Whitewater Adventures on the Wild, Wild West

For two days each September, the Army Corps of Engineers releases water from Ball Mountain Dam on the West River in Jamaica, Vermont. An event that attracts many Mainers, the scheduled releases provide an excellent opportunity for paddlers to experience some outstanding late season whitewater boating. The releases have evolved into a veritable whitewater festival and Jamaica State Park is the hub of activity.

By whitewater standards, the West River in southeastern Vermont is relatively easy paddling. Rated Class I to III with one section perhaps a little more difficult, it entices new boaters who want to hone their skills, expert paddlers feeding the addiction and a lot of old geezers such as myself who’ve been running the West for decades.

My first West River experience was in 1989. Back then, I paddled a fourteen and a half foot solo whitewater canoe called the Mohawk Scamp that was considered a state of the art craft at the time. Since then, mirroring the sport in general, my boats keep getting smaller. Currently, I’m paddling a borrowed seven and a half foot Dagger kayak called a Mamba. It’s not that I don’t have boats of my own. I have plenty; in fact, more than I want to admit. However, the Mamba has the reputation for being a very comfortable boat and I’m in search of a kayak that will accommodate my aging, arthritic hips. Two of my retired friends recommended the Mamba. We old people talk a lot about our aches and pains.

Jamaica State Park is located in the middle of the five mile whitewater run. The upper section is almost continuous Class II/III with one rapid, The Dumplings, rated Class IV by some. The park runs a two mile shuttle part way up the top section. My first shuttle experience in 1989 was my last. Having never met a line I liked, scores of queued boaters pushing, shoving and negotiating for some perceived advantage was a non-starter. Fortunately, there’s an alternative. Drive north for a few miles and put in below Ball Mountain Dam.

A downside to beginning at the dam is a strenuous carry. There are worse boat carries, the two mile Umbazooksus Lake to Mud Pond portage immediately comes to mind. But, after lugging your boat to the top of the dam and then steeply down to the river, you’ve had a workout. All things considered, I still prefer the arduous carry to hassling with the shuttle.

The state park threw a new pitch at us this year. Call it a knuckle ball. Apparently obsessing about boaters gaining illegal access, they instituted an intrusive identification card procedure. Like many such rules or regulations, it substantially punishes law abiding patrons for the sins of a few. On our first morning camping, I went for an early bike ride outside the park. Returning, I had to stop, get off my bike and retrieve my ID. Continuing my ride on the trail along the river, I went through the same process when attempting to access the camping section even though I hadn’t left the park. After finishing the upper, paddlers had to go through the ID interrogation gauntlet each time they carried boats back to their campsite. Wandering aimlessly near the DMZ in Korea was easier when I was stationed there during the Pueblo crisis in 1968. There has to be a better way.

On the first day of paddling, I joined a group of Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society chowderheads from Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. None of us were youngsters with the average age approximating sixty. A residual West Fest benefit is the opportunity to connect with boating friends from all over New England. After carrying over the dam, we were on the water early enough to avoid crowds and embrace some excellent wave surfing navigating downriver.

Arriving at The Dumplings, Jean Miller led some in our group on a new route between large boulders on the right at the top of the rapid. A technical, arguably more difficult run, all of the venturesome kayakers were successful. By the time we arrived at the takeout, the campground was bustling with activity. After enduring ID checks, we had a leisurely lunch at our campsite followed by a whitewater repeat in the afternoon. In years past, we’ve actually done three trips on the upper in a day. Some did again this year. I’ve outgrown such compulsive behavior. Read that, I’m too old for three carries over the dam.

As usual, the evening was a great social time with a communal dinner and lots of war stories about the adventures past and present. On Sunday, we did it all over again. The verdict: The Mamba was a success!

Before leaving, plans were made for a return visit next year…..despite the absurd ID policy.

Ron Chase

About Ron Chase

At age 70, Ron Chase is old. But, he’s not under the grass…yet. Retired from a career with the Internal Revenue Service, he has embarked on a new life as a freelance writer and tax consultant. Don’t be misled; in reality, he works a little and plays a lot. When not busy kayaking, canoeing, biking, mountain climbing and skiing, he sometimes finds time to write and assist his tax clients. A lifelong Mainer now living in Topsham, he is the recent author of The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery, a biography of Vietnam War hero and bank robber Bernard Patterson.