Spring is considered the best time to go whitewater rafting, when rivers are high and wild. But all summer long and into fall, you can find exciting Class IV rapids up 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," said 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."
What does that mean? It means you're going to get soaked. It means you better be ready to paddle through 8-foot-high waves and a 12-foot drop. And 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.
But the best part about whitewater 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 whitewater 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?'" said Gray. "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 big 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. Gray notes that weight is as important as age.
"I get so many people saying, 'My 8-year-old is a good swimmer,'" she said. "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."
But you don't need special rowing skills. Just put the oar in the water when you're told to, 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). But 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'd jumped in 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.
Everything you bring with you will get wet, so leave the digital camera and the $120 Jordans at home. Buy a $10 disposable waterproof camera, and wear old sneakers or watershoes. Flip-flops won't do. The river bottom is rocky, and even if you don't jump in for a swim, you'll be wading in to help launch and beach the boats. Wear quick-drying clothes - nylon or fleece - anything but cotton. Many outfitters have wetsuits and booties for rent.
Another whitewater destination in Maine is Millinocket, on the Penobscot River, with Class IV and V rapids. Most trips there have a minimum age of 15. Millinocket is the gateway to Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin, the terminus of the Appalachian Trail and Maine's highest peak, so it's a popular area for hikers.
But the Kennebec hosts the most whitewater trips, about 50,000 people a year, Gray said. The boat my family rode on included visitors from as far away as Puerto Rico and Minnesota.
The power station that fuels the rapids, Harris Station, supplies energy to the New England power grid. That's why, Gray added, "we pray every summer that it's very, very hot in Boston."