Knowing what I know now, I would have made different decisions… I may be an expert hiker, but when it comes to kayaking I’m still a novice and I know it. There’s absolutely no way that I would have knowingly chosen to kayak through class IV (advanced) rapids in my origami kayak (Oru Kayak), never mind doing it alone, and without a spray skirt!! No way! So how is it that I ended up in way over my head on the West Branch of the Penobscot River, swimming through Big Ambejackmockamus Falls?
Setting the Stage:
“What’s your plan for today?” asked the woman sitting across from me at the picnic table. She and her family had invited me to share their campsite late last night after seeing me wander around the campground hoping to find a non-existent empty spot. This morning when her family invited me to join them for breakfast, I’d found their kindness and generosity (not to mention the smell of bacon) irresistible.
- Abol Pines Campground: Rustic state-run campground located on the southeast side of the Penobscot River, on the Appalachian Trail. Its five walk-in sites (2 leantos & 3 tentsites) are available on a first-come first-serve basis. Maximum occupancy is 10 people per site, the fee is $8 per person per night (non-resident), and the amenities include picnic tables, fire pits, one privy.
- Abol Bridge Campground: Private Campground and store located on the northeast side of the Penobscot River on the Appalachian Trail. It takes reservations and has 36 drive-in campsites, 12 rustic cabins, and running water! (I believe campsites were $14 per person per night)
“I don’t know, I’ll probably just lounge around all day,” I replied stifling a yawn as I watched her four boys romp gleefully around the campsite. As the youngest (~2 yrs old) dodged towards the river, it occurred to me that my kayak was in the trunk of my car… The Penobscot River, which was right there in front of me, looked like it had a really strong current (actually ~2300 cubic feet per second, cfs)… Much stronger than the currents in the rivers I was used to (100-300,cfs), but a relaxing paddle on a nearby lake could be nice, so I added, “Maybe I’ll take my kayak to one of the lakes around here later.”
Sitting still has never been my strong suit, so as the morning warmed up and it became apparent that my new friends were going to stick around the campsite for a bit, I asked them if they’d be willing to keep on eye on me while I took my kayak out for a quick spin on the swiftly moving Penobscot River… They heartily agreed, and Gabe, their nine-year-old son, offered to help me carry my stuff over to the small launch point at Abol Bridge.
“Is that really a kayak?” Gabe asked as I pulled my folded up Oru Kayak out of my trunk. “Yes,” I replied smiling, “It’s a folding kayak.” He looked at the box I claimed would open up into a kayak with skepticism as I handed him my paddle… Finally he shrugged, clearly tired of trying to imagine how that box could possibly be a kayak, and said, “If you say so…” and walked off, heading towards the river.
The launch point at Abol Bridge Campground is one of the most beautiful spots that you can drive to… it’s a small sandy riverside beach with a gorgeous view of Mt. Katahdin towering behind it. As I unfolded my Kayak and explained to Gabe how it went together I couldn’t help but sneak occasional glances at Maine’s most majestic mountain… They were predicting thunderstorms that afternoon, so I was going to wait for a different day to climb Katahdin, but the mountains were the real reason I was there.
“Wow, that’s a good looking kayak,” Gabe finally admitted as I cinched up the last few straps of the kayak and installed the seat… “Thanks,” I said, dropping it into the water. “Do you want to wait until I get in and launch it, or do you want to head back to the campsite now?”
“I’ll wait,” he said grinning ear-to-ear, “that way I can race you!”
I laughed, “You’re on! Just be careful crossing the road! Make sure you stop and look both ways first!!” He nodded seriously, as I climbed into my kayak, and pushed into the water… “See you there!” he yelled, his feet already moving as bolted off. The race was on!
I carefully steered my kayak out of the still-water at the launch and into the current… I’d kayaked in water like this before, but not in my Oru Kayak… Could it handle it? Yes! The handling with great… The current was fast, the water was a bit turbulent, but it was well within my comfort zone… It felt a lot like kayaking in Boston harbor. I could just relax and enjoy the scenery.
As I looked around, I spotted Gabe dashing through the woods trying to beat me to the campsite. He was going to win.
“Ha! I beat you!” exclaimed Gabe triumphantly and at least a little bit out of breath, as I pulled my kayak up along the riverbank at the campsite. “Can we help?” he asked as he led his brothers tripping down the steep bank to the kayak. “Sure,” I replied, assigning each boy a task… Though I could have done it alone, their help made the whole process a lot more fun. Before long we paraded into the campsite full of smiles.
A Decision Is Made…
“We’re going to head out and go swimming pretty soon, but we could give you a ride upriver so that you could just paddle back downstream to the campsite if you’re interested…” It was a generous offer and I was tempted, but I was also a bit hesitant. “Do you know what the river is like up above?” I asked. “I’m ok paddling on water like this,” I continued, pointing back up towards the bridge, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable on anything much rougher…”
“Well, there are some big rapids up at Cribworks. That’s where the whitewater rafters go to play, but we can drop you off down below that, where the canoes usually put it… it’s mostly still water from there… except for Horserace, which is a class II.”
- cribwork: “an open construction of beams, at the face of an embankment, the alternate layers of which project to provide lateral stability, prevent erosion, and resist thrust or overturning.”
- class II (novice): “straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels which are evident without scouting. Occasional maneuvering may be required, but rocks and medium-sized waves are easily missed by trained paddlers. Swimmers are seldom injured and group assistance, while helpful, is seldom needed.”
That sounded pretty good, but before agreeing to it, I took a minute to think about my experience, skill level, and comfort level, “As long as none of it more than a class II, I should be fine,” I replied. “I have a map, can you show me where you’re thinking about dropping me off?”
“Sure, we can drop you off at Big Eddy, it’s just a couple of miles up and mostly Class II’s from there,” they suggested as I spread my map out on the picnic table. “Well, it’s over here, just off the edge of the map,” the dad said, his finger trailing onto the wood of the picnic table. “It’s about a 10 minute drive from here,” he continued, looking up at me, “and the road follows alongside the river the whole time.” I felt uncomfortable not being able to at least see the route on the map, but with the road running alongside the river I figured it would be ok… “Besides,” I thought, “I’m not proud, if I run into anything I’m uncomfortable with I can always get out of the river, fold up my kayak, and walk the rest of the way back!”
- hamartia: “a fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero or heroine.” –google dictionary
After some more discussion, I accepted their offer, we loaded the kayak into their van, they prayed for me, and we were off. As we drove along the river there were some sections that were obscured by trees, but as promised the road seemed to wind along the river and the river looked pretty calm, there were occasional riffles here and there, but it didn’t look too bad… I still had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into…
Big Eddy’s Nuisance Bald Eagle
As I prepared to launch my kayak at Big Eddy, I was struck by how picturesque the river was… The white-capped rapids tapered off above me, two fly fishermen stood knee-deep in the water rhythmically casting their lines, and the Maine woods extended from the far bank of the river endlessly into the horizon… It was a great day to be outside!
“Woah! Is that a…” I asked, the fly fisherwoman beside me, my voice sticking in my throat as the giant bird dove at us… “BALD EAGLE?” I finished, able to speak again as it swooped away, sticking it’s bright white tail in my face. I continued staring at it as it perched in a nearby tree, it’s eyes seemingly trained on us.
“Yes,” the fisherwoman replied with exasperation. “The damn thing’s a nuisance bird,” she continued vehemently. “It hangs out here trying to steal our fish. Just watch!” she exclaimed pointing to the other guy’s fishing line… As soon as he started pulling the line out of the water the bald eagle dove towards it, “If he’d had a fish that eagle would have taken it right off of the line!”
“Wow!” It was incredible, I’ve seen a lot of bald eagles over the years, but I’d never had one fly this close to me, never-mind having it do so repeatedly… I’d also never heard of a nuisance bald eagle, but like a nuisance bear, it seems to have associated humans and that particular location with food… I thought about taking my camera out to get some pictures of it, but I was anxious to get moving… I didn’t want to be on the river that afternoon when the predicted thunderstorms cropped up.
As I paddled away from the bald eagle at Big Eddy, I had a smile on my face and a heart filled with happiness… The water was fast, but as I paddled down the river I was at peace… My eyes, my ears, my lungs, my body, and my thoughts were all full of the here and now, full of the river and the woods, full of the outdoors… I was exactly where I was supposed to be, and I rejoiced in it!