Each fall, Horace Lake Dam in Weare, New Hampshire, releases copious amounts of water into the narrow North Branch of the Piscataquog River.
The drawdown is usually scheduled for mid-October. The result is about five miles of Class III/IV whitewater that tumbles through a scenic rural environment.
Participation in the recreational release has become an annual pilgrimage for many New England whitewater enthusiasts.
For several years, my friend, Ryan Galway, has led a Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society trip on the Piscataquog during the release. He announced the whitewater outing again this year.
Ten of us met at a convenience store in Dunbarton, New Hampshire, on a cool, partly sunny mid-October morning. Club members from Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine were among the participants. Our ages varied from 13 to 76; as usual, I was the senior citizen in the group.
Remarkably, 13-year-old Krea Galway paddled with her Dad, Ryan. They were the first tandem canoe team I’ve witnessed paddle the Piscataquog.
We drove to a takeout next to a bridge on East Weare Road in Weare. Traveling the rough dirt road required fording a flooded area.
After doubling up boats and paddlers, we left shuttle vehicles and proceeded to Horace Lake Dam. On the way, we stopped to scout Buzzell Hill Rapid, one of several difficult descents and the only one easily viewed from the road.
It looked challenging.
The put-in was a busy place. With one exception, we unloaded our canoes and kayaks and carried down a long, steep embankment to the river.
Ryan’s son, Mason, chose a much more exciting alternative, a “seal launch” down the precipitous hill. He stayed upright for his thrilling bumpy ride that ended a few feet short of the river.
Stimulating rapids began immediately on the Piscataquog. After a short distance, we turned sharply left and arrived at the first difficult descent, Slab City Ledge.
The site of a former dam, veterans of prior outings knew starting left was the preferred route to safely negotiate the eight-foot drop. Still, turbulent waves tossed us about in the run-out.
The pushy current propelled us through several easier rapids to Chase Mill Rapid. From the top, a group of kayakers could be seen removing a downed tree blocking the primary channel. We waited in an eddy until the dangerous obstruction was eliminated.
Paddlers still needed to duck beneath another low-hanging tree just beyond.
Woodbury Rapid, a baffling cluttered falls, began shortly after. We plunged into the attenuated entrance one boat at a time.
The site of problems for club members in the past, the entire group enjoyed successful descents through the complicated maze of boulders.
Easy whitewater continued to the most substantial falls on the river, a double-ledge drop intimidatingly called The Big One. A horizon line from above, there was no discernable route over the second ledge.
I followed Mason’s choice through the center in my kayak. A pour-over pushed me into a sticky hole that momentarily side-surfed me before I back-paddled out.
Despite difficulties by most, no one capsized.
Buzzell Hill Rapid was next. Although the advance scouting helped, I experienced problems recognizing routes over the three ledge drops.
A kayaker flipped and rolled in front of me just before I caught an eddy on the right below the first ledge. Remembering to remain generally in the center when navigating over the two remaining ledges, I managed to stay upright.
Everyone had successful runs, including an exceptional descent by Krea and Ryan.
Turnover Ledge, another precipitous falls so named because a powerful hole at the bottom often flips boats, began shortly after. Everyone negotiated safely through it.
Several paddlers executed impressive maneuvers called enders in the hole. Enders are when the bow is pushed down and the stern up, making the vessel vertical.
The most difficult whitewater behind us, we relaxed while progressing through several Class II/III rapids. Perhaps overconfident, one kayaker capsized and self-rescued.
I drifted ahead of the group to a falls that was difficult to evaluate from the top.
My choice to go right of an island was the wrong one. I was temporarily pinned between some boulders but was able to extricate myself.
I signaled my companions to go left but several missed my directions. More mishaps followed.
Despite some minor adversities in the easier rapids at the end, overall we enjoyed an exceptional day on an outstanding whitewater river.