How do you know you’re paddling Ducktrap River? The weather is lousy. Inclement weather seems to be an inherent part of the Ducktrap experience and it’s not a coincidence. Water levels rise and fall rapidly on the tiny Lincolnville body of water that is mystifyingly called a “river.” Hence, the opportunity for a quality whitewater adventure is generally near the end of a significant rain event.
When heavy rains occur, a small subculture of “river rats” start watching gauges to determine when their favorite whitewater river or stream has increased to an advantageous volume. My primary sources for gauge information are American Whitewater and USGS websites. As water measurements climb and choices increase, a whirlwind of emails and phone calls follow as prospective paddlers debate the options and lobby for their preference.
Inexplicably, early November is often a time of heavy rains. That was true again this fall. Several storms dumped copious amounts of precipitation on our area. Because the Duck has a minuscule watershed, it peaks earlier than most rivers and drops just as dramatically. In short, the window of opportunity is very narrow.
Recently, during the morning of a substantial deluge, an online inspection of the Ducktrap USGS gauge indicated it was at a respectable 150 cubic feet per second (CFS) and surging upward. A Duck devotee for several decades, I began advocating for an afternoon voyage on the elusive whitewater gem. Four friends with the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society responded to the call. A trip was on!
Several factors make the Duck a compelling paddling encounter. Tumbling down a beautiful steep valley that approaches gorge status shortly before reaching the sea, it is one of the few Maine whitewater streams that flow directly into the ocean. The escapade includes a significant Class IV falls and about three miles of excellent whitewater.
Our intrepid band met in stormy weather at the seawall takeout in Lincolnville where the Duck joins Penobscot Bay. There are two primary launches – a seven mile descent from Route 52 or a shorter trip beginning at Tanglewood Camps three miles downstream. Since most of the whitewater is below Tanglewood and conditions were typically atrocious, we chose the abbreviated alternative. Epitomizing whitewater diversity, we had a variety of crafts – two kayaks, a canoe and a two-person inflatable vessel called a shredder. An elderly cold water sissy, I wore a dry suit to protect aging bones from the elements. My younger tougher companions survived quite nicely sporting damp colder wetsuits.
Tanglewood Camps is a boater friendly place. A 4H Camp and Learning Center, Tanglewood is operated by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. For decades, they’ve graciously allowed paddling access to the Duck whenever road conditions permitted.
We departed in a cove adjacent to the camp in rain and fog. Beginning in calm water, we passed under a snowmobile bridge and immediately portaged around debris and trees blocking passage. Called strainers in the vernacular of the whitewater world, blow downs are always a potential hazard on the attenuated twisting waterway. Shortly after, Kendall Stream entered on our left. Located upriver on a Route 52 bridge abutment, the USGS gauge averaged 200 CFS during our excursion. Side streams raised the actual flow we experienced to about 350.
Around the bend, the excitement began. The first rapids were the most challenging. A series of ledge drops progressed in difficulty to Class III just before plunging over Twitchell Pitch. American Whitewater rates Twitchell Class V. It’s not that demanding but probably Class IV. Since the approach is a horizon line, I always stop to scout and take safety precautions. Stopping isn’t that easy as paddlers must catch a tiny eddy on river left in turbulent water immediately above the drop. Our group successfully executed the precarious maneuver. After discussing the best route for negotiating the falls, we posted two participants with throw bags at the bottom and a cameraman midway. Excellent runs were had by all followed by the usual triumphant exaltations.
Below the pitch, over two miles of continuous Class II whitewater provided an excellent opportunity to experiment with various paddling techniques, particularly wave surfing. Unwanted rescue practice interfered with our agenda when one member of the group flipped and was unable to roll in the shallow fast moving current. Following a substantial effort, we were able to reunite boat and boater, but his paddle was lost. Fortunately, the shredder carried a spare.
Finishing the rapids, we passed under the unique two-tiered Ducktrap Bridge in heavy fog and navigated across a pool that may be the source of the moniker “trap” to the seawall takeout. If there aren’t cold gusty winds blowing at the takeout, you haven’t been paddling the Duck.