Water Wings Not Included
A day on (and in) the Penobscot
It was one of those soft-starting late-summer mornings in Maine’s North Woods. We were on a calm section of the Penobscot River. Steering from the back of the inflatable whitewater raft, our river guide Derik Bellrose, a 23-year-old from Massachusetts, had us laughing with his jokes. “Okay, so what’s the difference between a 401(k) and a river guide?” he asked, pausing a beat. “A 401(k) will eventually mature and make money.”
I’d booked this river trip with New England Outdoor Center as sort of a last hurrah before the fall, a fun version of a theme park ride—I assumed I’d hand over my paddle at the end of the day and get out, and that would be that. But the river wasn’t going to play that nicely with me and in the process I would learn some lessons.
People are drawn to Maine’s whitewater rafting trips for predictable reasons: for the thrilling adventure and to be surrounded by nature. But while being on the water is the main attraction, the river guides are key to the success of these expeditions. They must be skilled at reading the river and piloting rafts, as well as at teaching their passengers and keeping them entertained.
In addition to Derik, Josh “Rabbit” Stahl, also 23, came along with our group. Manager of New England Outdoor Center, he was taking a break from guiding on this day to shoot video and photos of our group. Burly with a red beard, he looked more like a bear than a rabbit. Like Derik, he also had a quick, dry wit.
River guides get up at 7 a.m., conduct a safety orientation, then lead a brand new group through six hours of rafting on sections of the Penobscot River every day for six months a year. When they do have a few hours of down time in this remote part of Maine, there is no cell phone service, TV reception, or reliable Internet access. From base camp, it’s 20 minutes to the nearest general store, which is usually closed by the time the guides are done for the day, anyway.
So on this morning, after almost four straight months of running this river with different people every day, you’d think burnout would be evident. But Rabbit and Derik were laughing it up with the customers, trading banter and stories as if this were the first trip of the season.
Our day started off on an easy section of the Penobscot with some light Class III rapids. After that, we drifted on the slow-moving flat water, watching fly fishermen casting out.
All three major rivers in Maine, the Dead, the Kennebec, and the Penobscot, are dam-controlled with water levels that fluctuate from one day to the next. With four branches flowing into the Penobscot, the river stretches east for 264 miles—the longest in the state.
Some stretches are easy-breezy, while other parts (the Class IV and V sections) are not. After getting our paddling rhythm down on flat water in the morning, we were about to experience some high-volume sections with considerable drops, clashing hydraulics (churning water just below a ledge or rock), huge rocks, and other obstacles.
I wasn’t worried. This is exactly what I expected—a controlled ride, a linear shot down to the end.
At McKay Station, the top of the only Class V section of the Penobscot, we could see water boiling up violently just 200 hundred feet ahead. Derik took us through the paddling commands once more. This was the biggie, the one we’d been warned about in our paddling clinic earlier that morning.
“If you fall out, pull up your feet and lie on your back. There are all kinds of tangled deadfalls at the bottom of the river. You don’t want to get your feet hung up on that,” we had been told.
“Paddle on the left!” Derik commanded from his position in the back as he dug in. “Left! Hard left!”
That churning section was fast approaching. And as hard as all six of us dug into the water, something wasn’t right.
When we hit the first hole, the raft seemed to come to a standstill in the rushing water and stood up on end. Later, I’d learn that we’d just gotten what guides call “Dump Trucked.”
I was thrown out backward. When I tried to surface, I found myself directly under the bottom of the blue spinning raft—instantly desperate. There was no time to think. It was just scramble, grab, do anything, just move. I tucked my feet up and managed to push my way out from under the raft. Derik tried to grab my hand, but missed me by inches.
Everything happened so fast. By the time I got turned around in the current, swift-moving water plunged me into a whitewater hydraulic. Forcibly dunked and held under for seconds, I was only kept buoyant by my personal flotation device. Instantly, I was sucked into three more hydraulics, one after the other. Lying on my back and panicky, I
couldn’t get enough air, as wall after wall of hard thrashing whitewater slammed into my face, over my head, into my mouth. Any chance I got, I gulped in short breaths. After the fourth dunking, I was losing my strength and for a moment actually felt like I might be on the threshold of drowning.
Though it felt like a half hour, the rapids spit me out in 40 seconds and
I swam to the nearest stretch of flat water. Another raft came down and got me, hauling me back in by the lapels of my PFD.
While fatalities are extremely rare in trips run by Maine’s commercial rafting outfitters, this is still considered an extreme sport. Each year, more than 60,000 people from all over the world go rafting in Maine with fewer than 50 reported injuries. Out of 14 rafting companies in Maine, New England Outdoor Center is one of six that operate on the Penobscot. After 20 years in the business, its reputation is well regarded. Despite my bad luck, it is rare for their customers to be pitched out on this particular whitewater stretch.
I didn’t know until I was back in my own raft that two other people in my group had fallen out as well. Derik checked that we were all okay, then asked if we wanted to continue, or not. We all opted to go on.
He patted my shoulder. “Welcome to the club.”
“Did you ever fall out on that section?” I squeaked.
“Oh, hell yes,” he said. “The first time it happened to me, I was like ‘Nope. I’m not going to be a guide. I’m done.’ But,” he shrugged, “as you can see, I’m still here.”
That’s the way the Penobscot hazes its pledges. I saw Derik and Rabbit in a whole new light. What kind of person withstands that kind of traumatic submersion and is eager to face that section again the next day?
“We always joke that to do what we do only requires a guide license and a pulse,” said Derik. What most customers don’t know is that Derik and Rabbit have been studying this river system for four years, as long as a student spends at university.
Maine is one of four states where whitewater water rafting is commercially regulated, requiring all river guides to have rigorous medical and whitewater training. First, they must pass their Level One whitewater Maine Guide license, which requires 20 runs down sections of the Kennebec accompanied by a lead guide and at least five runs guiding. If the Kennebec is the training ground, the Penobscot is the “final exam.” A Level One license allows guides to take customers down any river in Maine except for the section of the Penobscot from McKay Station to a river feature called Big Eddy, which is where I fell out. Because all NEOC trips are done on the Penobscot, one can only become a NEOC guide by earning a Level Two license, which has the same training as Level One, but on the Class IV and V rapids.
“There comes a point when you’ve flipped so many times in training that there is a calmness about it,” said Rabbit. “After you’ve been guiding long enough, the moment that the raft flips over or you lose people in a rapid, you don’t stop to think. You just do what needs to be done to get them back in safely.”
Even with all this training, navigating a vast river like the Penobscot is a little like learning to drive in Boston; you only remember how to get where you’re going by making a ton of mistakes.
“First thing I do is when I come to the river is take a look at it, and have a conversation with it,” added Derik. “You’ve got to have that healthy respect or else the river is going to beat you down.”
After hundreds of runs, reading the boil line of the current and knowing how to bring a raft through complicated features like Ripogenous Gorge or the Cribworks become intuitive.
NEOC tries to read their customers the same way. Some families will be better served on their “Family Float Trips” on Class I sections with no whitewater and no danger of flipping. Other customers, who want the ultimate experience, will be put on a wilder ride with a smaller boat.
“The rules of the game still remain; we don’t try to flip them over and don’t put them in unnecessary danger,” said Rabbit.
Around 5 p.m. that day, when the tasks were done and the paddles and helmets were put away, the customers sat in the lounge, enjoying drinks. Derik and Rabbit were officially off the clock. They didn’t have to hang out with us, but they wanted to. I wanted to know why they chose to be guides.
Derik, who grew up in New Hampshire, came to NEOC after rafting on the Kennebec with the outfit as a child.
“I’ve always searched for a sense of family, and up here, that’s all it is, one big camaraderie,” he said. “That, and the fact that we are all sharing something we’re passionate about—it’s rewarding.”
Rabbit, whose family moved to Maine when he was a baby, is from Millinocket. His first real job was working as a dishwasher for a rafting company’s restaurant. “When I become 18, it seemed like guiding was better than being stuck in a kitchen washing dishes.”
These guys love the river so much that at the end of a day of guiding, they go back out on their own. Taking smaller rafts or river boards, they’ll hurl themselves into the elements, just to learn the flow. They call it “chundering”, allowing themselves to explore, to fail. They’ve spilled so many times down these sections, pinballing over rocks and through holes, that it ceases to be paralyzing and gives them a chance to practice their rescue skills. “There’s no better time to muff something up when you’re with the other guides,” said Derik. “You learn from those experiences and bring them into the work field.”
It took awhile, but now I’m glad I fell out. I learned a lesson. Now I know that the next time something really hairy hits me I just have to keep my head above water; I’ll come out of it.
“To the River Gods—may they never be satisfied,” said Derik, clinking a glass with Rabbit and me.
Kay Stephens is a regular contributor to Maine newspapers and magazines. She is also the author of two award-winning books, The Ghost Trap and Cyberslammed.
For more information:
New England Outdoor Center
Fire Road 20D, Millinocket, ME 04462