North America

Whitewater opportunities in the American northeastern state of Maine range from teeth-clenching rafting over churning rapids on Class V rivers to overnight stays in elegant inns complete with gourmet meals, choice of wines and chocolates-on-the-pillow service.

By Rod Lopez-Fabrega and Mary Ashcraft

Once pristine, now well logged but still a treasure of coniferous forests filled with moose, bear, bald eagles, assorted wildlife and impressive rivers and lakes, Northern New England, on the Atlantic Coast of the United States, is God's Country for those interested in running the rapids on inflatable river rafts. Most specifically, the State of Maine offers spectacular opportunities from May to October every year. The unique six-month rafting season in this corner of Maine is due to hydropower dams that release water daily, insuring high water and prime conditions that do not depend on the spring melting of snows, the traditional limitation for best river rafting.

The principal rivers for the sport in this corner of Maine are:

1) The Kennebec River, offering a short section of Class IV water (difficult, steeper, with numerous obstacles) and then rapidly tapering off to Class III (difficult with longer rapids and strong and irregular currents) and Class II (moderate, with occasional obstacles, medium current with waves) and finishing with a long stretch of Class I (easy, no obstacles, small ripples, slow current).

2) The Penobscot River, the most challenging river in Maine with "more technical rapids, exposed rocks, steeper gradients and awesome whitewater". The Upper Gorge of this river is Class V (extremely difficult, large vertical drops, strong hydraulics, very swift, irregular currents and obstructed channels--not for sissies or anyone under 16).

3) The Dead River, described as the most continuous whitewater in New England, with challenging class IV rapids.

Raft Maine Association, a promotional organization for the industry, represents ten of the thirteen outfitters providing both summer and winter activities in the area. Every year, its members carry more than 80,000 passengers on Maine's wilderness rivers. Great care is taken not to overuse the rivers, and even during the summer peak season, no more than 1000 people are permitted on the Kennebec per day and 540 on the Penobscot. Specific information about any of the ten suppliers it represents can be found through Raft Maine at 800-623-8633 and www.raftmaine.com . To facilitate research for the preparation of this article, Raft Maine provided introductions to two outfitters and one inn: North Country Rivers, Northern Outdoors and Wings Hill Inn at Belgrade Lakes.

North Country Rivers:

Located in the small town of Bingham, just this side of Moscow, North Country Rivers is a two-hour drive from Portland, the terminus of the Amtrak “Downeaster” train line from Boston. Seemingly, almost as difficult to get to as its namesake city in Russia, Moscow as well as Bingham are actually an easy and direct drive from Portland on Route 201, a handsome interstate highway that has been designated as a National Scenic Byway.

For those expecting a picturesque backwoods lodge set back in the forest, North Country Rivers does not present its best face to the highway. However, once inside the property, facing a field that doubles as a small aircraft landing strip and bordering the river, the attractions of the place become evident. Accommodations in newly built Bigelow Cabins sleep two to eight guests in sparkling, fresh interiors that finally satisfy the expectations of what a forest cabin should be--with all the amenities of a first-class efficiency apartment that include fully equipped kitchen facilities. Larger accommodations are in two-story Kennebec Cabins which sleep six to 24 guests with ample room for the large families and groups of friends that are frequent guests. Additionally, large canvas tents with raised floors are available for guests who come prepared to rough it.

Meals are served to guests in Patrick's Restaurant and Pub, a cavernous building that includes family-style tables, a bar, a store for souvenirs and supplies and an ample conference/meeting area. Meals are prepared by the staff and are tasty and of the stick-to-your-ribs variety. If you are fortunate, Maine lobster may be on the menu.

Along with an excellent range of accommodations and good food, North Country Rivers offers a full menu of activities during four seasons of Maine outdoor adventures, as is true of the other larger vacation centers in the area. This includes snowmobiling, moose safaris, kayaking, fly fishing, mountain biking, snowshoeing, skiing and more. However, from May to October, the focus is on running the rapids. North Country Rivers, for the past four years has been the largest whitewater rafting company in Maine.

For beginners, seniors and youngsters, a morning on the Kennebec River begins with a hearty breakfast followed by the outfitting of each guest with the necessary safety gear. This includes a wet suit during early Spring when the water is still icy cold, a helmet, a life vest and a paddle. Guests and guides are then transported by bus to the launch site at which point they become "passengers". Inflatable rafts, ranging from 12 to 16 feet in length and carrying from four to 10 paddlers are waiting.

Beginners will say a quiet prayer as strapping young river guides, both male and female, run down the list of warnings they must give to their helmeted, wet-suited, eager passengers in preparation for entering the river. Instructions include such items as to proper procedures when falling into turbulent waters, how to pull someone back into the raft, what to do if the raft flips over, how to tighten lifebelt and helmet straps tight enough so the force of water does not strip them off but not so tight as to prevent breathing, and more.

Guides then run down the list of paddling instructions--primarily for the two passengers to be seated forward on the raft. Once on the river, when the guide screams, "Paddle", everyone paddles, preferably in unison. When the guide shouts, "Stop", everyone stops and prays that everything is under control. Instructions follow for paddling right, left and what to do if all else fails. Apprehensive but excited passengers and cool, confident guides then pick up the waiting, tightly inflated rafts and slide them down special tracks to the river.

If all of this sounds daunting, it isn't. The instructions are a precaution mandated by law. As an example for beginners, the Kennebec River presents no significant perils, including the first ten minutes or so through a Class IV section. This adrenalin boosting introduction to the river leaves most passengers soaked but begging for more of the same as the Kennebec gradually slows to a stately progression downstream. Needless to say, for more experienced rafters, North Country Rivers offers the challenges of the Penobscot and the Dead River.

Some trips on the Kennebec include a picnic lunch at the site that concludes the run. Others include lunch back at the resort's barn-size restaurant. All trips finish with passengers carefully replacing all equipment in appropriate bins at the supply center and, if wet suits were used, dunking these garments in vats of cleaning solutions and hanging them to dry in preparation for the next occupants.

Northern Outdoors:

One of the largest whitewater outfitters in the state of Maine, Northern Outdoors is based in The Forks, farther north on Route 201. Set in more than 150 acres of New England forest on the shores of the Kennebec River, this complete vacation resort fulfills at least some of everyone's fantasy of what a forest lodge in Maine should be. The first impression on entering the property is the main lodge, with all the North woods trimmings one could hope for, including a towering timbered ceilings, two-story-high stone fireplace crowned by an impressive moose head, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a heated outdoor pool, plus a full service restaurant serving three quality meals a day as well as a selection of homemade beers that are to die for--these produced downstairs in the lodge's private brewery.

Part-owner Russell Walters, a transplanted Brit, and his associates have apparently thought of almost everything. This includes a true four-season experience offered to guests year round. In summer, the prime focus is on whitewater rafting on the Kennebec, the Penobscot and the Dead rivers for groups anywhere in size from a small family of four to 100 or more graduating high school students. In winter, Northern Outdoors becomes an internationally noted destination for snowmobiling. Other outdoor activities offered include: kayaking, rock climbing, rope courses, golf, platform tennis, two-day wilderness adventures, and hunting. Northern Outdoors also offers fully guided fishing packages on remote and beautiful stretches of the Kennebec River and "absolute guarantees" that participants will get results (all fishing is catch and release). Additionally, Northern Outdoors has its own placid pond on the property that is suitable for young kayakers.

As a base for all these activities, a very wide choice of accommodations is offered to suit all tastes and pocket books. These range from permanent riverside tents with electricity to the luxurious self-contained Point House, a modern home with a cathedral master bedroom suite, five bedrooms, three full baths, sunken living room, dining room and full kitchen. Also offered are international quality hotel rooms in the main lodge and the fully equipped, two-bedroom, Silver Cove guest cabins.

Wings Hill Inn:

After active sampling of Maine's pristine rivers and forests, there is the delightful Wings Hill Inn and Restaurant to relax those weary bones and enjoy a bit of pampering. Wings Hill Inn and Restaurant is a restored circa 1800 post-and-beam Colonial farmhouse in Belgrade Lakes, a village in the western mountains and lakes region of Maine. Innkeepers Tracey and Christopher Anderson have created a Colonial atmosphere at their Inn with furnishings appropriate to the period, and their own personal decorations. It is Colonial in spirit and comfort with 21st century amenities. The six guest bedrooms are individually appointed, and each has its own bathroom with windows offering views of the garden and the soothing sounds from the water fountain. Several bedrooms have their own porch with the traditional New England Adirondack chairs for a little quiet and contemplation.

Complimentary full breakfast and proper afternoon tea with fresh baked pastries are for the overnight guest. The dining room is open to the public Thursday through Sunday (and Wednesday, in July and August). Dining at Wings Hill is a gastronomic event as both Tracey and Christopher are graduates of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. The five-course servings give Tracey and Christopher an opportunity to express their creativity at the dining table and present their guests a feast for the palate and the eyes. Christopher's entrees and home made breads and Tracey's desserts are truly inspired. The Great Room with its oversized cushy chairs and floor to ceiling stone fireplace is an inviting place for guests to gather for after dinner beverages and where tea and coffee are available 24 hours a day. There is a third host that watches over the Great Room and sweeping front lawn of the Inn, and that is the self assured and congenial Marley the cat.

Wings Hill Inn is named after one of its very interesting, very eccentric past owners. Local people that still remember him say he was "quite a character". Edmund Hill is said to have been the first general in the U. S. Air Force, after the Air Force split off into its own branch of the military. General "Wings" Hill (his "fly name") was a WWII pilot and one of the first to raid Hitler's bunker. As a result, he owned many Third Reich artifacts and built a secret room in the house in which to keep them. After his death, most of his treasures went to the Smithsonian Institute collection.

A stroll down the front lawn past the swing on a branch of the giant oak tree, Adirondack chairs nestled in greenery, and through the old wooden gate is Great Pond where Captain Norm motors one of only four remaining water postal routes in the United States. Starting around ten o'clock in the morning his boat is loaded with mail and packages to be delivered to 120 houses scattered along the serene lake's shores. It seems that each house has a story to tell. Some stories are funny and some are dramatic, some about famous people, others about infamous people, and all are interesting. The mail boat and its captain at the time, David Webster, were the inspiration for playwright and actor Ernest Thompson's successful Broadway play, "On Golden Pond" and the film that followed, starring Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda. For a small fee, visitors are welcome to join Captain Norm on his daily rounds as he talks about the people, the pond and the job that he loves.

Wings Hill Inn is in a tranquil setting, but is well located within reach of outdoor and indoor activities. A stones throw from the Inn is the Belgrade Golf Club designed by Clive Clark. Golf Digest gives it a five-star rating. There are 65,000 acres of conservation for hiking and mountain biking, seven freshwater lakes for boat launching and fishing (trout, salmon smelt, bass, perch pickerel and pike), as well as lakes for kayaking, canoeing and power boating. In winter there are cross-country and downhill skiing, snowmobiling, and ice fishing.

For the less physical tourist, there are quaint and charming towns nearby with antique and art shops, riverside walking trails, New England’s oldest surviving wooden fort (Old Fort Western), historic houses, theater and museums. In July there is a ten-day event in the town of Unity featuring the best of American Independent, International, and Maine-made films. A typical New England country fair is held the last week in September at the Common Ground in Unity with folk arts, entertainment, crafts, lots of food and agriculture tools.

Belgrade Lakes and Wings Hill Inn are a 30-minute drive north of Augusta, the capital of Maine, and 45 minutes from Freeport for shopping at designer outlet stores (including Maine's own L.L. Bean), one hour from Portland international airport, one hour from renown downhill ski resort Sugarloaf, and one hour from Maine's coastal destinations.

It's a pleasure in the evening after an extraordinary dining experience at Wings Hill Inn to contemplate the day's activities in front of a roaring fire in the winter, or on the Inn's old fashioned wrap around porch in the summertime.

*A few useful expressions for whitewater rafters:

Baptism: The first time someone falls out of the boat and into the river it is referred to as a baptism.
Boofing: From the compaining sound made by the action of an inflatable boat bouncing off of a rock.
Dumptruck: To completely empty an inflatable raft of people without actually flipping the boat over.
Lily Dipper: A person who does not place his entire paddle in the water is not paddling efficiently and is paddling weakly.
Thread the needle: To steer a whitewater raft through a passage between two rocks that are barely wide enough apart for the raft to fit.
Water Yayhoos: People who are encountered out on the river who are not qualified to really be there on their own.

*Expressions courtesy of the Slang Dictionary ( http://babel.uoregon.edu/slang/pub_search.lasso )

Photo Credits: North Country Rivers, Northern Outdoors, Robert Painter, Romar Traveler.