A character in Kenneth Roberts’ historical novel Arundel remarked of the Dead River, “(It’s) no more dead than a bobcat after a rabbit.” Joining the Kennebec River in West Forks after sixteen miles of almost continuous Class I through IV whitewater, the Dead is in actuality the west branch of the Kennebec and one of the most popular whitewater runs in the northeastern United States.
Beginning in small lakes and ponds in western Maine, the North and South Branches of the Dead converge at Flagstaff Lake in Stratton. What currently constitutes the lake was once a calm section of the Dead River that meandered circuitously for twenty miles, hence the name Dead. In 1950, Long Falls Dam was built forming the eastern end of the lake creating a reservoir regulating flow primarily for hydropower purposes on the Kennebec. An added benefit, scheduled dam releases provide whitewater throughout the dry summer months and it has become a mecca for enthusiastic paddlers in search of excitement.
My first trip on the Dead was in June 1986. Considering ourselves competent canoeists prepared for the challenges of the notorious river, a coworker and I decided to test our skills in a tandem canoe. Our experience was an epiphany. We found a campground on the Dead in West Forks. Owned by Ed and Marie Webb, they also provided a shuttle service on the rough logging roads to the preferred put-in where Spencer Stream enters the Dead sixteen miles upriver.
The shuttle was an adventure unto itself. Marie ran the campground, organized the shuttle and collected fees. Ed was driver extraordinaire and the quintessential Jack of all trades who loaded boats onto a trailer and packed paddlers into an open truck bed. There were two coveted seats in the cab with Ed. Everyone else was left out in the elements.
The very personable Marie set up a little table next to the shuttle truck and collected fees. Back then there was what seemed to be a dizzying array of costs. Before loading our boat, Marie required payment for camping, the shuttle and a special road use charge that the Webb’s collected for the paper company.
My companion and I were in over our heads on the Dead. Even though the release was a low one, we struggled mightily from the outset. Every rapid seemed a bewildering assortment of waves surging around and between huge boulders with no obvious route. At about the halfway point, we flipped resulting in a short swim. Laboring to stay afloat, the last and most difficult rapid, Poplar Falls, weighed heavily on our minds. Entering the intimidating descent, we were quickly out of control plowing over a couple of ledge drops filling up in the hydraulics below. Overflowing with water, we capsized. Desperately holding onto our boat and paddles, we somehow managed to drag the canoe ashore after swimming much of the falls.
In the thirty two years since my first descent, I’ve navigated the Dead an estimated two hundred times achieving what I call “Deadhead” status. The Dead has been a family affair as both of my sons, my wife and many other family members have joined me on the river. I’ve met several good friends there and our escapades could easily fill a book.
Recently, the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society scheduled a weekend of paddling on the Dead. Sadly, my longtime friends Ed and Marie have passed. However, their son Andy and his wife Kim still operate the campground and run the shuttle. Now, we relax in luxury riding in an enclosed van.
On the first day, Gary & Suzanne Cole were trip leaders for a beefy 3500 cfs release, generally considered a Class III/ IV level. Kayaks were the primary choice of transportation for the high water. After bouncing through choppy rollers at the bottom of Spencer Rips, we lingered for some entertaining wave surfing on a short pitch called Quattro. Below, our group negotiated protracted Minefield Rapid and stopped for lunch immediately above complex Hayden’s Falls.
Surviving Hayden’s, we relaxed in a relatively placid stretch called the Doldrums. This was the calm before the storm as the difficulty level increased appreciably. After passing Enchanted Stream, we navigated around a gnarly hole at Elephant Rock, surfed some waves at Horsefly Rapid and entered Mile Long, the longest rapid on the river that ends with a baffling assortment of large exploding waves many concealing boat flipping holes. We finished the day with a calamity free high volume run on Poplar Falls.
The following day, Chowderheads returned for a 2400 cfs release led by Rick Farnsworth. The lower level attracted more canoes resulting in some minor mishaps particularly at Poplar Falls. It was a typical Dead weekend.