Maine has some great whitewater. Besides the well-known dam release rafting rivers like the Kennebec, Dead and Penobscot, there are dozens of excellent free flowing whitewater streams and rivers. Under normal circumstances, the best time to paddle whitewater is in the spring when April showers and snowmelt combine to provide optimum conditions. However, soaking rains can bring streams up sufficiently for paddling in summer and fall.
River rats in the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society (PPCS) are always watching water levels for paddling opportunities. Heavy rains associated with the recent wind storm caused most streams and rivers to rise dramatically. When that happens, chowderheads begin checking U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) online river gauges. The result is usually a flurry of emails and phone calls with various paddling proposals.
The challenge is finding a stream with a level that’s adequate for an exciting paddle but not so high as to render it dangerous. Or at least that’s the goal when one reaches senior citizen status; that would be me. The day after the storm, most of the stimulating runs were in flood so I lobbied for something more moderate in difficulty, Austin Stream near Bingham.
History is the best indicator of what is a good whitewater paddling level for a particular river or stream. Having kept a log of the river levels I’ve paddled, I unabashedly call it Chase Whitewater Archives (CWA). With thirty years of accumulated data, the archives are what I consider to be a wealth of valuable river information; while acknowledging that others may consider them a compilation of near useless records collected by a doddering old kayaker still living out youthful fantasies. Regardless, I fell in love with whitewater in my thirties, an affair that continues unabated.
CWA records indicated that a Class III level on Austin Stream would require a flow in the range of 700 to 1000 cubic feet per second (CFS). According to the USGS gauge, Austin was running at about 1700 CFS and dropping slowly, a juicy almost continuous Class III/IV level. Fortuitously, two of my regular whitewater companions, Eggman DeCoster and Randy Berube, agreed to join me. Actually, Randy was advocating for Orbeton Stream near Madrid, a Class IV/V run that would be very high. A youngster under sixty, he couldn’t find any victims and unenthusiastically signed on to my proposal.
While there are no significant falls or drops on Austin Stream, it’s a steep, continuous mountain freshet that originates in the ponds of Mayfield and Bald Mountain Townships. Flowing southeast until joining the Kennebec River, the section that we paddle is a six mile stretch beginning just below a Class V plus gorge that is definitely too hazardous and stressful for this old man and ending at Route 201 in Bingham.
Paddling Austin comes with a price, an exceptionally precipitous portage down to the stream from Dead Water Road. Don’t be misled by the name, there is no dead water on Austin Stream. After stumbling and tumbling over and around downed trees in a thick forested area for a few hundred yards, paddlers immediately launch on the most intense rapids on the run.
Paddling Austin was a hoot. Plummeting rapidly downstream in feisty waves while dodging boulders and skirting holes that threatened to capsize us, a major concern was the likelihood that there were storm blown trees in the stream creating what whitewater boaters call strainers. This required slowing down as much as possible at each turn to ensure that there was clear navigation around the bend. While encountering some strainers, none obstructed the entire river and were quite easy to avoid.
As we descended, I couldn’t ignore recalling an Austin Stream mishap I’d had four years ago. An axiom of whitewater paddling is that boaters are always between swims. Most paddlers have a reliable roll minimizing them. However, a roll doesn’t always work. Offending the river gods, my late great friend Bill Kaiser once recklessly announced that he had a bomb proof roll and would never swim again. That same day, he entertainingly swam in an easy rapid. While never having attained Bill’s level of hubris, I had gone several years without a swim. Complacent and overconfident while attempting to surf a wave, I hit a submerged rock and flipped in steep, shallow water. When setting up to roll, the rocky stream bed tore me out of my kayak. Dragging myself ashore, Eggman chased my boat for about a mile before catching it. Another benefit of paddling……. it teaches humility.
No swim this day. Two old men and the youngster were off the river in just a little over an hour!