Chowderheads in Transition

Early spring is a time of transition for chowderheads in the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society (PPCS). Ice and snow are melting on the whitewater rivers; yet vestiges of winter remain at many preferred cross country ski areas. We often find ourselves in conflict about what choices to make.

Since the coastal streams and rivers normally open first, many of us have been carefully watching popular early season whitewater runs like Souadabscook Stream in Hampden, St. George River in Searsmont and the Sheepscot River in Whitefield. Not coincidentally, they were my first whitewater experiences over forty years ago and I’ve returned to them almost every spring since.

The Souadabascook and St. George are part of the downriver racing circuit that begins on the last Saturday of March and includes the iconic Kenduskeag Stream Race later in the season. Several chowderheads are regular racers. Bruce Weik is a former National Whitewater Kayak Champion and ageless canoeist Clayton Cole has amassed scores of victories over several decades. While lacking their outstanding credentials, spring races have often been part of my agenda since my first race on the St. George in 1980. Navigating an eighteen foot tripping canoe with a paddling buddy, we portaged the aircraft carrier around a Class II rapid. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then.

An annual chowderhead dilemma is when to stop skiing and begin whitewater paddling. Ice out, water levels and remaining snow accumulation all play roles in the decision making. If rivers and streams are open and water is high, that generally means much of the ice has melted signaling that it’s time to unpack our paddles. Conversely, if there is still significant snowpack and evidence of lingering ice on the waterways, it may be premature to put the skis and snowshoes away.

This year chowderheads have faced the usual disparities. Two club trips were scheduled for the first weekend of spring. Eggman DeCoster was leading an “ice breaker” descent of the Souadabscook on Saturday while Carolyn Welch and I planned a Skip Pendleton Memorial Paddle on the St. George on Sunday.

The Souadabscook was first to be cancelled followed closely by the St. George. Water levels were too low, wintry weather was forecast and there were concerns about ice and access.

There’s a silver lining in every cloud. Snowpack remained deep in many places so skiing was a viable alternative. Visions of a surf and glide dancing in his head, Eggman changed his trip to a cross country ski at Harris Farm in Dayton followed by canoe and kayak rolling practice at the Biddeford YMCA. Still clinging to skis and my kayak roll in need of work, I quickly signed on.

Dodging what seemed like hundreds of participants on Maine Maple Weekend at Harris Farm, we had an excellent ski with superlative soft snow. The consistency was sufficiently damp to facilitate an effective kick and glide yet soft enough for controlled descents. I’ll miss the nice folks at Harris Farm until the snow returns next winter.

My first ever rolling practice at the Biddeford YMCA pool, I was impressed with their facility and the turnout. About a dozen canoes, sea kayaks and whitewater crafts were bobbing in the pool when we arrived. A reliable kayak roll is essential for difficult whitewater paddling. Many solo canoeists survive the sport without a roll however acquiring one is a game changer. The quality of my kayak roll has diminished in recent years; probably a combination of old age and less practice. A Class IV canoeist, Eggman has struggled to perfect the elusive canoe roll. Joined by another chowderhead, Bill Stafford, the three of us diligently worked together to identify flaws in our respective techniques. After two hours of experimentation, we left satisfied that improvements had been made.

After cancelling our St. George River paddling excursion, I scheduled another PPCS Nordic ski trip at the Jackson Touring Center in Jackson, New Hampshire for the following day. We again had splendid ski conditions particularly in wooded areas shielded from the sun. Ominous patches of brown grass in the fields were clear signs that the skiing season would soon end. While Jackson ski area closes at the beginning of April, there are usually skiing options on the higher elevation trails such as Hall, Maple Mountain and Prospect Farm for a couple of additional weeks.

If I’m still breathing air my next column will report on spring paddling. Will it be the St. George, Sheepscot, Souadabscook or another river or stream? Difficult to say for certain but I’m confident that chowderheads will be out of the pools and paddling whitewater next week.

Ron Chase

About Ron Chase

At age 70, Ron Chase is old. But, he’s not under the grass…yet. Retired from a career with the Internal Revenue Service, he has embarked on a new life as a freelance writer and tax consultant. Don’t be misled; in reality, he works a little and plays a lot. When not busy kayaking, canoeing, biking, mountain climbing and skiing, he sometimes finds time to write and assist his tax clients. A lifelong Mainer now living in Topsham, he is the recent author of The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery, a biography of Vietnam War hero and bank robber Bernard Patterson.