October White Water
By Bob Noonan

When my wife Debby and I were in The Forks last September we stopped at Appleton's for coffee, as usual. Andy and Karen Webb own and operate both the store and Riverdrivers Whitewater Rafting.

"Ever been whitewater rafting?" Karen asked us.

We admitted we hadn't.

"Be here at 8:30 a.m. on October 7," she said.

"October!" I yelped. "The water's cold!"

"We have wet suits," she grinned. "Paddling will keep you warm, anyway."

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October 7 was a gorgeous sunny fall day, with the foliage at its peak. Riverdrivers' bus, driven by Andy's father Edmund, stopped at the Harris Station dam on the Kennebec, and the whole party helped carry the three self-bailing rubber rafts down the path to the river.

The gates had just been opened, and an enormous volume of water foamed and boiled downstream. I admit I was nervous as we slid our raft into the water. I was amazed to see people with kayaks. I took a front seat, holding a paddle, toes firmly shoved under the bottom edge of the raft tube, as instructed during our previous safety talk. A guide would sit in the back of each raft and control direction. We'd supply the power with the paddles, at the guide's commands. A safety line ran around the inside and outside of the raft. If someone did fall out, which happened rarely, they'd be yanked back in immediately.

We pushed off, and dropped into a deep gully, with jagged dark rocky cliffs rising straight up on both banks. This was the "throat," the narrowest place on the entire Kennebec. The water roared through, and we flew along with it, into Taster Rapids. It was Class 1 water, a real roller coaster ride but not that scary. "This isn't bad!" I yelled to Ryan Atwood, who sat beside me. He smiled; he's done this trip many times, and he knew what was coming.

Suddenly we entered the Rock Garden, and Class 3 water. We plunged over the first real drop, and literally disappeared into a wall of spray. Water sheeted off us and ran out the bottom gaps in the raft as we rose on a big wave, then started to drop again. I risked a quick look back at Deb. She was either gritting her teeth with pure fear or grinning with delight. We hit the water with another big splash that drenched us, and rose and dropped again, and I paid attention to hanging on.

When the water cleared from my glasses for a second I looked ahead and saw a huge standing wave, coming at us like a locomotive. I shot a horrified look at Ryan and he yelled, "Big Momma!" In a river full of big waves, it takes an exceptional one to be given a name.

We shot up it, over the top, and down again into the spray. I held my breath when we submerged. When we surfaced it dawned on me that I might actually live through this.

I blinked my eyes clear, and saw a series of three large, distinct standing waves coming our way. Big Momma's Three Sisters!

This time I heard myself whooping as we roared up, down, under, and up again, three times in rapid succession. Any remaining fear had been replaced with total exhilaration. Why hadn't I done this years before? We flew out of the embrace of the Three Sisters, roared around a corner, bounced and flew along a stretch of roller coaster waves, dropped briefly into a hole, then dove smack into a stretch called Whitewasher. It was nothing but big foaming piles of spray, far higher than our heads. It was like being dropped into a huge washing machine. We pounded through, the raft almost standing on end at one point. I discovered new muscles in my toes as they dug in, holding on as the seat bounded around under my butt. We dropped into a little trough, and I took a quick look back. Everyone was grinning. Then I looked ahead, and gulped. An absolutely huge standing wave was flying at us. It was The Big Kahuna, and it dwarfed anything I'd seen so far. There wasn't a hell of a lot of time to contemplate it. We shot up, and up, then flew over the top, then roared down into total submersion once again. When we surfaced and the water roared out of the raft, we barely had time to reposition our butts and catch our breath when we entered The Alleyway, six substantial roller-coaster waves in rapid sequence. Yeehaa!

By now I was hooked. This was addictive! The water calmed down a bit, and on our left appeared Cathedral Eddy, the largest eddy on the Kennebec. We rowed into it and regrouped. The scenery was absolutely spectacular. Craggy granite walls rose up on both sides of the river, and dark green gnarly hemlocks sprinkled with yellow poplars clung in patches to the cliffs. Flaming red, orange, and yellow maples fringed the top edge, and above everything was an expanse of clear blue October sky.

My wife was beside herself. "I haven't had so much fun since the hogs ate the schoolteacher!" she yelled. "We have to get the kids out here!" We were all pretty stimulated, even the guides. I asked Andy if he ever took the trip for granted. "Nope!" he grinned. "I never get tired of it."

We watched rafts from other whitewater companies come shooting out of The Alleyway, then we started off again. We entered a Z-shaped turn that became a chute, then hit the bottom of the Z. By now we were a well-oiled team, responding immediately to Andy's shouted commands.

There were about 15 rafts strung out ahead of us, and as we watched, the ones way in front began to disappear, as if they had dropped off the face of the earth. Magic Falls! Class 4 water for sure! We flew over the 12-foot drop with loud yells. We novices were veterans now!

The river gradually got quieter, although the rapids continued. A girl in our raft jumped overboard, a girl in another raft joined her, and they floated and swam for a while. We pulled over on a sandy beach for hot chocolate and snacks, and to admire the scenery. Almost an hour had passed, but it had seemed to be minutes.

The rapids gradually flattened out as the banks lowered and the river widened, although the current stayed strong. We paddled, swam, drank in the fall colors, and yearned for fishing rods as we passed deep pools. We finally landed on the west side of Route 201 in The Forks. We loaded the rafts, and drove the short distance to Riverdriver's headquarters. There we were treated to a huge meal, Andy's River Rice Recipe cooked over a campfire in a giant frying pan, a choice of steak, chicken, or fish, and Karen's homemade yeast rolls. After stuffing ourselves we watched videos of our ride, and a slide show, from which we selected prints to buy. It was evening when we reluctantly said goodbye.

The Webbs have lived in The Forks for three generations. Andy's father Edmund, 64, ran Webb's Wilderness Outfitters, and trapped for years. He and his father Appleton were river drivers, running logs on the Dead River. Appleton also ran Webb's General Store, now Appleton's.

Andy and Karen run a very warm, personal business, and they treat their customers like friends. This is not a cold, commercial, move 'em in and move 'em out operation. We spent a full five hours on the Kennebec, slowing and stopping at scenic spots, relaxing, taking the time to get to know the river and each other. We were fed like royalty, and encouraged to stay and visit afterwards. The Webbs are authentic, down home Maine people. They want a partnership with their customers; they want them to return, and bring their families and friends. We will; we've got two trips planned for next summer. My wife is still talking about the trip.

Andy and Karen can be reached toll free at: 1-866-748-7378. Or visit their website at: www.riverdrivers.com.


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