Souadabscook Stream is one of Maine’s most popular early spring whitewater runs. While most of it is located in Hampden, the source is a collection of small ponds in the Hermon area. Beginning with several miles of calm water and mild currents before arriving at Manning Mill Road, the stream then turns into a tumultuous assortment of rapids and falls that tumbles to the Penobscot River.
Since formation of the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society (PPCS) in 1969, challenging the Sou has been a rite of spring for many chowderheads. A coastal stream, it’s usually one of the first waterways to experience ice out. For several years, club members have scheduled an “icebreaker” exploratory on the Sou for our first official trip. This spring, the initial excursion was postponed for a week due to low water, too much ice and wintry weather. Nearly cancelled a second time it was resurrected after a rainstorm raised the water flow to a premium level.
My first encounter with the Sou was about forty years ago. A paddling buddy and I rented an eighteen foot aluminum canoe for our descent. Wearing jeans, running shoes and wool sweaters, we survived a frosty ride from Hermon to the Penobscot. While obviously lacking in good judgment, we did have the sense to don life jackets. Miraculously, we somehow stayed in our boat. However, much of the day was consumed kneeling in several inches of ice water. My friend lived near the takeout where we spent some serious time huddled next to his woodstove thawing out. His wife wasn’t impressed.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then and much has changed. Now, chowderheads arrive at the river wearing dry suits, wet suits, helmets, neoprene footwear and state of the art whitewater life jackets. The difference in boats is cosmic. Crafts designed specifically for whitewater are the norm and have changed the sport. Paddlers are running rapids and doing stunts that were unthinkable thirty years ago. The average length of a whitewater kayak is probably eight feet. Canoe designs have changed even more radically.
The Sou is normally the third competition in the Maine downriver race circuit. Possessing steep technical rapids and falls, it’s arguably the most difficult. For many years, the PPCS has provided safety for the race while some members are regular competitors. Having been both racer and rescuer, I can attest that the event is always a rousing chaotic affair. Fishing participants from the icy stream is a normal part of the process.
Our recent trip on the Sou was not a race just six enthusiastic paddlers in search of their first whitewater adrenaline rush of the year. Foregoing the flat water as usual, we launched just below Manning Mill Bridge on a cold, sunny day with snow on the banks and ice shelves along much of the shore. After some gentle waves, our group arrived at an almost river wide hole that is a popular play spot. Concerned with flipping in the frigid water, our visit was short lived.
Continuing downstream, we navigated through Boy Scout Rapid and plunged over steep Emerson Mill Falls. Below the falls, we lingered to surf some excellent play waves. Navigating through two more entertaining rapids we approached exacting Crawford Falls. Prudently boat scouting our way through the complex boulder garden with multiple opportunities for upset, everyone had successful runs.
Our fortunes took a turn for the worse shortly after in a rapid under Papermill Road Bridge. An unseen log lodged just below the surface halted and turned the first paddler causing her to spill sideways into a powerful surging hole. We were instantly in chase of the swimming canoeist and her runaway boat. A tranquil pool below facilitated a relatively easy rescue.
Great Falls, the most substantial rapid on the stream, is just beyond. A precipitous Class IV+ descent, three in our group chose to plummet down the intimidating falls while the others opted to portage right. Everyone reveled in the stimulating Class III run out.
After a circuitous stretch of flat water, we surfed some waves at Snowmobile Bridge Rapid and negotiated a tricky pitch immediately below. Persisting to the final Class III, an S Turn, the difficulty level was substantially enhanced by a fallen tree on the left, another bottom right and a wide hole in the middle. Accidentally surfed by the hole, a canoeist then flushed into the right strainer hazardously pinning his boat rendering him precariously perched on the tree. A substantial team effort was required to extricate the damaged canoe and safely reunite it with the owner.
Experiencing thrills, successes and mishaps, it was a typical spring day on the Sou.