Contrary to its name, Canada Falls is not located in Canada. However, it’s not far away situated northeast of Jackman in a remote area just a few miles east of the Canadian border. Actually a 3.5 mile section of the South Branch of the Penobscot River, virtually everyone in the paddling community refers to it as Canada Falls. The reason is simple; an abundance of exciting whitewater compressed into that short segment of river.
Generally considered the authority on all things whitewater, the American Whitewater Association rates Canada Falls Class III/V; Class V deemed the most difficult level navigable. I call it one of the most challenging whitewater descents this old man is still attempting.
Canada Falls Dam at the outlet of Canada Falls Lake controls the flow of water. As a result of licensing negotiations with paddling representatives, the dam operator Brookfield Renewable Energy is required to provide releases most Saturdays during the summer; water levels permitting. Specified flows vary from 500 to 750 cubic feet per second (CFS), higher levels being more difficult.
My Canada Falls escapades began nearly 30 years ago and the thrills and spills continue to the present. In 2016, I organized a Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society trip on Canada Falls that I subsequently christened “A Day at the Beach.” What does one do at the beach? Swim! A large group had joined me, eighteen to be exact, and the water level was unexpectedly high resulting in a considerable amount of what paddlers call “river carnage.” Multiple swims occurred at each of the most hazardous rapids; Slide Falls, Cabin Rapid, Upper Split Decision, and Lower Split Decision. An almost river wide keeper hole at the bottom of Cabin Rapid recirculated two paddlers for what seemed an eternity before they were thankfully flushed out still breathing but exhausted.
Recently, two paddling friends announced a Canada Falls trip. Recalling “A Day at the Beach,” I verified the discharge would be 600 CFS, a medium level. Eight kayakers and a canoeist constituted our group.
Getting to Canada Falls is an ambitious undertaking. A four hour drive from central Maine, the last portion is on rough logging roads to the takeout near Pittston Farm, a historic logging community. From there, one must travel on North Maine Woods controlled lands to a launch site below Canada Falls Dam. Gaining access through the gated entrance is tediously slow requiring completion of paperwork and payment of fees. Good news, old people get in free!
The first few rapids were routinely stimulating but pushier than anticipated. I suspected the water level was higher than 600 CFS. Arriving at imposing Slide Falls, an explosive wave and undulating boil menacingly awaited at the bottom. The falls usually randomly select a couple of victims for a bumpy upside down shallow water experience in the run out. Some misadventures were encountered but no carnage.
Cabin Rapid was the next difficult falls on the agenda. The complex descent requires maneuvering to a wearisome micro eddy on river right followed by an awkward ferry above the intimidating keeper hole to river left. I botched the ferry. Only an infrequent geriatric adrenaline rush avoided calamity.
The remainder of the expedition is a continuum of steep, technical falls with few opportunities to regroup. Everyone had successful plummets down Upper Split Decision. Rarely does an excursion on Canada Falls end without someone involuntarily leaving their boat. Good fortune ended on Lower Split Decision. Guardedly approaching a horizon line adjacent to a boulder pile, one kayaker accidentally tumbled into an unforgiving hole next to an immutable rock wall. After several herculean but abortive attempts to roll, he departed his boat bounding over shallow ledges downstream. Remaining members of our group were able to affect a difficult rescue of kayaker, paddle and craft. Fortuitously, nothing was damaged but his pride.
After completing the exciting voyage, we were able to verify the actual flow was almost 750 CFS instead of the 600 scheduled. While this may not seem significant to the uninitiated, safety is an important reason for the precise negotiated levels. I have driven to Canada Falls for a scheduled 500 release and found none despite plentiful water. On “A Day at the Beach,” 600 CFS was promised but a formidable 1200 delivered. No advance notice was provided regarding any of those changes even though a communication mechanism is readily available. Their inexplicable behavior begs the question, who is making the decisions at Brookfield Renewable Energy and why?
Will I paddle Canada Falls again? Probably! “Never gonna grow up.”
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