It was the first Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society (PPCS) whitewater trip of the spring. There had been several earlier trips scheduled, but unusually low water levels and cold, windy weather conditions had caused them to be canceled.
It was April 2, and this time all of the necessary elements were in place. The weather was fine, the water was up, and there was a bevy of avid boaters thirsting for a taste of whitewater.
Kingsbury Stream is located in the southwestern corner of Piscataquis County and is a club favorite. It provides intermediate-to-advanced whitewater paddling, and has something to offer for just about any whitewater enthusiast. Beginning in Kingsbury Pond about 15 miles east of Bingham, it flows easterly and joins the Piscataquis River just after passing through Abbot Village.
Researching water levels is a key element in planning a successful spring whitewater adventure. Our trip coordinator was club president Kyle Duckworth of Bar Harbor, and he had the primary responsibility for gathering the necessary information. Since water levels had been running low, he consulted the USGS Web site (www.waterdata.usgs.gov/me/nwis/rt), which provides real time river data for many of Maine’s rivers and streams. There is a USGS gauge on Kingsbury Stream, so the pertinent information was readily available. Previous club trips had indicated that we needed a minimum water flow of 500 cubic feet per second to negotiate the rapids. Further, 1500 cfs was probably the maximum level for a safe trip. Since the gauge was reading 600 cfs and climbing, the trip was on, and Kingsbury was the choice. When a river lacks a USGS gauge, it is often possible to determine its approximate water level by correlating the readings on nearby rivers that have gauges. Otherwise, the only option is personal inspection.
Eleven eager whitewater paddlers met at Trafton’s Store on Route 15 in Abbot Village at 10:30 a.m.. The relatively late start was intentional in order to take full advantage of the day’s warmest hours. Adjacent to the store, Kingsbury Stream tumbled violently through a steep, narrow gorge and under the bridge on Route 15. Early arrivals had meticulously scouted this Class IV+ falls, and the best paddling routes had been thoroughly debated. Snacks were purchased at the store and, since this was the take-out for our planned trip, shuttle vehicles were left in a parking area nearby before we departed and traveled west on Route 16 to the put-in.
To reach Kingsbury Stream from central Maine, drive north on Interstate 95 to the Route 201 exit in Fairfield. Then, travel north on 201 until you reach Skowhegan. Follow Routes 150 and 151 north to the junction with Route 16 at Mayfield corner. The put-in is about 10 miles east on Route 16, just after Thorn Brook passes under the highway and joins Kingsbury Stream. There is space to park several vehicles on the north side of the road, and it is just a short carry across the road and through the woods to the stream. It is another four miles east on Route 16 to the take-out in Abbot Village. Paddlers unfamiliar with this run should be aware that the stream distance is almost twice a long as the drive and the Delorme Maine Atlas reference for this area is Map 31.
Something for everyone
The AMC River Guide for Maine, which evaluates and describes most of the major whitewater and downriver streams and rivers in Maine, rates this 7.5-mile section to be Class II, III and IV. As the rating suggests, Kingsbury offers challenges for a cross section of skill levels. Further, since the Class IV sections are relatively short and quite easily portaged, intermediate-level paddlers generally feel quite comfortable on it.
When we arrived at the put-in, it was sunny, gusty and cool. Fortunately, the water level had risen to a very acceptable 800 cfs and, initially at least, we had a tail wind. The group consisted of four solo whitewater canoes, five solo kayaks and a tandem shredder, which is a two-person inflatable catamaran style whitewater boat. Almost immediately, we encountered the first Class IV rapid, which is a river wide ledge drop that requires a tricky right to left maneuver, or punching a hydraulic hole tight on the left side of the river. Two in our group had to roll their boats, otherwise the first challenge of the day was incident free. For paddlers desiring a gentler introduction to the day, it is possible to carry downstream and launch just below this rapid.
After the first drop, there are almost continuous Class II and III rapids until a bridge is reached about two miles downstream. A short distance before the bridge, there is a fairly long and challenging Class III rapid that constricts at the end into a narrow gorge with a steep rock wall on the right. At high-water levels, there are big waves and sticky holes near the lower end of this rapid and it is probably a Class IV. Some in our group stopped at the bottom on river left and enjoyed a lunch break sheltered from the wind by large rocks, while others provided entertainment surfing the waves.
Below the bridge, the stream gradually mellows for the next three miles with just an occasional Class II or II/III rapid, as it meanders circuitously through an open often breezy area. Shortly after the stream enters into a more wooded terrain, it turns to the left and another Class IV rapid begins. It is quite easily scouted and/or portaged on the left. It is pockmarked with holes, and there are several possible routes, all requiring strong paddling skills. One canoeist in our group flipped in one of the holes and his attempts to roll were unsuccessful. Several paddlers converged around him and he was quickly reunited with his boat. There are usually some excellent surfing waves in this rapid, however, paddlers must be alert to catch them in this demanding drop. Just below is a blind ledge falls that probably should be scouted, although it is more menacing to look at than it actually is.
In a short distance, the stream turns sharply to the right and a blue farm house appears on the left bank. Here, there is a moderately-steep rapid that should be run on the right to avoid jagged rocks awaiting unsuspecting paddlers just below the surface on river left. As we ran the rapid, we were greeted by an appreciative audience enjoying a cookout on the shore next to the house. It is about a mile of flatwater paddling to the take-out on the left above Trafton’s Store. Unfortunately, we were confronted with a change in wind direction in the afternoon, and we had to struggle against a heavy headwind at the end of our paddling day.
After taking safety measures, including placing trip members with throw bags strategically along the shore, some in our group successfully paddled the falls below the take-out.
This rapid should not be attempted unless paddlers have strong Class IV paddling skills, and after it has been thoroughly scouted, as it is steep and often congested with debris and strainers.
For our group, Kingsbury Stream was the perfect beginning to the 2006 paddling season. We had experienced challenging rapids, scenic views and the special camaraderie that always seems to accompany a club whitewater trip.
Anyone interested in more information on the PPCS should access their Web site at paddleandchowder.org.