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Archive for May, 2008

Kennebago Road River Access

The next day was not as pleasant, at least weather-wise.  Gray skies and temps in the mid-forties greeted us the next morning back at Kennebago Road.  This would be the real test of the boats.  The first four miles went by quickly, as we paddled over fast-moving flats and quickwater, with an occasional pushy Class I or II rapid.  Again, I monitored the GPS and the maps, keeping an eye out for Cherry Run brook, immediately after which the big rapids were reputed to start abruptly.

Mike had been elected probe boat by majority vote, and after stating that he would pull over in the first available eddy that could fit us all so we could bail water if needed, off he went.  Billy followed next, and I took the sweep position. 

Over the mile and a half, we caught 2 eddies, but only so we could exclaim to each other what an awesome stretch of water this was!  Neither Mike nor I really had any water enter the canoes to speak of, although a rockfish grabbed Mike’s paddle at the top of one of the larger drops and nearly yanked him overboard.  We were real glad the water level was as high as it was, since many of the rocks were covered or well-cushioned.  Another foot lower, and this stretch would become much trickier.  Lower than that and I would plan on getting wet to walk and line the boats down.  I think I scraped only one rock over this whole stretch.

Taking a break near the "Barn Doors"

Just past a snowmobile bridge (also not mentioned in any maps or guides, but visible on Google Earth) is a rocky promontory known as the Barn Doors, where we took a break from the rapids.  Past this point, the river gradually quiets, petering out in several Class I ripples before entering the western end of Flagstaff Lake.  It was another mile or so paddling to get to the boat ramp at Route 27 in Stratton, 8.7 miles downstream from Kennebago Road.  This is when the rain started.

So, by pure luck, we hit this temperamental stream in perfect conditions at a perfect level.  If you decide to follow us, I hope you find the same.  This is an absolute gem of a river, straight up.

You can find all my pictures of the South Branch Dead River segment here:  http://good-times.webshots.com/album/563377163acYaot

Total Mileage for the Day:  8.7 miles

Total NFCT Miles to date:  147.3

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The put-in at Dallas Bridge

The next day went down as one of the nicest canoe trips I have ever done.  We arrived at the put in under sunny blue skies, temps already warming on the way to the mid & upper 50’s they would eventually reach.  The water level had dropped half a foot overnight and the river no longer had that swirly, rippley appearance of a river trying to squeeze too much of itself down a channel at once.  After unloading, gearing up, and doing a shuttle, we were on our way.

The first mile and a half was flatwater, winding back and forth through swampland at a brisk, business-like pace.  No blowdowns, just pleasant woodlands around us.  A brief but brawny Class II rapid dropped us into a wide, slow moving pool.  More Class I and II rapids followed, interrupted by brief stretches of quickwater. 

Rapids at the take out for portaging the first gorge

I monitored the GPS and sounded the alarm that we were approaching the take-out for the mandatory carry at the same time that Mike spotted his ribbon.  Since the eddy in the midst of the rapids would hold one boat at a time, we took turns paddling in and hauling out.   It is definitely a good idea to scout out this take-out before you get there!  If you miss it, it will either be a miserable haul back upstream, or more excitement than you wish in the gorge!

Bill (L) & Mike (R) with the boats geared for travel

After getting the canoes set up on our portage carts (Bill’s kayak, a P & H Orca, hitching a ride on Mike’s canoe), our 1.3 mile roll down the highway was uneventful, on past the Class IV gorge we were avoiding.  After a bite of lunch, we proceeded down a wonderful 4 or 5 mile stretch of near-continuous Class I and II whitewater, most of which I poled.  I definitely need to get a waterproof camera, because this stretch would have made some great pictures.

A rock rears up to take a bite out of Mike!

 I did manage to get one pic of a big rock that tried to take a bite out of Mike.  We passed 2 bridges, the first of which is not mentioned in any guidebooks and is not shown on the NFCT maps, but which Google Earth showed us.  So if you do this stretch thinking that the first bridge is Langtown Mills, you’d be wrong.  After the second bridge (Langtown Mills), the river settled down to the winding flatwater character that we began with, floating past red twig dogwoods and huge white paper birches, and an occasional field, with views of the Kennebago and Bigelow ranges in the distance.  This lasted until our take-out for the day about 13 miles downstream at Kennebago Road (Bridge # 3 for those of you counting).  After running shuttle, we hit Kelly’s in town for beer and vittles, and then crashed at our hotel.

Total Mileage for the Day: 18.00 miles (incl. 4.9 mile shuttle/portage)

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The South Branch Dead River had intrigued me from the moment I encountered it while poring over my new maps of the NFCT.  It looked like fun!  But in trying to find out more about it, I found that most through-paddlers had pretty much skipped it after finding it basically an empty, boulder-ridden hell-on-earth.   This intrigued me more! Clearly, if we hit it during ideal conditions, this would be a nice section.  So I looked for more information on it, not really finding anything on it, and getting only feedback that we’d need to hit it during snow runoff in April or May. 

The South Branch Dead River is very flashy, with flows depending on rain, snow melt, moose piss and not much else.  We decided (in March) that the date of the trip would be May 1 through 3, regardless of weather or water levels.  Such is the nature of needing to reserve vacation time.  The snow pack generally disappeared the week before our planned arrival, so that was a good sign.  Then the bad…a ton of rain. 

When I woke up on May 1 to a report on NPR that Fort Kent was being evacuated because of flooding, nagging doubts began to enter my mind.  The weather forecast for both Rangeley and Stratton, Maine, was favorable, but much of Maine had received a ton of rain in the last couple days.  The South Branch of the Dead River is a river with no remote gauge to check levels, and we had no local contacts that could give us the beta on whether we were wasting gas driving up from RI to run it.  Based purely on monitoring weather forecasts and an attitude that swung during the preceding weeks from optimism to pessimism at a moment’s notice, I predicted floods one week, and then dry boulder gardens the next.  The river might not be so bad, but the anticipation was killing me!  Good or bad, Mike and I took off to adventures unknown.  Our partner, Bill “Wet Willy” Luther could not get out of work that day, so he would meet us that night.

Every river and stream we passed on the way seemed to be in raging flood.  Even the feeder streams seemed at least bank full.  Mike offered the opinion that this was OK, since the rivers farther up in elevation (such as our destination) would run out quickly, and we would be met with a perfect level.  I kept my doubts to myself.  The toughest water we expected to face on the South Branch Dead was a 1.5 mile segment that the AMC River Guide described as “continuous difficult (Class III) rapids”.  No biggie in my whitewater kayak, but I was bringing my canoe, a 16-foot Mad River Explorer that I had recently outfitted with airbags and a kneeling thwart.

Mooselookmeguntic obscured in snow

More omens and portents of evil:  just north of Mexico, ME, we hit a snow squall.  A LOT of snow.  The fantastic view of the Rangeley area lakes was filtered in flakes of white.  Plows had been by.  This was not in the forecast.  Fortunately, by the time we hit Rangeley, the sun was back out and the temps back in the 50’s.  We used the rest of the afternoon to scout out the river, which was clearly bank-full (big surprise there), with rapids that revealed none of the rocky, boney nature everyone who offered an opinion to us had told us to expect.  We found a good route in to scout the first gorge, and the vote to carry around it was unanimous.  So, after plotting the take-out above the gorge for the carry as a waypoint in my GPS (Mike, not trusting technology, also marked it with pilfered surveyor’s ribbon), and then placing a couple sticks to mark the water level at the put in, we retreated back to a hotel in Rangeley to await the arrival of Bill.

Side-bar: This is Bill’s description of his approach to Rangeley:  “I was driving along, there’s nothing up here, and I keep seeing signs for moose crossings.  I’m going 40, trying to miss the moose.  The signs keep changing. ‘High Moose Hazard’, ‘Extreme Moose Hazard’ , “Collision with Moose Imminent’, and this guy comes up behind me and then passes me.  So I think, they must know where the moose are, and I followed them the rest of the way.”

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