What a Ride!

Rafting the Kennebec and the Dead River
By Christina Tree, with special thanks to Raft Maine
  |  Gorp.com
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Big water on the Dead River
Big water on the Dead River

"It's like 150 big mad bull moose pushing you downstream," cried river guide Jim Yearwood, describing what 5,500 cubic feet per second of water spewing from a dam feels like to a rafter.

Roars of approval greeted this comparison. A school bus-full of rafters waving paddles and helmets was obviously ready to hit the Big Water, one of only seven releases per year on the Dead River. When that pent-up water is let loose, many say the result is the longest stretch of whitewater in the eastern United States.

As for me, I would have jumped bus at this point if I hadn't rafted the Kennebec the day before. The rush of water, I was assured, had been as hard, the waves as high, the drops even deeper. And it had been undeniably exhilarating rather than scary, even for a middle-aged, lightweight wimp such as me.

Luckily, yesterday had been a Friday. Instead of this Saturday crowd, my bus had held less than a dozen rafters plus a half-dozen staff, just enough to fill two eight-person rafts. Instead of thrill-hungry jocks, my first raftmates had been a 74-year-old grandfather and his three grandsons, including a slight, freckled 12-year-old.

The difference in the number and nature of rafters is the difference between weekdays and weekends; I'm told; that difference holds all summer. It also says something about how the appeal of whitewater rafting has broadened over the sport's 23-year history in Maine.

"The first people who went rafting drank until they dropped and were happy enough to sleep under their cars," Wende Gray of The Raft Maine Association says. "Today, Mr. and Mrs. Average American are rafting."

This season, 16 outfitters are offering river trips from base camps in and around The Forks, a clutch of wooden buildings at the confluence of the Dead River and the East Branch of the Kennebec. Lodging runs from campsites to condo-style "logdominiums."

Moose Crossing
The Forks is halfway between Portland and Quebec City and a couple miles north of the Appalachian Trail. The Forks Hotel is long gone, and the lumber trucks barreling along Route 201 barely slow here for the flashing "Moose Crossing" sign. Their only reason to stop these days is Berry's General Store, noteworthy for stuffed samples of local game, camp supplies, and art (we were taken with the clock mounted in a flower design painted on a moose rack).

The trucks have, of course, replaced the log drive, which, on this stretch of the Kennebec River, persisted longer than anywhere else in North America. Until 1976, the Kennebec Log Driving Company was moving 300,000 cords of wood a year from the woods to mills well below The Forks. In the process, it was carpeting the river with logs, turning Wyman Lake (the lakewide reach of the Kennebec above Wyman Dam) into a pulpwood warehouse for much of the year.

A young biologist named Howard Trotsky is credited with finally stopping the log drive. Trotsky dared to sue the logging powers-that-be, citing the 1835 legislative act that authorized log drives in the first place but precluded the logging industry's monopoly of "public highways" like the Kennebec River. Trotsky's suit triggered a series of federal suits and the ultimate termination of the drive in 1976.

It was pure coincidence that Wayne Hockmeyer discovered the whitewater possibilities of Kennebec Gorge that same year. Logs were, in fact, still hurtling treacherously through the rapids on the May day that the Rockwood-based fishing guide first tried riding a rubber raft down the 12-mile gorge.

Hockmeyer had been looking for a new fishing hole when he happened on the isolated gorge and sensed its appeal. Rafting was already big on the Colorado River and in West Virginia. Hockmeyer secured a raft and talked eight bear hunters from New Jersey into coming along for the ride—in a driving rainstorm.

What a ride! Below Central Maine Power's Harris Hydroelecrtic Station, they found themselves shooting water releases that we now know can gush up to 8,000 cubic feet per second. Hockmeyer had seen "River of No Return" and so positioned himself at the back of the raft the way Robert Mitchum does in the movie in which he steers Marilyn Monroe down the Salmon River.

Few men would have set foot on that river again after that ride, but Hockmeyer knew he was on to a good thing, especially when log drives were outlawed later that year. He bought a secondhand cattle truck and herded clients to the put-in spot just below Harris Dam. In 1977, his company rafted upward of 600 clients through the gorge. Word of the wildest rafting ride in the country quickly spread, and soon competitors were vying for time on the Kennebec. Within a half-dozen years, the State of Maine had to intervene, setting quotas on the number of rafts permitted per day on the Penobscot and Dead rivers as well as the Kennebec. Last year saw some 50,000 rafters on the Kennebec, 22,000 on the Penobscot, and 7,500 on the Dead.

Obviously part of the appeal of rafting the Kennebec is the dependability of the flow. Every day from May through mid-October, CMP's Harris Station releases water at the rate of 4,800-6,000 cubic feet per second, guaranteeing wild water and a depth of at least 6 feet for anywhere from 2 to 12 hours.

The releases tend to be longer in spring when water is higher. The waterfalls dropping over the walls of the gorge are also more plentiful and impressive than later in the summer. Even the legendary drop of the river at Magic Falls, I'm told, is shallower.

Still, it seemed plenty steep. Our raft reared like a startled stallion, plunged down in a shower of spume, bucked high in the air again and landed, miraculously, in manageable rapids, its formerly lily-livered crew pummeled to true grit.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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