The nose of the raft dropped suddenly and the sky, which had been so blue a second ago, turned black. Time seemed to stop as the wall of water hit me. After what seemed an eternity, I was free of the water’s grasp. I was still in the raft and so was my daughter. There was no time to wonder what had happened as we had to get back on the paddles.
When my daughter Sarah offered to take me whitewater rafting for my 52nd birthday, I jumped at the chance as it was something I had never done before, despite spending most of my life in the outdoors. Over the years I had travelled throughout northern New England, but this section of Maine, The Forks, was one place I had never visited. I was truly looking forward to this trip as Sarah, before she grew up and moved away, had been my constant companion on many of my previous outdoor adventures.
Even though whitewater rafting was on my list of things to do, it always got pushed to the back of the list, with those have to do things taking priority. At a very young age I had taken Sarah canoeing and she did that a great deal as a child. When she went off to college she got hooked on whitewater rafting and kayaking. This was her chance to reverse roles and introduce me to whitewater.
As the time for our trip approached, I decided to go online and see exactly what I was getting myself into. As my wife and I watched the videos, both she and I began to question my sanity, and that of our daughter. We joked about how Sarah was trying to kill me in order to obtain my only possession of value; my truck. Come to think about it, she had been eyeing it ever since I bought it. Maybe there was something to this.
The day finally arrived and we loaded up for the trip. The Forks is about 40 miles from the Canadian Border and a five hour drive from my home in New Hampshire. Sarah was driving, so we took her car, leaving the truck at home. Where we were going there was no cell phone service, so there would be no way for me to call for help and as we backed out of the driveway I did notice Sarah eyeing my truck. What did I ever do to her?
As we neared our destination, the towns were getting smaller and smaller; and they were becoming further and further apart. Medical facilities were few and far between, but I did notice a growing number of cemeteries. Not a good sign. As we were staying overnight, we had reserved one of the cabins at Three Rivers. Upon check-in, we were told that we would be staying in the “Dead” cabin. Funny how things were all falling into place (to be fair to Three Rivers, there cabins are named after the rivers that they do rafting on; Dead, Penobscot and Kennebec). The following day we were to raft the Kennebec.
Our cabin was more than anyone could have hoped for and the surroundings were paradise to an old woodsman like me. As we settled in, all previous thoughts disappeared. With no phones, no television and a year round resident population of 32, The Forks was my kind of place.
This area of Maine is one of those places where if people are not self-sufficient then they will never make it. The natural beauty of the area is outstanding, but it is an unforgiving environment. The nearest grocery store or medical facility is at least 20 miles away (here come those thoughts of impending doom again) so trips to town for supplies are made monthly, not daily or even weekly. While most people own four-wheeled drive vehicles, most of them remain parked during the winter. With a yearly snowfall of around 10 feet and snowplowing by the state in this area is almost none existent, most residents opt to use snow machines when they have to go somewhere. They are cheaper on gas and are much quicker. There is no crime, so there is no police department and fire/rescue is limited to a small volunteer fire department (There is no cell phone reception! So how do you call them when you need them? Sarah had this planned out too well.). Here, people have to help each other when something happens.
The major job opportunities in this part of Maine are logging and tourism. Rafting, which only lasts from May to October is the second largest employer. With such a small population, most of the river guides employed in this seasonal business come from other areas. The funny thing is that most of the guides came here first as guests. They fell in love with the area and the lifestyle and now come back every year to share that love with their guests. Some even have chosen to remain year round, and now make up part of that small year round population.
It had been a long day. After stowing away all of our gear, Sarah volunteered to prepare supper. After all, this was my birthday gift. Obviously I taught her well as in no time she had fires going and chicken on the grill. As she had everything under control, I decided to scout out the area. I need to know about my surroundings. Call it spending a great deal of time in the outdoors, or maybe that good Army training, but I need to know. It is a matter of keeping my daughter safe. We were in bear country and if I could smell that chicken, you know full well so could the bears. During my scout I looked for sign of bears and while doing so I came to a large area of both black and red raspberries. Chicken and berries, if this didn’t attract bears nothing would. I went back to our camp, explained to Sarah what I had found and what we needed to do once we finished eating. With that said, I grabbed a container and headed back out. I wasn’t going to pass up on fresh raspberries. With supper out of the way, we cleaned up the area, and then sat by the fire and enjoyed the evening. As we were going out early the next morning, we decided to call it a night and get some sleep.
Thankfully safety is rule one at Three Rivers Rafting (at least someone was on my side). After checking in we were all fitted with our PFD (personal floatation devices), helmets and given paddles. Now it was time for our safety briefing, which was pretty extensive. After the briefing we all boarded a bus that was to take us to the starting point. Our rafting guide was Bob Bergeron and as it was to turn out, Bob’s raft was to be the first one down the river and we were to act as the safety raft for the other three rafts if something were to happen. My thought was, “Who is going to save us?”
Sarah and I were in the front (Sarah volunteered us for that position), which meant two things. First, we were responsible to set the rhythm for the other paddlers. To get through the rapids it is very important that all the paddlers act as one, and Sarah and I were the two lead paddlers. The other paddlers were to match our strokes. With that being said, Bob was the boss and we all took our orders from him. Second, being in the front of the raft meant we were to be the ones who would be taking the brunt of the rapids. It didn’t take long for that to happen. We were being hit by so much water at times I didn’t know if I was still in the raft or not. We hit one section so hard that it lifted both Sarah and I out of the raft and thankfully we found ourselves sitting in the bottom of the raft. Our teammates and even Bob said when we hit that hole Sarah and I completely disappeared and he though we might be in the water. We owe it to our teammates for keeping us in the raft. There is a video of our trip and it shows one of our teammates reaching out and catching Sarah and keeping her in the raft. In no time six hours and 12 miles of river were behind us. We were all wet, tired and sore, but everyone had a smile on their faces.
This rafting adventure introduced people to the wonders of the natural world and how you could run a successful business based on a friendly and respectful relationship with Nature. Whether they knew it or not, everyone learned about the river. We learned about hydraulics and how the river can be a dangerous place if not shown respect. We learned about the creatures that call the area around the river home. We learned how to work as a team in order to get the job done.
At the end of the trip I was thoroughly exhausted, but I had the time of my life. I told Sarah, half-jokingly, about what her mother and I had been thinking. She thought that was the funniest thing she had even heard, but she did admit she wanted my truck.
Info: Three Rivers Whitewater Inc., P.O. Box 10, West Forks, ME 04985; 1-877-846-7238
All rafting photos courtesy of Three Rivers. All other photos by Dana Benner.