Riding the St. John River: Day one

I made a quick stop at Renys "house of fashion" in Dexter, Maine. I'd forgot to pack a hat.

I made a quick stop at Renys “house of fashion” in Dexter, Maine. I’d forgot to pack a hat.

Monday June 9, 2014 / Portland to Millinocket

Total kilometers: 279

I left portland at the stroke of 2:30 p.m. I’d planned, of course, on leaving at dawn like a real adventurer. But it’s hard to stick to deadlines when you’re on vacation.

I was making for the St. John River. Every winter, after Christmas sometime, I get to thinking about summer and motorcycle trips. I ride all winter, but there’s nothing like a weeklong trip on a bike, oozing down country roads lined with green. I’d stacked maps of Atlantic Canada and Maine on my bedside table and drifted to dreamland with June sunshine in my brain.

The original plan was to ride up the Fundy Coast, through New Brunswick, to Nova Scotia and return home on the new ferry they were talking about. But the realities of the new boat’s prices made me re-think that plan in the spring. I opted for a different quest instead. I’d ride to Dickey, Maine — the furthest you can get up the St. John River on a motorcycle — and follow the water to St. John, New Brunswick.

Why? Because I’d never seen most of the St. John Valley before.

So, I ambled up I295 to Topsham at my usual 50mph. Cars and trucks whizzed by me, breaking the new 70mph speed limit. Some, seeing my strange rig, gave me the thumbs up. One gave me the finger. One or two motorcycles, packed for adventure themselves, came up from behind, lingered on my left to give me a knowing nod before twisting their throttles, leaving me in the metaphoric dust.

At Topsham, I left the highway and hooked up with Route 201. I rode it through Bowdoin, Richmond and Gardiner. I passed the staging-engulfed State House in Augusta to where Routes 201 and 100 tangle in a rotary.

Route 100 took me through Waterville and the farm country south of Pittsfield. It’s a peaceable stretch without much traffic. In Corinna, I detoured onto Route 7 and made for Renys in Dexter. I’d forgotten to pack a hat and a towel. I reached the store ten minutes before closing and snatched the supplies I needed.

Back on the road, I made for Dover-Foxcroft. I shot east on Route 16 and then north on Route 11. I stopped for gas in Milo. I forget how large and lovely-looking that town is every time I leave it. That’s OK, though, because it makes for a pleasant surprise every time I go back.

Traffic and people got sparse on the road after that. I rattled over several sets of railroad tracks in Brownville and saw a mother fox and two kits scamper up an embankment before hitting the twin lakes south of Millinocket.

Found some mushy graffiti on a rock at the south end of Millinocket, Maine. That's Mount Katahdin behind the greenery. I cooked supper here.

Found some mushy graffiti on a rock at the south end of Millinocket, Maine. That’s Mount Katahdin behind the greenery. I cooked supper there.

At a rest stop, I cooked supper and watched the sun set on Mount Katahdin. It turned from lavender to purple to gray before fading in the gloom. I washed up, repacked and backtracked a bit before ducking into the woods. I rode just out of sight of the road and hung my tent hammock between two birch trees.

And I hung it in a hurry.

Hundreds of hungry skeeters were orbiting my head within a few seconds of removing my helmet. They were so thick, it was like breathing Rice Krispies. The dark was just settling over me as I grabbed my sleeping bag, book, headlamp and radio. I dove under the hammock’s bug netting and zipped myself in while kicking my boots off. Then, I set about clapping my hands like a maniacal pre-schooler singing a song about Bingo the dog, killing each blood sucker I’d zipped inside with me.

After getting most of them before they got me. I wriggled into my sleeping bag and listened to the Red Sox lose to Baltimore. When it got really dark, I heard a train grind by in the distance. It was a long one and seemed to go on for ten minutes or more.

When the radio was off and the train gone, I heard what sounded like bees, buzzing in the distance. I turned my headlamp on and saw thousands, and thousands, of mosquitos swarming outside. Just as many were caked atop the bug netting, a foot from my face. Their needle-nosed proboscises probed the net, looking for a meal. It was like a zombie movie. But instead of brain-craving geeks moaning outside the door, I had blood-draining insects droning inches from my face.

I could see the stars and the night was warm but I didn’t get much sleep. The buzz was that loud, all night long. Not a single puff of air stirred the trees to blow the buggers aside, either. I got out to pee a few hours later and had to re-enact my killing spree once I got zipped back inside my hammock.

In the morning, I got out and laced my boots as fast as I could. I wrapped the towel from Renys around my head, leaving only my eyes and nose exposed. I donned my riding jacket and gloves and proceeded to break camp in rapid fashion, mostly protected from the tiny, winged vampires.

I got on my bike, started her up and bumped my way back out to the road. The morning air felt clean as I pushed through it. Millinocket was mostly asleep as I rolled into town. It started to sprinkle as I pulled up in front of a diner. But there weren’t any bugs, and I could smell coffee.

Go to day two (part one).

I spent the first night in the woods south of Millinocket, Maine. The skeeters were something wicked. They sounded like bumble bees outside the bug net.

I spent the first night in the woods south of Millinocket, Maine. The skeeters were something wicked. They sounded like bumble bees outside the bug net.

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.