If you're looking for a hidden byway, you needn't leave the United States to find it, or even travel to some forgotten corner of Alaska. There are plenty of unknown roads throughout the country -- some 126 of them, according to the Department of Transportation, whose Federal Highway Administration has designated that number as either National Scenic Byways or All-American Roads. The government wants you to visit in order to promote the economy along these paths and the local folks are proud of their history, culture and scenery, not to mention sports and other activities, so want to share them with you. A few byways are in urban centers, but most are in rural areas.
One such is the Old Canada Road, a National Scenic Byway, which runs along US Route 201 for a scant 78 miles in northwestern Maine. Starting at Lakewood, it ploughs northwest to the Canadian Border at Sandy Bay, through gorgeous forests and along the Kennebec River, following the river trading routes of the Abenaki Tribe and the path followed by Benedict Arnold, when he was on our side and led soldiers up the river to lay siege to the French settlement at Québec. The area is now mostly working forest, but villagers and country people alike concentrate on helping visitors play, with outdoor adventure the two key words. The area is so remote that it's not even mentioned in standard guidebooks.
The Old Canada Road is all about having fun, in summer with backcountry camping, boating, fishing, hiking, whitewater rafting and swimming; in winter with snowmobiles, hunting, and wildlife watching. The autumn foliage is said to be spectacular, but spring is made difficult by the ubiquitous black fly, which is said to start its predations the third week of May and end them "by July 4th, for sure," I was told. The same local woman also said "the black flies are least in early morning, before the sun warms them up."
I looked at nine whitewater rafting companies along the road recently, but didn't have time to get my feet wet. All dates in the descriptions below refer to 2008 schedules and are on the Kennebec River unless otherwise noted, with prices stated being for adults. Children's are lower, naturally. There are also packages that include hotel rooms, often with hot breakfast. Many special dates involve larger than normal releases of water from the dams concerned. Each company has a minimum age for children, sometimes 9, sometimes 12, sometimes 14, so check ahead.
Crab Apple runs trips from now through October 12 on both the Kennebec and Dead rivers, with standard prices from $86 to $112. Phone 800/553-RAFT (7238), website www.crabapplewhitewater.com.
Magic Falls Rafting serves an outdoor lunch to rafters when they finish their three-hour rides (as do many other firms), offering a choice of fish, chicken, steak, hot dogs or hamburgers, along with cole slaw, vegetable rice and a dessert. Then follows a show of slides taken of your trip, and you can order copies of the photos if you can figure out which helmet you are under in the snaps. Dates from May through October, rates from $70 to $99 on either river. Phone 800/207-7238, website www.magicfalls.com.
Moxie Outdoor Adventures. I watched the safety briefing given by a senior guide here, nearly 100 rafters gathering around to hear about what to do in the unlikely event they were to fall out of the rafts, then watched as they drove off to their destination, hitting the roofs and floors of the old school busses with their oars in a rhythmic frenzy. The charges per day run from $79 to $99 for either river, May through October. Phone 800/866-6943, website www.moxierafting.com.
North Country Adventures also offers rafting on the Kennebec and Dead rivers. They start earlier, operating from April through mid-October, with prices ranging from $62 to $112. Phone 800/348-8871, website www.northcountryrivers.com.
Northern Outdoors is a big outfit, and famous for its snowmobile adventures, but also operates whitewater rafting trips from May through October, with videos of you in your raft. Their snow adventures start from late December through early April, though earlier snow may call for earlier opening dates, they say. Northern Outdoors has a newly redesigned website at www.northernoutdoors.com and the phone is 800/765-7238 or 207/663-4466.
Professional River Runners are headquartered in a 120-year-old building and consider themselves to be one of the smaller companies offering rafting on both Kennebec and Dead rivers. Prices range from $59 to $75. They say their overnight camping trips are their most popular product, costing from $190 to $210, and take place on their own private island in a nearby lake. Phone 800/325-3911 or 207/663-2229, website www.proriverrunners.com.
River Drivers say they are the only family from the area to have been river drivers for so many generations (three), the driving originally being of logs down the river (until 1976), now they drive rafts. If you want an old-fashioned base, this is it, and 90% of clients are repeats, the owners, Karen & Andrew Webb, told me. Operating from May through October on both rivers, they charge from $89 to $99. Phone 866/748-7378, website www.riverdrivers.com.
Three Rivers offers rafting on both the Dead and Kennebec rivers with prices ranging from $79 to $109 from May through October. Phone 800/786-6878, website www.threeriversfun.com.
Windfall Outdoor Center operates from May through October at prices ranging mostly from $69 to $99, on either of the two rivers. I noticed many couples taking part on one of their trips. Phone 800/683-2009, www.windfallrafting.com.
Other Water Activities
You can rent an inflatable kayak holding one or two persons at several of the above centers from as little as $29 or even take a sunset cruise daily on Northern Outdoors' Pontoon Boat on Wyman Lake. I was lucky enough on such a cruise to see a pair of bald eagles guarding their nest, with two tiny eaglet heads poking up above the twigs, and a seemingly sane loon going about his solitary business of fishing in the cool air of early evening. You can bring along "your favorite beverage, in moderation", they say. The three-hour trip is $29 for adults, less for children, from 6 to 12 people per boat.