May 22, 2024
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The Kennebec River Gorge: A Tale of Maine Whitewater Rafting

The winter is a time for reflection on the outdoors. True, there are those who enjoy outdoor pursuits such as skiing, snow surfing and skating, but the majority of people I know prefer to escape the chilly, often slippery, weather, tired at the end of the commuter day, trudging through slush to get about their daily chores. Once indoors, however, in the confines of home, most people’s thoughts turn to other, warmer seasons, and you’ll discover these less adventurous souls contemplating outdoor activities that rival, if not exceed, the rigors of the winter enthusiasts.

Jake Rabinowitz was huddled one winter evening in his favorite recliner, nursing a cup of hot cocoa, when he was reminded of a somewhat dangerous outdoor activity he had engaged in some years before, one not readily associated with a landlubber like Jake; I refer to whitewater rafting.

It was summertime and Jake and his wife had decided on a somewhat unique vacation on which they would bring their teenage son Avery, and his classmate and lifelong friend David. The stated object of the trip was to visit in a week every state capital of New England, ending with a trek up to Montreal, Canada, where they would spend the Sabbath and catch a Sunday afternoon baseball game between the Montreal Expos and the family-favorite Atlanta Braves before returning home to New Jersey.

Jake carefully designed the trip to allow enough opportunity to freelance; he was warned by his wife, Beverly, not to “overschedule.” So on the first day when they passed through Hartford (objective #1) and continued on to Boston (objective #2), they found themselves at noontime in the Massachusetts capital with some time on their hands. Most significantly, a large mass of people surrounded their car and the boys instantly recognized the outline of Fenway Park just two blocks ahead. Jake realized they had stumbled onto a pregame baseball crowd about to attend a Boston Red Sox-Detroit Tigers match at venerable Fenway Park. The travelers couldn’t resist, spontaneously following the traffic into a parking lot, and purchasing excellent seats behind home plate. The game was capped by an announcement that all children teenaged and younger could come onto the field and run the bases after the game, which the boys did.

Following the exciting events of the afternoon, the group settled into their hotel room and began to discuss the plans for the next day:

“We’ll be doing a lot of driving tomorrow as we head to Maine,” Jake began. “We’ll be sleeping over in Skowhegan tomorrow night and then, the following morning, we’ll be heading up to Bingham, Maine, along the Kennebec River. There we’ll be starting our whitewater adventure. The put-in location is about 20 miles north of Bingham below a large dam at Indian Pond near Moosehead Lake. The dam releases water to the Kennebec river on a regular basis to generate electrical power for the rest of New England. The force of the water released flowing through the narrow Kennebec River Gorge causes significant rapids below the dam and several rafting companies and many kayakers enjoy navigating those rapids regularly. On the day we’re scheduled, the release is four times the normal flow creating highly challenging Class IV rapids!”

“Are you sure it’s safe?” questioned Beverly.

“Look, I went with the boys down the rapids on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River in Western Montana several years ago and the rapids were pretty easy with a guide. It’s fun, just don’t fall in!”

“I guess I’ll go then and join you mid-way,” Beverly said.

The next day they arrived at their motel in Skowhegan, a small hamlet on Highway 202. The clerk directed them to their comfortable cabin and they bedded down to get some rest before their adventure the next day.

The night passed without event and soon the July sunrise awakened them. Following breakfast and a half hour drive to the base camp in Belmont, the foursome arrived at the Northern Rivers Rafting School. There they registered for their “turbo” float down the Kennebec River and proceeded outside the lodge to the briefing area where they were assigned flotation devices to wear along with protective head gear. Each participant was also assigned a bright-yellow paddle to assist in powering the raft, but, as would soon be apparent, these passenger paddles were more for show than of actual help in steering the raft. There would be four rafts traveling in their flotilla this particular morning and each raft was assigned to a guide who addressed his group individually with a humorous introduction to the required rafting safety rules:

“Rafting is a fun experience,” began Dane, a young, short, but lithe Texan, who would be controlling the raft in which Jake and his group would be sitting. “Just remember to follow all directions I give you promptly!

Jake listened carefully to Dane’s warnings and, after several minutes, his group was ready to proceed. They descended the wide path toward the put-in spot just south of the dam where their raft awaited them. Each member of the Rabinowitz crew grabbed the tow line tied to the raft, lifted the heavy craft and headed the 20 feet to the river. With some difficulty, Jake and his group managed to float the raft, board it and assume their assigned locations.

“Place your fanny on the edge of the raft, not inside the raft!’ reminded Dane as he sat himself in the stern. He deftly controlled the two oars and steered the craft into the main current. They would be traversing roughly 10 rapids over 2 ½ miles through the upper gorge of the Kennebec River that morning and it didn’t take long for the raft to plunge into the first of these, Taster. The current was quick and the crossing waves pummelled the passengers with a cool spray of water, the first of many such drenchings they would receive. The gorge has sheer, narrow walls at this point. The next rapid, Rock Garden, was more challenging, with big waves with some rocks and holes on the river left. The largest waves on the Kennebec (6-8 feet) awaited the Rabinowitz clan at the next rapid. Big Momma (aka Three Sisters) challenged all of Dane’s skill as he negotiated the tricky crosscurrents. Jake was smacked in the face by a huge wave that knocked him off his perch momentarily. He recovered in time to feel the raft hit a patch of more tranquil water. A large osprey could be observed perched in his nest high above the river. He had a perfect seat to view the worst, which was yet to come to Jake at the next rapid, Alleyway.

Before entering Alleyway, the Rabinowitz raft pulled out of the river for a lunch break at a spot where existing passengers could leave the float and new ones board. It was at this point that Beverly was supposed to join Jake and the boys for the remainder of the trip down the gorge. She was nowhere in sight when time came to resume the float. Beverly had obviously changed her mind.

Alleyway can best be described as a long series of waves with much turbulence, similar to the waves and turbulence found in the Grand Canyon. A swim here would result in dangerously floating nearly ¾ of a mile to a spot where you could leave the river safely from shallow water. On this particular day, with the flow at the high turbo rate of 8500 cubic feet per second, what were typically crowns of trees along side the riverbank now appeared to be bushes along the shore creating a particularly difficult navigational situation for rafters. Dane did his best to factor in the high water implications in the Alleyway, but, try as he could, the raft drifted abruptly to the right and came in contact with the shoreline, lifting the right side of the raft momentarily out of the river, while simultaneously dipping the left side of the raft into the river itself, dumping Jake into the chilly waters.

Jake, surprised for a moment, had no opportunity to keep himself aboard; in a desperate move to stay somehow connected to the raft, he swung his left leg under the raft and latched his foot to the rope line there. He also steadied himself to the rope line with his right hand as to keep himself upright. The current was very strong but he was able to keep his head above water and minimize the amount of liquid he was swallowing. The boat had righted itself soon after impact, lightened by Jake’s expulsion.

“Don’t panic, Jake,” Dane shouted. “Are you OK?”

“Help me get out of here!” Jake gargled in reply, urgently.

“I’m going to try to lift you back in by your life vest.”

Dane’s first attempt did not go well as Jake’s body hardly emerged from the rapidly flowing river.

Jake realized that Dane’s task wasn’t going to get any easier as Jake’s body fatigued and his clothing absorbed more and more water. Jake knew he had to do something quickly to help propel his body in the direction Dane was going to pull him. Jake thought of Shamu, the killer whale of Seaworld fame, jumping out of his pool to catch a tasty herring snack, and of dolphin kicks. In a matter of seconds, Dane was ready for his next extraction attempt. Dane steadied the boat as best he could. He grabbed onto Jake’s life vest at the lapels and pulled; at the same instant Jake pressed as hard as he could against the current and thrust himself in Dane’s direction. Jake emerged from the water and, with the help of Dane and others in the boat, was pulled partially over the side of the raft. Jake struggled for air, spitting out water, but extremely happy to be out of his predicament. As Jake later told this story, he spat up goldfish, old shoes and tin cans as he emerged sputtering from the chilly waters; it can now be told that none of that was true.

Following his return to the raft, Jake and his fellow rafters faced several other heavy rapids, but nothing equaled Jake’s adventure of falling overboard at the Alleyway. He was left with some strained ligaments in his knees as a result of struggling to stay close to the raft, but beyond that he was unscathed.

The rest of the trip proceeded with little additional excitement, Concord, Montpelier and Montreal all being visited as planned. The Rabinowitz party did learn the important lesson that it is impossible to successfully grill soy hot dogs: I mean, you can physically grill them, but they taste like cardboard!

Finally, the lengthy Sunday return drive to Teaneck was driven by Beverly, something to do with Jake’s legs hurting him too much.

By Joseph Rotenberg

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