For a small enthusiastic contingent of Mainers, paddling coastal rivers and streams is a clear indication spring has arrived. Each March and April, as snow and ice melts and rain showers replace wintry storms, they stow away skis and snowshoes and retrieve their paddles from hibernation.
Many of us older river rats have been replicating the treasured tradition for decades. I began my whitewater journey on the upper St. George River in Searsmont in March 1977. In the years since, friends and I have returned to the St. George, Sheepscot River in Alna, Souadabscook Stream in Hampden and Ducktrap River in Lincolnville every spring.
Explaining the attraction isn’t simple. The water is frigid, air temperatures usually cold, ice frequently an obstacle and hazards common. Certainly, the sense of renewal implicit in the season is a factor. Undoubtedly, the challenges are part of the allure. However, I believe an abiding love for the sport is the primary influence.
Regardless, my outdoor club, the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society, schedules a wide assortment of spring paddling every year.
This spring, the first scheduled trip was predictably on the St. George in late March and I was the leader. Four intrepid paddlers turned out, including two old-timers who collectively had scores of paddling days on the George. In fact, the trip was appropriately designated the Skip Pendleton Memorial Trip to honor one of our older members who passed away four years ago. We’ve had a trip in his honor every year for the past four years, though they aren’t planned enough to be called annual. Remarkably, Skip started whitewater paddling in his seventies and the St. George was his favorite river.
A lot has changed since my initial excursion on the St. George. Back then, most paddlers were navigating long tripping canoes with inflated truck tire inner tubes for flotation. Attire often consisted of wool underwear, jeans, sweaters and old sneakers. Now, most of us wear dry suits, helmets, and neoprene booties. On our recent trip, two of us were in kayaks while the other two paddled short solo canoes packed tight with airbags. We’re warmer and safer now, but I’d rather be young again.
After leaving our vehicles near a bridge on Route 105 in Appleton, our expedition began in the village of Searsmont. Following a safety discussion, we launched in a pool above the bridge on Route 173. As we negotiated flat water for the first segment of the five mile voyage, anecdotes about rivers past dominated the conversation. Rounding a bend, the first whitewater was engaged; a long rapid ending near Ghent Road Bridge. No problems were encountered with the twisting route that finishes with an attention getting pitch. Continuous whitewater ensued for about a mile followed by a strong current to a more difficult descent, Magog Chute. Everyone successfully maneuvered the steep decline and the day culminated with a pleasant paddle through a scenic pasture to the takeout.
A few days later, two of us explored another springtime paddling imperative, Ducktrap River in Lincolnville. Launching from Tanglewood Campground, we immediately confronted three sections of debris in the flat water; two needed to be carried. Then the fun began. A series of challenging ledge drops led to a must-catch micro eddy above a Class IV falls, Twitchell Pitch. After setting up safety, we both had successful plunges. The remainder of the trip to the sea consisted of about two miles of stimulating rapids with multiple surfing opportunities.
The next day, 13 lucky boaters met at Souadabscook Stream in Hampden. An otherwise obscure tributary, the Sou is a very popular Class II, III and IV whitewater outing. Like the St. George, it’s usually one of the earliest to thaw. On a warm spring day, the water was still frigid.
Cascading through Boy Scout Rapid and Emerson Mill Falls, surfing Great Expectations Rapid, and navigating complex Crawford Falls, we exhaustively embraced the benefits of the Sou.
After one canoeist flipped and swam in a short descent, fellow paddlers quickly assisted him back into his boat. A kayaker executed an icy roll in Papermill Rapid, avoiding an unpleasant swim. Daunting Great Falls necessitated a decision: portage or paddle. Three successfully paddled while the remainder carried. During some exhilarating surfing at Snowmobile Bridge Rapid, a kayaker missed three roll attempts before suffering a short swim. Several participants launched an immediate rescue of the boat and paddler. Two remaining sectors of whitewater concluded an exceptional day on the river.
Three invigorating days of spring paddling completed, Sheepscot remained. It wouldn’t be spring without it.