Fall whitewater paddling is a stimulating but rare endeavor.
Shweta and Ryan Galway complete a rare tandem canoe descent of Final Drop on the Cathance River in Maine. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

Fall whitewater paddling is a stimulating but rare endeavor. An unreliable but necessary ingredient is lots of rain. After several arid autumns, this year we hit the jackpot. A succession of heavy rain storms brought the rivers and streams up and kept them high for several days.

My paddling friends in our outdoor club, the Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society, responded with enthusiasm. The U.S. Geological Survey online gauges were consulted to determine the best available options.

One of my favorite whitewater outings is Webb River. A 5-mile section in Carthage offers a multitude of challenging Class II/III rapids with a couple approaching Class IV. My new book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine,” narrates a descent by Webb River legend Russ Moody. Eight additional exciting whitewater rivers are featured including the Cathance in Topsham.

The USGS gauges for the Sandy and Swift rivers were high, indicating the Webb would be a fun run. The weather was warm and sunny when longtime outdoor friends Suzanne and Gary Cole met me on Route 142 in Carthage for an exceptional day of paddling. Following a portage down to the river on an old woods road, we launched at the top of a steep narrow rapid.

After surfing waves and negotiating exhilarating whitewater for 3 miles, we entered a more difficult circuitous sector called Schoolhouse Rapid. Schoolhouse requires navigating around three sharp turns in feisty waves while avoiding boulders and pour overs. The excitement diminished after passing under a bridge in Berry Mills. Downriver at the end of a shallow twisting rapid, we found the best surfing wave of the day. Easier whitewater continued to a steep descent in a boulder garden that required complex maneuvering. A steep embankment at the bottom was our takeout.

On the return home, I checked the painted gauge for the Cathance River. The acceptable range to paddle the 4.5-mile Class III/IV creek with a Class V falls is 1.8 to 4 feet. The gauge level was 2.7, so I announced a trip for the following day.

Two kayakers and a canoeist joined me for a rollicking Cathance excursion. It was the first descent for two participants. After leaving a vehicle at the takeout in Head of Tide Park, we shuttled to the put-in, a landing adjacent to Interstate 295. The gauge had risen to 3 feet; a robust level.

After two moderately steep straightforward rapids, we entered an extended complex descent called Z Turn. Successful completion requires negotiating a circuitous route through a narrow gorge and over a blind pitch. Below is a river wide hydraulic that must be navigated tight right. Two in the group missed the right maneuver, capsized and swam. Swimming is an unpleasant hazard of the sport.

Once the swimmers were reunited with their boats, we proceeded to the first of five cataracts. Twisting First Drop began around the next bend. Everyone successfully rode pushy waves far right down a precarious abrupt left turn.

Intimidating Second Drop was next. Paddlers must angle from left to right in the constricted passage and plunge down a precipitous pitch in order to avoid an undercut ledge on the left called Room of Doom. The canoeist carried while we three kayakers successfully escaped a visit with the gloomy cavern.

A pitch I call Boulder Pile soon followed. The menacing boulders are at the bottom. Starting left center, the three kayakers nosedived down a rocky slide and persisted far left over some large submerged rocks. Unable to negotiate the route left, the canoeist slammed sideways into the boulder pile and caromed to the finish.

A short distance beyond, we stopped to scout the Class V called Little Gorilla or, by some, more euphemistically Magic Carpet Ride. The attenuated falls tumbles through a deep gorge before making an extreme left turn down a long shallow slide into a daunting foam pile. Two kayakers made it look easy. It’s not. The canoeist and I walked a well-worn path on the right.

Final Drop is a slightly easier version of Little Gorilla. A complicated entrance ends with a steep shallow slide into a very sticky hole. The preferable route is to be as far right as possible at the bottom. The canoeist walked, and we kayakers stayed upright despite bumpy rides. I left a line of red paint on the ledge bouncing down extreme right.

Two days of exceptional fall paddling completed, more rain brought additional outings on the Cathance and an exciting descent of Ducktrap River.

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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...