Wild Water

Rafting the Kennebec in Untamed Northern Maine

One of the most popular water park rides these days is the whitewater experience, in which a raft on tracks runs through some simulated rapids. "You WILL get wet!" reads the sign.

Kids can brave Maine"s Kennebec rapids, too, thanks to child-friendly "row frames."© Northern Outdoors

The ride is fun, but for some real whitewater rafting, give northern Maine a try, and you may get an environmental education as part of the bargain. This is one of the few places in the country still without back-to-back McDonalds and malls. If you want groceries, better pray they have what you want at the general store, because it’s a long haul to anywhere else.

Much of the land in the still-wild northern half of Maine is timberland owned by paper companies, but it has come under increasing development pressure. Some 17 percent of Maine’s agricultural land is now foreign owned, and is soaring in value. Land on the eastern shore of Moosehead Lake that sold for $200 an acre in 1998 brought $8,000 an acre just two years later. Between 1980 and 1990, there was a 23 percent increase in houses in northern Maine. As seasonal and year-round homes level the forest, the public has been losing access for recreational uses.

Get Wet

Given these pressures, now would seem to be the time to see Maine’s corner of the Northern Forest in all its moose-friendly, pre-development glory. Whitewater rafting in Maine coincides with the end of the last great log drives on the Kennebec River, in 1976. Until that time, the paper companies more or less "owned" the rivers, but bark from the floating trees was choking the river to death, and a lawsuit ended Big Paper’s hegemony.

While the logs were still floating, maverick rafter Wayne Hockmeyer and his wife, Suzie, took part in a landmark 12-mile float down the Kennebec River Gorge. "We knew we would either get killed or pioneer the best whitewater rafting in the country," says Suzie Hockmeyer. Though the old river hands told them they’d probably drown, the rafters emerged unscathed, kissing the ground, and an industry was born.

The Hockmeyers founded Northern Outdoors, and in 1977 carried 1,700 people down the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers. The Kennebec rafting experience is truly thrilling, proceeding through some churning Class IV rapids. Landmarks include the "Black Hole," which sends the self-baling raft plunging nose first, and the memorable "Magic Falls."

It seems dangerous, but many safety precautions are taken. Kids ride in what are known as "row frames," inflatable rafts with metal frames that allow the use of oars so that an experienced river pilot can handle the boat solo. More leisurely kayak "float trips" on flatter water are also arranged. Family rafting adventures include a stop for a hot lunch on a pristine beach, where the "pack it in, pack it out" philosophy is strictly enforced.

River Politics

In 1900, there was a 100-room hotel in The Forks, the junction of the Kennebec and Dead Rivers, located halfway between Portland, Maine and Quebec City, Canada. The hotel, which burned down soon after, was sustained by the hunting and fishing industry. There’s still a hook and bullet contingent in Maine, but rafting draws the crowds.

The whitewater experience has become a significant part of Maine’s economy, but it is subject to power company politics. To create premium rafting, it’s necessary for Florida Power & Light (FPL), which owns the Harris hydroelectric dam, to provide water releases that can spew at a rate of 4,500 to 6,000 cubic feet per second. During our visit, FPL put a scare into the dozen or more rafting companies in the region by announcing cancellation of a planned release.

Russell Walters, Northern Outdoors" British-born president, says the rafting community went into high gear lobbying for the dam opening, and a crisis was averted.

The Appalachian Trail passes right through The Forks, and Northern Outdoors offers a family adventure package that includes a hike on the trail to the top of Pleasant Pond Mountain (elevation 2,477 feet). The view is spectacular from the summit, where the traveler is refreshed by some wild blueberry bushes. Thanks to guide Linda Germain, kids are kept entertained with a "name that plant" contest.

Three-day family vacation packages cost $155 per person, including activities and meals.

JIM MOTAVALLI has been down the Kennebec twice and only fell in once.