Kayakers portage up Ball Mountain Dam on the West River. Contributed photo

Traversing Ball Mountain Dam on the West River in southeastern Vermont is a serious workout.  Carrying a canoe or kayak doubles the fun.  Starting at a parking area below the massive dirt and gravel gravity dam, paddlers load boats on their shoulders and ascend abruptly for several hundred feet to the top.  The climb is not the end of the exertion.  The descent approximates a thousand feet to a pool formed by water gushing from the bottom of the dam creating challenging whitewater below.  Intrepid boaters negotiate narrow switchbacks carrying their heavy burdens down to the first rapid, Initiation.  

The advantage of this prodigious effort is essentially two rapids as Jamaica State Park provides a shuttle for the remainder of the 3-mile Class III section of whitewater.  Yet scores of boaters make that arduous choice.  Why? 

My first West River fall dam release event was exactly 30 years ago.  A frosty weekend in a mountainous environment, several times I stood in long lines waiting for the park shuttle vehicle.  On each occasion jostling for position with scores of frozen paddlers, the ordeal culminated in a blustery open truck ride.  Having never met a line I liked, I resolved not to return. 

For many years, I remained true to that resolution.  Encouraged by my friend Ryan who promised an option to the shuttle that offered a better paddling experience, I relented.  The alternative was the portage over Ball Mountain Dam.  As a result, an autumn West River excursion has become an almost annual pilgrimage for me and many other Maine Chowderheads with the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society. 

Reserving a campsite at Jamaica State Park substantially enhances the adventure providing boaters access to two separate river runs; the upper Class III and the lower Class II.  Truly hardy river rats can walk from their tents to stand endlessly in line for the park shuttle.  My preference, drive to the dam. The park also offers several hiking trails and a former railroad bed follows the upper West providing running, walking and biking opportunities.  During release weekend, vendors sell boats and whitewater gear.  In short, it’s a celebration of an outdoor paradise. 

This year, my friend Jean reserved a deluxe campsite for eight adjacent to the river that included a lean-to, space for several tents, and a large picnic table.   Since most of us were retired, Team Crotchety seemed an accurate appellation.  About a dozen younger noisier Chowderheads were appropriately located on the other side of the campground.    

On the first day of the release, eight of us were up early on a sunny morning for the strenuous trek over the dam.  Ahead of the crowd, only a handful of paddlers enthusiastically gathered in the calm water above Initiation Rapid.  While not complex, Initiation is the steepest longest falls on the river.  Swiftly tumbling through a confusing maze of barely submerged boulders and boat flipping holes, everyone had a successful venture.    

After a half mile, we passed the park shuttle launch.  Still in advance of the multitudes, hundreds of boaters would soon follow.  The upper West is a continuum of entertaining rapids almost all of them containing numerous play spots.  Two years ago, I replaced a wave surfing kayak with a more comfortable version that alleviated irritation in my arthritic hips.  The tradeoff is more comfort but diminished performance.  Envious of my spirited companions, I contemplated bringing a play boat next year and enduring the pain. 

Following an abundance of exhilarating paddling, the most technical rapid on the river, The Dumplings, was encountered.  Huge boulders create several attenuated channels that topple around and between them, providing numerous opportunities for upset.  Scores of park campers hike the path to an overlook to view the excitement, some hoping for carnage.  Our venerable group disappointed any disaster seekers acing it.  

Navigating several more rapids, Team Crotchety arrived at our riverside campsite for lunch.   Temperatures had risen to the high seventies, unheard of during my history with the West.   Following a leisurely respite, it was déjà vu all over again.  In the past, we’ve often completed three trips, once four.  No more.  I’ve aged beyond that excess, two is my limit.  After a nap in my tent, I biked to The Dumplings to take photos of the youthful Chowderheads completing late afternoon descents.  

That evening, we enjoyed a communal dinner reminiscing about our day on the river.  Aware of my predilection for crème horns, Ryan brought me a four-pack for dessert.  An otherwise perfect day, some scoundrel stole a crème horn! 

Author of “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals – New England,” Ron Chase resides in Topsham.  Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com or he can be reached at [email protected]. 

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