Part 4 of the story of my ill-advised whitewater kayaking trip down the Penobscot river picks up with me looking like a drowned rat at the base of Big Ambejackmockamus Falls (class IV). The first three parts of the story can be found at:
“Are you ok?” the kayaker on the rocky outcropping above me shouted, noticing me for the first time. I looked up, catching a glimpse of the tip of my kayak churning around in the whirlpool right behind her.
“Yeah,” I’m ok, “but I could use some help.” I had no idea how I was going to safely retrieve my kayak, or whether or not it was even still in one piece… it might just be mangled mess. The kayaker stared at me, unmoving, so I decided to wade from my rock, up to where she was standing. The water was knee-deep, but the current was strong and the rocks were slippery. I slipped once, falling back and bruising my butt (miraculously the only injury I sustained) on my way to her rocky perch.
By the time I joined her, another kayaker had arrived. They both looked at me, confused and said, “You don’t have the right gear for this.”
“No, no I don’t…” I affirmed. I knew that I was still in shock, but was surprised that they seemed to be as well. “I shouldn’t be here… there’s no way that I should be here… I shouldn’t be on anything harder than a class II,” I said while they looked at me silently, still befuddled. “I could use some help getting my kayak and paddle back.”
“Sure,” they said as we watched the kayak and paddle for a minute as they rotated around the pool for the fourth of fifth time. They talked briefly and one of them left, leaving the other to help me. We were only distracted for a minute, but by the time we looked back at the whirlpool the kayak was gone…“Where’d the kayak go,” asked the woman that had stayed… I studied the water, looking for the kayak’s white-tip, amongst the foam… “I don’t know,” I replied with the sinking feeling that it may have finally succumbed to the rapids and was now at the bottom of the river.
“There it is!” she said pointing to a spot about 100 yards downriver. I looked at the paddle, still in the whirlpool, and at the boat downriver… “What should we do?” she asked. I didn’t want to face that waterfall again, or the whirlpool below it, so I said, “Why don’t you go for the paddle, and I’ll go for the boat!”
Horse Race (Class II)
“It’s a nice day for a swim!” I yelled to the raft that as I swam past it. After the insanity of the swimming through class IV rapids, swimming with the current towards my boat was actually quite pleasant.
“You don’t want to swim this, it gets really shallow!” yelled the whitewater rafting guide as I approached. “The other raft has your kayak” he continued as I floated by him, “If you want we can give you a ride down to it!”
“Sure!” It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, besides I could see the ripples of rocks ahead and my goal was still to have the least exciting kayak trip possible (which I’d completely failed at). “Just swim on over to us,” the guide instructed… I tried not to laugh… The raft was at least 20 feet upstream, and I was in the middle of the strongest part of the current… At my strongest and most rested it would have been pretty ridiculous to think that I’d be able to swim upstream towards them… At best I could try to get out of the current, swim towards their side of the river, and maybe slow down… if I was lucky! “You’re going to have to come to me,” I replied.”
Eventually the raft pulled up beside me, “Hop on in!” they instructed… I grabbed the safety rope, which ringed around the outside of the raft, and floundered as I attempted to pull, push, and kick my way over the ginormous lip of the boat… It just wasn’t happening… “I’m gonna need some help!” I exclaimed, tightening the side straps on my life jacket so they could grab it to help pull me in… Even with their help, it took two more tries before I managed to roll up over the side, and into the raft.
“What happened? How did you end up here?” the guide asked as I perched on the edge of the raft. He was also clearly baffled by my presence… “Well, a friend dropped me off upriver. He said I should expect still water with occasional class II’s, but that,” I shook my head, “that wasn’t a class II!”
“Class II?!” chimed in one of the rafters, “These are Class IV’s and V’s, maybe your friend is dyslexic.. He saw the 5 and thought it was a 2?”
“Are you ok?” the guide interrupted. “Well, I’m a little shaken up,” I replied honestly. “But medically speaking,” he pressed, “Are you ok?”
“Yeah,” I said lifting up my arms and looking myself over, “medically speaking, I’m fine.” I was actually surprised that I didn’t see any bruises on my arms and legs after all of that!
“So what happened?” he asked again. “It looks like it must have been pretty epic! When we spotted you, you were already down passed our photographer at Ambejack’s second drop…”
“Well, considering my kayak doesn’t have a skirt and I was only expecting class II’s I did ok, but there’s no way I should have ever ended up there…” I began, and regaled them with my tale of kayaking and then swimming through what I learned was Ambejackmackamus Falls. “You’re photographer probably got some crazy photos of me as I went by!”
“Our photographer didn’t even see you,” the guide replied rather solemnly. “Really?” I was surprised, I’d gone through the falls right in front of her… How could she have missed me?
“When we first saw you we thought you were a bag of trash,” one of the guys at the front of the boat said, joining the conversation. “Yeah,” interjected another, “we were wondering what kind of jerk would throw their trash into the river!”
“Well, I guess I am hiker trash,” I laughed, thinking that it was kind of fitting and realizing I should get brighter and more obviously colored gear…”What DO you have in your backpack?” the guide asked. I’d forgotten that I was even wearing a backpack, but clearly the green and black backpack was what they say and thought was trash. “My camera, a first aid kit, and a towel,” I replied… “Do y’all have any water? I took mine out of my pack before hitting those rapids and now its long gone.”
“No, we don’t, but you can have this beer we found floating in the river,” suggested one of the rafters. “Really?” I asked… Somehow beer wasn’t what I was expecting to be offered. “Yeah, A whole, unopened beer!” a different rafter chimed in, holding up a pristine looking can of PBR… “It’s been in the river though, you probably don’t want to drink it.”
“I’ve swallowed plenty of river water already today, I’m not worried about what might be on the edge of the can!” I laughed, looking at the beer… “Sure, I’ll take it… rafting down a river with a PBR in hand… I might as well embrace my hiker trash roots!”
As we continued floating down the river the barrage of questions continued, “Who dropped you off?”… “A friend”… “What kind of friend would do that? Were they trying to get rid of you?”… “No,” I replied, “but come to think of it, they were hoping to restore my faith in God!” As I reflected on it some more, the morning bible study (psalm 147) my new friends had had around the campfire that morning and the conversation surrounding it was eerily relevant to my day… “What is the lesson that you learned from this morning’s bible study?” the father had asked his son Noah at the end of the lesson. “To be humble,” he had replied. To be humble… My experience on the river that morning had definitely reinforced that lession! Humbling… that was definitely the word of the day!
At the base of the Horserace rapids the raft that I was on finally caught up with the raft that had my kayak. They were all going to skip the Nesowadnehunk Deadwater. It was too calm to be of interest to them, but sounded perfect to me. It was still early in the day, and a nice relaxing paddle along the river still sounded nice. I checked my kayak, it was still river worthy. It had survived the class IV rapids and was still watertight!!!
“What’s the river like between here and Abol Bridge?” I quizzed the 6 rafting guides as they herded their rafters onto buses to skip the boring part of the river. “Well, there’s two miles of this Nesowadnehunk Deadwater, which is an easy paddle, and then there’s Nesowadnehunk Falls, a class IV waterfall with a big drop, but there’s a portage around that. Then, after that there’s maybe half a mile of class II shallows before you get to the Abol Deadwater, which will bring you the last 3 miles down to Abol bridge.”
“All of that sounds good, but I sure as heck don’t want to go anywhere near the falls!” I replied. “How do I know when I’m getting close to it? How do I make absolutely sure that I avoid it? Where exactly is the portage?” I must have sounded like a broken record as I quizzed them over and over and over again about avoiding the falls… They were going to stop for lunch at the other end of the deadwater, and that would be my first clue… the portage would be on the left after that, and it would allow me to carry my kayak around the falls and put in down below in the gentler waters.
“Ok,” I replied when I felt like I had a good mental picture of the river and its major hazard… Since the portage was on the left side of the river, so I figured I would paddle the rest of the way hugging the left shore, and the minute I saw anything that looked like a portage or whitewater I’d be outta the water and onshore faster than you could say, ‘rapid.’
After a gently, uneventful paddle, I got to the end of the deadwater where my new rafting friends were stopped for lunch. I wasn’t in a hurry, and I was still a little nervous about the falls ahead, so I stopped to chat with the river guides again.
“So, can you tell me more about the portage around this next falls?” I asked, still unable to remember or pronounce the names of any of the landmarks along the river. “It’s coming up on the left side of the river. It’ll have a sign for it, just like the last one up at Ambejack.” I gave him a worried looked… “Uh-oh, there was a sign for the last one? I definitely missed it… How do I make sure I don’t miss this one?”
“The sign has a canoe on it, and it’s about this big,” the guide made a small square with his hands, indicating that the sign was about 6 inches by 8 inches, “and it’s tucked back into the brush on shore.” It didn’t sound encouraging… no wonder I’d missed the last one.
“You could do that,” one of the other guides interrupted, “but I’ve done it… the trail is overgrown, and the put-in sucks.. it’s full of brush… If I were you, I’d take-out over at the other rafting groups lunch spot, which is right before the falls. Then all you have to do is carry your kayak up to the Golden Road, walk a couple hundred yards along it, and then follow the trail back down to the falls… It’s shorter than the official portage and the put-in is right at the base of the falls and is way better!”
“Where’s their lunch spot, and how will I know when I’m getting close to the falls?” I asked, trying to get as much information as possible before deciding to get back on the river. “They’re the second take-out down on the right, on the side of the river that we’re on now, and they’re right before the falls. You’ll know the falls are coming because you’ll hear them!” I asked a few more questions, but was eventually convinced that the ‘golden road portage’ was the best option for me.
“Good luck!” my new friends cheered me on as I nervously got back onto the river, paddling so close enough to the bank that I could reach out and touch it… I carefully studied the river and its shoreline as I carefully proceeded… Everything was still gentle and quiet. As I rounded the next bend I saw first one, and then two small sandy spits on the right side of the river… They were obscured by brush and looked about 3 feet wide, certainly not as big as the last rafting groups lunch spot, but as I got closer I could definitely hear the distant roar of waterfalls. I didn’t see any signs of whitewater, and wasn’t sure that this was the rafter’s lunch spot, but I was definitely pulling myself, and my boat, out of the water there!!
As I pulled my kayak onto the bank, I still wasn’t sure that I was in the right place… All I could see were the encroaching laurel bushes, and a steep jeep road rising into the pines… “I guess I’ll find out!” I thought as I lifted my kayak up onto my shoulder and started hiking up the road… By the time I’d taken five or ten steps the brush fell away, and was looking at a picnic area in where someone was busily preparing paella for about 100 people. This was definitely the right spot! I paused briefly to say hi, and continued up the steep slope of the jeep road.
“What are you doing on this side of the river!” a guy stuck his head out of his van, and yelled at me as I approached the Golden Road. “The portage is on the other side of the river,” he continued condescendingly.
“I know,” I replied setting my kayak down for a second, “but I heard that the portage on that side was brushy and that going this way was better.”
“No, it’s not… It’s really long to go this way,” he said pointing to where I was headed. “You should really go back and portage on the other side of the river.” I stared at him blankly… Was I going to trust the dude in the van, or the river guides? I picked up my kayak, turned away from him, and continued towards the Golden Road.
“Suit yourself!” he yelled after me… I didn’t even pause… So what if he was right? Long walks I could handle… Accidentally missing a portage spot and going through more class IV rapids, no way… Let me tell you how many miles I would walk to avoid that… All of them!!!
I probably walked less than 100 yards along the golden road before I spotted a parking area on the right and a large trail on the left. I set the kayak down and asked two people that were crossing the road if this trail led to the falls. “Yup,” they replied.
As I picked my kayak up, the kayakers that helped me out earlier pulled up and started to unload, “You found it!” they exclaimed gleefully as I headed down the steep trail to the sandy put-in at the base of the falls… “Yeah,” I thought as I got to the river and looked back at the falls, “I found it, and I portaged the fu** out it!”
The waterfall looked insane… I was really glad not to be kayaking over it, but I have to admit, when the rafters got there and started to play on it, I was jealous… I wanted to borrow a helmet, jump into one of the rafts, and play on the class IV rapids the right way!
P.S. From there to Abol Bridge is the 3-mile section of stillwater (nothing worse than Class II) that runs along the Appalachian Trail that I had scouted before, and thought that I was getting myself into! The AT runs so close to the river that at one point I saw some long-distance hikers, and they helped me take a picture of my kayak on the trail that I call home… I was definitely looking forward to getting off of the river and back into the mountains… The mountains may be scary, but they’re my kind of scary…