BETHEL – While traffic zipped along Route 2’s asphalt highway overhead Saturday morning, 25 canoes and kayaks slipped into a watery freeway below.

Saturday was the eighth day of the eighth annual 21-day Androscoggin River Source to the Sea Canoe Trek. The trek, which is coordinated by the Androscoggin River Watershed Council of Bethel and Gorham, N.H., is something of a moving river festival. It celebrates the river’s rebirth from its polluted past.

The day’s sojourn with the river drew 42 participants, who disembarked from Bethel Outdoor Adventures Campground into a world free of highway constraints.

“I’ve done it several years and this is one of the prettiest runs on the trek,” said kayaker Sylvia Ridley of Jay.

Learning to read the river

Prior to the trip, section leader Stephen Wight of Newry provided a briefing on the day’s journey before doling out tips on reading the river’s surface, currents and Class I and II rapids.

“When we get into the rapids, the kayak girls will show us how to paddle while upside down,” he claimed, setting a lighthearted tone for the coming 10.5-mile ride.

Participants then paddled out on the calm, glassy surface, which initially reflected overcast skies left over from Friday’s downpours. Wight said that all-day deluge had caused the river to rise several inches.

Lush green, forested banks lined both sides of the river as swallows darted through the air, skimming the water’s surface before returning to nest holes carved into the riverbanks’ dirt walls.

Patches of blue sky and warming sunlight accompanied by downstream breezes intermingled with numerous bird songs, delighting the senses.

Throughout the trip, the ochre-colored river bottom – often lined with cobblestones, sporadic boulders, sand and patches of current-flattened vegetation – frequently seemed to rise to meet the vessels’ hulls or to drop away out of sight.

Some paddlers saw fish swim by, while others floating lazily in front of the pack, watched adult bald eagles flush from trees, flying ahead of the paddlers downstream.

Those up front following Wight’s canoe also enjoyed his occasional humor, which rose above the river like fish to flies.

Look out for the vortex

“A little farther down and we come to the Sunday River and the swirling vortex of death,” he said, heightening apprehensions of unwitting, beginning canoeists while experienced paddlers laughed out loud.

The “swirling vortex of death” turned out to be Class I rapids, rocks over which water at the Androscoggin’s confluence with the Sunday River ran, creating reverse, frothy V’s on the surface, waking the bow paddlers from their sightseeing reveries.

Once the relatively easy obstacle was cleared by all, the trip resumed. They took a left fork in the river, which was lined with more woody debris than there had been above Sunday River.

As blue-colored damselflies zoomed over the water, Jeff Varricchione, a stream and river biologist with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said, “There’s a lot of life around you if you just slow down and look for it. Look at all these mayflies. I’m surprised the fish aren’t going nuts, but they’re probably off layin eggs.”

After negotiating through the Class II Bear River Rips rapids where the Bear River joins the Androscoggin, members of the Mahoosuc Land Trust and Stony Brook Recreation provided a riverside picnic at the newly-created Moran’s Landing parking lot beside Route 2 in Bethel.

After lunch, Varricchione, who heads DEP’s Stream Team Program introducing the group to a variety of aquatic insects from which biologists can determine a water body’s water quality.

Then the paddlers returned to the river under a sea of fluffy cumulus and building cumulonimbus clouds for a winding ride through narrow glades and cultivated farmlands to the Hanover Boat Launch take out and day’s end.

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