Whitewater rafting is just about the most exciting way to experience the Maine wilderness. Hurtling down a river in a raft with half a dozen others is the all-natural version of a roller coaster. With a number of rafting outfitters and three of the most reliable rafting rivers in the East, Maine is a rafter’s paradise. Cooling temperatures and some upcoming high-water releases mean that there’s no better time to try the sport.

Boating and rafting on Maine rivers has been a form of transportation for ages — longer, in fact, than horseback riding or many other forms of travel. The Maine economy also relied on the flowing rivers, with log drives bringing wood down toward the coast. It’s only in the past few decades that whitewater rafting has become a popular leisure activity.

Prior to 1976, log drivers were moving about 300,000 cords of wood a year down the Kennebec River. Changes to state law made it illegal to float logs down the Kennebec, helping to open up Maine rivers for rafters. Later that year, the first commercial rafting trip traveled the upper Kennebec. In the 1970s and ’80s, state legislation regulating safety and licensing established standards for the commercial rafting companies on Maine rivers.

An allocation system was also put into place, regulating the number of people who could be on the rivers on any given day. This system wasn’t a cap on supply to increase demand, but a move to protect the rivers of Maine from overuse.

The rules governing whitewater rafting in Maine have helped the sport grow over the years. The Maine Warden Service reported just under 21,000 passengers in 1983. By 2009, that number had ballooned to 61,337.

Commercial rafting in Maine is focused on three rivers — the upper Kennebec River, the West Branch of the Penobscot River, and lower Dead River. One feature shared by the three rivers is hydroelectric dams above the spots where rafting companies “put in” for their trips. The dams, which conduct daily water releases, ensure that the rivers have enough water for rafting even during lean, dry summers.

The Dead River has a number of “high volume” releases every year. There are two scheduled in September, on Sept. 2 and Sept. 15. These big releases mean consistent action for the 16-mile stretch of the Dead that rafting outfits run. The Kennebec River has two September turbine releases, sending out water at 8,000 cubic feet per second, on Sept. 8 and Sept. 22. These Kennebec River “flush trips” offer the biggest rapids possible in Maine.

Though rafting trips vary from company to company, there is an outline that most outfitters follow. After an early morning start at the rafting company’s base camps (most are based in The Forks), visitors will get a safety orientation and equipment, including helmets and life preservers. Since the base camps are typically downriver from the whitewater routes, shuttles take rafters and their equipment up the river to put in. The trips down the 12-plus-mile rivers are full-day affairs, and usually include a stop for lunch along the way.

You might suspect that whitewater is a young person’s game, with only teens and twenty-somethings up for fighting punishing rapids. Not so, according to Raft Maine (www.raftmaine.com), an association of Maine’s professional whitewater rafting outfitters. It points out that “people of all ages from 8 to 80 with no previous experience” can go whitewater rafting. That said, most outfitters enforce a minimum suggested age — usually 12 to 15 years old — on some of the burlier rapids.

Whitewater guides classify rapids in six categories, ranging from Class I (gently flowing water with few rapids and no obstacles) to Class VI (nearly impossible, life-threatening rapids only attempted by professionals). In Maine, thrill-seekers can find rapids up to Class V. For those less inclined to raging rapids, there are a number of easier trips that put in partway down the rivers.

Though I can easily count my times on whitewater on one hand (with fingers left over), it does little to diminish my enthusiasm for the sport. Rafting combines the excitement of a roller coaster, an invigorating workout, and the breathtaking beauty of Maine’s woods and rivers. While I’d suggest fitness and bravery before signing up, Raft Maine is correct that rafting is within the reach of people of all ages and experience levels. With summer waning and the leaves starting to change, I can’t imagine a better time to hit the rapids.

Josh Christie is a freelance writer and lifetime outdoors enthusiast. He shares column space in Outdoors with his father, John Christie. Josh can be reached at:

[email protected]