Above the Gravel Bar: The Native Canoe Routes of Maine


With this book you can put your canoe in a nearby river or pond in Maine and travel prehistoric routes to campgrounds thousands of years old. Discover the birchbark canoe with the Indians of the Northeast.

David Cook takes the reader on a birchbark canoe journey through the landscape in the context of Northeastern geological development and Indian prehistoric culture. On rivers, lakes, over carries, and through coastal routes, we follow the ...

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With this book you can put your canoe in a nearby river or pond in Maine and travel prehistoric routes to campgrounds thousands of years old. Discover the birchbark canoe with the Indians of the Northeast.

David Cook takes the reader on a birchbark canoe journey through the landscape in the context of Northeastern geological development and Indian prehistoric culture. On rivers, lakes, over carries, and through coastal routes, we follow the archaeological and historical record, informed by accounts of early explorers.

First attempted in the early twentieth century, the publication of these ancient canoe routes, in daily use for millennia, is finally accomplished and in its third edition, with translations of Indian place names, a thorough index, notes and bibliography, and a foreword by Penobscot tribal historian, James Eric Francis, Sr. The eminent anthropologist David Sanger, PhD, provides an introduction.

33 B&W illustrations.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781882190690
  • Publisher: Polar Bear & Company
  • Publication date: 8/15/2007
  • Edition number: 3
  • Pages: 168
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

David Cook lives in Winthrop, Maine, near the capital, Augusta. A former president of the Maine Archeological Society, he is adjunct faculty member at Central Maine Community College and the University of Maine at Farmington.

The author grew up in the town of Milo, Maine. As a paratrooper in the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, he served a tour of duty in South Vietnam. A graduate of the University of Maine, Orono, with a Master's degree in liberal studies, he chose to live in Maine and taught history at Winthrop High School, where he was chairman of the Social Studies Department. He continues to research and explore the history and ecology of Maine and the Northeast.

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Chapter 1: With a Little Help from My Friends

Every spring, summer and fall, thousands of people take to the Maine woods and waters, pursuing the seasonal recreational activities that have made Maine "Vacationland." Cars, trucks, and airplanes speed sportsmen to the most remote corners of Maine in a few hours, but, not too many years ago, places like Caucomgomoc and Munsungan lakes or the West Branch and Allagash River were visited only after a long canoe trip, just as it had been for thousands of years.

Prehistoric people traveled extensively throughout Maine, and when they built the first birchbark canoe, they had the equivalent of the wheel. The birchbark canoe revolutionized the lives of the Native Americans who used them; the multitudinous waterways common to Maine became their highways. Foot travel through the interior of Maine was possible during the ice-free months, but it imposed some severe limitations on the overall behavior of people whose survival depended on their ability to move through very difficult terrain.

The birchbark canoe, whether an invention, innovation, or an idea that was borrowed by the prehistoric Indians of Maine and Canada, liberated its users to travel freely over the thousands of canoe routes that nature so generously provided?a wonderful example of man's adaptability to a particular type of environment.

Canoeing today is a sport, but for thousands of years it was a practical necessity. In Maine and much of Canada, canoes are so well suited to the environment we will probably never completely replace them. The only modern improvement made in canoes is the substitution of nearly indestructible space-age materials for fragile birch bark. This has allowed the sport of canoeing to spread much farther than its old natural boundaries, as delineated by the environs of Betula papyrifera, the "canoe" or "paper" birch tree. There are probably more canoes in Maine now than at any time in its history, and the growth of the sport attracts new enthusiasts every year. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection, working with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (on the issue of invasive aquatic plants) estimated that over 167,000 canoes and kayaks entered the state for the summer of 2001.

Few of the people who travel over the rivers and lakes of Maine realize the important role these waterways and birchbark canoes played in the history of the Native Americans, or of the European soldiers and settlers who fought over and tamed a forest empire. The advantages of canoe travel were so great for the American Indians that canoes and navigable waters became the highways of prehistory.

People who used birchbark canoes conformed their lifeways to that use; canoe travel, like every other form of transportation, imposed limitations which, when combined with an individual's skills, strength, and knowledge, produced, as the anthropologists deem it, "canoe behavior." These limitations are many times less stringent than those imposed on pedestrians in the same land. The canoe made survival tasks much easier for the Indians, and the time saved in food procurement could be invested in other activities not related to survival. The speed and ease of canoe travel, through otherwise forbidding terrain, allowed the Indians to travel long distances to trade, marry, or make war on neighboring tribes and enhanced social and economic activities prohibited to those limited to foot travel or cumbersome dugout canoes. The birchbark canoe was an integral and definitive part of the complex prehistoric cultural organizations that existed in the northeastern forests of Maine, the Maritime Provinces, and westward through Canada. To study the people who lived here for most of Maine's human history and not study the canoe and its use would be like a study of twentieth-century Americans done two thousand years from now that neglects to examine the automobile and its effects on society.

Before discussing the canoe routes of Maine, I would like to explain how I came to this work and what the major influences are that have shaped it. One factor is the fortuitous dovetailing of my profession, history teacher, and my avocational interests and activities in canoe travel and anthropology/archaeology.

I have been fortunate to have a number of more knowledgeable friends who have helped me along the way. Some of these people are professional anthropologists, like Robson Bonnichsen, David Sanger, and Arthur Spiess, who helped me understand the broad outlines of Maine's prehistory.

Art and I had great fun exploring parts of the Piscataquis Ahwangan many years ago. Rob invited me to Munsungan for a few days back in those heady days after the Paleo-Indian site was discovered in the mid-1970s. Rob had identified an important resource for hunters: "weapons grade" volcanic stone, Munsungan chert (sometimes spelled "Munsungun.") "The chert outcrops on Norway Bluff and Round Mountain drew people like a magnet," Rob said, "and at some point they came by canoe."

Dave Sanger took me under his wing in several ways: First, he was my graduate school advisor and guide through the sometimes choppy waters of an M.A. degree. He also invited me to work on or visit the many sites he investigated in his long career. I'll never forget the day a sea mink skull, a species now extinct, fell out of my pit wall in the clamshell midden I was excavating on Knox Island in Penobscot Bay. I learned a lot from Dave as we paddled along the Aroostook River, visiting known archaeological sites during a "Phase One" investigation prior to the rebuilding of an old dam on the Aroostook River downstream of Ashland. Dave's charge was to write an archaeological impact statement in preparation to organizing a "Phase Two" plan, if the dam was ever carried beyond the planning stage. The dam was never built, and while shoveling out and then refilling many test pits, I also filled in many holes in my understanding of prehistory. One can get education traveling in such company.

But the one who really guided me into this work was, for years, my next-door neighbor who, as a registered guide for over six decades, took hundreds of "sports" into the Maine woods in canoes. My friend and mentor Myron Smart spent over sixty years using canoes as tools. Even well into his eighties, Myron was known as a canoe builder, having made and sold over two hundred after he "retired."

Smart lived in Milo, Maine, the "town of three rivers," and began his career in the Maine woods in 1915, at the age of fourteen, as a guide on Moose River, Moosehead Lake, and the West Branch of the Penobscot. Such work included arduous poling up Moose River past "Charlie's Corner" and "the Hen and Chickens" toward Brassua, or paddling out onto the lake and heading where the trout were running. Outboard motors were still years in the future, and only the yell of the happy camper or the whoop of a talkative loon broke the big quiet.

Another old-time Moosehead guide, Arthur Johnson of Norridgewock, since deceased and then in his nineties, recounted for me in 1979 his first recollection of Myron. "The first thing I can recall about Myron is seeing him pole an eighteen-foot canoe up Moose River when he was no bigger than that," gesturing out waist high with his hand. "He was just a little boy, but he could already pole a canoe!"

Myron came by his calling naturally and was just one in a long line of Smart men in the Maine woods. In 1779 John Smart, one of Bangor's pioneers, landed near the Penobscot Salmon Pool and hacked a farm and a life out of the forest, establishing the family on the Penobscot.2 This great river has played a major role in the human history of Maine, and generations of Smarts went upriver and down to hunt, trap, or work in the lumber woods, and the Penobscot was their highway.

Myron's great-grandfather was the famous Captain James L. Smart of Sebec, Maine. "Captain Jim" saw extensive service in the American Civil War, first as a sergeant in the 13th Regiment, Maine Volunteer Infantry, and later as an officer in the Corps de Afrique.3 His civilian career was in the woods, building dams and bossing woods crews and river drives, including the famous West Branch Drive, the biggest and most important in Maine in the late nineteenth century. Captain Jim, alone or with other well-known river men like John Ross, the "greatest river driver in the world," and Cornelius "Con" Murphy, bossed the West Branch Drive for eleven springs.

When Myron was ten years old, he accompanied his father Frank and grandfather Bill on the Connecticut River Log Drive from Second Connecticut Lake, on New Hampshire's boundary with Quebec, south to Holyoke, Massachusetts. Frank was boss of the drive that year and had hired his father Bill as his assistant and took Myron along to show him what a big drive was like.

They traveled in a twenty-foot canoe paddled by a Penobscot Indian, Henry Lola. Frank stationed Myron in the front of the canoe and put Henry in charge of him.

His memories of that drive were vivid after nearly seventy-five years and contained more than a little humor. He used to tell this story about his grandfather: When the drive was fairly well along and near the numerous river towns of Vermont and New Hampshire, the head cook came to Frank Smart to complain that bums and hobos were sneaking into the chow line in such numbers that some of the crew?there were nearly two hundred men on the drive?were not getting their meals. A hungry river driver was potentially a dangerous individual, and Frank was properly concerned. He told Bill, who figured that this was one of those problems that he was hired to handle, and Bill said he would "take care of it."

At the next meal Bill stationed himself aboard the cook's floating kitchen called, on the Connecticut River, the Mary Ann. The raft was connected with the shore by two plank walkways: the men went aboard to get their grub on one plank and used the other to get back ashore where they ate.

Hungry men, river drivers and others, lined up on the shore, waiting for the cook to yell, "Come and get it!"

Old Bill?"he warn't big but he was tough"?stood on the raft eyeing the long line of men.

The average person would have had a very difficult time distinguishing a river driver from a hobo, but Bill had no problem at all. When the first freeloader stepped aboard the Mary Ann, Bill knocked him into the Connecticut River. With that, about twenty-five men stepped out of line and headed back to town. "They was pretty rough in those days," Myron noted.

In 1912 Frank Smart took his family to Rockwood, Maine where he had taken a job with the Great Northern Paper Company. Rockwood, on Moosehead Lake, was a major transshipment point for men and equipment going into the Penobscot Woods and "the Northern" had big facilities there to handle those matters. The Smarts lived on the banks of Moose River, and Myron busied himself with school, fishing, and trapping.

Frank Smart died of pneumonia in 1914, and as a result of family needs, Myron took his first job in the winter of 19141915 with the Kellogg Lumber Company then logging the woods of Sandy Bay Township. The camp boss, a friend of his father, had the blacksmith cut a cant dog* down to size for him and put him to work "in the yard."

Logs were hauled by teams from the "chopping" to a place "handy to a good driving chance," where they were piled up in huge roll-ways on the banks of the stream to await the spring drive downriver to the mills at Old Town and Bangor.

Myron worked in this camp for the rest of the winter, and occasionally he drove the "sprinkler" during the nights. The sprinkler was simply a water tank on sled runners that was hauled by a team of horses. During the long winter nights water was sprinkled onto the tote roads to ensure good hauling the next day. Water was obtained from some nearby beaver bog by chopping through the ice and hooking the team up to a device that swung one barrel of water at a time, more or less, into the tank. The team would be reharnessed when the tank was full, and off they would go on their rounds.

Myron volunteered to drive the sprinkler, and, since he was somewhat independent, he hooked up the team and left camp before anybody could give him any advice. After all, he could handle a team with no problem, he thought.

He drove the outfit out onto the ice of a nearby beaver flowage and filled the tank up to the brim. He started off on his rounds, thinking that he was very efficient because he had filled the tank up so full. He was not bothered by the fact that there was no hatch cover for the tank.

After a short way, he came to a steep hill which he had to descend, and, as the sprinkler had no brakes, he would need to be "snubbed down." There was a small camp on the hill, and a "snub man" stayed there all the time when there was any sledding to do. He hooked the logging sleds up to his snubber* and played out his rope a little at a time. Losing control on a steep hill, the teamsters called it "getting sluiced," was almost certain death to the teamster and his horses.

Myron hooked up to the snubber, and he had the horses pull the sprinkler forward. The tub was full, sloshing over the top, and there was a little slack in the rope, so the sled ran forward about ten feet. The rope then snubbed up, bringing the sled to an abrupt halt on the steep slope and launching a tidal wave of cold, beaver-bog water over Myron who was standing on the whiffletree driving the team.

He then realized that he had overfilled the tank for the rough terrain, and he also realized he had to finish his tour of duty soaking wet. He was well togged in wool, but, as it was January and about twenty-five degrees below zero, he did get cold. "I got done about two o'clock in the morning and could hardly move. I was cold and my clothes had frozen. I walked stiff legged unhitching the team, and my pants stood up by themselves."

He went to bed leaving the frozen wool pants standing in front of the woodstove. When the first of the crew saw them, they knew the quiet young boy had gotten splashed, and they were grinning when Myron woke up.

After that winter's work was done, Myron worked as a guide on Moose River. His routine would begin when he picked up a "sport" at one of the then numerous riverside hotels. They would head up the Moose to fish the pools between "the Lake" (as Moosehead is known in that neck of the woods) and Brassua Lake. He also paddled his sports out onto Moosehead to fish the inlets and deep holes for the big togue.

During his first guiding summer, Myron hired out as the junior member of a five-guide team that took four sports from Moosehead down the St. John in canoes. Myron was the "chore boy" around the camp and handled the "wangan" canoe. The other guides had some of the gear and a sport in their canoes, but Myron was alone in a twenty-footer with the "wangan." In Maine and throughout canoe country, that old Indian word* refers to all the impedimenta of canoe travel; the food, tents, etc., and it was up to him to paddle and pole the loaded canoe wherever they went. For this work he received $2.00 per day, standard wages for that time.

One of the guides, one of the "Henderson boys from Caucomgomoc," tried to frighten the rookie guide with tales about the dangers of the St. John. But Roy Nicholas, an old Penobscot Indian guide and the head cook on this trip, took the boy under his wing and told him to "do what I do and you will make it better than him."

Nicholas had some fifty guiding summers behind him and knew every brook, stream, bog, or swamp where "a man could push a canoe." He was well known for his woods craft and he taught Myron many of the tricks of the guiding profession.

Myron had wanted to be a guide, even as a young boy, because he had noticed that the guides always looked like they were having a good time. He eventually found out that guiding was not an easy job and that it wasn't fun all of the time. He once told his father he wanted to be a guide, and Frank didn't know why anyone would want to be a "damned skunk hunter," but Myron did.

Myron absorbed much of his knowledge about the woods and woods' ways from guides like Roy Nicholas, and he fondly recalled many of these men whom he first met when he was very young and they were very old. He also found time to finish high school and then attend the Bangor School of Commerce where he learned "clerking."

Besides being a fishing and hunting guide, Myron also trapped and worked on the Moose River drive for several springs as canoeman for the boss of the drive. He was skilled with all the tools of the river driver's trade, the axe, pick pole, and Peavey, but he was just as skilled in handling a canoe, and keeping a set of books and tally sheets. Since these skills were in short supply on Moose River, Myron seldom got his feet wet, or at least very wet, and he has noted with satisfaction that "a pencil is a damnsight easier to handle than a Peavey, and it paid better."

At the beginning of World War II, after thirty years of this kind of life and with a wife and four children, Myron became a game warden for the state of Maine, and later he served as a biologist for the Game Division of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife?that was back when everyone called it simply, "Fish and Game." In all of his work, canoes were important tools that made him more efficient. His clear and cogent recollections have helped guide me into this work, because he gave me a practical understanding of canoes and the ways they have been used for thousands of years. This understanding has helped me appreciate Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, the other major influence on this work.

In 1978 I obtained Jeanne Patten Whitten's excellent bibliography of the voluminous Eckstorm papers which are stored in Fogler Library at the University of Maine, Orono.5 I noticed several references to unpublished material about prehistoric Indian canoe routes which were of great interest to me, and, I hope, to others. Those notes form the core of this work.

Fannie Hardy was born June 18, 1865, into a distinguished Maine family. Her grandfather was a fur trader in the Penobscot region, and her uncle, Jeremiah P. Hardy, was famous as a portraitist. Manly Hardy, her father, was also a successful fur trader and self-taught ornithologist, and he loved the woods and waters of Maine. He passed this love on to his daughter, and for this Maine is beholden to Manly Hardy.

As a child Fannie Hardy had many Indian playmates and neighbors in Brewer. She often accompanied her father on fur-buying trips to Old Town where she became widely known and liked by the tribe. She was a close observer of the Penobscot from her childhood and was a student of their language.

Educated at a public school in Brewer, Miss Hardy attended Abbott Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and later graduated from Smith College in 1888.

That summer, for a graduation present, she accompanied her father on a canoe trip down the East Branch of the Penobscot and the following summer they canoed down the West Branch where she saw firsthand the setting of much of her future work.

In 1893 Fannie married Jacob A. Eckstorm, an Episcopal priest from Chicago. The Eckstorms lived in Oregon for one year before they moved back to Rhode Island where, in 1899, the Reverend Eckstorm died, leaving his wife with two small children: a son, Paul, and a daughter, Katherine, who died at age seven. Mrs. Eckstorm returned home to Brewer to live in a house her father owned on Wilson Street and for the next forty-seven years immersed herself in the life and legend of Maine as few have done.

Mrs. Eckstorm began serious research into her several areas of interest while still in college. Over the long years of her life, she produced over two hundred published pieces on natural and human history, language, folklore, and minstrelsy. She was a recognized authority on ornithology and was invited to join the prestigious American Ornithologists' Union while still in college.9 In fact, she was the author of several standard books on United States birds; The Woodpecker (Boston, 1904) is an example.

The topic of Indian canoe routes first appears in her notes entitled Indian Trails of Maine, a paper she read before the Nineteenth Century Club of Bangor, October 29, 1920. In 1929 she delivered essentially the same paper in Brewer to another historical group. The talk was covered by a local newspaper, and an article followed which, in customary Fannie Hardy Eckstorm fashion, she deplored because the article was garbled.

In 1929 she wrote a letter to her friend and colleague, Dr. William Francis Ganong, the noted New Brunswick historian and former professor at Smith, stating that she was going to write a paper on the topic of canoe routes for the Maine State Library.10 Mrs. Eckstorm never finished this work; the Great Depression probably wiped out the money that would have been used in publication.

One of her chief objectives was to preserve for future researchers information about Indian life and culture at a time when it was fast disappearing. The strengths and weaknesses of Mrs. Eckstorm's work on Indian canoe routes seem fully apparent to me. Her information about the Penobscot watershed is far more complete than it is for neighboring systems. This was her area of expertise, and her notes show that she never finished researching the topic, as some were made after the initial draft was done in 1929.

I have expanded the scope of the material by drawing on my own experience and research as well as the work of others.

Mrs. Eckstorm's knowledge of the Indian place names of Maine is very valuable: "These old names are the colored curtains which hung beside the windows through which we look back into the beginnings of human living here; for ages and ages, countless human beings have lived and toiled and suffered here, and have left only these names."

When properly understood, many of the old Indian names, relics in their own right, add another clue about life in ancient times. Maine has many Indian names extant, but many are misapplied. Native Americans named specific spots according to their most outstanding characteristic. Names like Saco, "a stream of water" (running into the ocean), Kennebec, "the long reach," or Androscoggin, "place for curing fish," are names of specific places which are now incorrectly the names of large rivers, lakes, streams, and mountains. Most of the place names have an upstream perspective; that is, they are best understood if you remember that the Indians chose them when traveling upstream in birchbark canoes.

As Mrs. Eckstorm has noted, "the little rivers named themselves." If the stream was an important fishing spot, the name would reflect that importance. Cobbossee, "where they spear sturgeon by torchlight," and Madamiscontis, "plenty of alewives," are two of many examples. If an important canoe route lay along a certain waterway, that might be a feature in the name: Sebasticook, "the short route," or the more exotic sounding Oodoolseezicook-Ahwangan, "the Entrails Pond route," are examples.

Many of the place names contain indications of the canoeing difficulties found along a river or stream. In the Penobscot watershed, names abound with the suffix ticook, or its variations, and it is associated with a deadwater. Chimskiticook, "big deadwater," or Skiticook, "a deadwater," are examples. The term "deadwater" does not mean dead in the sense of no current, but dead in the sense that there are no difficult portages or dangerous places.

Another suffix, also frequently found in Penobscot country, is found in words like Nesowadnehunk, which means "stream that runs between the mountains"?an apt name, as anyone who knows that stream can agree?Sededunkehunk, "rapids at the mouth," Madunkehunk, "height of land stream," and always describes a difficult place for canoeists. The hunk sound in these words hints at the grunting of one on a portage or of one shoving a canoe upstream "on the pole." No Penobscot canoeman would ever mistake a ticook stream for a hunk stream, and these names were telltale guides for a mapless people.

While some of the old names are misapplied, others are still as good as ever and sometimes should be heeded. A friend of mine had an experience that illustrates this nicely. Several years ago he decided to retrace part of the old Chaudière/Penobscot/Kennebec canoe route by flying into Penobscot Lake on the Maine-Quebec border and canoeing down from there to the West Branch, Penobscot, and then to Moosehead Lake via Northwest Carry. Penobscot Lake, remote and beautiful, was once part of one of the most important canoe routes connecting Maine with the mighty St. Lawrence, and my friend thought the upper section would be good canoeing.

The Indian name for the small brook out of Penobscot Lake is O'zwazo-ge-hunk, "when they come by here they wade their canoes," and it hints at two things: low water and, in the hunk part of the name, a real hard go for some of the way.12 I knew this old name but my friend didn't and, upon his return, I was eager to hear his account. "The trip was OK, except for the first six miles down Penobscot Brook," he told me. "The water was too low for us and the canoes, so we waded them where we could and carried them where we had to, until we got down to deeper channels where the stream flattens out a little." When I told him what O'zwazo-ge-hunk meant he heartily concurred with its modern applicability and said he wished he had known it before he left, and he vowed to study the Indian place names with more than a casual interest in the future.

Mrs. Eckstorm died in 1946 as a respected authority in her fields of endeavor. The scope of her work is impressive and spans the ages from the prehistoric to the end of the logging era in Maine in the early twentieth century. In recognition of her contributions she received an honorary Master of Arts Degree from the University of Maine in 1920. In 1946, after her death, she was made an Honorary Member of the New Brunswick Museum, the first woman so distinguished.

I hope that she would be pleased by my effort to bring this topic to light, but I have trepidations as I know her attitude about such efforts that fall short of the mark.

My goal is to define the limits of canoe use in Maine by outlining the routes and discussing the seasonal variables that affect canoe travel, while providing a brief historical and geological background.

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Table of Contents

List of Maps

1. With a Little Help from My Friends

2. Land and Water

3. The Canoes

4. Canoeing, Camping, Carrying and Castor canadensis
Castor canadensis

5. The Routes
Canoeing in the Gulf of Maine
Western Maine
Mid-Coastal Canoe Routes
Coastal Cutoffs
The Penobscot System
The St. John River
The Allagash
The Upper St. John

6. The Canoe Routes Today

The author

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