Whitewater thrills

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Each spring, when the snow and ice begin to melt, and the rivers and streams open and rise, Maine’s whitewater paddlers unpack their boats and gear in anticipation of the upcoming season of whitewater fun.

Some of them participate in the annual downriver race schedule, others take on the steep creeks, while most simply challenge the many rapids that the rising rivers provide on a purely recreational basis. Regardless of the choice, it is truly a rite of spring.

With the excitement and challenges come hazards and the need to safely address them. This includes assessing river and stream difficulty, understanding the risks and dangers inherent in whitewater boating, acquiring the necessary knowledge and skills, and having the right gear and equipment.

The first step is to have a clear understanding of the difficulty level of rivers and streams. Several years ago, the American Whitewater Affiliation developed an International Scale of River Difficulty. That has become virtually the sole standard that is used. The scale is divided into six separate levels of difficulty that are described in the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society (PPCS) Trip Book.

The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) publishes a guidebook, “AMC River Guide – Maine,” which rates most of Maine’s rivers and streams under normal conditions. However, the difficulty of a river can vary greatly depending on the circumstances. Factors that can affect the difficulty of a particular run are water levels, water and air temperatures and personal familiarity with a river. For instance, a river that is normally rated Class III, at flood with spring water and air temperatures and is unfamiliar to the paddler might be a Class IV or IV/V. Conversely, the same river at a low-water level in midsummer and well-known to the paddler might be a Class II. The PPCS, which is the only outdoor club in Maine that is devoted primarily to whitewater boating, has a full schedule of Class I through Class V whitewater trips from mid-March through mid-October. For more information on the PPCS, access their Web site at www.paddleandchowder.org.

Whitewater, especially Class III and higher levels, presents hazards that paddlers need to be knowledgeable and prepared for. Strainers, broaching, bow pins, keeper holes and entrapments are the most common dangers. Strainers are obstacles, such as downed trees, that are in the water and can entangle boats and paddlers. Broaching occurs when boats, most frequently canoes filled with water, pin sideways against downriver obstructions, such as rocks. Bow pins normally occur with kayaks on steep creeks when the bow pins under submerged rocks and the remainder of the boat collapses downstream onto the kayaker. Keeper holes are created by water pouring steeply over rocks or other large objects, such as dams, causing a hydraulic effect that holds boats and their occupants. Finally, entrapments happen to paddlers who become separated from their boats in whitewater, and their feet or legs become wedged between rocks or other submerged objects.

The best safety advice is to recognize and avoid such hazards. Depending on the conditions, rescue in these situations can be complex and dangerous procedures. New paddlers should consider taking a swift water safety and rescue course. Most paddling organizations, such as the AMC and PPCS, offer or arrange such courses for their members.

Whitewater gear and equipment is a key to both comfort and safety, especially during spring paddling when water and air temperatures are quite cold. Whitewater boats, both canoes and kayaks, are generally divided into three groups; downriver, creek and play boats. Downriver boats are normally longer, narrower and faster. Creeks boats tend be larger volume boats that are more maneuverable than downriver boats, but slower. Play boats are usually shorter and designed for specific whitewater activities.

There are a number of companies that manufacture whitewater boats. The choice of boat should be based on the paddler’s boating goals. It is not unusual for a paddler to own all three types.

Paddles are generally made of plastic or layered wood. The plastic is usually more durable, but many paddlers prefer the “aesthetics and feel” of the more traditional wooden paddle. Booties or sandals are the preferred footwear, and helmets and life jackets are safety necessities. Clothing normally consists of an outer layer of waterproof material, such as a dry top or dry suit, and inner layers of fleece and polypro.

Some paddlers still wear wetsuits, which insulate the body with a neoprene material rather than keep it dry. However, the trend is strongly towards the former.

Most whitewater boaters outfit their boats with air bags and carry “throw bags.” Air bags are essential for whitewater canoes in order to displace open areas of the interior of the boat that would otherwise fill with water in Class III or higher level rapids. Throw bags are lengths of rope enclosed in and attached to a cloth container. By holding one end of the rope and throwing the bag, it can be extremely useful in the rescue of boats and boaters. For more extreme paddling, teams of boaters often carry specialized rescue kits.

For new whitewater paddlers, there is much to learn in order to have a safe and enjoyable experience. The best avenue is to join an organized whitewater club with experienced paddlers. A good place to start is the 6th Annual Paddle Smart Safety Symposium, which will be held on April 28th at the Bangor YMCA. Additional information can be obtained by accessing the Web site www.castinekayak.com/paddlesmart.htm. or calling 866-3506 or 941-5670.

Whitewater boating can be a very rewarding and challenging outdoor sport. In order to maximize the quality of the experience, new paddlers should get the knowledge, information and equipment that you need before you begin.

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