Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Down A Small River In A Very Small Boat


Souadabscook Stream – or simply The Soo, as it is known by some – flows down out of the hills and ponds west of Bangor and empties into the Penobscot River in Hampden, less than twenty miles from where the river widens into Penobscot Bay. In spring, snowmelt swells The Soo with enough water to make it navigable in a small boat, and enough current to turn it into a quick, bumpy ride that descends rapidly over a series of drops as the water rushes toward the Penobscot. I had wanted to try this sort of paddling for a long time, so when my friends invited me to join them on a run down the stream, I instructed my secretary to clear my schedule for the day.

The invitation had included a sunrise foray into Sullivan Falls, which is where Nate had met-up with Chris and Justin, but I figured my first whitewater run would be enough for one day, so I met them at the Irving Station in Hampden, where they were fueling-up on a convenience store breakfast. They said that Sullivan had been particularly big, and cold.

We caravanned up to the take-out, where we scouted Great Falls – the final and biggest drop on the run - from the road. It looked and sounded pretty big to me, what Chris said passes (in the Midcoast area) as a Class 4 drop… not that this information meant anything to me. We left two vehicles there and crammed into Nate’s truck to get to the put-in. 

Fortunately, there’s a lot about padding a whitewater boat that crosses-over with sea kayaking. We wear a lot of the same gear, and the boat handling skills are similar. Chris leant me one of his fleet of Jackson boats, as well as a short, wide-bladed paddle with a 45-degree feather. The sprayskirt was so tight I couldn’t get it on by myself, so my first impressions were of much less control and confidence than I normally have in a kayak (not a bad thing to experience, since I’m usually guiding and teaching others with a similar feeling). But I got onto the water and played around a small wave, getting a feel for it, planting the blade close to the boat to avoid bobbing back and forth too much, experimenting with basic maneuvers. And we headed downstream.

When you watch people in whitewater boats bobbing down a series of drops, going with the flow, it can be difficult to tell how much of it is their maneuvering the boat, and how much they are just drifting along, getting pulled by the current. My guess is that some paddlers – the best ones – do plenty of maneuvering, while others could almost be passively riding in an inner tube. Most paddlers are probably somewhere in between, but they could all be going down the same river with the same end result – getting from the put-in to the take-out, hopefully in one piece.

We descended a series of drops – small waterfalls – and I got a feel for the boat, sometimes going back to surf on a wave and just to get comfortable, going back and forth in the current. The skill might come into play above the drop, getting yourself into position so that you’ll hit it at the right angle and get pulled into the desired flow. Beyond that, for me anyway, it was then more a matter of hanging-on, getting ready to brace, and continuing to propel myself forward to avoid getting pulled back into the holes that reside beneath some of these drops. It felt good to hit it right, to get buoyed along and feel the boat drop beneath you and the slap of cold fresh water on the face, and then to turn sharply into the eddy where the others were waiting and cheering me on, often looking at me curiously, wondering how it felt to me, if I was hooked. Yes, I was hooked.

We came, finally, to Great Falls, which we’d scouted from the road. Great Falls is more of a proper waterfall, not quite vertical, but steep, descending down a stair-like series of drops, only the middle stair is maybe 6 or 8 feet tall with a curving rooster tail of a wave at the bottom. The roar of the falling water gives you a sense of its power, and you know that if you screw-up here, you might get stuck down there in that hole. The other guys talked about what line to take, but I knew right away that mine was to stand to the side and take pictures while they did it. I’d felt good about everything so far, but I knew I didn’t have the moves to do this properly. One could certainly float right over it and get lucky- in the way a novice skier might get to the bottom of a steep run, but I’d like to have a little confidence in my abilities rather than in my luck.

The others made it look easy. They approached, found the right spot with the right angle and bounced right down it. I dragged my boat through the woods and joined them at the bottom. The take out lay just around the next bend.

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