campfire tales Nanook's Campfire Tales
The Flip and the Swim

If you paddle rivers long enough, sooner or later you'll go for a swim. I'm not referring to a leisurely dip by a sandy beach, though.

I'm talking about the moment when your boat rolls over in the waves and spits you out into the river. Or, if you're truly unfortunate ... or just a little inept ... your boat fetches up on a rock in the middle of the rapid, broaches on it with immense hydraulic force, while (ideally) you slip out and flail to shore.

I won't bore you with the list of rivers I've gone swimming in ... from here to Vermont and back ... but I want to relate my latest dunking, in Maine's Penobscot River.

Penobscot River
Two big dams have been removed from the Penobscot River in Maine, now the river's rapids are restored.
Image by Paddlin' Hal.

You see, they've recently removed two large dams just above the head of tide near Bangor, freeing the river after a hundred or more years to run in its old channel. Three long and large rapids, plus several shorter ones, have re-formed, creating challenging sluices and drops for canoeists and kayakers alike over a 15-mile stretch from Old Town to Brewer.

My buddy Paddlin' Hal invited me and my other buddy River Addict to meet him in Old Town and spend an afternoon on the new (old) river. A sweeter summer's day would be hard to match ... warm sun, deep, warm water, not a cloud in the sky. Just enough breeze to keep us cool.

The first rapid, at the site of the former Great Works Dam, wound through a tricky rock garden and ended with a deep hole. I should say that the rapid, like all of them on this big river, could be run any number of ways, as the river was almost a quarter-mile wide. My route was just the one I chose, or should say, the river chose for me. But I made it through, with a whoop and a holler.

It was here that I first realized my weakness. All the weight in my boat was in the back, where I was seated. Since it was just a day trip, my boat was empty save for a dry bag with a change of clothes. The bow of my boat reared up high again and again in the holes and wave trains. I was much more prone to rolling up and over on its edge than if I were paddling a fully-loaded boat, with the weight evenly distributed inside.

Penobscot River
Someone else's boat against a rock. Tough luck.
Image by Paddlin' Hal.

When we approached the next long rapid, a rocky river-wide series of ledges and standing waves, I decided to try a sneak down river left, hopefully avoiding the troughs and holes mid-river. But the further along I went, the more I was pulled into the rapid's frothy center. Before I knew it, I hit a curling wave sideways, my boat reared up, and over I went in a twinkling.

Thankfully, the water was deep and warm, and I surfaced beside my upside-down boat. We, my boat and I, continued to careen down the boiling water, totally out of control. Yes, I was wearing my life-jacket.

Penobscot River
Penobscot River, Bangor Maine

At first, I grabbed onto my boat, hoping to ride it down the rapid into calmer water. But after bouncing off a rock on my tailbone and grazing another with my elbow, I decided rightly to let it go, and assumed the textbook position, on my back pointing downriver, feet together, arms tight against my side, and ran the fast water to the calm pool downstream.

I still clutched my paddle. Maybe I have learned at last not to grab my boat's gunwales and drop my paddle at the first sign of instability. Besides, it was my all-time favorite stick, and it would break my heart to lose it.

I was relieved that I hadn't struck the rock with my tailbone any harder than I did. If you, dear reader, have ever bruised this bone at the base of your spine, you know how bad it hurts and how long it takes to heal, maybe several months.

My boat was floating high upside-down in the water, thanks to an air-filled bag tied to the thwarts, and made it down to the pool at rapid's end without snagging on a rock. Hal maneuvered his boat right-side to mine, and with me pushing down on my boat at one end, we performed an over-the gunwales drain. It was easier since the air bag displaced a lot of water in my boat.

Penobscot River
Aaron (riveraddict,) Matt (paddlin' hal,) and me in Bangor

I still wasn't able to climb into my boat though. The water was too deep, and the boat yawed way over when I put my weight on the gunwale. We had to push and pull it to shore, which took a fair amount of time and effort since the shore was several hundred yards away in this wide river.

Luckily, the next rapid was far enough downstream so we didn't have to worry about another wild ride down through rocks and souse-holes. I was finally able to get my feet under me, climb in and resume our run on the big Penobscot River.

Penobscot River
Hal cruises the Penobscot in Bangor Maine

I know, and so do you, I should have been kneeling amidships, to keep my boat more level and straight. But I find I can't seem to get enough purchase there with my paddle in the water, as I have to lean out farther over the gunwales. Besides, I'm a bit of an old guy, and my knees just don't like it as much as they used to.

I'll take my chances flailing with my paddle in the back seat. But I will load a little something in the front next time to improve my boat's trim ... perhaps I'll tie in some ice-cold beverages to beat the heat and slake my thirst!

campfire tales    Dread at the Narrows of the Nepisiguit
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