Spring Paddling in Maine

Are you going in to sling it?

“Uh. Yeah… Are we bailing on this run?” I scratched my head, smiled, and reached down to unzip the duffel bag that held our rescue kit. “It would appear that is a strong possibility.” Forty minutes later I was post-holing through knee deep snow with a canoe on my head, chuckling at the day’s events. Portaging through two feet of crusted, old snow is a lovely way to warm up, however, and by the time we had walked out the whole crew was warm enough to laugh too.

We were on a five day college whitewater seminar I was guest instructing for my alma mater’s outing club, and the wrapped boat was only the beginning of a week of seemingly mystically aligned setbacks events. After seven months in New Zealand, this was really where I wanted to be: home, dealing with a classic outing club junk-show and driving the backroads of Maine looking for adventure.

The shoulder seasons have always been my favorite time in Maine; in Spring and Autumn there are no people, no bugs, the weather can do just about anything, and the skills required to travel safely move beyond the reach of the recreational and the novice. Want to train for a mountaineering trip out west? Climb in the Presidentials in March. Looking to hone your skills for a whitewater run in Alaska? Paddle a reservoir draw-down in November. It is in those times that the wilderness, normally far off in this middling eastern backcountry, comes rather close and one can feel to be in definitivie exploration. All that, and the breakfast sandwiches at the gas station on the way home help shirk the worst of just endured conditions.

Day one saw successful runs on the lower Nezinscot River, right through the famous organic farm of the same name, followed by an experts-only run on the Class III East Branch of the Nezinscot, a creek run through downtown Buckfield. It runs for about six days a year, mas e menos, and I was lucky to run it with the skilled woman I was teaching with.

Upper Sunday River at low water

Despite two chilled underclassman and one thoroughly broken boat, day two was a success if only for the story of the walk out and us getting to practice unpinning a boat. After the shuttle and discussing the prediction of sleet and freezing rain for the morrow, we absconded to front-country shelter and uttered the classic Bates motto… ‘F. it. Let’s go skiing’. So we did.

After days of snow, freezing rain, wrapped boats, no water up north, too much down south, and general early season shenanigans, our last day dawned clear and warm. We knew the Kenduskeag was running. Everything was perfect. Too perfect, as it turns out. Six miles outside of Belfast, the trailer tire blew out. Without a spare or a tire iron, much problem solving followed, enough to push us past a reasonable time to put-in outside of Bangor. We settled on a run on the way home but never made it- the truck died, the rear differential seized and smoking.

The trip just about over, my co instructor and I sitting the cab of Freddie’s beat up GMC wrecker, Freddie chuckling about our misfortune through his impressive beard, I reflected on my own past and realized how well this fit in with my own college experiences. Honing one’s hard skills is important, but I’d wager I learned more about problem solving and tolerance for adversity and uncertainty in four years of junk-show outing club trips that I ever did in more formal circumstances. We walk carefully, always aware that while our passion knows no bounds and our early adult stages inbibes us with physical invincibility, we are still learning. How much paddling did we do on the five day whitewater seminar? Very little. Was it a good trip? Aren’t they all?


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