Dave Micus, Plum Island Sound

July 19th, 2004

A Monstrous Big River
By Dave Micus

In my middle-years (middle if I live to be a hundred), I've lately had the feeling that my life isn't very adventurous. Oh, I fly fish, but fly-fishing and adventures aren't two terms that usually appear in the same sentence, and fly fishers sharing stories would make non-anglers comatose (just ask my wife). I decided it would be good for the soul to have an adventure or two.

But what to do? Everest has been climbed so many times that it is now, well, je jeune. I considered skydiving, but then thought, why jump out of a perfectly good airplane? "White water rafting," suggested the bride.

Perfect.

We arranged with North American Outdoor Adventure for a weekend of white water rafting in Maine, about a four-hour drive, where the Kennebec and Dead Rivers meet. They provided rooms (a rustic log cabin lodge), food, rafts and guides.

And, I hoped, an adventure.

The lodge was just outside of the town of West Forks. Town is a stretch - there was a general store (complete with jackalopes) and, across the street, a sandwich shop. That was pretty much it. But the cabin was wonderful and warm, Frost's cabin in the clearing. There were no locks on the doors (never any theft, I was told) and every boatman had a dog that meandered around the grounds, perfectly at home. These dogs were relaxed and friendly, and clearly considered themselves on equal footing with homo sapiens. They would come to you briefly for a pat on the head and then just amble off to explore what was going on elsewhere. Dogs reflect their owners, and we were in good hands with people whose dogs behaved this way.

The boatmen (and women) had the same way about them, content with themselves and their lifestyle. None seemed to be over 30. Liz ran the show, managed the extreme sporting goods store that was part of the compound, oversaw the lodge itself, and even cooked a wonderful breakfast in the morning. As if that wasn't enough, she was an expert boatman, too. Eric, one of our guides, was a quintessential river rat, long hair worn in a ponytail, a three-day growth of beard, and a placid way about him. Dave, our other guide, had the clean-cut look of a college athlete. It would be fun to have a drink with Eric, but you'd let Dave date your daughter (at least until you found out he was a rafting guide).

Our trip would be on the Kennebec River. We had a brief lecture on paddling (yes, you are expected to paddle) and safety, and there seemed to be an over-emphasis on what to do if you fell out of the boat. The river was running at 4,600 square feet per second (sfs). SFS is a volume of water about the size of a basketball, so we were asked to imagine 4,600 basketballs pouring through a chute every second, but that image escaped me. We loaded a bus and headed to the Harris dam where we would embark on our voyage. There would be seven of us in the boat, my wife, two sons, me, two others, and Dave the guide. Eric would follow with his dog, Willow, in another boat, plucking those who fell overboard out of the water.

A friend said of white water rafting, "Once you realize that you're not really going to die, it's a lot of fun." I thought it was exaggeration when he said it, now I see it was rather insightful. As we approached the first rapid--big, confused waves, a god's jacuzzi --I looked at the faces of my fellow passengers. We all had the same expression, how I imagine kamikaze pilots looked just before takeoff.

Without elaborating ponderously on every wave we pounded (and we pounded plenty), I will say it was wet, scary, exhilarating, and the most fun I've had in years. In river guide parlance, to fall out of the boat is to "take a swim," and there was one chucklehead who took a swim from our raft, but I managed to hold onto the guide ropes, and my wife and kids pulled me back in. It was a blow to the ego to look in Eric's boat and see that Willow the dog was having less trouble staying on board than I was, but I chalked that up to Willow's having a lot more experience at this kind of thing. (I later learned it was Willow's first trip).

After a three-hour ride, one third of which was class 3-4 rapids (5 is the highest that is navigable), we returned to the lodge for a cookout and a recap of the trip. There was steak, salmon, chicken, baked beans, rice and salad - a feast. While we ate I asked Dave what was the funniest thing that ever happened on a trip. He told of a rotund man who lost his swimming trunks in the rapids when he took a swim, and had to paddle naked the rest of the way (all the more embarrassing when you consider the temperature of the water and the shrinkage involved). I felt better about only falling out of the boat, Willow the dog notwithstanding.

The dam was to have a big release of water the following day, 8,000 sfs, which was something that only happened four times a year. Dave asked if we wanted to give it a go. "This might be the last chance you get at water like this," he cajoled. Hell, we were experienced rafters now, and we signed up for another white water ride, showing less sense than Willow, who chose to sit this one out. "Oh, it's a monstrous big river," said Huck Finn of the Mississippi. If Huck had seen the Kennebec this day he would have said, "Oh, it's a monstrous big (expletive deleted) river!!!!" Remembering that poor man paddling naked, I cinched the drawstrings of my bathing suit uncomfortably tight.

It seemed that we spent a good part of the trip underwater, raft and all, but Connor, our guide, kept us all on board and, after about three hours, we reached the take out point. Impossibly, it was even more rousing than the day before. Afterward, we sat down to another delectable meal with the adrenalin heavy in the air and everyone chattering about the trip, not wanting to let it go. But, except for the boatmen, we had to.

On the ride home, my wife Sue asked our teen-aged sons how they rated the trip on a scale of one to ten.

"Twelve," they both replied.

I'd give it a 15, but, then again, I'm only a fly fisher who hasn't had many adventures. ~ Dave

About Dave:

Dave Micus lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He is an avid striped bass fly fisherman, writer and instructor. He writes a fly fishing column for the Port City Planet newspaper of Newburyport, MA (home of Plum Island and Joppa Flats) and teaches a fly fishing course at Boston University.


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