Shoot the Rapids!
Whitewater rafting’s one of those things that, to a lot of people, seems at first glance a questionable notion. It’s like skydiving. What’s the old line about skydiving? ”Why jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” It’s a little like that, with rapids and boulders.
But once you get over the initial idea of launching yourself down a raging river in an open-air raft with a handful of friends and strangers, it turns out there’s a lot to enjoy, a lot to appreciate, and—importantly—a lot to feel safe about.
These whitewater rafting guides, they take safety very, very seriously.
First things first, though: you’re going to get wet. There’s no two ways about it.
“You know, I can pretty much guarantee that you will get wet on a whitewater rafting trip. It is not a splash-free environment,” said April Glidden, the marketing team leader at Three Rivers Whitewater, a rafting outfitter in The Forks. “We usually tell people, ‘You know, you’ll get wet no matter what. So we go rafting rain or shine.’ In fact, we get that question quite a bit.”
Whitewater rafting in Maine is big business. In northern Maine, outfitters abound, mostly centered around the Kennebec, Penobscot and Dead Rivers—the “big three” most suited to the pursuit. Each one traverses a multitude of rapids classifications, from gentle Class Is to breathtaking Class Vs. Rafting season typically runs from May to mid-October each year.
It’s a thrill when you’re barreling headlong into raging rapids, but the rush of adrenaline is only one part of the attraction, said Mike St. Laurent, owner of Dead River Expeditions, also located in The Forks. It’s also a unique chance to experience true river solitude.
“In Maine, we have these wonderful, pristine rivers,” said St. Laurent. “Once we leave the put-in area until [the end], you don’t see any houses. There are no dwellings. You’re not looking up at riverbank condos or whatever. You’re in a very pristine wilderness. When you sit back at the end of the day in this beautiful, gorgeous place and you saw a bald eagle or…a deer or moose on the side of the river… it’s something that you just don’t see in other places.”
Glidden echoed the sentiment: “The places that we operate in are pretty inaccessible, other than from the water,” she said. “The Penobscot, it’s a little bit more accessible because there’s an access road that runs along a good portion of the river, but the Kennebec River Gorge is pretty difficult to get to. You get to see some things that you normally wouldn’t see—we see merganser (a species of duck—Ed.), sometimes eagles because they like to nest along the river. That’s really fun to see.”
A typical day for rafting guides starts early in the morning. Hours are spent preparing equipment and planning for worst-case scenarios. Once guests arrive, they’re treated to a safety briefing and a breakdown of what to expect for the day. After that, said St. Laurent, “we get everybody fitted up for gear and equipment, then we do a pretty extensive safety check.” A 20-minute bus ride up to the put-in point, another safety briefing and a demonstration of raft handling, and the day begins.
The actual rafting portion of a whitewater rafting experience can range from 10 to 16 miles, depending on the river, and take around three and a half hours to complete. Once done, many outfitters provide meals back at base camp. After drying out and stowing gear, “we’ll sit together as a group, do pictures, and [talk about] how the day down the river went,” said St. Laurent.
“You know, it’s one of those things—I hate to use the word ‘bonding,’ but it’s kind of a bonding thing,” he said. “You’ve experienced something, and for a lot of these people it’s their first time down the river. You know the excitement that they’re building throughout the day, and to be part of that, it’s pretty astronomical. It really is.”
Today, rafting is an experience that the whole family can share, according to St. Laurent, due in no small part to its heavy focus on safety.
“We’ve seen it go through a transition of what used to be just thrill-seekers, curious people just ripping it up and having fun…to a more family-type atmosphere,” he said. “The last bunch of years have had improvements in whitewater technology and gear and training.”
In order to be a whitewater rafting guide, one must be certified in American Red Cross Standard First Aid or the equivalent, hold a CPR certification, and successfully complete a whitewater guide training course, according to the Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife website. According to Glidden, the expectations of many outfitters, including Three Rivers, run much deeper.
“[Being a guide] involves learning about hydrology—how the rivers work, how do rapids work, and why they do what they do,” she said. “So if water is pouring over a rock, [you know] this is why it makes the kinds of rapids you want to be in or don’t want to be in. Knowing the scopes that you need to use and understanding how to read whitewater. We also have, on every trip, folks that have an even higher certification. We’re talking wilderness first responders, swift water rescue, EMTs—those types of certifications that are way above and beyond [basic] first aid and CPR. And we always like our guides to know about the flora and fauna that they might see.”
There’s good cause for the focus on safety. A whitewater trip can be both frightening and relaxing, scary and idyllic. Oftentimes, conditions can change quickly from Class I to Class IV rapids—one minute you’re floating lazily downriver, and the next you’re bounding over intense white rapids. St. Laurent recalled a recent event that caused the hairs on the back of his neck to raise.
“We had flipped the raft at high water, and then had a missing person that we couldn’t account for for a short period of time,” he said. “We had to execute a plan and make a search. Everything turned out fine—the person actually swam to shore, got out, and found the photographer’s trail and walked out. We advise everybody to stay where you are. We will get you. This person didn’t follow that advice and actually got back to the road. One of the other outfitters picked him up and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to go back in and let these guys know. They’re going to be looking for you!’ Everything worked out fine, but you know, we had a half-hour or so of ‘worst-case scenario’ thoughts running through our heads.”
While whitewater rafting is technically something you can do yourself (there are smaller rafts on the market), both Glidden and St. Laurent caution against it unless you’re highly experienced.
“It’s highly recommended that you go with a reputable outfit,” stressed St. Laurent. “There are people out there that do take their own rafts and take people down the river. Those people cannot charge you a fee legally, because they’re not licensed and they’re not insured, that kind of stuff. There are people out there that do it. But I highly recommend that you go through a reputable outfit.”
“Especially for the rivers that we operate on, the classifications that they are, I wouldn’t necessarily want to see somebody grabbing an inner tube and hopping on those sections of the river,” said Glidden. “There are plenty of people that kayak and do that sort of thing, but usually if somebody’s doing boating on their own they start going on a milder section of water. If we see other folks on the river on rafts, they’ve usually formerly been a guide and they know what they’re doing.”
In the end, the experience of a successful rafting trip is fulfilling, said St. Laurent, a unique thing for guide and guest alike that can’t be found anywhere else.
“For me, it’s the pleasure of being out with six or eight people that I have in my raft for the day and, you know… everybody has that little bit of apprehensiveness of what could happen,” he said. “At the end of the day, you get down to the major rapids and everybody’s in this euphoric state. They’ve just been through some world-class, Class IV whitewater. And they did it safely. And you just spend the whole rest of the day in that lower river talking about what happened that morning. It’s pretty incredible.”
This article previously appeared in the Bangor Daily News special section “BDN Outdoors Spring/Summer 2017.”