Penobscot River - West Branch
Location - Northwoods of Maine West of Bangor
Difficulty - Class III - IV+ Length - 10 miles
Level - 2,500 cfs Date - July 2001
The West Branch of the Penobscot River in northern Maine is one
of New England’s classic summertime dam release runs. With
consistent flows of 2,500 cfs throughout the warm months, the
only thing limiting the number of boaters on this run is its distance
from metropolitan areas. Situated some thirty miles to the
northwest of Millinocket, and lying in the shadow of Mt Katahdin,
the river lies out in the boonies. Despite its remote location, the
whitewater is exciting enough to have spawned a healthy rafting
industry and most New England boaters make the trip up to the
north woods at least once a year. The reward is a mile long
gorge of big class IV rapids, a solid class IV+ boulder garden, and
numerous other drops surrounded by spectacular natural
Access requires heading out of Millinocket on the Golden Road,
one of the most active logging roads in New England. Although
the condition of the road has been vastly improved over the last
ten years it is important to remember that this is a private road
and that the trucks hauling timber are not going to slow down or
move to the edge of the road when you encounter them.
Eventually you will reach a sign for McKay Station. Take this right
and park here. The put in lies at the end of a short dirt road
leading to the generating station that is dumping water back into
the riverbed. Back in the mid nineties this road was closed to the
public and reaching the put in involved hiking down a sketchy trail
and or jumping off of a cliff into a deep eddy.
Even with access road opened to the public it is a wise idea to
walk to the edge of Ripogenus Gorge before putting on the river
so you can make a scout of the rapids that it contains. From the
top of the deep canyon you will be looking down on Exterminator
and Staircase, two strong class IV drops. The sheer granite walls
are impressive and the river bad is littered with blocks of rock.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that the drops below are small,
everything flattens out when scouting from above. The lines
should be obvious from the scout, just make sure you have
landmarks in mind for when you get on the water.
The put in eddy is a surging pool next to the strong outflow from the
generating station. This facility provides year round power for the
paper mills in Millinocket, hence the constant flow of water being
released into the Penobscot. At the standard summertime release
of 2,400 cfs the run is big and pushy, but not outrageously difficult.
Intermediates will probably be intimidated in a few places, but
everything is easy to avoid with the exception of Ripogenus Gorge.
As you cross the outflow from the powerhouse and enter the gorge
the current quickly accelerates and heads into a series of pushy
little waves that continue to build up to Exterminator Hole. Many
boaters will avoid the meat of the hole by running to the left, but it is
important to make this move with authority, or else you risk being
fed into the maw by some diagonals immediately above it. A narrow
line also exists to river right of Exterminator, and more and more
kayakers are putting their heads down and punching the hole.
Exterminator is sticky, and it will hold boats, but so much water is
slamming through there that just about everything it collects
eventually washes free.
Either way, the class IV staircase follows. From river level this rapid
looks much steeper than it does from the aerial scout and you may
be disoriented if things went wrong at Exterminator. River left here
contains a series of shallow and powerful holes, but the center of
the river is clean. From the river left eddy at the top of Staircase
ferry through the large collapsing waves to get right of a sharp pour
over referred to as the Fist of God and head on down through the
exciting big water. A nice wave train extends below Staircase on
river right and at least one great surf wave waist for boaters. Eddy
access is poor so catch these on the fly. I have always eddied out
somewhere below here to enjoy one of the most spectacularly
rugged river canyons in the northeastern United States. The
granite alls rise several hundred feet directly out of the water and
you feel completely isolated from the rest of the world. This rugged
cleft was considered a sacred spot by the natives that inhabited the
area and when you are down in there on the river its not hard to see
Things ease up now as the Penobscot splits around a massive
ledge outcrop. A fun folding drop called Little Heater is found to the
right of the island. After Little Heater the gorge opens up and the
wider river soon picks up speed again and drops through a fun
class III+ rapid that features Troublemaker Hole. Many smaller surf
waves and holes are found throughout this long rapid and it is one
of the best places to spend time playing on the run. Following
Troublemaker the Penobscot bend to the left and narrows again as
it enters a fun class III with some heavy water and a few waves.
After passing under a narrow bridge eddy out on river left and get
out to scout The Cribworks, one of New England’s most notorious
rapids and the runs most difficult spot. It is important to eddy out
somewhere just below the bridge as a strong current and class II
rapids lead directly into the drop.
Although every raft company on the Penobscot rates The Cribworks
class V, experienced boaters will not find the moves too tough, and
the rapid should probably be rated a strong class IV or IV+.
Regardless of what you rate the drop it is several hundreds yard,
contains a sieve and man made debris, is technical, and the water is
pushy. This rapid was altered by loggers who blasted out channels,
created a rubble pile, and blew open a diversion channel around the
main drop. The name comes from wooden structures filled with
rocks known as cribs, that were built on the edges of the rapid to
ensure that logs being run down the river would pass through the
rapid freely without becoming jammed in the rocks. When scouting
from the large flat “Vulture Rock” the entire rapid can be seen and
the sight is quite impressive with a backdrop provided Mt Katahdin
rising thousands of feet.
The standard line should be fairly obvious when you are scouting.
The best route through the first steep part of the Cribworks is to run
through the prominent chute found in the left center of the river.
The Turkey Chute is an eight foot ramping drop between two huge
boulders with a nice eddy behind the boulder to the left. Hitting this
line is complicated by a wide hole about twenty yards above the
chute. A few good tongues lead through the hydraulic and there is
the option of sneaking past the hole on river left, but the current
leading into the Turkey Chute is much faster than it seems and the
river left boulder does not really support much of a pillow. Precise
boat control is important when making this move. Several lines exist
to the right of this chute, but they involve dealing with pourovers
and a few really big holes.
After dropping through the Turkey Chute boaters need to work their
way back to river right in order to avoid a rock pile / sieve in the
center of the river and hit Final Chute. Final Chute drops another
eight feet or more and while it sure seems like there should be a big
hole at the bottom of it there is nothing but a fast jet of water.
Making the move back to rive right seems much more difficult for
rafters than it is for kayakers, and I have always found the Crib, as it
is affectionately called by those familiar the run, to be pretty fluid
and smooth. Immediately below Final Chute the river enters a
narrow cut between rock walls and slams into Postage Stamp Rock,
a large flat faced outcropping that could potentially flip a raft. Good
eddies exist on both river right and river left below Cribworks and it
is fun to stop and jump off of the Postage Stamp Rock into the
runout of the rapid.
Just below Cribworks is a fun class III rapid with some good surfing
and a sticky hole known as Bonecruncher. Run this anywhere in a
kayak and be on the watch for surfing opportunities. This is your
last chance to play for a while as the Penobscot soon enters the
first of its many “deadwaters” or long calm sections found upstream
of the big ledge drops that essentially act as dams in the river.
Although the next few miles are flat the scenery is nice and boaters
have the chance to spot Moose or other wildlife.
Just as you begin to think that the flatwater will never end a few
whisps of white are seen and the river makes a ninety degree bend
to the left. This is the start of Big Ambejackemus, or Big “A”, a long
rapid ending in a class IV series of ledges and strong hydraulics.
This rapid is difficult to scout from shore, so head into it cautiously
and be on the lookout for signs of large holes. A great little surf
wave sits at the very head of the rapid on river left. Following the
surf wave the run builds up some nice wave trains with a few
individual waves reaching five or six feet in height. The best lines
seem to be on river left and there is the potential for some great on
the fly surfing. Things suddenly get more serious as the river turns
ninety degrees back to the right and drops steeply over several
ledges. Several lines exist through the offset holes and some are
deep and sticky enough so that it is a wise idea to find the routes
around them. Once committed to the right hand bend there is no
way to stop so be ready. A couple of fun surf spots can be found in
the run out of Big Ambejackemus.
Often groups will end their trip on the West Branch here, but more
rapids lie downstream for those willing to deal with some long
deadwater sections. Immediately after Big A comes a mile and a
half long class II-III rapid called Horserace. This fun stretch of
whitewater is full of interesting playspots and nice eddies.
Eventually Horserace runs out into a large lake like expanse of
water known as Nesowadnehunk Deadwater. The flatwater lasts for
about a mile and a half and its end is marked by a narrowing of the
river, a bend to the left, and a nearly featureless horizon line.
Nesowadnehunk Falls is a twelve foot ledge broken into several channels
that gives boaters several options. The main line is a sloping tongue leading
into a huge hole with eddies feeding strongly back into it. Luckily, so much
water is crashing down the tongue that most carnage here is violent but short
lived. This is a notorious raft flipper. Many other lines can be found farther
to river right and there are several great spots where kayakers can practice
boofing the ledge. Play is limited to a standing wave in the runout of the river
left channel unless you are into uncontrolled surfs in big holes, then the main
feature on river left would be easily accessed from the eddies below. Just
remember, there is a reason this isn’t a famous play spot. Rafts often go for
prolonged surfs in the wide hydraulic below the falls and swimmers tend to
get lots and lots of downtime.
Another take out option exists here at Nesowadnehunk, but again, if you are
willing to paddle some still water more rapids wait downstream. Continuing
down brings paddlers past Abol Bridge and into Abol Rapid, a long and
exciting class III-IV rapid containing at least one large hole in the middle of
the river and a couple of nice surf spots near the bottom. Shortly below Abol
is Pockwakamus Fall, another fun class III-IV with a couple of last surf spots
near the bottom. If you continue all the way to Pock, you will have paddled
about 15 miles, a bit of on flatwater, and the river left take out around the
next left bend will be a welcome sight.
The West Branch of the Penobscot is a classic New England run. Most
boaters that spend time in the area will find themselves on this stretch of
water at least once in their boating career, while many, especially the old
schoolers, make an annual pilgrimage to the river. While it is increasingly
overlooked, the Penobscot provides good quality big water rapids throughout
the long New England summers.
Just a few hundred yards below the put in a raft lines up to punch Exterminator Hole in the
heart of Ripogenus Gorge on the West Branch of the Penobscot River.
Ripogenus Gorge holds some of the biggest and most challenging summer whitewater in
New England. Rip Gorge, as it is affectionately called, is loved by many.
A raft enters the top of class IV staircase which lies just below Exterminator. Flipping or
having swimmers at Exterminator often results in long and brutal swims.
The Cribworks used to be New England's premier class V test piece, but advanced in
equipment and attitude have resulted in giving this drop a more reasonable class
Lining up for the Final Chute at Cribworks is important since the entire river left side flows
through a jumbled boulder pile left over from alterations made back in the golden years
of logging in the northwoods of Maine.
Final Chute always looks intimidating from upstream, but surprisingly there is no hydraulic
that needs to be punched. Its good to know you are home free once you hit the chute.
Thankfully Nesowadnehunk Falls is not as tough to ruin as it is to pronounce, although this
powerful drop routinely stands huge rafts on end and always provides excitement.
Rafters often spend hours playing in the hole at the base of Nesowadnehunk. Often surfs
last for minutes and swimmers tend to go really deep.
The Cribworks in its entirety can look intimidating, but several eddies let a
skilled boater break the rapid down into several distinct drops.
Here a raft has a typically violent and uncontrolled sidesurf at Nesowadnehunk Falls at about