Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Dead River Weekend – Day One – June 7, 2014

Our cabin at Riverdrivers
I did my first Dead River weekend last year with Mike, Earl and Tommy, and it was so much fun that I decided to go back again this year with Andy, Paul, Pat, and Jon. 

The Dead is a classic New England whitewater river with 14 miles of continuous rapids. Releases are controlled from the Flagstaff Lake Dam above Grand Falls.  Releases can range from 1,200 cfs (class II) to 7,000 cfs (Class IV+). Last year I ran an 1,800 cfs release.  This year, I would be stepping it up by running a 3,500 cfs release (class III) on Saturday, followed by a 2,400 cfs release (class II/III) on Sunday. 

I arrived at Andy’s house at around 10:00 on Friday for the six hour drive up to West Forks, ME. We arrived at our cabin at Riverdrivers (formerly known as Webb’s Campground) at around 4:30 and began to unpack.  Paul, Pat and Jon arrived a couple of hours later.  We lit a fire and settled in for the night in anticipation of a great weekend. 

The shuttle bus at the put-in
We awoke early on Saturday and began to pack up our gear for the shuttle. Old-time whitewater paddlers will remember the Webb’s Shuttle Service then run by Ed Webb.  In those days, the 20-mile shuttle down dirt logging roads was done on the back flatbed trucks.  Today, the trip is done in the relative comfort of an old school bus, but it is still a long, bumpy ride.

When we arrived, the put-in was busy with rafting companies and boaters getting ready to launch. The release was 3,500 cfs, with another 450 cfs coming from the Spencer Stream for a total of 3,950 cfs – a solid class III. We hooked up with Kelly, Wayne and Andy and headed downstream.

The first major rapid on the river is the Spencer Rips – a short but intense rapid with 2 – 3 foot waves that sets the tone for the rest of the trip.  As I bobbed my way down the rapid, I saw Jon up ahead of me flip, and then quickly roll back up again.  I knew that it was going to be a fun and busy day. 

Jon running Spencer Rips
It turned out to be a fun level for kayaks, but I found it challenging in my canoe.  Water from continuous 2 – 3 foot waves can quickly swamp an open boat.  Big water paddlers in open boats often solve this problem by installing small battery powered electric pumps. Unfortunately, I hadn’t gotten around to getting a pump, so I had to avoid the big waves as much as possible.  Since I was also the only open boater in the group, I was forced to read my own lines, which turned out to be great “read and run” practice. 

At this level, the rapids came at us fast and furious, and we did have a few swims along the way.  Everyone got a chance to rescue boats and paddlers – except me.  By the time I reached the bottom of most of the rapids my boat was full of water and I was looking for a place to bail.  I really need to get a pump!

My only swim was in a long rocky rapid known as “Mile Long” - you can guess why it has that name.  About half way down, I went over a rock into a hole filling my boat with water.  Now it’s possible to paddle a swamped canoe, but it’s difficult.  My options were to try to bail out the canoe while bouncing down the rapid, or try to work my way over to shore.  I decided to paddle over to shore, and got about 15' before I dumped and took a swim.

Andy running Gravel Pit
Once in the water I grabbed my boat and tried to swim to shore, but in the fast moving water, I wasn’t making any progress.  Looking downstream I could see that I was approaching another set of rapids, so I abandoned the canoe and assumed the safe swimming position - on my back with my feet downstream. 

Swimming through rapids is something that I try to practice, but it doesn’t match the real experience.  First, I swam though a series of “haystacks” or standing waves where you breathe in the trough, and hold you breath as you go through the wave - breathe, glug, breathe glug, breathe, glug. If this continues long enough, it can be though to get catch your breath. Fortunately, it was a short set of haystacks. 

After the waves, I could see a horizon line downstream indicating that I was approaching a rock with a hole on the other side.  I tucked into a ball as the pour over pulled me down into the hole.  When I came out the other side, I swam hard toward shore.  Fortunately, Pat had been working my boat toward the same spot.  It was just a short time before I was back in my boat, but the two most difficult rapids remained – Upper and Lower Poplar. 

Jon in Lower Poplar
Upper Poplar is a short but intense rapid filled with rocks and holes.  After Upper poplar is Lower Poplar.  The river turns right as the water tumbles down the left side in huge wave trains and large holes.  I took the sneak route to the right and made it down fine.  Unfortunately, Jon flipped in the large hole at the top, and after several unsuccessful roll attempts, he ended up swimming the rapid.  It was a long and nasty swim, but we got him back in his boat, and continued downstream to our cabin. 

Day one was complete.  It had been a tough day with six of our eight paddlers swimming at least once, and a total of nine swims in all.  The run took us six hours.  Still, it was a lot of fun, and we were looking forward to another run on Sunday.

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