Photo by Northern Outdoors
White water rafting offers unrivaled family fun. Lucky for us, we have access to three places to raft in Maine: the Kennebec River, the Dead River and the Penobscot River. The Kennebec and Dead Rivers converge at The Forks in Somerset County and include class 2 - 4 rapids. The Penobscot River runs through Baxter State Park and is a bit more intense with class 5 rapids. I've never rafted the Penobscot, but we just did the Kennebec with our friends Hope and Julia. Tim and I had both been rafting many times, but this was a first trip for our boys (12 & 15). We've since decided to make an annual thing of it - that's how thrilling it was.
Side note, it's always a good idea to book a rafting trip with a group of friends so you can fill the entire raft. Rafting with strangers can work out well too, but it's a sure thing to surround yourself with people you know you enjoy. You may also want to rent a cabin instead of staying at the campground like we did...the campground that had also been reserved by about 120 pirates. I'll get to that later.
The special thing about rafting on the Kennebec is that the water flow is controlled by the Harris Station Dam, which provides consistent whitewater all summer long due to scheduled releases. Built in 1952-1954, Harris Station is the largest hydro-electric dam in the state of Maine. This clean energy source powers the influx of summer residents/visitors with daily summertime water releases, leading to powerful currents and rapids. Weather aside, you are guaranteed a good rafting experience every time you come here.
Here is some fascinating history behind the Kennebec River, involving its role as a major transportation route for the logging industry. From the mid-1800's to 1976, river drives moved logs down the Kennebec from Moosehead Lake to The Forks to the paper mill in Winslow. Log drivers, also called "river pigs", herded logs downstream, sometimes standing on the logs as they rolled downriver. Their dangerous job was to ensure that the logs kept moving by using large poles with curved hooks on the end to pull logs from river banks and break up jams. If you want to see some shocking photos of this risky endeavor, just google "river drivers kennebec".
For some interesting history on the log drives, read this Portland Press Herald article: "The last log drive: When a Maine way of life came to an end", by Doug Harlow.
Due to water pollution, log drives were ultimately banned after 200 years of negative impact to Maine's rivers. The last log drive in the U.S. occurred on the Kennebec in 1976. The ban came shortly after the Clean Water Act of 1972 and during a time of highway development and new machinery. The 97-mile Golden Road, which runs from Millinocket to Moosehead Lake, was also completed in 1972, providing an alternate transportation route for logging.
Once the river was no longer filled with rolling logs and daredevil river runners, a new world opened up to another type of outdoor adventurer: the whitewater rafter.
The first people to raft the Kennebec River and offer the first commercial rafting trips in the State of Maine were Wayne and Susie Hockmeyer of Northern Outdoors. This was the company we booked our rafting trip with and I would highly recommend them. Our guide, Sandy, had been rafting/guiding the Kennebec for 27 years. She was full of history on the river, fun facts, jokes and I fully trusted her to keep us safe...while having a rip-roaring time.
This river trip is 12-13 miles in total. The first part, called the upper Kennebec River Gorge, provides plenty of adrenaline spiking, class IV rapids. Following this section, lunch is served on a beach along the river. Choices were steak, salmon or veggie burger with fried rice, bean salad, cookies and coffee (best surprise of the day) and lemonade. They even had gluten-free options for my son Finn. After lunch, the river widens, providing easier rapids where there's a chance to swim, float or try out one of the inflatable kayaks (duckies).
For accommodations, Northern Outdoors offers camping and cabins. Both options are close to their Forks Adventure Resort off of Route 201, where you'll meet for your rafting trip. We stayed at the campground, which wasn't bad, aside from the massive group of pirates also sleeping there...and storming the place around midnight. We learned from a friendly pirate passing by our site, that rafting in costume is an annual affair for this large group - last year was Christmas themed, this year, pirates. A 120-person pirate party to be exact. You just never know who your neighbors will be at a campground. You win some, you lose some. Next year we'll explore the cabin option.
Our day started at 7:45am for the safety orientation and gear up, before the shuttle ride up to the Harris Dam. We finished the day around 3:00pm...happy, tired, sun-kissed. All in all, it was a full 7 hours of unbridled fun. This trip is for ages 10+, but there are options for younger kids on the lower river. We are already planning to return next August. Maybe I'll see you there!