- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 9, 2007

FORKS, Maine

Spring, when rivers are high and wild, is considered the best time to go white-water rafting, but all summer and into fall, exciting Class IV rapids are waiting in Maine at the Forks. Many other rivers around the country are calm and low by August, but not here. That’s because the rivers are dam-controlled.

“We always get water,” says Wende Gray, managing director of the Raft Maine Association. Agreements regulated by federal agencies ensure that “the rafting industry must have three hours — 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. — of a minimum of 4,800 cubic feet of water per second.”

That means you’re going to get soaked. It means you had better be ready to paddle through 8-foot-high waves and a 12-foot drop. It means you have to get up early to arrive in time. The trips depart in the morning to take advantage of the water-release schedules. Water levels drop in the afternoon.


The best part about white water at the Forks is this: You don’t need any experience to try it. You’ll be coached by licensed guides on when to row, which side to row on and when it’s OK to jump in for a swim.

More than a half dozen white-water outfitters are based in the Forks, which is named for the confluence of the Kennebec and Dead rivers, halfway between Portland and Quebec City.

“I get asked all the time, ‘Who should I go with? Who’s the best one?’ ” Miss Gray says. “Well, what color boat would you like? Everybody’s got a great trip. It’s the off-river amenities that vary. Some have lunches on the river; some do it back at base camp.”

We chose Moxie Outdoor Adventures for a trip last summer because the company offered a two-part experience that suited the age differences in our family.

My younger son was 8; my older son was 13. The little guy wasn’t large enough for the Class IV rapids in the upper part of the river — Moxie’s minimum age is 10 — but the outfitter drove him and a few others who sat out the first leg to meet up with the group for the rest of the tour.

The second part of the trip is mostly a scenic float trip, but there are a few Class II and III rapids, which offer a taste of wild water without the risks.

Some outfitters require guests to be 12 or older. Miss Gray notes that weight is as important as age.

“I get so many people saying, ‘My 8-year-old is a good swimmer,’ ” she says. “It’s not about whether they can swim. They need to weigh at least 70 pounds or they could flip off the boat. You also need the power of the crew paddling to get through those rapids.”

You do not need special rowing skills. Just put the oar in the water when you’re told to do so and paddle as hard as you can. We learned the commands — left, right, ahead and back — and worked as a team in response to the shouts of our guide, Hilary Ohmart, who took us smoothly through the big waves and around the spots where foam and swirling eddies indicated rocks beneath the surface.

The day starts at 9:30 a.m. with a safety drill at base camp, where you get a helmet, life jacket and paddle. The lecture is a little scary — detailing rescue techniques and risks such as “foot entrapment” (which, our instructor noted blithely, can lead to drowning). No one even came close to falling out once we were on the boat. You go through the rapids so fast and you’re so busy paddling that you don’t have time to feel afraid, and the scenery is beautiful — pure Maine wilderness, the riverbank lined with wildflowers and woods.

Lunch was a highlight. We beached the boats, and the guides cooked steak and chicken over an open fire, with yummy baked beans and pasta salad on the side. By then, my younger son, who had jumped into the icy water several times, was shivering. As he warmed up by the fire, the guides produced a few dry fleece jackets and carefully distributed them to the youngest guests.

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