A boater capsizes in icy water at a play wave on Souadabscook Stream in Hampden during a recent Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society outing. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

For more than four decades, I’ve looked forward to spring whitewater paddling. For me, the exciting rapids announce the most dramatic seasonal change of all.

Each year beginning in March, my outdoor club, the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society, provides the opportunity and impetus to realize that aspiration with a comprehensive schedule of whitewater trips.

Again this spring, Souadabscook Stream in Hampden was one of our earliest outings. Nicknamed the “icebreaker trip” by trip coordinator Eggman DeCoster, there was no ice on the stream, but the water was frigid.

Eleven intrepid “Chowderheads” tested their skills on Class II/III whitewater with a Class IV waterfall, Grand Falls. Substantial age diversity was represented in the group that included three teenagers and one ancient mariner — that would be me.

Members of the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society (left) launch on Souadabscook Stream in Hampden. A tandem canoe team (top right) from the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society runs a rapid on Souadabscook Stream. A paddler (bottom right) plunges down Grand Falls. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

We consisted of six kayakers, two solo canoeists, a tandem canoe team and a single-blade paddler in a decked boat called a C-1. All were well-equipped for ice-cold water, most wearing dry suits, while a handful sought protection with dry tops and paddle pants. Helmets and lifejackets are required on all Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society whitewater trips.

A painted gauge on the bridge abutment below Emerson Mill Falls indicated the stream was flowing slightly under a medium level, perfect for an early spring excursion. We launched above a pushy Class II rapid a little upstream of Manning Mill Bridge. When I descended the circuitous route in my kayak, an icy wave broke over my head, a frosty reminder that this was not a day for rolling practice.

Soon after, Team Icebreaker arrived at a riverwide play wave. Eager participants determinedly practiced their surfing techniques. The C-1 boater flipped and missed his roll, experiencing the first ice cream headache of the day.

Following a plummet down the waves of Boy Scout Rapid, we approached a substantial ledge drop, Emerson Mill Falls. Most paddlers had clean descents but a solo canoeist capsized when attempting a turbulent passage on the left. Safety conscious Chowderheads were quick to affect rescue.

More surfing preceded Crawfords Falls, a technical Class III that everyone successfully navigated on the left. After negotiating feisty waves in Papermill Rapid, it was decision-making time: to paddle or walk Grand Falls.

One kayaker, a solo canoeist and a father-son tandem canoe team decided to take the plunge. The solo canoeist had a short swim at the bottom before executing a difficult self-rescue, while the others were triumphant. There were more thrills and spills before taking out at Route 1A in Hampden.

Each April, Souadabscook Stream is host to a demanding downstream canoe and kayak race. A chapter in my latest book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine,” describes the challenges encountered by a tandem canoe team competing in the Junior/Senior Class.

A canoeist (left) with the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society maneuvers around a bridge abutment on Cobbossee Stream in Gardiner. Paddlers (top right) from the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society descend one of several culverts on Togus Stream in Randolph. Canoeist (bottom right) struggle to stay upright on the St. George River. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

Three kayakers and two canoeists turned out for another Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society favorite, Togus Stream in Chelsea and Randolph. I grew up playing along Togus Stream but never knew anyone who had paddled it until the club organized a trip there a few years ago. That day, we were confronted with a succession of exciting paddling obstacles when navigating the attenuated freshet.

Descending through large culverts, ducking under bridges and low-hanging branches, navigating numerous rapids, and portaging around dangerous impediments were some of our many exploits. I provided unintended entertainment, hand-paddling a rapid after accidentally dropping my kayak paddle while attempting to take photographs in a tiny eddy.

A few days later, five seniors not acting their ages met in Henniker, New Hampshire, to paddle the Contoocook River, one the most popular whitewater excursions in New England. We enjoyed an excellent water level while twice successfully maneuvering through the stimulating 2.5-mile course that included two difficult rapids, S-Turn and Freight Train.

A tandem canoe team descends Magog Chute on the St. George River. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

Cobbossee Stream in Gardiner was the site of another exhilarating Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society whitewater escapade. The water was high when four Chowderheads launched below a dam to begin the Class III outing. After they had surfed play waves and portaged around another dam, the excitement began in earnest with about a mile of non-stop action that required a complex move around a bridge abutment. One canoeist took a short swim but quickly completed a self-rescue.

Only a couple of weeks into spring and Chowderheads have already experienced a multitude of whitewater adventures. There’s much more to come!

Ron Chase, Outdoors Contributor

Ron Chase resides in Topsham. His latest book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine” is now available at northcountrypress.com/maine-al-fresco.html. His previous books are...