Bear-ly afloat in Farmington River rapids
Thunderous whitewater tumbled over glistening rocks on the Farmington River last Sunday as we four kayakers holed up in an eddy to evaluate routes through the rapids. It was a gloriously sunny day that attracted not just paddlers but runners, strollers and bicyclists who followed a riverside trail,
“Looks like river left, then ferry to the center, slip through a chute — might be a little tight — then another left …,” Phil Warner advised, launching into a detailed list of instructions no more complex than say, the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach.
“Wait here — I’ll go scout it out,” he continued, pulling into the swirling current.
The three of us — Ian Frenkel, my son, Tom, and me — bobbed patiently while Phil, who has run the Farmington countless times as well as just about every whitewater river and stream in Connecticut, rocketed ahead.
We were approaching the notorious Crystal Rapids, our first big challenge on a six-mile paddle down a popular stretch near the village of Collinsville. The river here plunges through a winding rock garden that could toss an inattentive paddler into near-freezing water — thus we wore waterproof gear, spray skirts, helmets and, of course, lifejackets. None of us, though, wanted to go for a swim.
Suddenly, Phil began shouting and waving his paddle. I couldn’t quite understand his words above the roar of the water, but it sounded like “bear.” Did he want us to bear left or bear right?
“Bear! Bear!” Phil repeated, and then I saw three black bears scramble into thick brush and disappear. They evidently were just as startled as we were.
No time, though, to savor the sight — in seconds, we swept into the churn and began pirouetting through a maze of semi-submerged boulders.
Aim for the Vs, I reminded myself. These water channels serve as guides through the froth, but occasionally they are blocked by “smoothies,” or flat rocks that lurk just below the surface, giving the misleading appearance of calm pools. My pulse quickened with the flow.
Reading rapids is an art form, and I found it easier to follow the creative, skilled strokes of Phil and Tom, who can apply themselves to whitewater the way Rembrandt — or sometimes Jackson Pollock — painted on canvas.
After a few breathtaking minutes, we burst through Crystal Rapids and resumed paddling in calmer water. I was grateful for the respite, steeling myself for more thrills farther downriver: Boulder Gardens, a relatively simple-to-navigate scattering of rocks; Bernackie Rapid, which requires some S-turn pivots; a steep drop just past the Route 4 bridge; the fairly benign Apricots Ledges; and finally, just before our takeout, the infamous Boateater Rapid.
The massive boulder that inspired this rapid’s name washed downriver years ago, but that doesn’t mean you no longer have to worry about being consumed. The current surges through large standing waves that boil as malevolently as a witch’s cauldron.
“Right down the middle — can’t go wrong!” Phil exclaimed, flailing away with his paddle.
I took a deep breath and tentatively pulled forward.
Whoosh! In a nanosecond, I was sucked into the wave train, burying the bow of my boat. Water gushed up to my chest — thank you, spray skirt, for keeping my cockpit from flooding — and I executed a quick brace to remain upright just in time to plow through the second wave, then a third.
Hey, Phil was right! Right down the middle — no worries!
By the last wave in the train, I was smiling and even risked a hasty thumb’s up to Tom, who was waiting in an eddy after completing the run and doubtlessly hoping he wouldn’t have to fish his old man out of the drink.
Yee-hah! We whooped and hollered — all of us dry, no boats eaten.
Just then, a shadow sailed over the water, and I looked up in time to see a bald eagle wing its way upriver.
I can’t think of another day highlighted by sightings of bears and a bald eagle, right here in Connecticut. Add a thrilling whitewater adventure — well, it just doesn’t get any better.