Spring Hit List: Boating

In last week’s post, I wrote about Hit Lists.  Those are the rivers and waterfalls you spend all winter psyching yourself up for and telling your buddies that you’re going to run while you’re drinking beers and it’s -14 out and dark at 5 pm.  Then the snow melts and you throw the boat on the car and start chasing some of those rivers and waterfalls.  Some of them, you just never make it to.  The Linville Gorge was on my hit list for a decade and I just never got there.  Sometimes you do get there but it looks a lot bigger than you thought, and you walk away.  But sometimes it all comes together.  Last week I wrote about some of these moments — some of the most impressive and historic descents in New England kayaking in the last 15 years.

Last week’s post was all about great athletes, careful planning, pushing the limits, high levels of courage and skill, impressive accomplishments in a kayak.

This post is not about any of that.

This post is about my spring hit list.

That’s right.  Consider yourselves warned.  There’s nothing groundbreaking here.  Nothing that the Serrasolses brothers would bust up their shoulders for.  Nothing that would cause Dane Jackson to get arrested.  Nothing that would cause Steve Fisher to spit up his Red Bull (“Pffffttt!  That would make great sponsor content!”).  There aren’t even any first descents.  In fact, my list contains only one river that I haven’t run before.

So why am I writing this?  Because even after paddling for 16 years, including about a decade during which I did it to the exclusion of almost everything else, I still find myself getting excited about spring boating.  I realize that I may have suggested in a previous post that I am no longer kayaking.  That is not true.  That was, as we say in the business, “exaggerated for literary effect.” (And this “business” is, as we say in the literary business, “not a lucrative one, at all.”) While it is true that I’ve “broken up” with the kind of paddling I used to do, it doesn’t mean I’ve completely broken up with the sport.

Yes, I’ve tried to replace the high I got from paddling with a lot of things.  I’ve tried hiking mountains.  I’ve tried flying airplanes, and hang gliders.  I have even tried watching reality TV shows about normal women who have meltdowns on national TV when they attempt to buy wedding dresses.  (Or at least, these shows seem to be playing a lot in my house right now).  This fall I even dabbled again in certain activities that are far more hazardous to one’s overall well being and sanity than class V.  (I am pleased to report I am no longer teaching middle school.)  Still, I’ve found nothing that really replaces the excitement of having a boating hit list.  What can I say?  It’s a way to explore the Earth.  You can hike the Presidentials, you can ski down Cannon, you can fly over the Whites, and you can paddle through the river gorges.  It’s another conveyance through nature, and an elemental one.  What’s more perfect than a boat on a river?

When I was in my twenties, I wanted to be good at stuff.  Now, I want to be be excited for stuff.  I have a retired friend in his 60s who’s just as excited for skiing on a Tuesday morning at Cannon on packed powder as he did when he was 17.  I saw him the other week and now he’s just as excited about flying season this spring as could be.  It’s inspiring.  I want to be that guy.  John Madden once wrote that your favorite sport should be whatever sport it is during that season.  To have that passion that gets you out of bed — that’s what I’m going for.

If I could have it all, I’d have about forty rivers that I just absolutely had to do this spring, had to see.  Then I’d have at least two or three other sports about which I felt similarly excited.  Well, I don’t have quite that many sports or rivers, but I’ve definitely got a couple I need to hit.  These are the rivers that are on my Hit List.  I hope some of them make it onto yours too.

The Classic:  The Upper Pemi

Class V, Franconia, New Hampshire

The first time I drove into Franconia Notch to run the Upper Pemi, it had only just started to dawn on me that there were actually other rivers to run besides the New Haven Ledges.  I’d done a lot of creek boating, but it was almost all on one river.  Just a few rapids into the Upper Pemi, I had that look on my face that said, “Whoa. ” I felt like a small town kid who’s in his first semester at Berkeley, suddenly having a drink with some gorgeous girl who’s from Luxembourg and studying post modern sculpture.  Simply put, my mind was completely blown.

The first thing you see when you walk to the river with your boat is this one short cascade.  It’s a small granite slide, barely class III.  It’s not long, but the rock that forms it is red, and just beneath the water, which flows smoothly over the rock and ends in a swirling, turquoise pool.  The trees on shore are sparse.  I almost felt guilty paddling through there.  It was like paddling through a painting.

And the last section of the Upper Pemi stuck with me — the part between the red bridge and the take out at Indian Head Resort.  I was turning that part over in my mind for weeks.  I’d thought the run was over by the second bridge, but there were still rapids I’d never seen before: a big, perfectly shaped ledge boof, another long, red slide.  Yeah, it stuck with me.

It’s been a few years since the last time I ran the Pemi, but now that I live 15 minutes away, I often hike through the gorge after work, and find myself wanting to run it again.  Last week I hiked down into a part of the gorge that I could remember running, but that I’d never seen from shore.  It took about 20 minutes of bushwhacking and post holing for me to make it down to the river.  But there it was: a view of one of the rapids I remember, in a place that’s within ten minutes of a popular trail network, yet has probably been visited — that spot — by maybe five or six people in a year.

The photo I took after bushwhacking to the river in the gorge.

That’s what makes me want to run the Pemi again — not the thrill of adrenaline, but the thrill of exploration.  And not because it’s a first descent, but because every run is like a first descent.  So few people actually get to go through there.  And the fun rapids?  They’re just the icing on the cake.  The ones are the Pemi are pretty benign too, even though I would call the river class V.

Do yourself a favor and paddle this classic.  Go see the gorge in a way that tourists in Franconia Notch never will.

(Then, do yourself a favor and hike the Franconia Ridge too.)

Tip:  There’s a pretty nice bonus slide just upstream of the Basin parking area.

Signature Rapid:  Probably Slam Bam, beneath the Sentinel Pine Covered Bridge.  Watch out for the deadly sieve on the top left of the first drop, which can be avoided by portaging on river right.  Check out kayaker Jeremy Laucks running the entire rapid (where he dries out at 11 seconds you can see the sieve just off to his left, coming out under the boulder) and then getting a huge meltdown into the Pool at the end:

Best Part:  Check out the quality slide rapids that lie between the normally-portaged North Pole and Slam Bam.  This is the section of river I hiked into last week.  These rapids start at 40 seconds in on the video below, which was taken at low flow.


The Adventure:  North Fork of the Pemi

Class III, Pemigewasset Wilderness, New Hampshire

You know what doesn’t happen much in New England?  Kayakers doing dumb stuff and having to spend the night in the wilderness.  That kind of thing happens all the time down south.  When I lived and boated in the mid-Atlantic, it seemed like at least once a season there was always one group that put on too late, or got separated in the woods, or had a broken boat, or some other mishap that caused at least one in their party to end up lost in the woods after dark, stuffing leaves into their drysuits to stay warm, having weird conversations with themselves all night, then sheepishly wandering out the next morning, realizing they spent the whole time about twenty-five feet from a Red Roof Inn parking lot, then to be mercilessly taunted for their bad decision-making on the Internet.  You could always count on the West Virginia woods to deliver at least one of these trips per season.  Once, I was even part of the rescue effort for a trip like this, myself.

Up here in New England, we occasionally do get ourselves into this sort of foolishness (I published a great account of this sort of thing, up on the Gulf Hagas in Maine, in my guidebook, Let It Rain).  But mostly, we don’t.  It’s not because we’re especially prudent — we just don’t have the wilderness for it.  Screw up on most rivers, or break a paddle deep in the Middlebury Gorge, as my group did during my first run, and you can pretty well count on being able to rock climb/rope your boats up a 200 foot slope to the road (only to find that you were less than a quarter mile from take out and could’ve hiked out on the flat trail on the other side of the river).

But if there’s one place in New Hampshire that does have the wilderness for a true wilderness kayaking experience, it’s the Pemigewasset Wilderness in the heart of the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  And what flows down the floor of this wilderness area?  The Pemigewasset River, of course?  Specifically, the North Fork of the Pemi.

When I look at it on the map, I still find it hard to believe.  You mean there’s really 15 miles of class III and IV whitewater out there that nobody ever runs?  And this is a place has such beautiful scenery that it’s one of the biggest hiking destinations in New England?  And I haven’t paddled it yet?

It’s true.  I haven’t.  Not many people do.  The reason no one does is that it’s a long way in.  It’d be a long way in by car.  Basically you have two options: do a steep hike up the AT from Crawford Notch and put in at Ethan Pond (which gets you quite a few rapids, a portage around Thoreau Falls, a chain of big, Sawyer River-like drops); or, drive your car into the farthest parking area at Zealand, make a pretty flat hike of a few miles into Zealand Notch, put on Whitewall Brook (which is flat and may or may not be impassable because of beaver dams), and paddle down to the confluence just below Thoreau Falls.

Either way, the older I get, the more I like being in the wilderness away from roads.  It’s a function of having a busy life during most of the year, I think.  For whatever reason my favorite pastime recently is to go online to try to find pictures of the North Fork taken by hikers (there are none that I know of posted by boaters).  Here’s one of the North Fork:


Here’s another, from just above Thoreau Falls.  Now this looks fun:


Last summer I hiked both trail approaches as part of longer hiking trips, veering away to the summits before I was able to set eyes on the North Fork.  I’m hoping that’s about to change soon.  I plan to hike into Thoreau Falls — without my boat — sometime in the next few weeks.  Why go without the boat the first time?  I want to hike in there first to savor it.  Half the fun of these trips is the anticipation.  This river is right at the top of my hit list.

Tip:  Make sure to let your friends know where you are ahead of time, unlike one 2011 descent, which found themselves trailed by a park helicopter after a friend mistakenly told authorities they were stranded in the woods.  The group, which had brought overnight equipment with them, simply spent the night at Zealand Hut, where a friendly caretaker welcomed them.  They paddled out in a matter of hours the next morning.

The Twofer:  North Branch Lamoille and the Gihon River

Class III-V, Johnson, Vermont

We all know it can be a long drive to get to the river.  So what’s better than hitting two quality rivers in a day?  The Gihon and the NB Lamoille are close enough that you can run one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and still have plenty of time to stop in for a burger and your favorite Vermont microbrew on the way home.

And what’s more, both rivers have two fun sections each.

The Gihon:  I don’t care what anyone says.  There’s no better warm up rapid in New England.  The 30-foot tall dam on the Gihon is probably one that I wouldn’t run if I actually scouted it.  It doesn’t get any more terrifying than that first look you get as you come to the edge.  But it also doesn’t get any smoother and more forgiving than sliding down the face of that thing.  It’s the closest to an amusement park ride you’re going to get south of the Jay Peak Waterpark.

gihon dam

Enjoy the upper Gihon — which has a number of quality rapids, before a short section of flatwater brings you to the Gihon proper, a set of 6-7 closely spaced ledge rapids just above Johnson, Vermont.

Signature Rapid:  Mustang, on the Upper Gihon — a big, multi-part drop that is often portaged.  I’ve always looked at the hole at the bottom and walked it, but I’ve seen a couple of guys have great lines right through.

The North Branch Lamoille:  This is one of the longer stretches of whitewater in Vermont.  One of the last high mountains in the state before the Canadian border is Mt. Belvidere, site of an infamous asbestos mine.  Fortunately the North Branch begins on the other side of Mt. Belvidere, high in the drainage, in a wide bog.  The more popular section is about ten miles downstream, near the river’s end.  Boaters usually put on a mile upstream of the Waterville Elementary School, where several class III drops take you inside a hidden mini-gorge.  Nothing really prepares you for the boulder gardens that away in the next mile.  In Let It Rain I compared it (or quoted a comparison) to “a flatter Big Branch.” It also reminds me of the Top Yough down in Maryland, though slightly flatter.  Either way, it’s a great section.

Boulder rapids inside the gorge.

Soon the river leaves the gorge and winds its way into town and into the last section: the Waterville Ledges.  There are 5-6 slide rapids in this section, of class IV difficulty at medium water.

Waterville Ledges

All this: five or six miles of quality, varied whitewater is a great trip in itself.  But it’s not even my favorite section of the North Branch.  That would be the upper section.  While only class II-III, the upper North Branch is one of the most beautiful, continuous rivers in the state.  You put on in the bog and wind your way through the outflow.  Soon the river tips downhill and starts going, and doesn’t really stop for another 3-4 miles.  The lush, green moss and beautiful trees on shore and light but interesting continuous rapids bring a smile to my face every time.  Last time I ran it, I compared the wilderness experience of it to hiking the Long Trail, but in your boat.  The rapids get a little harder toward the end too, which keeps things interesting.  But it’s never more than about class III.  I’d run this river every day if I had my way.  Here’s a picture that sums it up:

I bet that theoretically you could combine this upper section with the lower gorge and the Waterville Ledges.  That would make quite one of the longest stretches of whitewater in Vermont — ten or twelve miles, maybe.  I’ve never done it all in one piece (you need higher water for the upper section), but I have done put on just below the upper section and run the “middle section” down to the normal lower put in.  The middle is about 3-4 miles of mostly class II.  It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s still whitewater.  Someday I’d like to do the whole river.

Combined with the Gihon, any part of the North Branch makes a nice, full day.

Signature Rapid:  The whole lower gorge, which is great, and the entire upper section.

Tip:  Watch out for the final rapid on the upper section, just below the road bridge.  This drop, which is much harder than the rest of the upper river, is not natural riverbed.

The Elusive River:  The Gale

Class III-IV, Sugar Hill, NH

I have the good fortune of living about twenty minutes from the put in to the Gale.  Although it takes a fair amount of water and can be hard to catch, over the past year I’ve lapped it and lapped it, and I highly recommend it, especially paired with the nearby East Branch of the Pemi or with the Swift.  The Gale is not too long or too short, and not too hard or too easy.  You put in at the top and leave the world behind, as the river enters a secluded gorge.  The whole place has a natural feel: both the wilderness setting and the riverbed itself, which feels less turned over by flooding than the East Branch of Swift.  The rapids start light and build imperceptibly to interesting class III.  Near the end, the river enters a mini-gorge with three harder drops — enough to get your blood going before the last fun slide and the take out at the confluence of the Ammonoosuc.

Here’s some good footage of the hard-to-catch Gale:

Signature Rapid:  Lava, the last big rapid in the gorge.  The main line has a big hole at high water, with a fun boof around it to the left.

The No Way It’s Happening:  Fish Creek

Class III, Taberg, NY

I’ve only run this once, back in 2005, and let’s be realistic: the put in is five and a half hours from my house.  I’m not going to be over in central New York state anytime soon.

But what a day that was.  I think about it a lot, actually.  I hung out at the put in and talked my way onto a trip with two local guys who, as is always the case with guys like this, have never seen anyone paddle C-1.  So that’s always fun.  It was just a perfect combination of me having just recovered from a shoulder injury, paddling an actual “modern” playboat that I’d just outfitted for the first time (which meant I could suddenly do all kinds of cool moves I could not do in, say, a Wavesport Forplay (which is an old school playboat about the size of a Lincoln Towncar), and having a top quality play river all to ourselves.

Fish Creek in Taberg, NY. (American Whitewater)

I’ve never been a good playboater, but what I lack in skill, I more than make up for in enthusiasm.  Because I don’t take it too seriously, I have more fun.  This day was pretty special.  I wrote all about it in Let It Rain.  Still one of the best days of boating I’ve ever had.  I’d love to run Fish Creek again to see if it’s nearly as fun as I remember it.

I probably won’t.  Not anytime soon at least.  The last time I ran Fish Creek, I told myself I had to come back, but if you’d told me 11 years would have gone by and I hadn’t gone back, sometime tells me I wouldn’t have been surprised.

But hit lists are like that sometimes.  You have to have at least one or two rivers on your list that are wishes.  And maybe, if things go right, you have some free time, a long weekend to yourself, you check the river gauges, see that things are perfect, and maybe you get in the car over spring break and you drive out to New York State with that same playboat on the roof.  You never know.  And that keeps you excited.

And that’s what’s great about having a hit list.

Happy spring.