More than three dozen whitewater paddlers in more than 30 boats recently assembled at Webb’s Campground in West Forks on a beautiful summer day. They gathered for the annual Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society Throwback Cruise on the Dead River.
Joining the Kennebec River at The Forks after 16 miles of almost continuous Class I through Class IV whitewater, the Dead is one of the most popular whitewater outings in the northeastern United States and a society favorite. Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society founders pioneered early descents on the Dead more than 50 years ago.
Each year, 18 Dead releases are scheduled from Long Falls Dam at the outlet of Flagstaff Lake. The levels vary from 1,300 to 6,000 cubic feet per second. During a typical year, the society hosts numerous club trips on the Dead.
In 2017, frequent Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society trip coordinator Kyle Duckworth introduced a novel river experience on the Dead designated the Throwback Cruise. The whitewater adventure is a celebration of old-time boats and gear and the group’s consequential Dead River history. Participants are encouraged to paddle crafts from the 1980s or earlier. A relatively low 1,800 cubic feet per second release is selected for the event, so it is also intended to provide new paddlers with the opportunity to attempt first descents with the support of veteran club members.
Enthusiastic Chowderheads loaded a wide array of boats on the campground’s shuttle trailers for the drive to the top. Included were a 1970s Old Town Tripper tandem canoe, a vintage Blue Hole Starburst solo canoe and some Perception Dancer kayaks from the 1980s. The first principle of a leader is to set an example. Kyle sported a circa 1965 aluminum canoe outfitted with inflated tire inner tubes for floatation. An elderly paddler, I have throwback boats, but they’re all canoes, which are problematic because I can no longer kneel in them. Instead, I brought my big volume 10.5-foot expedition kayak, which looks something like an old-time kayak with a pretty new face.
During the lengthy shuttle ride to the put-in at the outlet of Spencer Stream, whitewater adventures past were the primary topics of conversation. Dead River veterans related river anecdotes, many including scary mishaps, while newcomers listened with interest and angst.
The small launch area was far too crowded and chaotic to organize a trip that included more than 30 boats, so paddlers were instructed to meet at a beach at the bottom of the first rapid, Spencer Rips. After plummeting through the Class III waves, everyone congregated next to shore where Kyle announced river plans and safety protocols. Experienced paddlers were introduced, and Dead River debutants were urged to follow them through the more difficult rapids. Lead and sweep boats were assigned.
Then the fun began. Paddlers navigated through some easy whitewater followed by Quattro Pitch, where more skilled boaters enjoyed some stimulating surfing. Just beyond, the complicated 1.1-mile Minefield Rapid was negotiated before stopping for lunch at Hayden’s Landing.
Seasoned Chowderheads led the way through complex Hayden’s Rapid, where a multitude of potential hazards were avoided. Everyone relaxed during a relatively placid stretch called the Doldrums. This was the calm before the storm as the difficulty level soon began to increase appreciably.
After stopping to rest at the mouth of Enchanted Stream, paddlers encountered substantial waves and a gnarly hole at Elephant Rock. A couple of minor mishaps occurred but were quickly remedied. Shortly after, Mile Long, the longest rapid on the river, began. A baffling assortment of large waves and boulders caused a canoeist to capsize but a successful rescue was affected.
A series of easier rapids led us to the most formidable descents on the Dead, Upper and Lower Poplar Falls. Paddlers were tiring and mistakes more common. Kyle organized a team to guide the less experienced boaters through these two exacting whitewater challenges. Upper Poplar went smoothly, but difficulties were encountered on Lower Poplar. Fortunately, accomplished Chowderheads trained in swift water rescue reunited errant paddlers with their boats.
The remaining float to West Forks was a time to reflect on our unique river excursion — a throwback for some and a stimulating introduction to the world of whitewater for others.
Read about more exciting trips on the Dead River and rousing exploits on eight additional Maine whitewater streams and rivers in my book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine.”