I was scheduled to lead a late April Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society whitewater trip, but water levels were low throughout most of the state. However, my research of U.S. Geological Survey online gauge readings indicated the eastern coastal watershed was still at normal spring volumes.
Apparently almost no one believed me as only Mark and Asa Berry signed up for a paddle on the West Branch of the Union River in Hancock County.
This was a multi-generational excursion as 14-year-old Asa is 59 years my junior, which makes him young enough to be … well, nevermind.
The sector we chose begins at Great Pond and flows for about 11 miles south to Amherst. The Union used to be a popular club trip, probably because there is a fair amount of flat water; not so much in recent years.
Rated Class III/IV by the Appalachian Mountain Club Maine River Guide, I think it overstates the difficulty. With the exception of two rapids and two pitches, the whitewater is easier.
My river level prediction was confirmed when the three of us met at the takeout just upstream from the Tannery Road Bridge in Amherst. Located adjacent to the final rapid, it was obvious we had sufficient volume since the steep twisting descent appeared to be a handful.
Launching on Great Pond, we encountered easy rapids when leaving the outlet followed by an expanse of flat water. The excitement began with a continuum of Class II/III whitewater cluttered with several fallen trees. After negotiating a sweeping left turn, we enjoyed a rollicking ride down Hell’s Gate Falls.
Calm water led us to a tricky 5-foot ledge drop obstructed on the right by an accumulation of debris. After careful examination, everyone successfully took the plunge far left. More flat water continued to a similar pitch but this time we tumbled down from right to center.
Watching us navigate the final rapid at Tannery Road was a learning experience for Asa. His Dad showed him how to run it properly while I provided instruction on what not to do by ending my plummet swimming out of an unforgiving hole.
Advice to Asa: follow your Dad.
For many years, friends have extolled the attributes of the East Branch of the Union River, but I’d never had the opportunity to paddle it. Already in the area, this was my chance as Mark and club president Helen Hess were veterans of the scenic stream and available the following day.
Meeting at the takeout for the East Branch on Route 179 a little south of Aurora, Helen and Mark plotted a course to an obscure access near the outlet of Spectacle Pond. After bushwhacking over fallen trees and through a dense wooded area, we embarked from the western terminus of the pond.
The river begins with a rapid charmingly called Poison Ivy Pitch. Foregoing any desire to land for obvious reasons, we successfully boat scouted the falls. Bog River soon flowed in on the left. During the ensuing flat water, we observed a large moose feeding in a swampy area. This was the first of several exciting wildlife sightings during the expedition.
Shortly after, we maneuvered through complicated Ledge Falls without incident. A two mile tract of whitewater called The Ramp followed. We found the serpentine stretch to be a rousing paddling endeavor. The Middle Branch of the Union entered on the right at the end of The Ramp, adding significant volume.
Exhilarating whitewater began immediately. In an eddy at the bottom of one rapid, a playful otter entertained us for a brief time. Turning abruptly left at a small island, we approached a Class III falls, Island Rip. From an upstream eddy, we observed a fallen tree blocking the top of the rapid. Closer inspection indicated there was no safe means of passage, so everyone carried. Dodging holes and avoiding boulders, the long run-out below the congestion was great fun.
In calm water downstream of an easy rapid, we serendipitously experienced our third captivating wildlife encounter of the day, a large beaver swimming directly in front of Helen. Obviously annoyed by our presence, the furry rodent loudly slapped its tail before disappearing underwater. The flat water continued to a spirited rapid that flowed under the bridge at the Route 179 takeout.
During our two exceptional days on the Union, we enjoyed the best of spring paddling: great weather, exciting rapids, marvelous scenery and numerous wildlife sightings.