THE FORKS, Maine — It was 40 years ago this past spring when Suzie Hockmeyer’s then-husband, Wayne, launched an unwieldy inflatable raft into the Kennebec River gorge, hoping to locate some great new fishing spots for his sporting clients.
The section below the Harris Station dam at Indian Pond was essentially uncharted territory at the time. Recently freed by provisions of the federal Clean Water Act from its historic role as a corridor for driving logs to market, its nearly vertical walls and turbulent waters rendered it virtually unreachable. Few people had ever ventured into its contorted interior.
The raft that day was a bulky British Leyland assault craft purchased from a military surplus outlet. It was loaded with a crew of overconfident, underprepared bear hunters from a nearby sporting camp. The wild ride they embarked on, paddling and hanging on through some of the biggest, most dramatic white water in the northeastern U.S., marked the genesis of Maine’s rafting industry.
“Back at the beginning,” Suzie Hockmeyer recollected in a recent conversation, “it was like the Wild West around here. No one knew anything about rafting, including us.”
But that’s changed a lot in the intervening years. And Hockmeyer’s vision, persistence and determination has driven much of that change.
Now 65, a grandmother of four and divorced since 2003, Hockmeyer is the co-founder and senior partner of Northern Outdoors, the first and oldest whitewater rafting company in Maine. She is widely credited with helping to expand and develop year-round recreational tourism in the Kennebec Valley. Licensed in the early 1980s as the first female whitewater rafting guide in Maine, she has done much to tame rafting’s renegade reputation and grow its appeal for women and families. She is a respected negotiator for the now tightly regulated rafting industry and an effective convener and consensus builder in a highly competitive business environment.
And, despite contemplating retirement and coping with the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, she still delights in taking groups of adventurers down the wild rapids.
In recognition of her years on the river and her considerable impact on the rafting business, Hockmeyer has earned the informal title “The Queen of the Kennebec,” bestowed affectionately but respectfully by her clients, colleagues and competitors. It’s a title she seems to accept and enjoy.
“Everyone takes her pretty seriously,” said Hockmeyer’s business partner Russell Walters, who has known her since 1983. “She’s very empathetic. She has longevity. There’s nothing in this company or this business that Suzie hasn’t done.”
“[Hockmeyer] is a big part of the social glue that holds it all together,” he said.
Trending back to Maine
Born Suzie Yeaton, Hockmeyer was born and raised in Andover, Massachusetts, but spent summers on her grandfather’s farm in Belgrade, where she learned to love the natural world. She attended Phillips Academy in Andover and then earned a two-year liberal arts degree from Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill.
“I was smart, but I had no interest in school,” she said. “I learn so much more by doing things than by reading about them.”
She moved to Rockwood on Moosehead Lake in 1975 with Wayne, a hunting and fishing guide who grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts and spent childhood summers in the Rumford area. He opened an outfitting business; Suzie kept the books. They were intent on building a family, a community and a life in the outdoors.
At the time, she said, outdoor recreation in Maine primarily consisted of hunting and fishing. Hiking for its own sake was relatively rare. There were plenty of canoes on the lakes and rivers but not a single kayak.
And there certainly was no whitewater rafting.
The bold excursion into the Kennebec gorge changed all that. Exhilarated by the rapids in the gorge and encouraged by established rafting companies in West Virginia, the Hockmeyers printed up some black-and-white brochures, bought a second-hand cattle truck to bring adventurers from Moosehead Lake to Harris Station and started marketing their rafting expeditions at local businesses.
Bars were a pretty good place to sign people up, Suzie Hockmeyer recalled. That first summer, they carried 600 people safely through the Kennebec gorge.
“That first year, it was just us,” she said. “The second year, there were three companies rafting here, and it took off from there.”
This year, 23 rafting companies are licensed and regulated through the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Most are clustered near The Forks, where the more challengingly raftable Dead River flows into the Kennebec. They form the basis of economic activity in this tiny Somerset County community, which has a year-round population of about 30. Other companies, including Northern Outdoors, maintain centers on the Penobscot River near Millinocket. These three rivers — the Kennebec, the Dead and the Penobscot — are the only rivers currently being rafted for whitewater in Maine.
An articulate advocate for a growing industry
Rafting is a complex business, requiring cooperative relationships among competing companies as well as with landowners, commercial dam operators and other recreational users of the waterways.
In order to protect all affected entities and prevent a monopoly, “it’s regulated like a public utility,” according to former state senator Peter Mills, who served in the Maine Senate and House from 1995 to 2010. “You can’t just let everyone out on the river; it would get all jammed up.”
Initially, he said, each rafting company in Maine was licensed for just one year at a time. Licences were retired at the end of the season and reissued the following year according to a complicated and unpredictable system that governed how many days each company could be on the river, how many rafts they could use and other factors.
“It made it so the rafting companies had no certainty from one year to the next,” Mills said. Many were eager to expand their operations and their facilities, but the lack of predictability made it impossible to borrow money.
In the mid-’90s, Mills worked closely with Suzie Hockmeyer and other rafting advocates to understand and address the challenges the industry faced.
“She was always the most articulate person in the room — the one who could clearly explain what the businesses needed to survive,” he said. Whether it was negotiating additional releases of water from the dams, increasing the number of allowable trips per day or establishing a seniority-based schedule for put-in times, he said, Hockmeyer stayed focused and positive in pushing for sensible regulatory changes that would allow the industry to grow. “She was in it for the long haul,” he said.
In addition, Mills said, Hockmeyer sustained an early vision of the role rafting could play in developing year-round, family-friendly tourism in the Kennebec Valley. By expanding into hiking, mountain biking, fishing hunting, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and other outside activities, he said, many rafting companies — including Northern Outdoors — now stay open all year long, bringing essential visitors and their recreational dollars to some of Maine’s most rural areas.
“They used to say that the key to success is to find interesting things for people to do on their second night in Maine, even if it means sharing business with a competitor,” Mills said. “That’s how this small-town industry operates, and Suzie set the tone.”
‘People don’t question Suzie’
All summer long, Northern Outdoors takes thrill-seeking rafters down the Kennebec, Penobscot and Dead rivers — about 9,000 people per year. Many are repeat customers who come back to share the adventure with friends or family members.
On a recent sunny weekday, Suzie Hockmeyer teamed up with rafting guide Emily Yearwood to guide one of six Northern Outdoors boats down the Kennebec gorge. There were several young children in the group, some recent high school graduates and numerous members of a family from Massachusetts returning for their eighth or ninth vacation at Northern Outdoors. The 12-mile trip would take about four hours, including a leisurely lunchtime rest with great food cooked and served by the guides.
Clearly at ease and in her element as the group set out, Hockmeyer strapped on her yellow helmet and green life preserver, grasped her plastic paddle and helped hoist the heavy rubber raft down the long stairway to the foot of the Harris Station dam.
After the boat’s five other paddlers were settled excitedly at their stations along the gunnels, she and Yearwood climbed into their positions in the stern and pushed off into the rising water, toward the bend in the river and the first big rapids of the Kennebec.
The trip leader that day was registered guide Sandy Howard, 41, who teaches music at Keene State College in New Hampshire when she’s not guiding for Northern Outdoors. During the lunch break, Howard said Hockmeyer already had “broken the glass ceiling” for women long before Howard first starting guiding in 1997. While most rafting guides are male, the work also appeals to many women, she said.
Despite rafting’s reputation as a testosterone-fueled world of dare-devilry and machismo, Howard said, she has never felt intimidated or put down by her male trainers, co-workers or clients on the river.
“I think that is largely Suzie’s influence,” she said. “She is a strong woman, mentally and physically. She’s not afraid to speak her mind and remind people that everyone is capable. People don’t question Suzie.”