Mike McVey remembers his first reaction after learning that a very experienced, very talented group of people who shared his passion for white water paddling had decided to seek newer, bigger water to challenge.
“I always watched the videos on the internet of people hucking themselves off 60-, 80-, 100-foot waterfalls,” the 24-year-old Brewer man recalled. “I was just like, ‘Wow. That’s kind of stupid.”
That was then. This is now: For the past four or five years — after years of practice and mentoring from those who had already been bitten by the big-water bug — McVey has become one of those extreme paddlers, a group that chases rainstorms, spring freshets and other natural weather events, hoping to conquer waterfalls and rapids in well-planned adventures that non-paddlers call … well … stupid.
Those hard-core paddlers prefer to call it “creeking,” or “creek-boating.”
Whatever you choose to call their chosen pastime, rest assured that most of the paddlers who choose to, as McVey says, “huck themselves” off waterfalls, do so only after years of peer-supervised training, and only with intricate safety plans in place.
“[I hear people call us nuts] quite often,” said 34-year-old Jeremy Cass, a creek boater who works as a visiting instructor of adventure therapy at Unity College. “I think that [non-paddlers] say that just because it’s out of their experience.”
Cass said those who aren’t creek boaters are often unaware of the pre-paddle scouting that goes on, or don’t realize that in his group of big-water paddlers, there’s absolutely no shame in eyeballing a waterfall and deciding to simply walk around the raging obstacle.
“We have a saying: ‘Portaging is a celebration of life,’” Cass said.
To understand that ‘celebration of life,’ you’ve first got to understand what creek boaters are looking for. Cass sums up his sport succinctly: It’s whitewater paddling on rivers that run on a “natural flow basis” — and aren’t amped up by dam releases. And they’re very, very steep: somewhere between 300 and 500 feet per mile of elevation drop.
The result: “Big waterfalls, complicated rapids,” Cass said. “And it’s a lot of fun.”
Cass said there aren’t many creek boaters in Maine — perhaps a few dozen — and said that since paddlers are all looking for the same kind of water, they often find each other in the wild spots they all prefer.
“We also have to go to where the water is running, so many times those groups from many different parts of the state end up together on the same rivers because that’s the best river that’s running at that time,” Cass said. “So we all end up together. It becomes pretty tight-knit.”
Another reason for the tight-knit sense of community: All of the paddlers realize the skill level it takes to safely conquer Class V rapids and waterfalls. They want to help others hone skills to get to that point, but consider it a personal responsibility to step in and politely advise paddlers who aren’t yet experts, but want to try advanced-level drops.
“When I was 24, I really, really got the bug to start running harder creeks, and I showed up at a really popular creek-boating spot called Small’s Falls,” Cass said.
There, he met a professional-level paddler — with the sponsorship credentials to prove it — who might have saved his life.
“[My friends and I] just sat there and stared at these waterfalls with our jaws wide open. We couldn’/t move, pretty much,” Cass said. “[The pro paddler] looked at us and she said, ‘Listen guys, if you’re into creeking, this is not the place to start.’”
Cass took that warning to heart. He didn’t try Small’s Falls that day … and he vowed to develop the necessary skills to do so at some point in the future.
He’s done so, and continued to help mentor others along the way, sometimes convincing newer paddlers to enjoy the “celebration of life” that comes when you step away from a challenge that’s simply beyond your experience level.
Big water. Big fun. Big risk
Cass is determined to spread the gospel of creeking. He and his business partner founded the Send It Whitewater Racing Series. This year they’ll offer creeking clinics for interested paddlers.
But there’s no getting around the fact that creeking, while thrilling, can turn ugly in an instant.
Cass said he’s been remarkably healthy during his time vaulting off waterfalls, including one that was 40 feet tall. Bruises and some bloody knuckles top his injury list.
McVey can’t say the same thing. He’s been recirculated in huge rapids, unable to pop out of his kayak. He has bled. He has been knocked unconscious. And most of those things happened on just a single bad day … and he wasn’t even “officially” creeking because the river’s flow was dam-controlled.
“Just another day of video-boating for a rafting company,” he explained.
He’d down that stretch of the West Branch of the Penobscot River dozens and dozens of time. That day, while trying to get downriver ahead of rafters to videotape their adventure, one missed paddle stroke nearly cost him his life.
“It was Turkey Shoot in the Cribworks [section of the river],” McVey said. “Right at the top of the rapid I messed up, flipped over, and it’s really shallow. As soon as I flipped over, boom. Out. So I floated about 80 percent through a Class V rapid, knocked out, and regained my consciousness right before the last drop.”
When he righted himself, he saw all the blood. It took 38 stitches to sew him back together. And a week later, he was back in his boat, paddling the toughest white water he could find.
“I knew I had to get right back into it,” McVey said.
McVey’s biggest waterfall to date was a monster: Big Niagara, which is on Nesowadnehunk Stream in Baxter State Park.
“That’s 40 to 45 [feet],” he said. “That was just crazy.”
McVey said plenty of things ran through his head at the top of that waterfall.
“You’ve gotta have your nuts and bolts ready, but you don’t want to have any of them loose. I’ll tell you that much,” McVey said. “It is fun, but if things go wrong, they go wrong very quickly.”
Cass said vaulting off a waterfall can go a number of different ways. And landing in the pool below, which paddlers have closely surveyed beforehand, can also differ.
“Depending on what the water’s like, it can be very soft, if the water is very aerated, very bubbly, it can feel like somebody just hit you with a big pillow,” Cass said. “Or if you land incorrectly, or in water that’s very hard — green in color, without many bubbles in it — it can feel almost like a small car accident.”
Back in 2011, Cass and three other paddlers — Chuck Mathieu, Josh Geib and Chris Hull — were the first to paddle the rugged the upper section of Wassataquoik Stream. They planned for six months, hiked for a day to get to the waterfalls they sought, camped out, and paddled the next day.
“We just happened to luck out and it rained all night the first night at our camp,” Cass said. “And we were able to paddle 22 miles to the confluence of the East Branch of the Penobscot with that high water. We ended up running about nine miles that had never been run, Class V white water, with one long portage around a Class VI rapid called Grand Falls.”
Always room for more
Cass bristles a bit at the perception of creek-boaters as “thrill-seekers.”
“Rather than call it ‘thrill-seeking,’ I’ll call it a sense of adventure,” he said. “For me, it’s that exploration of the unknown. Going on an adventure. The key aspect of an adventure is that when you come back, when you get home, you’re usually a better person for it.”
And he said there’s plenty of room for others to take up the sport. With the proper training, and with good mentors, there’s no reason most people couldn’t do what he and his paddling friends do.
To those who might not want their children to follow in his footsteps, Cass has a ready reply.
“I’d say this: ‘Would you rather have your kids going to parties unsupervised, or would you rather have them involved in a positive community event that connects them to nature, challenges them to be the best that they can be, challenges them to use their decision-making skills, and connects them with other young people?” Cass said.
As Cass points out, the pursuit of a particular waterfall isn’t the thing that drives him. It’s water and the woods. Time spent with friends. And sometimes, a walk to celebrate life.
“It’s always a day well spent when you’re on the river, and it does drive me,” Cass said. “The endgame is always to get to the car at the end of the day, with everybody intact, all your equipment, and high-fives all around,” Cass said. “For me, I have a wife. I have friends. And those are always going to take precedence over the risks.”