The faces say it all as Yankee’s Ian Aldrich (lower right) and son Calvin (second from left) tackle Maine’s churning Kennebec River on a trip led by Three Rivers Whitewater.Photo Credit : Three Rivers Whitewater
We were a good 10 miles into our paddle on Maine’s Kennebec River when we decided to abandon ship … sort of. It was really more like departing with abandon. The big rapids were in the rearview mirror, and before us lay a stretch of calm waters that invited a swim. A couple from Portland were the first to leap in, the boyfriend whooping as he plunged underwater repeatedly. That was the only invitation needed for my 11-year-old son, who did his best cannonball, then stretched back in his life jacket to allow the slow currents to float him a good 100 yards from our raft. Now it was my turn.
“What are you waiting for?” my son called out.
It was a fair question. I ran a hand through the water, then looked over at our guide, Will Bastian, who from his perch on the back of the raft gave me a grin and a You’re gonna regret it if you don’t jump in expression. A few seconds later, I was floating toward my son. The water was unexpectedly warm in early September, while around us the first tinges of autumn color had begun to hit the shoreline’s hardwoods. For long stretches it felt as if we had the typically busy Kennebec all to ourselves.
Surprises like that, in fact, framed much of our four-hour trip on the river that morning. We had surfed rapids with names like Big Mama, White Washer, and Taster. We’d stopped at Dead Stream Falls and took turns sitting behind a rushing flow of water. We’d yelled and laughed, even when it felt as if the whitewater might consume us. And we’d lingered on our backs in the lower river, soaking in what was sure to be the last bit of true summerlike weather.
There are other areas of the Northeast where you can go whitewater rafting, but nothing truly compares to what you find in Maine. The sport got its start here after the last log drives in 1976, and in the nearly half century since, it has given rise to one of the elite whitewater rafting centers in the United States. The advantages are clear: Maine boasts more whitewater than the rest of New England and New York combined, and on account of scheduled dam releases, it’s also the only state in the Northeast with guaranteed water flows every day. That means consistent paddling from spring all the way into autumn, when foliage is at its peak.
Much of that fun is based out of The Forks, which sits at the intersection of the Dead and Kennebec rivers. As such, there are seemingly almost as many guides and rafting operators in the region as pine trees. Our outfit was Three Rivers Whitewater, which first started leading trips in 1997 and today boasts a campus that includes a big restaurant and a store, as well as a spread of cabins and tent sites that are within earshot of the rushing Kennebec.
Rafting, of course, is not a passive endeavor. And if you’ve got the right guide it only feels as though you’re riding the edge. In Bastian, a burly Long Islander who found his real home on Maine’s rivers and ski slopes a decade ago, we had the perfect captain. From the moment we put in at the base of Harris Station, the state’s largest hydroelectric dam, we were thrust into the thick of it. Within the first quarter mile we navigated a mix of Class III and IV rapids. As Bastian yelled out directions like “All ahead!” and “Hold on!” any nerves we had quickly dissipated as we dealt with what was right in front of us.
“We’ll get these families who come here, and it’s not an easy place to get to,” Bastian says afterward. “They’ve probably come some distance, and you can see it in their faces that some of them have really ventured outside their comfort zone. But then they get into it, they get through those first couple of rapids, and they are just beaming. They look and feel like a million bucks.”
That’s certainly how my son and I felt as we floated on the Kennebec on that early September morning. A blue sky hung overhead, and as the currents pushed us forward, we, too, felt part of a river that had powered so many before us.
Professionally guided excursions, many of them led by Registered Maine Guides, offer the best and safest way to explore Maine’s whitewater rafting scene. Here are some time-tested outfitters to try.
Crab Apple Whitewater, The Forks; crabapple whitewater.com
Magic Falls Rafting Co., West Forks; magicfalls.com
Moxie Outdoor Adventures, The Forks; moxierafting.com
New England Outdoor Center, Millinocket; neoc.com
North Country Rivers, Millinocket & Bingham; northcountryrivers.com
Northeast White-water, Shirley Mills; northeastwhitewater.com
Northern Outdoors, Millinocket & The Forks; northernoutdoors.com
Three Rivers Whitewater, The Forks; threeriverswhitewater.com