Rafting the Kennebec: White Water and Adventure Tourism

The water in the Kennebec River looks a bit like root beer. That was just one of many thoughts that flashed through my head as I hurled through the turbulence known as "Big Momma" on a bright yellow raft supplied by adventure outfitters Northern Outdoors. As the boat danced on the boiling white water moving at 4,800 cubic feet per second, I found it almost impossible to keep my perch on its slippery side and so made an undignified dive for the deck, committing a myriad of "t-grip violations" as I went.

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There's not much time to enjoy the view.

This stuff matters in the world of adventure sports. You think no one notices when you grab onto the wrong end of the safety rope, but there it is magnified by the zoom lens on the video at the end of the day. Northern Outdoors, which offers kayaking, whitewater rafting and hiking as part of a family package, has it all down to a science. (Its videographers zip by in kayaks as you raft, catching the action, then scooting back to the lodge for editing.)

Some 90,000 people a year raft this part of the Kennebec, halfway between Portland and Quebec City, and only a few miles off the Appalachian Trail. It"s by far the most popular river in the state for this relatively young sport, with 70 percent of all the traffic. The Dead River and the Penobscot River are great, too, but they fail to provide the sustained thrills of the Kennebec.

To raft the Kennebec, you start at Florida Power and Light"s Harris Dam and power station (which regulates the flow of water on the river) and travel 12 miles from the rafting put-in through Indian Pond and the Kennebec Gorge to the Forks, where the Kennebec and the Dead Rivers come together. You have to hump the inflated raft down a long set of guide rails, because everyone works on the river. When your gear (in my case, a full wet suit, helmet and life jacket) is on and the raft is finally in the water, everyone climbs aboard and wedges their feet under the thwarts as the guide starts barking instructions: "Both Sides Ahead!" "Let it Drift!” “Hold On!" There"s a certain resemblance to basic training.

Without much preliminary instruction, you"re off through some Class IV rapids, the biggest on the river (up to 12 feet high). In addition to "Big Momma," there"s "Rock Garden," "White Washer," "Cathedral Eddy" and "Magic Falls." There"s not much time to get acquainted as you frantically try to keep your paddle in the water and your butt in the boat. In the few down moments you notice that the river banks are beautiful and virtually undeveloped.

The halfway point is marked with a fun riverbank lunch of salmon and steak, with veggie burgers for the non-carnivorous. Afterwards, in the tranquil sections of the Lower Gorge, there"s time to jump out of the raft and swim along in the 70-degree water (warmer than the air on this partly cloudy August morning) or take off in the one-man kayak. It really is marvelously refreshing, and it never feels as dangerous as it looks on the video.

Our species has been getting acquainted with the Kennebec River for a long time. It was 1524 when Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano (the namesake of New York City"s Verrazano Narrows Bridge) first set eyes on it. The French and English were there by 1604, and it played a bit part in the Revolutionary War (with co-star Benedict Arnold). Obviously, Native Americans were familiar with the river long before; its name means "long blade" in the regional Abenaki tongue.

It"s hard to believe that Maine rafting is only about 30 years old. In the early 1970s, the wonderfully named Howard Trotsky (an anarchistically inclined University of Maine biology graduate student, one presumes) researched the 1835 legislation that enabled the centuries-old and environmentally destructive log drives on the river. He concluded they were violating state laws about the public"s right of access. Trotsky received a sympathetic hearing for his argument that the Kennebec should be open for recreational use, so in 1971 the last mill operator, Scott Paper, announced that it would cease operations within five years.

There"s nothing all that mysterious about log drives, though they"ve inspired legends and songs and tall tales. Our ancestors were mightily destructive of forest resources, and soon depleted the forests around the lumber mills in Skowhegan, necessitating traveling further afield and moving heavy logs through a vast wilderness without the aid of diesel engines. The river was handy.


Humping the gear is part of the job.

The river rats built big booms to hold the logs in place, and used poles called "cantdogs" to get them moving again. It was dangerous work, and the drivers were plagued by black flies and mosquitoes as they worked. A song, "Willy Galant," tells of how a certain young worker was drowned on the river in "December of "65," but didn"t get found until the following November. They used his wedding band for identification.

At its peak in the late 1800s, the log drive on the Kennebec floated 150 million logs daily. Logjams (which could be deadly to break up) could be 10 feet thick and cover five acres. At that time, big mills could produce 100 tons of newsprint, 60 tons of sulfite and 80 tons of ground wood every day.

Folk singer Slaid Cleaves" contemporary "Breakfast in Hell" is a great logjam song, set in Ontario:

"They poked with their poles and ran with the rolls andtried to stay on their feet.

Every trick they tried and one man cried

‘This log jam"s got us beat.’

But Sandy Gray was not afraid and he let out a mightyyell.

‘I’ll be damned, we’ll break this jam, or it’sbreakfast in hell, boys.’‘’

According to the 2004 Atlantic Salmon in Maine, "The log and pulpwood drives must have had a devastating impact on stream-channel stability and aquatic habitat quality in some stream and river reaches. At the mills, booms that were used to capture and store logs also fouled the water and riverbeds with tannins, loose bark and "sinkers." In addition, mill waste and sawdust were commonly discarded directly into rivers
.For more than a century, water quality had been degraded by waste products (principally sawdust) from mills and residues from log drives and booms. Small dams constructed for log drives and large dams for booms (log storage in streams and rivers) and water power at mills blocked and degraded salmon habitat
Water pollution from logging and milling, barriers to fish passage, and degradation of aquatic habitat increased in direct proportion to soaring industrial production and population growth. The brief window of ecological opportunity for Atlantic salmon in Maine"s streams and rivers of the late 1800s was closed."

So now you know why the water in the Kennebec still looks like root beer: Bark from the rolled logs silted up the bottom of the river and dyed it a rich dark brown, killing aquatic life in the process. "The brackish, brownish look you see is tannic acid from the bark and debris that is still on the bottom," says Russell Walters, Northern Outdoors president and co-owner. But fortunately Howard Trotsky came along when he did, and the river is regenerating. Salmon

are still scarce, but the Kennebec is a major smallmouth bass fishery today.

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Releases from the power company dam make this kind of white water possible.

There were other battles to be fought. The power companies that claimed ownership of the Kennebec didn"t necessarily see public access as a priority. In 1992, previous operators Central Maine Power arrested a group of kayakers and charged them with "theft of services" for failing to pay head fees for crossing CMP land to use the river. That issue wasn"t resolved until 2001, when the Kennebec Settlement Agreement was signed with current operator, Florida Power and Light. The put-in fee for non-commercial rafters and kayakers was eliminated (though operators like Northern Outdoors still pay $4 a head).

Gouging hikers and kayakers is bad public policy since Maine is dependent on recreational dollars. Sure, a good percentage of the state belongs to timber companies, and their contribution produces $10.2 billion per year. But the governor"s office estimates that direct spending on outdoor recreation could go as high as $3 billion. A 2001 survey shows that Maine"s wildlife-related economic contribution is fifth in the nation when viewed as a percentage of the state"s gross product.

A lot of that money is spent on whitewater rafting, for which we have Wayne Hockmeyer, the co-founder of Northern Outdoors, to thank. In 1976, the same year that the last log drives came down the Kennebec, Hockmeyer (then a fishing guide) persuaded some friends to come with him in a driving rainstorm on the very first Kennebec rafting trip. Rafting then was a big sport on the Colorado River and in West Virginia, but unknown in Maine. After surviving that first ride, Hockmeyer set up Northern Outdoors and carried almost 600 passengers in 1977. A sport was born. Since then, Northern Outdoors has carried 400,000 people down the river, about 10,000 a year.

Walters, who still speaks in the cadence of his native England, caught the kayaking bug early. But England"s streams and rivers are tame compared to the Kennebec, so he contacted Hockmeyer back in 1980 and offered to do whatever it took to get regular access to the whitewater. He"s still there, helping run an operation that includes snowmobiling and hunting in the winter—"whatever we need to do to keep the doors open," he says cheerfully. One of the biggest hurdles he sees on the horizon is losing recreational access on land previously owned by timber companies with open-access policies such as Plum Creek, but now being sold to developers to subdivide for private ownership.

Also helping to keep Northern Outdoors afloat is its own brew pub, which is a major draw for Appalachian Trail hikers. Mike McConnell, who doubles as a rafting leader, presides over a tiny, two-room brewery on the bottom floor of the lodge. Among the favorites created right on the premises are Magic Hole India Pale Ale, Four-Stroke Lager and Big Mama Blueberry. The beer is also bottled and sold through much of Maine under the name Kennebec River Brewery.

Northern Outdoors is hardly alone in the Maine wilderness. There are now 16 whitewater rafting companies on the Kennebec, and they have a history of competing fiercely for time slots on the river in the peak season of mid-July to the end of August. (The pressure"s been eased somewhat by the ability to buy and sell slots.) My family and I sat on the riverbank after a long hike and watched group after group, mouths agape, come through the churning rapids of the upper gorge. My girls, Maya and Delia, had a wonderful time when it was their turn. And they love the wild Maine country, too. "It"s the perfect place for families to go on vacation, and I"d go back anytime," says Maya, 12.

The Family Adventure Package at Northern Outdoors, including a full day of rafting the Kennebec plus a guided hike and float trip is $199 per person. See the details at www.northernoutdoors.com.

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