Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Whitewater canoeing in the late fall

On October 17, four of us met at a small diner for our fall canoe trip. We consolidated canoes and gear into one large 4-WD truck and drove further into eastern Maine. After numerous stops for additional tarps, tent stakes, and rope, we started paddling at 1:30pm. Locals, who provided our vehicle shuttle, laughed at us beginning a trip on a cold, rainy October weekend.

The St Croix River creates a natural border between the US and Canada. On this 33-mile river trip, nearly 20 campsites are available in either country, although Canadian border patrol could give us heck if they found us in Canada. We opted to stay two nights in the US and keep things simple.

The river started with some quick water and boulders to navigate around. My canoe partner, Chris, and I often shared ideas about how to run the water. Rocks submerged just below the water always pose a small threat of catching a canoe and tipping us over if things went perfectly wrong. Chris called these rocks "sleepers". A few times we disagreed about how to run a section. But we got tangled up on a rock only once throughout the trip.

The weather constantly changed -- overcast, intermittent rain, chilling winds, periods of light snow, sunshine, and purple storm clouds. Temperatures oscillated above and below freezing. I remember for a few moments seeing a fine mist hovered above the silver water. Icy white waves carved the water surface.

Eventually, we reached our first major rapid, Little Falls. Two of us ran this river last year with different people, so we knew what to expect and where to run the rapid. We pulled off the river to inspect the rapid. Scouting provides much time for identifying potential dangers, arguing about which route to take, and observing whitewater from different angles. A couple camping next to this rapid said they wanted to run this river, but the cold weather was too much. They also asked if we had run this rapid before. Upon hearing yes, they said no advice from them was needed.

After agreeing upon where to run the rapid, Chris and I returned to our canoe. We paddled into the falls straight on, dropped over a small 2 foot ledge, and sliced the boat down a series of waves and submerged boulders without much trouble. Our other canoe group, consisting of Mike and John, ran the same route. As they dropped over the first ledge, the boat tipped and capsized. Mike fell face into the river and tumbled downstream, bobbing slowly into pools and slipping around boulders. John managed to stay with the boat and wrestled the canoe and gear to shore. Mike swam and walked his way back to shore. His leg was bruised and he appeared unsettled, perhaps grumpy

We decided to camp here for the evening, so we could regroup and let Mike and John recover. Upon unpacking my gear and setting up my tent, I realized I forgot a tent pole. With temperatures below 30 degrees, my tent mate Mike, who just dipped into 40 degree water while wearing a wet suit, would not be happy. I tried to fashion a tent out of 2 different tarps, but it looked rough and would not hold any body heat. A raccoon could easily walk in and join us. Thankfully, Chris provided a tent pole, borrowed from his own tent, which helped salvage my situation and not affect his tent's setup.

A heavy frost scorched our tent and gear during the overnight. Numerous cups of coffee and pancakes helped us get ready the next morning. At 10:30am, we returned to the river. Much like the first day, we enjoyed many small rapids and quick water sections. An interesting set of falls at Canoose Rips provided excitement but no overturned canoes. We pulled off the river at 4pm. I roasted eggplant on the open fire and cooked it along with onions, tomatoes. I served the meal over rice for supper. The four of us sat around the campfire for hours as the moon rose and stars pierced the night sky. After nearly 15 years of canoe trips, we had a lot of stories to relive and tell again and again.

The next morning, we woke before dawn and left camp by 9am. The river opened up into a large, amorphous lake. We argued a bit about where the takeout was, but soon found the right place. By noon, we had packed our canoes and gear, and our 33-mile paddling trip over 3 days was coming to an end. My body ached from paddling and sleeping on the ground. The cold weather was a bit rough. But after sleeping in a real bed last night, I feel quite refreshed and thankful for the adventure.