Intro to Whitewater: An AMC Trip Leader Wants to Run a River With You
Do you enjoy the challenge of negotiating bumpy slopes or tight treelines on skis, staying in perfect control, even when obstacles and gravity conspire against you?
Do you love riding roller coasters? Or getting tossed around by big waves at the beach?
Have you ever stood rapt in front of a front-loading washing machine and wondered what it would feel like to be inside?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, whitewater paddling might be your next outdoor love affair.
Like skiing, whitewater paddling has a learning curve. You need instruction to get started safely and lots of practice to become proficient. But once you have the skills, you can attain Zen-like focus in a turbulent world. Whitewater also can be a pure adrenaline rush—especially when things don’t go according to plan. Remember that front-loading washer? Among paddlers, finding yourself out of your boat, tumbled and tossed in the river, is known as being “Maytagged.”
That doesn’t mean you have to start with rapids that are big, mean, and dangerous. You can and should start easy, ratcheting up the challenges as you feel comfortable. In the same way ski areas have bunny slopes, there are entry-level river runs, known as “quickwater.” From there, you can progress through classes I, II, and III. There are also tougher whitewater classes: IV (akin to skiing’s double diamond), V (triple black diamond), and VI (“fall and die”). But that’s putting the kayak before the paddle. Let’s back up a bit.
I’m a classic example of an increasingly obsessed paddler. In 2005, I took a commercial rafting trip down Maine’s Kennebec River and was hooked. (Guided rafting is how many folks come to whitewater; sea kayaking is another common entry point.) The next year, I signed up for a trip on the Dead River, followed by a beginner whitewater kayaking clinic at Zoar Outdoor, in Charlemont, Mass. I loved it, but I didn’t have anyone to paddle with.
So, in 2012, I took the “Introduction to Whitewater” series taught every April by volunteer instructors from AMC’s New Hampshire Chapter, culminating in a run on the class II Sugar River in Newport, N.H. For the next few years, I paddled as much as I could with the New Hampshire and Boston chapters, continuing to improve with practice. I helped with my first whitewater school in 2017. I led or co-led 19 whitewater trips in 2018. Also last summer, I became certified by the American Canoe Association to teach entry-level river skills, along with three other AMC trip leaders.
Along the way, I made a whole new circle of friends—which is handy, because paddling turbulent rivers alone is simply unsafe. There’s an old saying: “One paddler is an incident; two paddlers is a witness; three or more is a rescue.”
Part 1: Finding Whitewater
It may surprise some readers to learn that AMC is deeply involved in whitewater paddling in the Northeast. When most people hear “Appalachian Mountain Club,” they think hiking, peakbagging, and skiing. That’s natural. But the mountains are also the birthplaces of swiftly flowing rivers. Think about it: You don’t find oodles of whitewater in Florida, do you? Paddling whitewater is as much a mountain sport as skiing.
Whitewater occurs in a couple of ways: naturally, when a river’s water level rises due to runoff from snowmelt and rainfall; and artificially, when the water level rises due to a dam release. Both are helped along by changes in elevation (that whole mountain thing) and rocks and other obstacles that create riffs and ripples in the current.
If the idea of dam-controlled whitewater is new to you, imagine it’s a warm summer morning in the middle of a dry spell. You’re standing near the top of a hydropower dam. When you look upstream, you can’t help but wonder what rapids are stilled beneath the river’s impounded depths. But as a warning siren sounds, you about-face to watch the river downstream, typically too dry to paddle this time of year, begin to fill with water as the dam gates open.
Scheduled dam releases don’t happen by accident. It can take years of meetings, studies, and hard bargaining to get water in the river when and where paddlers can use it, and AMC has been front and center in those negotiations. When many existing dams in New England were built, dam owners were largely given free rein to regulate river flow. But those licenses don’t last forever, and when they come up for renewal with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), it gives the public a chance to provide input on how the water is used.
Back in the 1990s, AMC’s now-newly retired research director, Ken Kimball, and Norm Sims, an AMC volunteer still active today, began convening river stakeholders—dam owners and operators, employees of the power companies that buy the electricity, paddlers, anglers, birders, water-quality advocates, river guides, landowners, and governmental entities—to create what’s called a settlement agreement, which is then submitted to FERC.
This process, which started with Kimball and Sims on the Deerfield River in western Massachusetts, is now common practice across the country. It gives dam owners and operators a degree of long-term stability while opening up a world of recreational opportunities. You only need to show up on a summer release weekend to see how successful the Deerfield agreement has been. The scheduled releases, 32 per season on the Dryway section (class IV) and 106 on the Fife Brook section (class II), draw whitewater aficionados from across the Northeast.
But the Deerfield is only the beginning. Not content to rest on past successes, Sims and Mark Zakutansky, AMC’s director of conservation policy engagement, are intimately involved in a number of additional negotiations that could produce even more recreation opportunities on the Deerfield, as well as on the Connecticut, New England’s largest river system, where whitewater historically has been very limited. That may be about to change.
Four dams on the Connecticut—Wilder, Bellows Falls, Vernon, and Turners Falls—are up for relicensing, as is the pump storage facility at Northfield Mountain in Erving, Mass. According to Zakutansky, AMC is helping to negotiate an agreement that could produce a Dryway-caliber playground in what is now an almost-dry section of the Connecticut at Bellow Falls Dam, plus a new 2.5-mile class II/III/IV run below Turners Falls. Factor in the five new campsites that Kristen Sykes, AMC’s director of conservation strategies, has helped establish along the riverbank as part of the multistate Connecticut River Paddlers Trail, and you’ve got yourself a whitewater destination.
There’s another potential boomlet in the making about two hours from Manhattan, on New York’s Mongaup River. The Rio Dam currently releases one day every other weekend from mid-April through October, but Zakutansky says upping the number of releases to two days in a row would bring in more paddlers, in turn boosting the local economy. Additional targets for future negotiations include the Saco River below Bonny Eagle Dam, in Maine, and more reliable weekend releases on New Hampshire’s Pemigewasset River at Ayers Island Dam, plus a possible new stretch of whitewater in downtown Berlin, N.H. All of these and more are on AMC’s radar.
By the way, most of the release schedules you’ll find on AMC websites are maintained by Julia Khorana, another dedicated volunteer since the early 1990s. “I love rivers,” she says. “It is possible to balance recreational river usage and river conservation. I want to see more people use our river resources and help protect them in the future.”
Part 2: Paddling Whitewater
It doesn’t take much imagination to view a river as a living creature. On a bright, cool Saturday morning in early June, the Pemigewasset River in Bristol, N.H., is a big dog with a tennis ball, just begging someone to come out and play. My group of seasoned and new paddlers—organized by AMC’s New Hampshire Chapter Paddling Committee, with participants ranging in age from late teens to mid-70s—has accepted the invitation.
Our bright flotilla of kayaks and one solo canoe assembles near the base of Ayers Island Dam. As always, the parking lot has been a study in controlled chaos. Today Marcy Stanton is in charge, with the assistance of her loyal co-leader: me.
Marcy and I often lead and teach together. We trust each other, and one or the other of us has vetted each of today’s paddlers. It’s important that everyone has the skills to handle our planned run. Some groups may take a more laissez-faire approach, allowing folks to show up and paddle, but AMC emphasizes safety and trains its trip leaders to pay attention to detail.
We have everyone sign a standard liability release. We check everyone’s equipment and make sure they have what they need: whitewater-capable boat with floatation bags, helmet, paddle, personal flotation device (PFD), sprayskirt for kayaks, water bottle. I test a new-to-us kayaker on his ability to make a wet exit, proving he can get himself out of his boat quickly, should he capsize on the water. He executes the drill flawlessly.
Next is the river talk. Marcy asks if anyone has medical issues, especially asthma, diabetes, or severe allergies, making sure they—and we—know where to find their inhalers, Epi-pens, or insulin. We poll the crowd for rescue experience. Finally, Marcy demonstrates the signals we’ll use to communicate on the river (where it’s often difficult to hear) and explains what to do if someone falls into the water (help if you can without putting yourself in peril; otherwise, find a safe eddy and wait). She designates a river leader—in this case, me—to go first, as well as a skilled sweeper to go last, making sure no one gets left behind.
Now it’s time to paddle.
Some rivers require you to be in top form from the first stroke, but the Pemi starts easy, with moderate current and no obstacles. As leader, I launch first, pointing my kayak upstream and paddling across the current to the opposite bank, where I’ll be in a position to help anyone who has difficulties. No one does.
Everybody takes a moment to warm up: ferrying back and forth across the current; rocking their boats, edge to edge; practicing forward, backward, sweep, and draw strokes. When we’re ready, I lead off downstream, with the group following behind in a long, loose line, like a family of ducklings. The goal is for each paddler to stay in sight of the people in front of and behind them. It’s easy on this big, wide-open river.
Before long, though, the river narrows. The current picks up speed and flows from river left above us, to river center in front of us, to hard river right below us, slamming into a ledge that forms a downstream eddy. There are two more eddies on river left; these three eddies are our safe spots. In between, things get more interesting. This area is so prominent, it even has a name: Rodeo Hole.
Most holes either “smile” or “frown”: A frown pushes your boat back into the hole; a smile flushes you out. But Rodeo Hole’s grin is lopsided. The current on river right pushes you into the hole; the one on river left flushes you out. A scattering of rocks just below the hole creates lots of confused currents, with no clear line through and plenty of places to get hung up.
Marcy and I explain that Rodeo Hole is a class III feature and that, if anyone wants to attempt it, we’ll act as safety boats to help keep watch. She also points out that Rodeo Hole can be avoided altogether by ferrying to an easier, class II line on river right.
While we’re scoping things out, we see a pair of whitewater kayakers coming toward us in the main current. They have good boats, they seem to be skilled paddlers, and they clearly aren’t stopping to scout.
Our group will have a ringside seat.
The lead boat plunges straight into Rodeo Hole. He’s carrying a lot of speed as he drops over the ledge, but then he gets stopped by the backwash, as if he has hit a brick wall. In the second his boat stalls, he could save himself with a strong forward stroke over the breaker, but he freezes and gets pushed about 8 feet backward by the force of the curling wave. His boat turns sideways, the current catches it, and he’s instantly upside down. He tries to roll but gets windowshaded (that is, repeatedly flipped) and wet exits (hits the metaphorical “eject” button), only to be Maytagged (or tumble-washed) before he and his boat are finally flushed out of the hole. It’s painful to watch.
His partner sees the carnage in time to thread the needle along Rodeo Hole’s smiley edge and somehow stays upright through the jumbled rocks below. We all applaud as he lands in the eddy, where he waits for the current to deliver his partner, his partner’s paddle, and his partner’s boat. It’s all over in about a minute. No one is injured. All’s well that ends well, but after that vivid show-and-tell, everyone in our group decides to run the easier class II line. Good call.
Approaching the takeout, we pause to boat-scout the last major feature of the run, another class III called the Pemi Playhole. The current runs river left here, with a sweeping right turn that deflects off a ledge and a gravel bar on river right. The pinched flow creates the biggest wave train we’ve seen all day. It looks intimidating, but there’s 11 miles of flatwater directly below us, making for easy rescues.
A fellow paddler and I demonstrate the route through the rapid then position ourselves on either side, where we can pick up any swimmers and stray equipment. Once we’re all set, I stick my paddle straight up in the air, the universal signal for “come ahead.”
Some of the kayaks proceed one at a time; others descend in pairs, with a more experienced paddler leading a newcomer. Almost everyone, including me, whoops or laughs as they hit the wave train. The expressions on their faces are dazzling. It’s exactly like riding a roller coaster, with the bow of each kayak rising and falling up to 5 feet as it crests then plunges.
One paddler leans backward near the top of the biggest wave, realizes her mistake, and tries to brace herself—except there’s no water beneath her paddle, which flails in midair. She flips backward, wet exits, and is quickly rescued. Completely undaunted, she carries her boat back upstream, relaunches, and completes the feature perfectly. We all cheer her success.
Next time, come try it with us.
6 Tips for New Whitewater Paddlers
- Take a lesson, preferably from someone who has both paddling and teaching experience.
- Safety first! The weather has the final say on water levels; always check the forecast before heading out. Never paddle swift currents alone. Always wear a PFD and a helmet. Scout any rapid before you run it. If it looks too scary, don’t paddle it.
- Don’t forget to breathe. A little trepidation is good for paddling, but fear and tension aren’t. Try singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as you paddle. Bonus points if your group sings it as a round.
- Make friends with your fails. When it’s safe to do so, flip your vessel intentionally. Hang out underwater. Practice rolling and wet exits before you need them. Swim in the current. Bang into rocks. The more relaxed you are around whitewater, the better you’ll paddle.
- Try before you buy. Every whitewater vessel is different. Test out as many models as you can in order to find “the one.” Several AMC chapters rent beginner boats for cheap, and many outfitters will let you demo boats before purchasing.
- Increase challenges incrementally. Practice basic strokes and boat control in flatwater before venturing into current. Seek out a class I rapid and practice the peel-outs, eddy turns, and ferrying you’ll need for class II. Ratchet up as your skills improve.
Dam Release Schedules