Creeking the Piscataquog

Each October the State of New Hampshire draws down Lake Horace, providing an excellent Class III/IV creek-like whitewater run on the North Branch of the Piscataquog River. Located in Weare a little west of Concord, the release attracts whitewater boaters from around New England.

For several years, Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society president, Ryan Galway, has led a club trip on the Piscataquog. Since Class III/IV is relatively easy creeking, it appeals to an array of boaters including a fair number of old guys like me who are looking for lower adrenaline whitewater escapades.

Over the years, club attendance has varied from as few as three members to as many as fifteen and we’ve experienced a fair amount of river carnage, primarily on the more difficult rapids. Steep, technical and shallow descents are the main reason; a bad combination if someone comes out of their boat. Conversely, that perfect storm of conditions is part of the attraction that makes creeking exciting.

This year we had a diverse group of ten paddlers in three canoes and seven kayaks. Ages ranged from those eligible for Social Security old age benefits, including yours truly, to a couple of teenagers, a spread of about 55 years. Not lost on me was the fact that the two boys were almost young enough to be my great grandsons!

The contrast in style between young and older paddlers is obvious and remarkable. Seniors tend to be deliberate and conservative in their approach to the sport while the youngsters are confident (often over confident), high energy, daring and frequently wired to the point of being hyperactive. Make no mistake, I miss those days of my youth. However, when I’m around younger boaters, I’m often reminded of the timeless paddling axiom, “There are old paddlers and there are bold paddlers, but there are no old bold paddlers.” There was a reason why 19 year olds used to be drafted. I know, I was one of them.

Both of my sons grew up paddling whitewater. The oldest was a capable Class III canoeist until he deserted me for friends and team sports. The youngest had a much more extensive exposure. He and I shared a lot of Class IV/V boating when I was in my fifties and he was in his twenties. But, the “old bold” rule applied. He pushed steep creeking limits beyond my comfort level and moved on. The exceptional memories of those special times with my sons remain.

Given the drought conditions, we had a surprisingly high release for this year’s paddling exploits when our group assembled at the Weare Reservoir Dam. A very steep carry down to the river, one of the enthusiastic teenagers contemplated a “seal launch” down the embankment in his kayak. His Dad decided that wasn’t the entrance de jour. I was reminded of similar incidents with my sons, one involving a vertical 20 foot waterfall with what looked like a shallow unsafe landing. Over 21, he successfully dove over the edge while I worried.

After a series of easy rapids under a Disney World-like overhanging canopy of trees, we arrived at the first Class IV, Slab City Falls. A gnarly looking ledge drop with several submerged rocks waiting to capsize an unsuspecting paddler, we had hiked in to scout it prior to launching. Predictably, one member of our group missed the preferred line, plunged onto hidden rocks and flipped. Dislocating a finger attempting to hold onto his canoe and paddle while completing his bumpy, out of boat experience, his day, perhaps season, was over.

Continuing downriver, we encountered a series of complex, boulder-strewn rapids that challenged our paddling skills. One manifestation of youthful exuberance is the tendency to follow other paddlers too closely. On a couple of occasions, we found ourselves navigating narrow, precipitous descents neck in neck with our younger companions, never a good idea.

Successfully navigating the “slide” on Big Drop and a long, complicated Buzzell Falls, we progressed downstream. Near the end of our journey, an almost completely concealed log wedged between rocks in yet another steep, technical falls wreaked havoc. Overturning a surprised member of our group, he was unable to roll in the shallow, rocky rapid and had to leave his boat. Fortunately, nothing was hurt but his feelings.

Finishing an exciting river day, we contemplated our next whitewater undertaking. The general consensus was a release on nearby Little Suncook River the following weekend. Many of us would be there, including at least one of our newfound younger buddies.

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.