Friday, March 28, 2014

The Day I Learned How to Surf in a Waterfall

I'm over winter.  I have no problem with cold, and snow is well and good, but now we've just got crusty blackened thrice-melted-and-refrozen ice-snow that is nothing but treacherous.  I miss running on terrain that isn't salty street and sidewalk.  Even the track is still buried!  Also, days of endless sunlight are the best (one reason why Antarctica was awesome!!) and it's about time for the doom and gloom of midwinter darkness to succumb to the lengthening hours of daylight.

Perhaps some time spent focused on happy summer adventures will strengthen spring's arrival!  Brain, it's time to relive last summer's whitewater rafting adventure on the Penobscot with Three Rivers, the Home of Serious Fun.

(Sidebar: Technically, this adventure was supposed to be whitewater rafting AND skydiving in one action-packed weekend.  But reality kicked in and the weather decided to nix the skydiving portion of the trip.  Jump and Raft therefore turned into just raft.)

Considering the myriad ways I've traveled on water, it's a bit odd that my first legit whitewater experience was just last summer.  I've kayaked in Norway, canoed in Virginia, taken an overnight ferry in Italy, jet skied in Maryland, and even rafted down a river in Russia for a week, but there weren't any rapids involved.  This time it was serious whitewater in Maine -- I even had to wear a helmet!

Rafting day dawned grey and chilly, so I rented a wetsuit jacket to stay warm.  That plus helmet, life vest, paddleboard shorts, and my retirement-ready Merrells and I was all set!  I was a bit worried about staying warm (nothing kills fun faster than being cold), but I was strangely not the least bit nervous about the actual whitewater piece.  Methinks my fear meter needs to be tweaked.

About 30 excited rafters piled into school buses which transported us through the Maine woods near Baxter State Park to the put-in point at McKay Station, a power plant on the Penobscot River.  We divided into four rafts, each with a guide.  And then we hit the water.  Talk about out of the frying pan into the fire!  We just had time to make sure everyone was seated and clutching a paddle and suddenly we were tossing through the first major set of rapids, appropriately named Exterminator!  It was rough enough to dislodge one person from his seat (he did stay in the boat) and give us all our first dousing!  Welcome to the Penobscot River!

First two minutes on the river: Exterminator

The Nob, as it is affectionately called by locals, is fantastic rafting!  The river's name means "Place of the Descending Rocks," which is appropriate given the numbers of rapids and waterfalls we traversed over the course of the trip!  After that initial adrenaline rush through the gorge, the river widened out a bit and sent us through some Class IIIs and smooth areas and under a bridge into possibly the most dangerous set of rapids on the river (only if you fall out of the boat).  Cribworks is a Class V that starts with a hole that you want to miss, then a wave that chucks you into the first chute, then two large waves that you have to navigate while not smashing into the gorge walls on the one side or Guardian Rock on the other, and then another chute.  Our guide navigated us PERFECTLY through the entire thing and it was so exhilarating!  A rollercoaster on water!

About to enter Cribworks

After Cribworks, the river was fairly tame through some Class IIIs like Little Ambejackmockamus and Big Ambejackmockamus (Big "A"), where we took a pause to do some surfing.  The guide asked if we wanted to surf.  I asked what exactly that meant.  She basically began to cackle diabolically along with everyone else in the boat.  Gotta love being the newbie.  As I learned shortly thereafter, surfing is when you paddle nose-first into a rapid or a falls which then sucks the nose of the raft underneath and holds it there, so all you have to do is hang on for dear life while the guide uses their paddle as a rudder to keep the raft pointing in the right direction.  It is quite similar to trying to sit a bucking horse, because you are thrown all over the place as the raft moves with the ever-changing water pressure.  This was the first surfing break we took on the river, and it was small enough that someone could kneel in the front of the raft and experience getting completely engulfed when the nose of the raft goes under.  See photos.

First-hand view of being in the front while surfing
Back-seat view of the poor person in the front (orange vest) while surfing
When we got tired of that and everyone had taken a turn in the front to get flushed, we paddled on to our lunch break, which was a delicious barbecue of chicken and veggies and rice and homemade chocolate chip cookies.  Not only can they paddle, Three Rivers guides can cook!

And then, back to the river for the most exciting part of the trip: Newsowadnahunk Falls.  We had a bit of quiet paddling and some smaller rapids first to us digest, and then the real fun started.  First, we went over the falls.  Our raft survived in one piece, although the river decided mid-falls that a few of us (read: me) should have a new seat in the raft.  I started in the very back on the right and ended up somewhere in the front and the middle.  We were lucky; one of the other rafts flipped over completely on the way over the falls.  That was the first of our many rescue operations! 

Over she goes!  Time to paddle to the rescue.
After the initial rush of going over the falls, our flotilla of rafts spent about two hours taking turns surfing in the falls.  It was chaos.  People were getting thrown out of the rafts left and right, and the rafts waiting in line would paddle around retrieving them from the water.  I never experienced it first hand, but apparently going overboard at Newsowadnahunk is terrifying because its a very powerful point in the river and you get sucked down quite deep before the river throws you back up to the surface.  But our guide reassured us, you WILL come back up.  The trick is to minimize your panic while you're waiting for that to happen.  Also in an unusual turn of events, there was one point when a surfing raft got stuck.  They hit the spot so perfectly, they couldn't get out.  We finally had to paddle up to them and grab the ropes and pull them backwards.  They were wiped out after five minutes of hanging on for dear life while their boat bucked like a rodeo champ!
When we were all thoroughly exhausted and soaked, it was time to continue down the river.  Fortunately mile nine was flat and smooth and we could just relax while the rafts drifted along.  The sun finally decided to come out, which made the whole place even more beautiful with bright blue skies.  We passed some really cool cabins (or camps, as they're called in Maine) that are vacation homes, and they're usually completely off the grid.  One was perched right on the river with pylons holding it up over the water.  Amazing.
Abol Falls ... and the sun finally came out!

About a half mile past Abol Bridge, we went through Big Abol Falls and then into our last Class IV rapid, Big Pockwockamus Falls.  Absolutely no comparison to Newsowadnahunk, but still very fun!  And there's a deep hole next to one of the large boulders that provides a perfect surfing spot, provided you don't dump your raft straight into the hole.  As the raft tilts while you're perched on the edge of that crater, it really looks like a ten foot drop before you hit the water.  Fortunately no one fell out and the raft didn't tip in, so we weren't able to verify.

When we finally made it to the pull-out point, some ten miles downriver from the power plant, all of us were exhausted.  I feel like there overall isn't that much paddling involved, but the times we did have to put the paddles in were when we were fighting our way through really rough water, so it took a lot of energy.  But the most exhausting part is hanging on to the ropes when you're surfing and going through the rapids!  I was glad I wore such small shoes, because I was able to wedge my foot all the way under the buoy in front of my seat and use my legs more than my arms to keep myself in the raft.

The Penobscot was a great introduction to the crazy world of whitewater rafting.  The Three River guides were fantastic, and the river is phenomenal.  By the end of a day on the river, you will have hilarious stories, ridiculous photos and videos, and all you'll want is a burger, a beer, and a sleeping bag!

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