Surviving the Farmington River's Boateater Rapid

While kayaking down a 110-mile wilderness section of the St. John River in northern Maine years ago, the last free-running waterway in the Northeast, my paddling companions and I constantly reminded each other what loomed ahead — two daunting sections of Class IV rapids we would have to negotiate on the last day of a week-long trip.

Several times a day one of us would paddle alongside the other’s vessel and utter in a menacing voice, “Big Rapids,” which prompted the response, “Big Black Rapids.”

These two tumultuous stretches contained a smorgasbord of paddling challenge: haystacks, hydraulics, ledges, “smoothies,” or semi-submerged rocks, “keeper” holes, and precious few eddies to pull into and catch your breath. Back when we first planned the trip running the Big Rapids and Big Black seemed like fun, but once we were on the water and closing in I began to reconsider – especially every time we uttered

“Big Rapids...” “Big Black Rapids...”

At last, we arrived at the churning froth.


We were sucked into the vortex, tossing about like proverbial corks in a maelstrom, spinning around backwards a few times, nearly Maytagging, bouncing off countless rocks, and finally, mercifully, getting spit out like watermelon seeds at the end.

The experience made a lasting impression, and now whenever I approach whitewater I find myself mumbling, “Big Rapids...” “Big Black Rapids...”

This was the case the other day when I joined paddling pals Phil Warner and Ian Frenkel on a 6-mile stretch of the Farmington River near Collinsville that contains two worthy whitewater sections: Crystal Rapids, and the infamous Boateater Rapid.

The Farmington is a favorite destination for whitewater enthusiasts who can choose among these rapids, as well as in Satan’s Kingdom farther upstream, and the biggest, baddest stretch, through Tariffville Gorge, where the Olympic Kayak Team has practiced, and where I once had an unpleasant encounter with a hydraulic and vowed never to return.

I was a little rusty going through Crystal Rapids the other day, not having paddled any significant whitewater since last year’s Scantic River Race in Enfield, but felt reasonably confident in the company of Phil, a kayak instructor who is certified in river rescue, and Ian, who like Phil has mastered rolling, high and low braces and otherwise of staying upright in turbulent conditions.

“Follow me!” Phil called, as we entered the first set, a strong Class II.

This seemed like a good plan, until it dawned on me that Phil wasn’t picking a safe, easy route, but a sporting one in which he could practice surfing.

I got off to a rocky start, literally, by nearly pinning my kayak sideways against a refrigerator-sized boulder, but managed to push myself free, plunge through a narrow gap and emerge unscathed. Phil waited in an eddy, and once I was through paddled back upstream to run the rapid again. Ian followed him.

I paddled back up for a few dozen yards, but then decided to hunker down in calm water close to the river bank. After Phil and Ian played around in the waves for 20 minutes it was time to move on.

“Boateater is next!” Ian chortled.

“Boateater!” Phil cried.

Crystal was rated Class II-plus (on a scale of I to VI); Boateater edged into Class III territory.

“Boateater…” I groaned. “How exactly did it get the name?”

“It’s really not that bad,” Phil said. He then reeled off a complex set of instructions – start left, then cut right, then left again … that I promptly forgot.

“Boateater!” Ian shouted. “Boateater!”

Like all rapids, you can hear Boateater before you see it. My pulse quickened as the roar intensified.

Phil shot ahead and I tried to follow his line, but after about 30 seconds abandoned that plan and looked for the safest passage.

There was no getting around one sharp drop, followed by a train of standing waves, so I dug in and flailed at the froth.

“Don’t worry about the waves!” Phil called. “Plow right through!”

Easier said than done, but he was right.

My bow buried beneath one two-footer but momentum kept me going, and for five seconds what could have been a smile spread over my face – or a grimace.

Either way, I made it.

I took a deep breath and exhaled.

Phil was already paddling back upstream.

“Let’s do it again!”

Reader Comments


The Continental Divide Trail: 'Overall It's Amazing, But You Have To Be OK With Getting Lost'

After tramping more than a month some 700 miles along the fabled Continental Divide Trail, Mystic native Hilary Sueoka and her boyfriend, Dan Stedman, who started hiking April 22 at the U.S.-Mexican border, finally rambled from the...

The Josh Billings Runaground Triathlon: Racing Is The Easy Part.

By the time Phil Warner and I hit the water in his lightning-fast tandem kayak last Sunday for our team’s leg in the Josh Billings Runaground Triathlon in Lenox, Mass., we had already spent a good part of the morning lugging gear...

There’s No Accounting For Taste When It Comes To Favorite Mountains, Or Tacos

En route to a hiking expedition in Nepal’s Himalayas a number of years ago, my wife and I took a detour to India and spent a day bouncing along on a bus from New Delhi to Agra to tour the Taj Mahal.

Mount McKinley Renamed Denali: Better Than Mount Reagan

Three cheers for the Obama Administration’s decision this week to officially restore the name of North America’s tallest mountain to Denali, which is what early inhabitants called the 20,310-foot peak in the Alaska Range.

The Endless Summer: Too Much Of A Good Thing?

Remember when you were a kid how your mom wouldn’t let you have ice cream every day even though nothing in the world tasted better on a hot day than a double scoop of butter crunch?

My Favorite Kayak Race: The T.I.A.G.A.T.I.N.M.R. In Rangeley, Maine

Paddling like the dickens last Sunday on Maine’s Rangeley Lake, we competitors had two choices: steer clockwise or counter-clockwise around Maneskootuk Island.

Selden Island: Once A Bustling Quarry, Now A Quiet Haven

More than 40 years ago, Dave Wordell of Salem took his then-10-year-old son, Dave Junior, on a boat ride up Selden Creek, a narrow, secluded tributary of the Connecticut River in Lyme.

Life As A Lumbersexual

I can never remember – do you apply facial cleanser before or after the exfoliating scrub, and then finish up with healing balm and moisturizer, or should you start with the scrub, work your way through the cleanser and then top...

R.I.P. Cecil the Lion: Let's Make the Trophy Hunter an Endangered Species

The international outrage sparked by an American trophy hunter’s killing of Cecil, Zimbabwe’s beloved lion, justifiably vilifies the despicable practice of slaughtering wildlife for sport – but it also exposes the human...

All Who Wander Are Not Lost: Searching For The Elusive South Bog Stream In Rangeley, Maine

"Head for that tree stump," I instructed authoritatively one afternoon earlier this week, as if I knew for sure where we should be heading. I have learned to exude confidence when giving directions on any expedition, even...

Scott Jurek's 'Reward' For Breaking Appalachian Trail Speed Record: Three Summonses

When internationally celebrated speedster Scott Jurek scrambled last Sunday to the 5,269-foot summit of Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, he broke the record for the fastest assisted hike of the 2,189-mile...

No Swimming at Seaside: What’s Next? No Hiking at Bluff Point?

Most of the time I’m reasonably scrupulous about abiding by government regulations.