A group of paddlers move ahead of rafts on the Kennebec River. Ron Chase photos

On the second day of the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society weekend of paddling near West Forks, the schedule was exclusively whitewater. While a handful of Chowderheads planned to navigate the Dead River, most chose outings on the Kennebec.

The Kennebec Gorge below Harris Dam was the starting point for two trips. Releases from the dam were the source for both exciting whitewater excursions. One group planned to arrive early and negotiate a low-volume voyage popularly called the “fish flow.” The Class II/III fish flow begins at 350 cubic feet per second (CFS) and climbs incrementally until it reaches the rafting level at 10 a.m. A second team of whitewater boaters would test their skills on the Class IV 5,000 CFS rafting release.

A shredder team navigates big waves on the Kennebec River.

Nancy and I announced a Class II/III trip that starts about 4 miles downriver from Harris Dam at Carry Brook and continues for 9 miles to West Forks. Our plan was to meet the fish flow crew and catch the rafting release bubble expected to arrive around 11:30 a.m.

We left a shuttle vehicle in West Forks and a kayaker joined Nancy and me for the drive to Carry Brook. The Carry Brook excursion begins with a steep carry down a long twisting staircase to the river. On a typical summer weekend, the Kennebec River between Harris Dam and West Forks is a bustling place. Kayakers, canoeists, inflatable boaters and rafters were climbing and descending the busy stairway when we toted our boats down. The rafting release had arrived by the time we reached the river, and the fish flow contingent was anxiously waiting to paddle.

Gathered next to the shore was a mass of rafts loading supplies and exchanging passengers for the remainder of their journey. We would paddle amongst several rafting companies for our entire outing. The prospect of collisions with large rafts in difficult rapids was a concern. Smaller crafts are always the losers when such incidents occur. Our strategy was to ensure there was adequate space separating us prior to entering the more demanding rapids.

Our enthusiastic group paddled an assortment of boats. Ten Chowderheads navigated three solo kayaks, a solo canoe, a tandem canoe, a tandem inflatable kayak, and Nancy and I were in a shredder. Nancy’s shredder is a two-person inflatable boat propelled by single blade paddles. Several years had elapsed since we last shared a shredder, so we expected to be challenged, especially by the large waves in Big Black Brook Rapid.


Launching amidst two rafting companies, we immediately attempted to separate ourselves in preparation for the longest, most difficult sector of whitewater of the day: extensive Big Black Brook Rapid. We slowed to let one company move ahead while continuing a pace sufficient to stay in front of the other.

An inflatable kayak prepares to enter Big Black Brook Rapid.

Proceeding around a sweeping right turn, we could see large swells marking the beginning of Big Black. Just below, the powerful current careened against sheer rock walls on river right resulting in a long stretch of substantial exploding waves. Most of us rode the left side of the wave train while a few of the more daring paddlers caught eddies next to the wall and attempted to surf the surging waves.

Chowderheads skirted a large, boat-flipping hole with the unpleasant moniker Dory Eater as Big Black continued. More excitement followed as the protracted rapid ended with a feisty passage through breaking waves and gnarly-looking pour-overs. Everyone in our group successfully navigated the complex network of obstacles.

From that point, the difficulty level gradually diminished and the paddling agenda could be aptly described as “different strokes for different folks.” Some surfed and played while others floated and socialized. Particularly noteworthy was the skilled father-daughter tandem canoe team of Ryan and Krea Galway who put on a wave-surfing clinic.

The weather was superb, the water level excellent and the company even better. It was a great way to end an exceptional weekend of paddling escapades.

Read about many more exciting whitewater exploits on Maine rivers and streams in my book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine.”

Ron Chase resides in Topsham. His latest book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine” is available at northcountrypress.com/maine-al-fresco.html or in bookstores and through online distributors. His previous books are “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals – New England.” Visit his website at ronchaseoutdoors.com, or he can be reached at ronchaseoutdoors@comcast.net.

A group of paddlers move ahead of rafts on the Kennebec River.

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