Seniors Not Acting Their Age
For a small enthusiastic contingent of Mainers, paddling coastal rivers and streams is a clear indication that spring has arrived. Each March, as snow and ice melts and rain showers replace wintry storms they stow away skis and snowshoes and retrieve their paddles from hibernation.
Many of us older river rats have been replicating the treasured tradition for decades. I began my whitewater journey on the upper St. George River in Searsmont in March 1977. In the forty-two years since, friends and I have returned to the St. George, Sheepscot River in Alna, Souadabscook Stream in Hampden and Ducktrap River in Lincolnville every spring.
Explaining the attraction isn’t simple. The water is frigid, air temperatures are usually cold, ice frequently an obstacle and hazards common. Certainly the sense of renewal that is implicit in the season is a factor. Undoubtedly the challenges are part of the allure. However, I believe an abiding love for the sport is the primary influence. Regardless, my outdoor club, the Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society, schedules a wide assortment of spring paddling every year.
This spring, the first scheduled trip to actually occur was predictably the St. George and I was the leader. Seven intrepid paddlers turned out. Typically, we were well represented by old timers who collectively had literally hundreds of paddling days on the George. In fact, the trip was appropriately designated the Skip Pendleton Memorial Trip in honor one of our older members who recently passed away. Remarkably, Skip started whitewater paddling in his 70s and the George was his favorite river.
A lot has changed since my initial undertaking on the St. George. Back then, most paddlers were navigating long tripping canoes with truck tire inner tubes inflated for flotation. Attire often consisted of wool underwear, jeans, sweaters and old sneakers. Now, most of us wear dry suits, helmets and neoprene booties. On our trip, the majority was in kayaks and short canoes packed with airbags. We’re warmer and safer now, but I’d rather be young again.
Leaving shuttle vehicles on Route 105 in Appleton, our expedition began in the village of Searsmont. After a short safety discussion, we launched in a pool above the Route 173 bridge. Negotiating flat water for the first segment of the five mile voyage, anecdotes about rivers past was the primary topic of conversation. Rounding a bend, the first whitewater was encountered; a long Class II that ends near Ghent Road Bridge. Unfortunately, a kayaker collided with a submerged rock resulting in a frosty swim. Alert participants quickly responded rescuing boat, boater and paddle. Continuous whitewater proceeded for a distance followed by strong currents to a more difficult descent called Magog Chute. Everyone successfully maneuvered the steep rapid and we finished the day with a pleasant paddle through a scenic pasture to the takeout.
A few days later, three of us met for the second trip of the year Souadabscook Stream in Hampden. An otherwise obscure tributary, the Sou is a very popular Class II, III and IV whitewater excursion and like the St. George is usually one of the earliest to experience ice out. Originally first on the club agenda and jocularly dubbed the “ice breaker” trip, the ice had been uncooperative. A cool cloudy day probably explained light attendance. Wearing several layers inside of our dry suits, we were theoretically well-prepared for the freezing water and bone chilling waves.
Cascading through Boy Scout Rapid, Emerson Mill Falls, surfing Paper Mill and Great Expectations Rapids and navigating complex Crawford Falls, the benefits of the Sou were exhaustively embraced. Grand Falls necessitated a decision; walk or run. Two of us ran it, one swam; inherently part of the drama and risk. Cold bodies and good judgment prevailing, we skipped intimidating Hell’s Gate at the end.
The next day, four of us tested another springtime paddling prerequisite, Ducktrap River. For only the second time, we accessed the Duck through narrow, congested, turbulent Kendall Brook. Everything about Kendall was a hoot. Sledding in our boats down an ice-covered snowmobile trail to embark on the freshet, we proceeded to dodge strainers, crouch under low hanging trees and bounce over boulders while tumbling steadily downstream to an emergency portage around a huge downed tree. After Kendall, the Class II/IV rapids and falls on the Duck seemed benign. The high points were plunging down an exhilarating waterfall and recovering a paddle lost by a member during a swim last November.
Three typical days of spring paddling completed, Sheepscot remained. It wouldn’t be spring without it.
The author of “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals – New England,” Ron Chase resides in Topsham. Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com or he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.