October 20, 2019
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Whitewater rafting on the West Branch of the Penobscot is one of the wildest things I’ve ever done

“Attitude check!”

“Fired up!”

We shouted above the rapids. Water dripped from our helmets. All around me, grins were plastered to my raft-mate’s faces, their eyes wide with excitement.

Raising our paddles into the air, we tapped the blades together above the center of the raft in a gesture of comradery. We were floating down the West Branch of the Penobscot River, and we were in for a wild ride.

Leading our trip, the experienced rafting guides of the New England Outdoor Center were the embodiment of “fired up.” When they weren’t cracking corny jokes, they were bellowing out orders to their crews.

“Back left, forward right! Stop! Get down!”

Most of the people in my raft had little experience with whitewater rafting. So as soon as we hit the water, we were treated to a lesson on lingo and proper paddling techniques. Floating in a calm section of the river above Nesowadnehunk Falls, we paid rapt attention to our guide, Ryan Meader, as he demonstrated how to paddle forward and backward in sync. He also taught us how to safely hunker down in the bottom of the raft, just in case we hit some especially rough whitewater.

Just in case.

“Focus on what your guide’s telling you. Breathe. Don’t sacrifice form for speed. Dig deep,” Meader said. “And always remember: There are no hard feelings, just hard lessons.”

Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Ryan Meader, River Operations Manager for the New England Outdoor Center, talks to a group before setting out on a whitewater trip down the West Branch of the Penobscot River.

In addition to being a rafting guide, Meader is the River Operations Manager at NEOC. He’s the man in charge, and there’s no question about it. He jokes around like all of the other guides, but he also makes sure that everyone knows and follows the rules of the river. He keeps things running smoothly, which is quite a feat considering his naturally tumultuous workplace — some of the gnarliest whitewater in the Northeast.

“Rapids are classed based on gradient, how steep the river is; constriction, how ride the river is at that point; and obstruction, which is things on the bottom causing the water to slow down,” Meader said. “Rapids form when fast-moving water hits slow-moving water. It creates big waves, big holes and all kinds of fun out there.”

Fun. That’s the idea. One important aspect of rafting is remaining positive, and the guides try to encourage this attitude.

For example, everyone’s a little nervous about falling out of the raft in the middle of a set of rapids. To this concern, Meader said, “If you’re in the water and didn’t plan on it, I want you to think this thought: I’m getting my money’s worth.”

At our first big rapid — Nesowadnehunk Falls — that’s exactly what happened. Safely through the rapids, my raft-mates and I turned around to watch the next raft navigate the falls. Seemingly in slow motion, their craft tilted, took on water and flipped. And just like that, everyone got their money’s worth.

Courtesy of New England Outdoor Center
Courtesy of New England Outdoor Center
BDN reporter Aislinn Sarnacki (front left of the raft) paddles through rapids on a whitewater rafting trip with New England Outdoor Center on the West Branch of the Penobscot.

Fortunately, beyond the rapids was a stretch of fairly calm water. There the rafters swam — held afloat by their rugged, rafting-grade PFDs — and regrouped at their overturned raft. In the shallows, they righted the craft and clambered aboard. Some of the rafters were a bit shaken, but no one was injured. And by lunchtime, I noticed that everyone from that raft was smiling and confident, having successfully navigated several additional rapids.

“One team, one dream,” Meader is fond of saying. “That’s how we get after it out there today.”

Working together is key while whitewater rafting.

Joining me in my raft was my husband, Derek, and two other families: one from Maine and the other from New York.

“The first part of the rapids I was really nervous,” said one of my raft-mates, Ryan Allen, 15, of Riverdale, New York. “But it wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be. I thought people would be falling out left and right, but it was very fun.”

Courtesy of New England Outdoor Center
Courtesy of New England Outdoor Center
BDN reporter Aislinn Sarnacki (front left of the raft) paddles through rapids on a whitewater rafting trip with New England Outdoor Center on the West Branch of the Penobscot.

Ryan Allen never fell out of our raft, but he did voluntarily jump into the water for a swim on a quiet stretch of the river. As instructed by the guide, he lifted his feet up away from the riverbed and floated alongside our raft until we pulled him back in.

The young rafter was joined on the trip by his mother, Renee Allen, and his siblings, Sean, 18, and Laura, 16. While Renee Allen had the experience of a 6-day rafting trip in the Grand Canyon under her belt, her children had only been rafting once in Pennsylvania on much smaller rapids.

“We wanted to do something more exciting,” Renee Allen said.

They were not disappointed. For the first half of the day, we navigated through Nesowadnehunk Falls (Class 4), Abol Falls (Class 4), Little Pockwockamus Falls (Class 2) and Big Pockwockamus Falls (Class 4). We also stopped for a hot lunch at a picnic location beside the river and a swim at natural waterslides on a tributary to the river.

Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
A map of the rapids on the West Branch of the Penobscot River is posted at New England Outdoor Center's rafting headquarters, Penobscot Outdoor Center.

The second part of the day was even more intense. Returning to the bus, we drove upriver to explore the famous Ripogenus Gorge. There we plunged into Class 3, 4 and 5 rapids with intimidating names like The Exterminator and Troublemaker Hole.

Then we met the Cribworks, one of the most technical Class 5 rapids east of the Mississippi River. American Whitewater qualifies it as “probably the toughest regularly run rapid in New England.”

Prior to tackling the Cribworks, Meader steered our raft into a calm pool near the river’s edge and laid out the complex set of rapids.

“We come down in between Telos Hole and Telos Rock,” he said, “and then in between the Mess Up holes. Then you hit the marker wave, go past Pillow Rock and Pelican Rock, the Big Pain-in-the-Butt Rock, the Little Pain-in-the-Butt Rock, the Typewriter Wave, the Guardian Rock, the Boulder pile and down the final shoot. And then the current is pushing you directly at a wall of granite called the Wailing Wall.”

My head spun. I was nervous. How could I not be? But I was also “fired up.” After a day on the water, I thought our team was ready for the challenge.

Focus. Breathe. Dig deep. And above all else, listen to your guide.

Courtesy of New England Outdoor Center
Courtesy of New England Outdoor Center
BDN reporter Aislinn Sarnacki (front left of the raft) paddles through rapids on a whitewater rafting trip with New England Outdoor Center on the West Branch of the Penobscot.

Meader shouted about the roaring river, and we followed his commands. The whirlwind ride was over within seconds, but I’ll never forget it — the jostle of the boat, the water in my face and the boulders whizzing by. As we catapulted out of the final shoot, we let out a few celebratory cries. For a split second, I thought it was over, then I saw the wall — the Wailing Wall. We were headed straight for it.

Meader had been shouting for us to paddle, but we hadn’t paddled quite hard enough. Sitting in the front left side of the raft, I was in the exact spot where we’d hit the rock. So at the last moment, I ducked down in the center of the raft.

With surprising force, we bounced off Wailing Wall. Clutching my paddle at the center of the raft, I watched as the rock scraped over where I had been sitting. Close call.

Courtesy of New England Outdoor Center
Courtesy of New England Outdoor Center
BDN reporter Aislinn Sarnacki (front left of the raft) paddles through rapids on a whitewater rafting trip with New England Outdoor Center on the West Branch of the Penobscot. In this photo, you can only see her paddle.

That’s why you sign a waiver before whitewater rafting. It’s fun. It’s exciting. But injuries can happen, just like with any other sport. For this reason, rafting might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I, for one, would do it again.

As we drifted away from the wall, I regained my seat and my composure. The beautiful Penobscot stretched out ahead of us. Proud of our accomplishment, we were all smiles.

“Attitude check?”

“Fired up!”

 



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