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!”