Whitewater Weekend

For many years, Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society (PPCS) members have organized an April whitewater weekend in New Hampshire. Normally, several excellent whitewater rivers and streams in the southern central part of the state open in April offering exciting early season paddling opportunities. Popular Class III/IV runs include Contoocook, Ashuelot, Otter, Warner and Smith.

This year an extended winter has kept water levels lower than usual. The large volume Contoocook was rocking but steep mountain streams were borderline or too low. Since there were only two of us available for the first day of the weekend adventure, the need for river negotiations were minimal. Eggman DeCoster and I decided on the infrequently paddled more northerly Bearcamp River near Tamworth.

The first time I paddled the Class II/IV Bearcamp was with a large contingent of Appalachian Mountain Club members in 1990. Everyone paddled fourteen and fifteen foot solo canoes in high water. With a couple of minor exceptions all of the rapids were successfully negotiated in the old fashioned crafts. Four years ago, a team of chowderheads returned to the Bearcamp on a cold stormy day paddling state of the art whitewater canoes and kayaks. My creek kayak didn’t help much as I carelessly stumbled into an unforgiving hole followed by an unpleasant out of boat experience.

As Eggman aptly observed, I was back for redemption. This time we had a sunny cold day with medium low water. Exercising old age caution, we reconnoitered the scene of my previous misadventure while completing the vehicle shuttle. Scouting was the answer as we found a route that avoided the menacing hole resulting in exciting calamity free runs. Just below is a Class IV rapid called The Gorge. The sporting route is a twisting narrow channel right of an island that ends with a decidedly unfriendly hydraulic that almost guarantees rolling practice. After a careful inspection factoring in the icy water and cold air, we made the conservative choice going left of the island scraping down a bumpy safer channel. When the day ended several inches of water had accumulated in my kayak. The cause was a crack in the hull; too many rock encounters on too many rivers.

Duct tape was the answer for a paddle on the Contoocook the following morning. Running about two thousand cubic feet per second, rock scraping was not a major concern. Our group consisted of seven chowderheads from around New England with Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island represented. The Class III/IV Contoocook consists of 2.5 miles of feisty waves while maneuvering through boulder gardens climaxing with the most difficult rapid ominously called Freight Train. Whitewater boaters seem predisposed to assign unsavory names like Meat Cleaver, Big Splat and Pure Screaming Hell to rapids. My preference would be softer gentler monikers like Marshmallow Rips, Lollipop Falls or Powder Puff Pitch, a concept that hasn’t caught on. The duct tape held and everyone stayed upright for a rousing run on the powerful locomotive.

Chowderheads separated for afternoon adventures with four paddlers driving west to the Ashuelot while Eggman, a kid named Evan and I decided to challenge a solid Class IV section of the nearby Warner. A steep technical descent with lots of slides, rock bouncing and abrupt pitches, three duct tape replacements were required during the two mile trip.

This old man wasn’t really on his game either. After dodging what seemed like a few dozen gnarly boulders in a rapid enchantingly called Pinball, I missed my line at the bottom of an ancient dam sluice tumbling backwards through a constricted array of large rocks and old mill abutments. Through good fortune not skill, I somehow managed to remain upright without pinning or broaching.

All three of us successfully navigated down five consecutive precipitous falls in the upper portion of a steep narrow gorge. However my misguided plan to jump over a shallow ledge just below was only partially successful. The first half went well but the second didn’t; leaving me and my kayak precariously dangling over the edge. Rocking back and forth, I fell off nearly upside down. A desperate survival brace kept me upright and avoided a roll in the shallow rock strewn rapid. Observing my predicament, my clever younger companions went left.

When we splashed into an eddy at the takeout, I expressed frustration with the quality of my descent observing, “I’m too old for this.” By the time I had driven halfway home, I was contemplating the next trip and thinking about buying a new kayak.

Never gonna grow up, never gonna grow up!

Ron Chase

About Ron Chase

At age 70, Ron Chase is old. But, he’s not under the grass…yet. Retired from a career with the Internal Revenue Service, he has embarked on a new life as a freelance writer and tax consultant. Don’t be misled; in reality, he works a little and plays a lot. When not busy kayaking, canoeing, biking, mountain climbing and skiing, he sometimes finds time to write and assist his tax clients. A lifelong Mainer now living in Topsham, he is the recent author of The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery, a biography of Vietnam War hero and bank robber Bernard Patterson.