Whitewater rafting on the Kennebec River

I’ve watched rafters on the West Branch of the Penobscot River for years, and each year I say I’m going to do that next year. Next year peeked in with a phone call from Melissa telling me she found whitewater rafting vouchers on TravelZoo for $50. “It’s a $129 trip and they provide lunch. It’ll be sisters bonding time,” she excitedly said over the phone.

Months later, “next year” arrived. We struck out early Sunday morning to make the four hour drive to US Rafting in West Forks. Western Maine is beautiful. If it weren’t so far away I’d make the drive again in the fall to see the leaves. I took note of the hardwoods and imagined the gorgeous fall colors. We followed Rt 201 through small towns and villages you’d expect to see on postcards. Whitewater rafting is a bigger industry than I knew. There are several outfitters in the area.

US Rafting

Jessie Herling, a co-manager at US Rafting, checked us into the Outpost and made sure we had all we needed. I told her I’d never been on whitewater and was nervous. She assured me I’d be fine but I was still skeptical. She came back later to visit and put my mind at ease a bit more. Later on, Melissa and I made the partially successful walk to Moxie Falls a few miles from US Rafting. In the evening, steaks on the grill and salad hit the spot. We visited with other guests in the Outpost before turning in early.

The Outpost at US Rafting

We went for a ride to see a bit more of the area before having breakfast at Inn By The River, a nearby B&B.  We met up with Jessie after breakfast and learned we’d be in her husband’s raft. Tom has been guiding for 12 years. I felt safer.

Whitewater rafting starts before you get to the water. Meredith, one of two female guides at US Rafting, explained what would be happening. Meredith is a junior high science teacher during the school year. We lined up at the laptops to fill out our information. From there you go out back to get your helmet, PFD and paddle. Guides bind you into your PFD as if your life depends upon it—because it might. “Raise your arms above your head like you did the last time you got arrested,” he said. Ah…I got a funny one. (No, I’ve never done anything to cause myself to be arrested.) He tightened the PFD until my eyes almost bulged.

Bins of helmets and paddles

Rafters gathered at the picnic tables for further instruction.  Tom introduced each guide and read the names of the folks who would be in the guide’s raft. He explained the importance of following his orders, paddling together and what to do if you fell out. My stomach turned when he talked about my fear—falling out. We would experience Class II, III and IV rapids. I didn’t really understand what that meant. The release that day was 4,800 csf which is like 4,800 basketballs passing you every second. That I understood. We boarded the buses for the ride to Harris Station Dam.

These whitewater rafts are ready to go.

Guides did a head count and answered a few questions. We must have been quite a sight with our helmets and PFD’s on and paddles standing at attention. “How many of you have never done this before,” asked a guide. Most of us raised our hands. “Keep your feet on the floor and hands in the window.”  Another funny one and I fell for it.

I discovered a broken buckle on my PFD. Tom pulled zip ties out of his pocket and made a quick repair. One by one, we carried our rafts to the stairs. The rafts slide on two rails in the center of the stairs. I didn’t count the flights of steps so I’ll guesstimate it to be eight. The rafts slide down easily and only requiring holding them back so that they don’t get away from you.

The water was smooth. We learned to paddle together, forward on one side and back on the other, and when to relax. Paddling a raft on a river isn’t like paddling a canoe on a lake. You use stomach, abs and back muscles for power as lean forward and back while paddling. Tom emphasized never letting go of the T grip at the top of the paddle. If you let go you leave your paddle on a pivot point (the other hand) and will probably hit yourself, most likely in the face, or someone else. I didn’t want to hit someone else more than I didn’t want to fall out of the raft.

I was scared for nothing. We went over small rapids that left us a little wet and gave us an idea of what we had in store. We got soaked in Magic Falls. It was fantastic! The water was over our heads. In the video, you can barely see a blurred patch of red raft, one paddle and two blue helmets. I felt Tom grab my PFD before I realized I was about to go overboard. It was exciting and I wanted more. We went through rapids named Big Mamma, the Rock Garden and Whitewasher. Big Mamma is a Class IV rapid. I looked over just in time to see Tom grab Melissa’s PFD at the end of one rapid. We went through Class II rapids sideways, turned our raft upriver and watched some of the other rafts come through. I thought, “Wow! I just did that,” several times. The rapids are over quickly. You paddle hard until you hear “Relax,” then ride it out. Just as it seems to get going, it’s over and you’re laughing and whooping it up because you’ve made it through another unscathed though soaking wet again.

Noah Hale, the videographer, was impressive. He zipped through falls and down river ahead of us, pulled his whitewater kayak out of the river and set up to video each raft as it passed through a fall. He rolled through a fall, played in the waves and made it look easy though I’m positive it’s not. He pulled out at a stop and returned to US Rafting to edit the video.

Whitewater kayak

The river narrows as it runs through the Kennebec Gorge. I felt small between the high sides covered in trees. Tom pointed out an Osprey nest on the right side, and later pointed out a second nest with two osprey perched on branches of a dying tree. The eagle that’s often seen wasn’t there that day. We paddled close to the edge of the river, turned up stream and surfed in place while watching other rafts come through. You can feel the water rushing beneath your feet and see it moving, but you’re sitting still.

Six teenaged girls rafted with us. One of them asked about fish in the river. Tom told us there are trout, salmon and a river shark. If you say something in an authoritative voice someone is likely to believe you. She questioned him twice about river sharks but soon forgot about them. About two-thirds of the way down river we were allowed to go for a swim. The warm water was tempting but Melissa and I stayed in the raft. It’s easy to get ahead of the raft while you’re floating, especially if the wind is blowing the almost empty raft up river while you’re floating down. The young women in our raft went in, locked arms and floated. Tom did a back flip into the river. Everyone in another raft stood on the side while their guide waved his paddle and seemed to knock them out in perfect order. We were taught to never grab someone’s arm or hand when pulling them out of the water. When the girls were done we grabbed the top and bottom of the back of their PFDs and hauled them into the raft. It wasn’t graceful or pretty but it did the job.

About the river shark…it’s real. I saw it just as it grabbed Christine’s PFD and almost dragged her in. If you want to know more you’re going to have to experience it yourself. It’s quite funny unless you’re the person surprised and screaming.

At the end of the trip we paddled to a landing area, lifted the raft above our heads and carried them to the waiting trailer. We turned in our gear and changed into dry clothes when we got back to US Rafting.  Noah graciously let us purchase our DVD’s early because of our long drive home. It looked like most people stayed to eat a big chicken barbecue and watch the video. If I were going again and didn’t have to be back the same day I’d reserve a room in the Outpost for two nights. I’d stay the night after rafting. I really hated to leave.

A barbecue dinner is served when you return from the river.

I had so much fun that I’m excited to be returning to US Rafting with my husband and one of our daughters later this week. I’m not worried or nervous this time. This time, I’ll sit in front like Pat Lemieux told me I should have the first time, and have a great time.

Robin Follette

About Robin Follette

Maine Press Association award winner, 2013. Robin's Outdoors, Bangor Daily News, third place in Sports blogs. I grew up with a fishing pole in my hand and have always loved the outdoors. From gardening to hunting and fishing, kayaking, camping, hiking and foraging, most of my time is spent outdoors. I teach outdoor skills as a volunteer instructor for Hooked On Fishing - Not On Drugs and Becoming an Outdoors-Woman. Pro-staff at The Limb Grip. My personal blog is here. I'm currently working on my first book, a collection of short stories based on my outdoors experiences.