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Seniors Not Acting Their Age: The Cathance River Ice Breaker

Paddlers navigate around the ice on the Cathance

From Interstate 295, the Cathance River in Topsham appears to be a docile, meandering coastal stream.  Hidden from view in a remote area are about two miles of cataracts and exciting whitewater rapids.  

More than three decades ago, the whitewater community “discovered” this little paddling gem.  For years, challenging the Cathance has been a rite of spring for my outdoor club, the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society.  The American Whitewater Association describes it as a Class III/IV creek with two Class V waterfalls.  Unlike most of the outstanding creek runs in Maine, the Cathance is close by.  

Proximity and stimulating rapids are not the only benefits of the Cathance. A moderately large watershed for a small river, water levels tend to remain high longer than most similar-sized streams.  The Cat is usually one of the first to experience ice out in the spring. 

In March, I usually start reconnoitering the Cathance to determine when it’s ice-free.  Distracted by the coronavirus news, I was delinquent this year.  My youngest son Adam, who recently moved back to the area, assumed my Cathance monitoring duties announcing ice was out and the water level high.  Yet another geriatric revelation, when your youngest child has reached middle age, you’re wicked old.

We decided to paddle the Cat the following day and publicized the excursion as a club trip. As predictable as the sun rising in the east, three members signed on despite the short notice.  In keeping with tradition, the first spring trip is designated the ice breaker.  Our group consisted of two kayaks, a canoe, and a father-son team in an inflatable boat called a shredder. 

Meeting at the takeout, Head of Tide Park on the Cathance Road in Topsham, it was a cool, breezy sunny day.  This year, we have a new challenge, preventing the spread of coronavirus.  Social distancing is not an obstacle on the river, but the shuttle is more problematic.  The predicament was addressed separating people by six feet and driving with the windows open.  The coldest part of the day was the shuttle to the Topsham boat landing on Old Augusta Road.

A painted gauge on the I295 bridge abutment indicated the level was 2.6, a medium volume.  Although Adam had verified all rapids were clear, a decision was made to scout everything and set up safety if necessary.  

Following a mile of flat water, two easy Class II rapids were negotiated in a narrow gorge.  Just beyond, long technical Z Turn was scouted and successfully navigated.  Around the bend, a cataract called Second Drop was encountered.  Midway through, it takes an abrupt left turn causing a foam pile to build on the right above a narrow twisting passage.  A notorious boat flipper, everyone mastered the maneuver.

Steeper and potentially more hazardous, Third Drop was next.  Most of the current tumbles left over a ledge pitch and then flows beneath an undercut rock forming a cul de sac called Room of Doom.   The required technique is to power through the waves angled right and plunge down a precipitous tongue as far from doom as possible.  The hard boats accomplished the precarious nosedive.  Experiencing misgivings, Team Shredder walked.

Intimidating Boulder Pile waited around the next turn.  So named because of a seemingly impenetrable mass of boulders located at the bottom of a steep slide, there are two navigable choices; descend hard left through an attenuated slot between two large rounded rocks at the terminus or perfect a ninety degree right turn at the end of the slide while paddling aggressively to avoid flushing sideways into the boulders.  The narrow kayaks easily negotiated the elusive left route while the larger boats successfully turned right. 

Class V Little Gorilla was next.  Since threatening ice shelves extended into the main channel, the unanimous decision was to portage. 

Final Drop provided the most entertainment.  An extended complex approach ends with a consequential slide into a very menacing hole.  The kayaks skirted right while the big boats powered through the keeper.  Team shredder daringly decided to side surf the churning monster.  At first, they had fun.  Then not so much, but couldn’t get out.  Asked if they needed a throw bag, “yes,” was the unambiguous answer.  Several minutes were required to pull them out using two bags.  

Breaking through a short section of ice during the flat water finish, the Cat truly was the ice breaker.   The club subsequently cancelled all trips until further notice.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 reached at ronchaseoutdoors@comcast.net.

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