The last Saturday in September is a nostalgic and nervous time in New England as many paddlers either return to the site of their initiation into the world of whitewater, or anxiously await their first true test.
The West River Fest has been a popular event for northeast boaters of all flavors for well over 20 years. “It’s the first weekend I mark on my calendar every year–it’s the paddling social event of the season,” says local kayaker Lisa Egan, 53, who trekked their this year for her record 17th West Fest.
Like many paddlers, Egan began on the lower West in 1991, a 7-mile section of Class II whitewater that serves up spectacular views of the near-peak fall foliage in Vermont. After taming the warm-up, the majority of boaters challenge themselves annually on the Upper West, a 3-mile section of nearly non-stop Class III water, with play waves and rocks to boof at every turn.
“The West release provides a local option for varied levels of paddlers to push themselves in a safe environment (with so many others around to help) that will get them to the next level in their paddling,” says Kristy Hart, 26, who trekked from Burlington, Vt., to play on the West. “The West has been a huge part of my progression in paddling; from swimming Initiation rapid to playing different lines in the Dumplings.”
A quick scan of the parking lot reveals the large draw of the West Fest. Open boats, shredders, IKs, ancient creekboats, the newest playboats and rafts all sit together as their pilots gear up for the day. Dick Marin, 68, drove three hours from Dover, N.H., to run the upper for the first time in his open canoe. “There are so many people here, if I do end up swimming, at least I know there will be plenty of help getting my boat in an eddy,” he says.
What makes the West truly special is its sporadic access. After the Army Corps of Engineers erected the Ball Mountain Flood Control Dam in 1969, scheduled releases were few and far between. Originally operating recreational releases for one weekend in April and one weekend in September, the ACOE has scaled back to its current offering of one weekend in April and one day, West Fest, in September. Since the river flows from the dam through Jamaica State Park, the park operates a full shuttle service for the September release. For $10/trip or $15/day, paddlers hand their boats to a park ranger, and hop into a pick up truck bed to be driven back up to run the river again, allowing for up to six trips in a day.
The scene is also a big attraction for West Fest. Vendors come from all over Vermont, Massachusetts and New York to set up tents in the Jamaica State Park staging area and sell off gear at end-of-season prices. The local school sells hot dogs and burgers at the shuttle line. Saturday night, a local church sponsors a spaghetti dinner to feed hungry boaters as they recover from the day. The tiny town of Jamaica and the local region receive approximately $190,000 in spending from this one day event. “This is a big part of my fall business,” says Steve Brownlee, general Manager of Umiak Outfitters located in Stowe, Vt.
Unfortunately, this may have been the last West Fest. The ACOE has moved the spring release two weeks up on the calendar, now releasing before Jamaica State Park opens in the still freezing cold early Vermont spring. The fall release has not yet been announced. Tom Christopher of the New England chapter of FLOW, is skeptical that the ACOE will release water in September 2009 at all. “The Army Corps of Engineers has indicated that they are trying to protect local fish populations, but have yet to site any relevant data,” he says. “We don’t understand why they are not communicating with recreational boaters. No one wants to hurt the wildlife, but FLOW and AW are confident that we can come to an agreement that will satisfy wildlife conservationists, paddlers and the local economy.”