Friday, June 29, 2012

3 Days on the Wettest River in Maine

 Note: River name and location has been taken off the record for secrecy reasons.

The page in my guide book had been earmarked for some time.  So when the 3-day weekend presented itself in early June, it didn’t matter that a tropical storm was bringing heavy rain and the potential for flash floods to the area.  Per adventure protocol, I left my trip itinerary with friends who only responded with bewilderment: “Did you see the weather forecast?...You’re still going?”

The night before, I start pulling gear.  Working in the outdoor industry for some time has afforded me a bevy of gear options, borrowed, repaired, bargained for gear.  So when I picked the NEMO Nocturne and Rhapsody sleeping bags out of the pile, my husband Paul and partner in adventure looked at me with more than just bewilderment.  “You’re not seriously taking DOWN sleeping bags?”  It’s well known that down is useless as an insulator when it gets wet and with this trip, we had no intention of being dry for any part of it.  But I was thinking light and packable AND the NEMO down bags have DownTek treatment—a water resistant finish applied to the down.  I thought, this would be the best gear decision ever, or I might have to live this down the rest of our lives if we escaped an unfortunate soggy, dangerous experience.  Let’s go with the former rather than the latter.  I was unwavering in my decision.

The rain is coming down in buckets as we head North. I soak in the last warm heat of the car and upon arrival suit up with wetsuit, booties, PFD, and a wide brimmed rain hat.  We load the gear into the canoe and we’re off, it’s raining.The first leg of the trip puts us on a lake crossing immediately.  Loons circle our boat at first, and there’s no doubt we’ve found the perfect isolated canoe trip we had hoped for.  Soon, the wind is barreling down the surrounding mountains and dumping across the lake, creating massive waves. Two hours in and the waves make me feel like I’m in a never ending ocean. We arrive at our first portage—1.25 miles across a boggy expanse between this lake and the next.  As agreed, I take the two frame packs, one on my back and one saddled in front, along with a dry sack slung over the paddles.  Paul takes the canoe and we begin the trek.  I’m thinking, he laughed at me for taking the ultralight gear.  Look who’s speeding up the pace on the trail now.

The second lake is calmer, or so we thought for the first hour.  The rain settles to light, steady drops, the loons come back out.  But the second we cross into the larger section of the lake, the wind and waves pick up again.  Running parallel to our destination, massive waves persistently steam across the lake and funnel around the islands.  The wind pulls at their apexes and causes them to break.  I might have felt the mist off of the 3-4 foot lake monster waves but I was already waterlogged.  The tip of the canoe touches land.  We are relieved to make it to camp without capsizing in the lake first.
It’s time to set up base camp.  I unpack the light and packable Obi 2P, luxurious Cosmo Air pads, and the pièce de résistance—Nocturne and Rhapsody sleeping bags.  We peel off our wetsuits, although happy to put on dry clothing, it’s like pulling a bandage off to release the warmth that has been trapped by the neoprene.  But I know we’ll be jumping into the bags for warmth and the thought of a cozy bed has me ignoring the dinnerless night.  Under the protection of the tarp, we roll back the double vestibules of the Obi to watch for moose in the dusk.  The moose don’t come but sleep shortly does.

We wake mid-morning, cozy and comfy in our bags even though everything is damp with the heavy, saturated air and misting rain.  Success!  The bags have worked flawlessly.  I have placed the blanket fold of the Rhapsody sleeping bag over my head and my nose is warm although the air is not.  My toes are toasty and thinking of prying my wetsuit booties on has me sitting in the sleeping bag until the last possible moment.  It’s very spacious and I worm around camp from the door of the tent to pack all the saturated (and still saturated) gear we have strewn about camp to “air out”.  We pack it up and paddle on.

The rapids are getting bigger over the course of the day and we make it to camp just above the largest falls in the trip.There aren’t many trees so we use the canoe to tie off one side of the tarp and nestle the tent in along the edge of the tarp. Two of the three dry bags now hold wet gear.  I’ve saved our emergency clothes and first aid kit from exposure to the penetrating rain but everything else it wet.  Wet hands digging into dry bags, wet raincoats, wet camp towel, wet, wet, wet.  Even after being packed away damp from the night before, I unfurl the pleasantly puffy sleeping bags.  Our site overlooks a marshy abutment and again we prop our heads out of the fly to spy for moose.

What I deem minutes after dozing off, a ruckus breaks out in camp.  Groggy from sleep, we struggle to determine the enormous thud and the weight of something massive rolled over on the foot end of the tent.  A moose! A moose has tripped and fallen on our tent!  We don’t have time to think because water collecting from the tarp is streaming directly through the contorted tent body, exposed now, and the water is dumping directly onto Paul in his sleeping bag.  Alert in senses now, we realize a wind gust has rolled the canoe over onto us and is now sitting on top of the aluminum poles.  We quickly correct the canoe and tarp, rigging more far off points to battle the wind.  I’m amazed to find no damage to the tent poles as the tent springs back to shape after removing the canoe.  Even more so, Paul empties the puddle of water from atop his sleeping bag and crawls back in, damp from the rain, for another warm and comfortable night although temperatures are in the high 30’s now.

We wake in the morning to find a huge change in the water level overnight.The river has risen over 2 feet and the rapids at our camp are a completely different beast then what we had scouted last evening.  The rain seems to have teetered out and summoning our confidence. We spend some time determining our line, making bail out plans, and lashing the gear down well. We line up the boat perfectly with the tongue and hold our line better than I had anticipated.  I take huge standing waves over the bow and we have 8” inches of water in the boat.  Again, I really don’t notice the waves hitting me because, it’s raining after all.  We joyfully lollygag down the river which empties back into the first lake.  With one more hour of lake crossing, we’ll be back to our starting point.  Just as we come up to the first large island, Paul spots it foraging in the marsh weeds.  Ahhh, a moose.  We have officially, and successfully, completed a Maine river trip of a lifetime.

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