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Seniors Not Acting Their Age: Pandemic paddling

Canoeists paddle the upper St. George River

The pandemic has complicated our lives in many ways.  Like virtually everything else, paddling while complying with safe distancing guidelines is a difficult challenge.  Shuttles are particularly problematic.

The Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society cancelled all trips until further notice.  Although paddling is an excellent source of exercise, the decision was made out of an abundance of concern for safety.  Mandated limits on group size and social distancing were the primary factors.  

Informally, Chowderheads have formulated a system to stay active paddling while complying with the current guidelines.  Essential is keeping the group size small.  Choosing outings that are comparatively easy minimizes complications and facilitates separation on the water.  

The shuttle dilemma can be addressed by several methods.  The easiest is to have a willing household member who is not paddling drive shuttle for a participant from the same household.  Traveling to the river in separate vehicles and biking the shuttle is a functional alternative.  Separating two people in a vehicle by six feet while both are wearing masks is another choice.

Recently, my retired friend Bud Gilbert and I decided to complete a paddle on the St. George River in Searsmont and Appleton utilizing the new system.  Bud and two family members would paddle two canoes and complete a vehicle shuttle.  I would take a kayak and bike my shuttle.

The Searsmont to Appleton section of the St. George is a relatively easy Class I/II five-mile excursion and is the location of a very popular downriver race held there each spring.  The race was originally scheduled for the day after our trip but cancelled.  

Since I needed more time than Bud to complete a shuttle, I drove to the launch site in Searsmont an hour early.  Cabling my kayak and paddling gear to a tree next to the river, I traveled to the takeout on Route 105 in Appleton.  Other paddlers were making shuttle arrangements, including some who were cycling.  Leaving my car, I completed the bike ride arriving in time to relax while waiting for Bud. While this may seem a tedious convoluted chore, in actuality biking adds an enjoyable dimension to the paddling experience I call a surf and turf.

Before club trips were cancelled, Bud and I had scheduled a St. George outing on this same date in memory of the late Skip Pendleton.  One of the oldest members when he died a couple of years ago, the St. George was Skip’s favorite river and he assisted with race safety for many years.  When he arrived, Bud announced he was paddling a seventeen-foot Old Town Tripper and Skip would be his bowman in spirit.  Counting Skip, there would be three old codgers on this escapade. Two of Bud’s young family members were paddling an identical Tripper.  Since I was in a kayak less than half the size, it would be a dinghy among aircraft carriers.

Embarking in flat water, a small beaver dam was soon encountered.  Undeterred by the impediment built by the pesky rodents, our boats were able to power over the barrier and slide down a narrow chute.  Calm water continued for about two miles to a giant rock midstream, a well-known landmark indicating whitewater was around the bend.

While the canoeists rested, I hurried ahead to take pictures at the end of the rapid near Ghent Road Bridge.  The stimulating Class II stretch of whitewater begins about three hundred yards above the bridge culminating with more substantial waves and a steeper gradient requiring an awkward maneuver at the finish.  Arriving in sufficient time to snap photos of both canoes, Bud negotiated a perfect route which he attributed to an effective draw by Skip.

Below the bridge, entertaining whitewater continued unabated for a long mile and then gradually diminished to quick water.  Following a short calm sector, a horizon line indicated Magog Chute was just below, the steepest drop on the river.  Fortunately, I was far enough ahead to jump out to photograph their descents.  Both canoes successfully navigated down a narrow channel with Skip receiving kudos for another assist.

Most or the remainder of the outing was flatwater except for some waves at the takeout.  Approaching the Route 105 Bridge, many fishermen were lined up on both sides of the river, all carefully maintaining six feet of separation.  

Our assessment, the trip was a great success.  Vehicles were awaiting our arrival.  The procedures had worked very well portending more paddling adventures.

Author of “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals – New England,” Ron Chase resides in Topsham. Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com or he can be contacted at ronchaseoutdoors@comcast.net.

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