A canoeist paddles Upper Poplar Falls on the Dead River. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

A character in Kenneth Roberts’ historical novel “Arundel” remarked of Maine’s Dead River, “[It’s] no more dead than a bobcat after a rabbit.” Joining the Kennebec River in The Forks after 16 miles of almost continuous Class I through IV whitewater, the Dead is in actuality the west branch of the Kennebec and one of the most popular whitewater runs in northeastern United States.

Beginning in small lakes and ponds in western Maine, the north and south branches of the Dead converge at Flagstaff Lake in Stratton. What currently constitutes the lake was once a calm section of the Dead River that meandered circuitously for 20 miles, hence the name Dead.

In 1950, Long Falls Dam was built, forming the lake and creating a reservoir that regulates flow primarily for hydropower purposes downriver on the Kennebec. An added benefit, scheduled dam releases provide whitewater throughout the dry summer months. As a result, the Dead has become a mecca for enthusiastic boaters in search of paddling thrills and spills.

My first trip on the Dead was in June 1986. Considering ourselves competent canoeists prepared for the challenges of the consequential river, a co-worker, and I decided to test our skills in a tandem canoe. The experience was an epiphany.

Beginning at the usual Spencer Stream put-in, my companion and I were quickly in over our heads. Even though the dam release was a low one, we struggled mightily from the outset. Every rapid seemed a bewildering assortment of waves surging around and between huge boulders with no obvious route. At about the halfway point, a flip resulted in a short swim.

Continuously laboring to stay afloat, the last and reputedly the most difficult rapid, Lower Poplar Falls, weighed heavily on our minds. Entering the intimidating torrent, we were immediately out of control, plowing over a couple of ledge drops and filling up in the hydraulics below. Overflowing with water and devoid of stability, a dramatic upset followed. Desperately holding onto our boat and paddles, an enormous effort was required to drag the canoe ashore after swimming much of the falls.

In the more than three decades since my first descent, I’ve navigated the Dead an estimated 200 times, achieving what I call the “Deadhead” distinction. Obsessive compulsive disorder might be the clinical diagnosis.

A canoeist enters Lower Poplar Falls on the Dead River. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

One particularly memorable trip was on Nov. 10, 1991. For all but a few hardcore paddlers, the whitewater season had ended. However, when my frequent accomplice, Jonathan Wheaton, and I obtained news of a special dam release on the Dead with a warm sunny weather forecast, we couldn’t resist the temptation. The result was an exceptional last day of paddling on that now distant fall exploit.

Due to the pandemic, almost everything in 2020 has been an ordeal. That’s been true with whitewater paddling. An added difficulty for me has been my ongoing battle with arthritis. Despite the obstacles, I managed to salvage multiple whitewater days by devising coronavirus safe trips and obtaining cortisone treatments for my hips. In mid-September, extreme hip pain forced me to take off the Dead. It appeared to be my last paddling day of the year.

Fast forward to November; I had recently received another hip injection and two young enthusiastic members of my paddling club, Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society, announced an unexpected Dead release was scheduled for Nov. 10, exactly 29 years after my outing with Jonathan. It was deja vu. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for one remaining excursion and the chance to test the efficacy of my latest treatment.

After convincing my young friends to paddle a shorter version beginning at a location called the Gravel Pit, I signed on. At 73, I’m one of the older boaters in the whitewater community. For years, I’ve recreated with people young enough to be my children. These youngsters qualified for grandson status.

Similar to the 1991 trip, the weather was phenomenal, sunny with temperatures in the 70s. When Jonathan and I paddled, he was in a kayak and I a canoe. On this trip, my counterparts were in canoes and I in a kayak. A few years ago, a knee replacement ended my whitewater canoeing career as kneeling is a prerequisite.

I’m not sure if it was deference to my age or if my friends wanted to follow me in the rapids, but I was in the lead. We had a glorious day. Beginning on a placid stretch called the Doldrums; it was the calm before the storm. After passing Enchanted Stream, our intrepid band navigated long twisting Elephant Rock Rapid, eluding a gnarly hole at the bottom. Beyond, a maze of boulders was negotiated in Horsefly Rapid before entering Mile Long.

The longest rapid on the river, Mile Long ends with a baffling assortment of exploding waves, many concealing boat-flipping holes. No problems were experienced by our multi-generational trio.

After a lunch break, while socially distancing of course, some exceptional waves were surfed at Spruce Ledge before successfully maneuvering through formidable Upper Poplar Falls. The excitement ended with a calamity-free, exhilarating descent of complex Lower Poplar Falls. After avoiding numerous menacing obstacles in “Big Pop,” I celebrated completion of my last paddle of 2020 with minimal hip issues.

Given the uncertainties of the pandemic, no one knows what the future holds. My plan is to continue ministering to the arthritis while spending the winter mountain hiking and cross-country skiing with my many senior co-conspirators and our younger friends. In the spring, we’ll be back on the rivers and streams. Souadabscook Stream in Hampden is an early favorite.

Ron Chase of Topsham is the author of “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals – New England.” His latest book, “The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine,” is scheduled to be released by North Country Press in 2021. Read about more of his adventures on his BDN blog, Seniors Not Acting Their Age. Visit his website at ronchaseoutdoors.com or he can be reached at ronchaseoutdoors@comcast.net.

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