Forty-five years ago, I experienced my first spring paddle on the Sheepscot River between Whitefield and Head of Tide with my friend, Bob Smith. Novice paddlers, we navigated an 18-foot tandem canoe wearing jeans, wool tops and old sneakers offering little defense from the icy water. We capsized in a Class II rapid about a half-mile from the takeout at Head of Tide. Although borderline hypothermic when we took off the river, I was hooked. I’ve returned almost every spring since.
A couple of years later, my wife, Nancy, and I flipped while attempting to cross a rapid near the put-in. Recently purchased wetsuits provided some added protection from the cold water. Our mistake was fundamental: We didn’t understand how to ferry a canoe. An experienced bystander explained the technique. I haven’t missed that ferry since.
A century ago, this area of the Sheepscot was a bustling place. The Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington Railway operated a steam-powered narrow gauge railroad between Wiscasset, Albion and Waterville that paralleled the river. The train ceased operating during the Great Depression but sections of the former railroad bed can be observed from several locations when paddling and remnants of a railroad bridge are passed part way through the trip.
The Sheepscot is a spring favorite of the Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society. When club vice-president Eggman DeCoster announced a trip on the second day of April, a dozen canoeists and kayakers immediately signed on.
The weather was cold and breezy, but sunny when an exuberant band of Chowderheads — mostly attired in state-of-the-art dry suits — assembled at the takeout in a parking area adjacent to the dam at Head of Tide. Eggman organized a shuttle to the put-in located at a washed-out dam in Whitefield. Sufficient vehicles were left behind to transport drivers to the top after finishing the excursion.
After carrying boats around a challenging rapid below the dam, we prepared to launch on river right. Some of us reminisced about descending the intimidating falls in years past. No one volunteered to attempt the demanding endeavor this frosty day. Instead, we focused on completing the ferry move that Nancy and I bungled decades ago. Everyone in our group successfully executed the maneuver.
Easy rapids and a fast current punctuated the beginning of our outing. The minor obstacles were perfect for catching eddies, practicing ferries and surfing waves. An added benefit, high riverbanks sheltered us from gusty winds.
After a half-mile, a bend in the river marked our arrival at a short rapid. Old railroad bridge abutments narrow the river at this location creating some stimulating surfing waves. Many in the group gathered in an eddy next to one wave to take advantage of surfing opportunities.
A lengthy stretch of flat water led to a 2-mile section of Class II whitewater that begins just after passing the remains of the former railroad bed on the right. That’s where the fun began in earnest.
Enthusiastic paddlers negotiated through wave trains, surfed holes, ferried around boulders and other obstacles, and congregated in large eddies to discuss their latest whitewater exploits. Two boaters had short swims but were quickly reunited with their vessels. For a brief moment in time, all of the distractions of the outside world were forgotten.
As the rapids diminished in difficulty, we rounded an abrupt turn in the river and the dam at the takeout could be seen in the distance.
The dam has changed dramatically in recent years. The western side was removed in 2019 to facilitate fish swimming upstream. The narrow aperture created a Class II descent that requires progressing through unpredictable currents in a comparatively steep gradient. A sizable breaking wave forms at the bottom. No problems were experienced by this capable group of Chowderheads.
My hands were frozen when we arrived at the takeout, so I quickly exited and carried my kayak up the newly constructed stone stairway to the parking area. Other hardier paddlers spent time tempting fate trying to surf the steep surging wave. There were a couple of close calls but no swims.
Our exceptional day on the Sheepscot was the perfect beginning to what should be another great year of paddling Maine’s rivers, streams, lakes and rugged coastline. My book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine,” narrates nine more exciting Maine whitewater escapades and 16 additional paddling trips.