Saco River - Kayak Trip / Canoe Trip
Day Trip Report
Portland, ME, USA
John G. Lambert
Saturday, June 25, 2005
“NOT SIDEWAYS!!” was what I yelled just before a trip down the Saco River turned into an adventure.
Ron told me he wanted to paddle down and scout the Saco River from Steep Falls down through the Limington Rips in preparation for an upcoming weekend canoe/camping trip. I had paddled down through the Limington Rips several times and found it strange that anyone would plan to paddle down through the Limington Rips with gear laden canoes. But, what the heck it would make for a great day of paddling for me. I’m always looking for someone willing to venture into whitewater.
We launched from the Steep Falls Bridge that crosses the mighty Saco River. We had 3450 Cubic Feet per Seconds (CFS). How much water is a cubic foot per second?
“A cubic foot is like a box of water measuring one foot by one foot by one foot. The USGS defines cubic foot per second (cfs) as "the flow rate or discharge equal to one cubic foot of water per second or about 7.5 gallons per second. “Do the math. (25,875 gallons per second!)”
The Steep Falls section of Saco River in Maine is 0.3 miles long and is a class I-II+(V+) stretch of white water according to the American Whitewater Association.
Steep Falls is not an easy place to go paddling, this section is suitable for paddlers who have been paddling for a while, don't go paddling here unless you think your paddling abilities are very good. For experienced paddlers this may be a fun place to paddle, don’t count on staying dry paddling here. This is not a place where beginners should paddle.
With clear shies and good river flow on this beautiful summer afternoon, Ron pushed us off from under the bridge and away-we-go. The current was strong and for the end of June there was good water with Class I-II rapids.
The trip between Steep Falls and the Limington Rips is only six miles and with mostly dead water in-between our put-in and take-out it will take about an hour to paddle the mostly tree-lined shore with a few private camps along the way.
There is a stiff Class II-III rapid about a mile short of the Limington Rip that helps warm you up for what’s ahead. Ron commented as to how tall the standing waves were after we bounced our way through the rapid. I thought how Ron should be impressed with the Rip that was just ahead.
As we approached The Beast (Limington Rip) we could defiantly hear its roar. From a hundred yards out it looked as if The Beast was spitting at us.
Ron said “What’s ahead?” I told Ron it was a headwall of granite and we would have to pick the best spot to drop over the edge and work our way down and around many obstacles.
As we reached the headwall, we picked a black water chute that was dropping over the ledge. We than had to take a sharp left in the river to avoid some large rocks and again drop down into a large standing wave that submarine the Old Town Guide Canoe, we quickly decided to paddled over and empty the water filled canoe on the shore.
While we were stopped we took the opportunity to discuss our strategy for the remaining quarter-mile of whitewater through the Limington Rips. We floated out into the 3450 CFS flow of the Mighty Saco River. We bounced over several Class II standing waves and headed under the route 25 bridge.
Ron yell’s out “Which Way?” I said “Left around the rocks!!” I felt the canoe stall on a giant boil just short of a massive twenty foot hydraulic that spans across the river. I was paddling with all my might, the nose of the canoe drifted slightly up-river and I was face to face with a raging hydraulic on my right. The sound of the white-water ripping into the caldron was deafening!!!!
I yelled as the fifteen foot canoe dropped into the twenty foot hydraulic (Prom Date). I thought for a split second that with all my whitewater skills I could muscle the canoe over the massive hydraulic.
In a heartbeat I felt the canoe clunk me in the head as I found myself pinned under water by the canoe. Quickly it was now time to apply those whitewater survival skills that I had used and studied in the past ten years of whitewater canoeing.
I walked my hands under the canoe in one direction and within seconds I was out from under the canoe. With my paddle missing and my hat in hand the water was still running out of my eyes as I looked for Ron and with milky vision I looked into Ron’s eyes and I could see his fear studded eyes looking back at me. We did not mutter a sound to each other.
Something looked wrong to me. Why was Ron in that first seconds at the end of the canoe and another spilt second he seemed as if he was drifting away from me? I thought if I looked to the shore that I would be able to orientate myself as to my direction. I looked over to the shore and yes, I was traveling down-river and later I would learn from Ron that he had let go of the canoe to distance himself from it, so that he would not get tangled up with it. Meantime, the hydraulic pulled him back in and took him under, driving his legs into underwater rocks and obstacles. He emerged from the hydraulic and again he was sucked back into it, only to get beat-up and spit out again. For a third time he was being sucked into the giant hydraulic and as he drifted back into it he glanced-up onto the adjacent shore and there were three men dressed in black suits. He thought for a fleeing moment that they were the Grim Ripper’s there for his funeral.
With the thought of a funeral on Ron’s mind, the hydraulic sucked him down for the third time, this time he kicked at the rocks with all his mite and he found himself free of its grip and now afloat in the violent river.
After I had looked over to the shore for just a moment I turned back to see Ron and he was out of my sight. My first foolish thought was to swim back toward Ron in the ten mile an hour water. Ya right, as if I could swim back. I’d better get focused on the problems ahead of me.
There were giant standing waves that I needed to give all my attention too. I was still holding onto the canoe and after being tossed up and over, the wave spun me into and under the canoe. I then found myself floating backwards, headfirst down river with the canoe on top of me. I knew that I had to let the canoe go and re-position myself with my feet forward and the tips of my water-shoes out at water level. Another giant wave and under I went, hold your breath and stay calm in the darkness of the river I told myself… again daylight and time for a quick breath of life saving air. Bang, down under for another dose of adventure, this time there is no time for air, hang on, keep your cool I told myself, get your feet up, than another wave and another and another, they just kept coming!! I was now concerned that I was going to inhale the Mighty Saco River.
Then what felt like a big break in the giant waves, I could see Ron slightly behind and off to my right. No words spoken. Suddenly, what looked like an angel was in a kayak and talking to us. I could not understand a word he was saying while my head was bobbing in and out of the choppy-water. The kayaker was motioning with his arms and yelling something!! While I was between head bobbing in the standing waves, it came to me that the kayaker was warning me of some danger ahead and off to my left.
I quickly began back stroking and kicking my feet in an attempt too move over toward the right of the river. I now could see our Angel Kayaker that was drifting backwards down the river while trying to safely direct us. For myself he gave me hope that not all was hopeless.
Then came the big bang (G-S), I first felt my feet and than knees and finally my back slide over a large rock with a big bang. Now, I know what my Angel was trying to warn me about. I was kicking my feet and back stroking to keep from getting sucked down to the bottom of the river, with that final dunking my 60 Seconds of life altering adventure was behind me and Ron was still in one piece twenty-feet away to my right.
We shook off the scaries. Our Angel asked us if we would be ok, we said “Yes” and our Angel disappeared back into the whitewater filled Limington Rips. I briefly pondered the legend of Squando's Curse - In the late 1600s there was an Indian chief whose settlement was on the Saco River near the Saco Island area. The chief's name was Squando. Chief Squando got along well with the white men until an incident happened involving the chief's squaw and one of his children. During that period, the white men believed that Indian offspring were natural swimmers from birth. One day a group of white men decided to test this belief and tipped over a canoe carrying Squando's wife and child. The child sank. Although the mother then rescued her child, the child later died and Chief Squando held the white men responsible. Legend has it that he then put a curse on the Saco River claiming it would take the lives of three white men every year thereafter. No one knows if the curse story is true because there are no written records about the curse until well after 100 years of the incident. Some historians believe the curse story was thought up by an imaginative writer more than a century later.
My Grandfather was a Brin (Twig) and my Grandmother was a Brisebois (Brokenwood) maybe it was the Indian in me that saved me from Squando’s Curse. Most likely wearing a good grade whitewater personal flotation device (PFD) by Marine Technologies International (MTI Adventure Ware) and applying basic white water safety tips saved my life. Local folks have told me “John, people die there!” at the Limington Rips….
It would take fifteen more minutes before we could get the canoe to shore. The Old Town Guide was not spared from damage, there was a large six inch dent that buckled the inside, leaving the floor of the canoe with a tear, but was not leaking. At age forty-four and fifty, Ron and I were both exhausted. I’m surprised that I did not see my life flash by me; I was too focused on surviving. Ron and I should have hugged each other, but we did a high-five and shook hands, for we were now safe and sound on the shore of the Saco River.
I have to admit that in my white-water canoeing adventures that I have found myself capsized and swimming four times in Little River (Berwick, Me.), twice in the Ossipee River (Cornish), once in the Salmon Falls River (Lebanon) and by far the most humbling, challenging and life changing adventure (so far) The Limington Rips!!
Nothing compares to you, “Prom date on the Limington Rips….” Sung to the Sinead O’Connor song.
The Limington Rips section of Saco River in Maine is 0.5 miles long and is a class II+(IV) stretch of white water according to the American Whitewater Association.
Limington Rips is a medium difficult place to go paddling, if you have a little bit of paddling experience this could be a good place for you, if you are a beginner you should probably look for a different stretch of whitewater to paddle. When the conditions are right this is a fun stretch of river to paddle, if you don’t want to risk getting wet this place is probably not for you. Paddlers on this stretch should have some experience paddling.
After loading the canoe on the truck we drove over the route 25 bridge that spans the Saco River, we could see the large group of nicely dressed folks that had assembled on the high-bank of the Limington Rips for most likely a wedding and not the Grim Ripper’s for Ron’s funeral….
I have learned since my 60 Seconds date with the Limington Rip’s that the hydraulic that we dropped into sideways has a name:
(Prom Date) (Class IV+, Mile 0.4)
Prom Date is the only major hazard at Limington Rips and is located below the rt.25 bridge on the river left side. It is a 20ft wide hole with a very powerful backwash. Use extreme caution when paddling nearby. It is recommended to stay to the river right below the rt. 25 bridge. When the water is very low experienced paddlers familiar with the feature will find some tiring cart wheeling play.
The rock that I gave my bottom a big bang is named:
(G-S) (Class III, Mile 0.5)
G-S is a small wave-hole enjoyed since the creation of the flat spin. Eddy access at lower levels allows for spins, side surf, blasting, blunts, back blunts, backstabs and cart wheeling in the sweet spot. Make sure to tuck tight on rolls and be advised there are rocks downstream you will contact on a delayed roll. When the level is higher over 4500cfs the hole becomes larger and more retentive, the eddy flushes out and each ride will require a walk back up the side.
Maybe it’s time to take up something safer than White-Water Canoeing, maybe White-Water Kayaking….
Happy trails to you, until we meet again.
Happy trails to you, keep smiling until than.
Happy trails to you, till we meet again….
The Adventure Boy,
John G. Lambert.
June XXV in the year of the Lord, MMV….
From Portland, Maine take Route 25 West for 26 miles.
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