Little Suncook River in south-central New Hampshire is a tiny whitewater creek more aptly called a stream or brook. Located in Epsom, the exciting descent flows west from Northwood Lake along Route 4 before entering Suncook River east of Concord.
With the exception of spring runoff and after heavy rain, the diminutive freshet is rarely navigable. However, each fall the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services releases water from the Northwood Lake Dam. Paddling the release has become a popular fall whitewater tradition. For many years, Ryan Galway has organized and led a Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society Little Suncook River trip during the release.
The rousing 3-mile excursion begins with a long challenging Class IV rapid immediately below the Northwood Lake Dam. Downriver from the falls, easier whitewater continues to Bixby Pond. At the end of the pond, an approximately 8-foot vertical dam must be run or carried. Below, several technical Class III rapids follow to the takeout in the hamlet of Gossville.
Due to the steep gradient, paddlers must constantly be on the alert navigating the many twists and turns in narrow channels. Debris such as trees and branches in the river called strainers are common hazards. Ducking under low hanging branches is often necessary. The potential dangers are a stimulating part of the attraction for many boaters.
Again this year, Ryan organized a Little Suncook River trip. Nine Chowderheads met in Epsom to take on the whitewater challenge. Although we were unable to confirm the actual volume, everyone agreed it was higher than normal.
After running shuttle, we scouted Bixby Pond Dam and the lengthy intimidating Class IV rapid. With a plan in mind, we launched below the dam. There are two approaches to the first rapid. Since the left was cluttered with debris, everyone elected to take the circuitous attenuated passage on the right through a densely wooded sector.
Ryan’s son, Mason, went first while the rest of us followed. We were well-spaced to avoid colliding with one another in the rapid.
Advancing out of the alders, Mason disappeared over the first pitch. Next in line, my singular focus was negotiating through the many obstacles. I missed my planned route to the right of a wave billowing over a large boulder and log, and rode up on the side instead. High bracing into the foam pile, I slid off. My remaining goal was to avoid several boat flipping holes by running generally right of them. I swiftly passed one after the other. Adjacent to the last one, I kissed the left side of a sharp rock and bounced over some shallow ledges before reuniting with Mason in an eddy. The remainder of our group soon joined us.
While relaxing in the eddy one kayaker remarked, “It’s like paddling down a large drainage ditch.” Everyone assumed the most demanding impediment of the day was behind us.
Feisty waves and sharp turns continued under a canopy of low hanging trees to Bixby Pond. The short traverse across the pond was quickly accomplished. Since no one opted to carry around the dam, we lined up to take the leap. A good Samaritan was standing on the left bank to signal when it was all clear. One paddler after another vanished over the edge. Each time, the helpful observer gave us a thumb’s up. My jump went smoothly — plunging into the calm water below and bracing up without flipping.
The Chowderheads plunge through the rapids on the Little Suncook River in New Hampshire. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase
The excitement quickly recommenced. After negotiating through several tricky Class III descents, we arrived at the top of a rapid that was dangerously blocked by a fallen tree. A kayaker accidentally broached upside down against the tree and exited his boat swimming downriver. The rest of us went into rescue mode.
Ryan boofed over the low end of the tree in his canoe and pursued the swimmer, rescuing him. Three of us went ashore to attempt recovery of the kayak still pinned under the tree. Eggman DeCoster entered the rapid on a safety line while carrying another rope to attach to the kayak. Simultaneously, an empty canoe slammed into the kayak. The collision freed the kayak but the canoe was now wedged under the tree. Our determined companion waded farther out into the turbulent water and attached the rope to the canoe. We hurriedly pulled them both ashore. Downriver, Ryan recovered the wayward kayak. Trained in swift water rescue, we Chowderheads take care of our own!
The rest of the outing was rather ho-hum.