Small, but mighty: A wild winter ride on Megunticook Stream

Tue, 12/03/2019 - 10:00am
Dripping wet on the side of Washington Street, and thankful it was my husband and not the fire department coming to rescue me, my hair was beginning to freeze as I scanned the road for his Prius. My teeth were chattering but all I could do was smile as I thought about what I must have looked like to passing cars on a Saturday afternoon at dusk on the eve of winter.
Luckily, my phone had squeezed out one last call on its final 1% of battery power.  The adrenaline rushing through me still masked any unpleasantness of the cold, but I knew even a short walk home to Mechanic Street in this condition would be unwise. The whole excursion had been inadvisable, perhaps, but it was worth it.
I’ve always wondered about kayaking the rocky, fast moving parts of Megunticook River, but imagined it would be too shallow.  There are a few who say they’ve gone all the way from the lake to the harbor (employing the common technique of getting out and walking when they came to one of the river’s 6 dams), and even scattered tales of people bypassing the Seabright Dam by sliding down the sluiceway, but I’ve never seen any of these things myself.
A couple weekends ago I attempted to cross the river with my nine year old and a pair of hip waders, but my maternal instincts quickly forced a retreat. Life jackets and chest waders were definitely in order, at least for Colton, and it’s easy to see why the settlers were drawn to the river for its ability to power mills. The water moves fast.
This past weekend, while the kids went bowling, I saw my chance to try with a kayak. I loaded our trusty purple vessel  into the trailer and set off with a few layers of clothes, an orange vest, snow pants, and one of the kids life jackets (just in case).
I only had an hour or so of daylight left, so I move quickly, half expecting to get jammed up on shallow rocks and just go back to the car with a new understanding of why people don’t do this. I parked at the riverwalk trailhead on Mt. Battie street, dragged the kayak up the pathway just a little down from the Seabright Dam and scooched and shimmied my way into the water.
Almost immediately, I could tell I had miscalculated. There was none of the expected trouble in moving briskly downstream. Instead, I realized I would have to work hard to slow down rather than to speed up. I dug my paddle in, trying to slow myself and reevaluate the approach to the the first bridge, which is more of a double culvert, but all I managed to do was spin sideways. There was no turning back now and readied myself for the small drop down on the other side, which was met by cheers from two people fishing on the other side. Now that was fun, but there was no time to chat!
I was getting a crash course in “reading the water” a phrase that refers to watching the way the rapids move in order to choose an obstacle free line. I soon realized I was reading the river upside down and backwards, hitting every rock rather than sliding through the deep channels, but my experience improved as I recalibrated. There was already a little water in my boat and I was developing a list of things I should have thought of… Helmet, adult life jacket, and spray skirt, for starters. Oh, well. I was having too much fun to dwell on that stuff. This was starting to feel a lot like fun, the kind that makes your heart beat faster.
I knew the derelict dam behind Shepard Storage would likely pose a navigational hazard, and it did, so I disembarked and walked around, pausing to try and imagine Bisbee’s gunpowder mill that had once stood in the same place. Maybe a better equipped and more experienced kayaker could have jumped down and through the half breached stone dam, like I see on youtube, but not me.
Back aboard, I was starting to get the hang of it, enjoying the small drops and curves, dodging in between the high and low spots, and not yet too concerned with the amount of water I was taking on in all the splashing. My first unexpected obstacle was a large tree that stretched the entire width of the stream. It was pretty clear I’d need to go around, but I didn’t plan far enough ahead and thus made the process a little more complicated than necessary.
Back in the saddle, I was really having fun when I came around the bend to the obstacle that would ultimately take me down. It was another tree, this one a little bigger than the last and with more clearance in between it and the water. Again, I failed to take decisive action, and before I could commit to bypassing on one side of the stream or the other, it was upon me. I pushed against it with my arms and planned to shimmy along and inch my way to the bank, hoping to prevent the current from wedging my boat underneath.
But I had underestimated my favorite little stretch of stream, and by the time I realized my amateur error, it was too late. My boat had joined forces with the tree to create a momentary dam, and the water flooded in, immediately flipping my boat and sweeping us both under the tree and downstream toward Megunticook Market. I had kept my face above water, but that was it. I was now in a fight to save the kayak, which was half filled with water, yet still eager to charge on ahead of me.
As the river worked to drag her downstream, I lost my grip and for a moment imagined I’d have to retrieve my vessel in Camden Harbor. Still wishing to avoid a total spectacle, I lunged forward out of the waste deep water and tackled her once again, eventually wrestling us both to shore, and seemingly escaping the attention of Megunticook Market’s busy parking lot. Panting and relieved to have lost only my paddle in the ordeal, I reached for the child’s life jacket that was still lodged in the bow of the boat, and forced it on over my water logged layers. Better safe than sorry at this point.
As I dumped the water from my boots and scurried up the bank, I was already making plans for next time. I may not have made it as far as I hoped, but I had proven (to myself at least) that this small but mighty stream is not only navigable but full of surprises. I haven’t had so much unexpected fun in quite a while, and I haven’t stopped thinking of it since. I hope that sharing my exhilarating and inelegant tale will encourage others to share their stories too. I know they are out there.