty pavement and tight turns, you were always braking or adjusting and not able to get in a good rhythm. The course did have some great views if you dared or were able to pick you head up to look at them. As I descended the final hill and got onto the final flat 2 mile return to run transition, helped by a significant tailwind, I finally felt like I was getting into a rhythm, too little too late!

    I entered transition knowing all I had left was an 8 mile run and I would be finished with this beast. On the first 2 miles of the run, which are flat and along the ocean, I saw all of the pros running by. Andy Potts had a big grin on his face as if he was out for a leisurely jog, while some of the other pros were four or 5 minutes back looked like they were turning themselves inside/out to get to the finish. It is humbling knowing they are beating you by more than 60 minutes! As I approached the 2-mile mark, the course changes from flat dirt path to stair climbs and uphill single track. The stair climb was 4 feet wide with 2-way traffic, and it was difficult to pass. As you crested the hill, you were directed from the single track out onto a paved road, which also had race bikers on their return trip. The paved road section was about 1/2 mile downhill before you were directed onto a trail that led down to “Baker Beach”. You entered Baker Beach and took a left heading towards the 1/2 waypoint of the run. Everyone had made their way down onto the hard packed sand at the water’s edge rather than run in the loose sand, which made it very difficult.

    After the turn around, you made your way back along the beach 1/2 mile towards the dreaded “Sand Ladder”. The Sand Ladder consists of about 350 ladder type steps in the sand that ascend up the side of a large hill that brings you back up to the road you descended from. As you approached the ladder, it looked like a “death march” as two single file lines of racers made their way up, one line on the left and the other on the right. You could hear loud music at the top where they had a DJ blasting tunes. They had timing mats at the bottom and top of the ladder so you could get your ladder split. My ladder split was 3:56, OUCH! There was a 1/2 mile of single track climbing as you were repeating the route of this out and back run. As you crested the hill, you began a wild downhill trail run that retraced all of the trails, paths and steps you climbed during the accent. It was tough running downhill on tired legs while trying to pass people and avoid any uphill runners making passes. Once down at the bottom, all that was left was 2 miles of straight and flat. Good news - you’re almost done. Bad news- its still 2 miles!

    Down the finish chute, I gave it every last bit I had. I crossed the finish line and I wobbled over to the fence and leaned on it to hold myself up because I was ready to black out. I laid on the ground rather than pass out. I was completely wrecked and lifeless. Tim came over and gave me a bottle of water, and then Jeff came over to tell me to get my lazy ass off the ground! What great buddies!

    It took 36 ounces of liquid to quench my thirst over the next 15minutes, so I guess I was a bit dehydrated.

    After the boys got their massages, we all grabbed our bikes from transition and brought them over to the Tri-Bike Transport tent to drop them off for their shipment home.

    At that point, we decide to find some place to eat in this beautiful Marina Green area. We all agreed with Tim that a HUGE burger was a perfect post race meal, so we set off in search of a burger joint and stumbled upon “Bistro Burger” that served huge gourmet burgers.

    We managed to be seated at a beautiful outside sidewalk table under sunny blue skies! Menu: Huge char broiled burgers topped with bacon and avocado with a huge basket of sweet potato fries and an ice coffee.

    Carlo headed home Monday morning, and Jeff, Tim & I rode the Trolley Cars around San Francisco taking in the sights.

    After getting my ass kicked by a racecourse, it usually takes me awhile to want to go back and do it again. I am ready to sign up for next year’s EFA right now! As this is an expensive race/trip, I will begin digging the change out of my seat cushions saving up for next year’s race. Who is coming with me?

    For a complete race recap, go to Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon
    Why a triathlon club?

    A major benefit of belonging to a triathlon club is the camaraderie of fellow athletes with common interests. The club is open to all athletes, with most of its current membership from Manchester, NH and surrounding towns. Naults Cyclery ( is a major sponsor. primary goal is to promote the sport of triathlon, duathlon, Xterra, mountain biking and adventure racing. The membership consists of athletes of all ages and abilities who run, bike and swim for fitness, fun and competition. The club sponsors swim clinics, group training runs, swims and biking.