Several factors make Little Suncook River in New Hampshire unique. A short, very narrow, initially intense whitewater run, it has Class III & IV rapids, a navigable dam and is frequently pockmarked with strainers. All of this excitement in three brief miles, much of which can be observed from Route 4 in Epsom.
Almost every October, the State of New Hampshire draws down Northwood Lake providing a one day whitewater release on Little Suncook. Due to drought, there was no discharge last year. Despite a continuation of the same, not only did they provide water this year but it was the highest I’ve experienced.
My first run on Little Suncook was in the spring almost 30 years ago. It wasn’t a scheduled release, rather the result of an exceptional spring runoff. Three friends and I drove over from Maine to explore what was for me a new river. Traveling with my longtime outdoor amigo, Ken Gordon, Dick McKinnon and the late Ted Lombard were in the other vehicle. I haven’t seen Dick in more than a decade and Ted passed away over 20 years ago.
Several very positive memories endure from that first trip. All of us were in solo 13 and 14 foot canoes and it was my initial introduction to running dams. Despite our oversized boats, we all had good runs on both the rapids and the dam. I have special recollections of Ted, who was perhaps the smoothest whitewater canoeist I’ve known. His exceedingly brassy, caustic sense of humor was very entertaining and he’s genuinely missed.
Over the years, new rivers came and went. Little Suncook slipped from my mind. In 2013, Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society member and current president Ryan Galway organized a fall trip. I enthusiastically signed on. Even though I was in a kayak, it seemed more difficult, another one of those unwanted signs of old age.
This year, we were back for another bite of the apple. Relatively new club members Bill Stafford and Tim Dyson were trip organizers. For the first time since that ancient introductory trip, Ken Gordon joined us. Until reminded, he’d forgotten our previous escapade. Time flies and memories fade when you’re growing old. Earlier in the week, substantial internet chatter reported dangerous levels of debris and strainers in the river. Fortunately, a dedicated group of Merrimack Valley Paddlers organized a partial river cleanup prior to the release; a safety effort that was much appreciated.
Unlike a lot of whitewater runs, no warm-up exists on Little Suncook. Rather, it starts right out with the most difficult rapid on the river. We always scout it before putting on as there are numerous opportunities for an unpleasant paddling experience. A couple of years ago, Eric Lougee, a very skilled kayaker and friend, missed his line by a couple of feet and swam. My point, this rapid merits respect. Sadly, Eric passed away skiing in Baxter State Park last winter; yet another good friend who is now a memory.
Scouting was a good idea as high water had changed the character of the rapid. Collectively deciding on a different strategy than normal, we began by cautiously approaching from the right in some narrow, twisting drops through thick alders. Intending to hold a tight right line avoiding several obstacles, our plan almost worked. All of the kayakers had successful runs, but the lone canoeist in the group, Eggman DeCoster, laid an egg. Filling up early, he plowed into a sticky hole and capsized. After putting all of the pieces of Old Man DeCoster back together again, we persisted downstream paddling through several Class II/III rapids to a small pond with a dam at the outlet.
High water had created a strong back wash below the dam. After careful scrutiny and setting up safety, everyone effortlessly plunged over the edge without incident. More Class II/III rapids challenged us as we continued downstream. However, some uninvited guests joined our group, a succession of intimidating strainers. For the uninitiated, strainers are logs, trees or other impediments blocking flow. A common source of whitewater injuries and occasional fatalities, strainers are not to be trifled with. All of the obstructions were prudently negotiated without a need for portage. Our journey ended with some very sweet play waves just before arriving at the takeout.
A short trip, we normally do two runs. Satisfied with my first descent, this old man decided to forego another adrenaline rush; one of Ron’s newest Over 70 Rules. They’re increasing almost exponentially. Instead, I helped with the shuttle and took some photos.
Finding redemption in his second run, Eggman canoed everything sunny side up. “I am the eggman,
goo goo g’ joob.”