Gulf Hagas Rafting Expedition
Ask any class V boater who has paddled Gulf Hagas in Maine and I'd bet at least 9 out of 10 will tell you that it is Maine’s best run. It is a beautiful canyon that has been enjoyed by paddlers and hikers for decades now but I had only seen it in books and videos. It has a steep creek flowing through a deep gorge that has some very attractive waterfall drops and challenging rapids with high consequences. For years I had talked about going in there to scout because it looked like something that would be fun to raft with the right amount of water. I asked a friend of mine, who had kayaked the stretch many times at many different flows, for information on levels and his opinion on if it even could be rafted. Mike McVey is a very well-known paddler throughout Maine and the world-wide paddling community for his ability in a kayak and his Anvil bodyboard. His willingness to send, ability to read water, and passion for the river has always stood out to any who have met him. So, when he told me that at the right level, Gulf Hagas could probably be rafted, it was in my head and immediately placed on the top of my whitewater goal list. I read every piece of literature I could find on it (which wasn’t much) and watched a number of videos of people kayaking it at high water. I was constantly hounding my friends who had paddled it for information and opinions and I’m sure they probably got sick of me bringing it up. Finally, Mikey said that if it comes up to about 12-14” then it would go and he would be willing to raft it with me.
In late October 2018, it started raining heavy and continuously for days at a time, and I told Mikey to keep an eye on the flows in case it rose up to the level we were looking for. There is no gauge for the run so most people depend on information from the most recent paddlers on what the water level is based on a series of marks on the bridge pylon at the start of the run. Around 9pm on a cold, early November Saturday night, I got a call from Mikey saying that it was at 14” and tomorrow morning was a go. I immediately started gathering my gear and went out to the garage to roll up my Aire Super Puma. It was close to 1030 by the time I had everything I needed loaded into the car and I decided I would just wake up early and head out in the morning. It was a 5-hour drive so I left at 5am to meet everyone at the end of Katahdin Iron works road by 10. We had called a couple friends of ours, Jamie Walter and Taylor Walker, who are professional photographers/videographers and they were pumped to come shoot the run and Mikey also called a friend of his who was an experienced kayaker, Mike Smith to come paddle with us so we could all set up safety for each other. Once everyone was there and the boat was rigged, we headed up to the put-in.
When we got to the area where we park the vehicles, Jamie, Taylor, and Mikey’s girlfriend Caitlin Richard all headed up the hiking trail with their cameras to set up at Billings Falls. I was handed a pair of elbow pads and advised to wear them. At first, I was reluctant but when I found out Mikey had some on under his drysuit, I said to myself, “It is better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it”. Mike carried his kayak and probably laughed at how far behind him Mikey and I were with the raft. It was close to a mile that we had to carry the raft to the river and we kept switching sides due to our arms getting tired. When we got down to the water, Mike measured and determined that the level had spiked and we were actually about to paddle Gulf Hagas at 20”! The level did not deter any of us from the mission and we high fived as we put the Super Puma into the river and jumped in to start our descent. We started in some fast-moving flat water and before long came out to Stair Falls which is a nice set of three ledge drops each leading right into the next much like a staircase. We pulled over and hiked up a small side branch of the main flow to set safety where Mike had chosen to run a nice little 6’ drop and come out at the bottom of Stair Falls. He ran it clean and Mikey and I headed back up the hill to the boat. We ran Stair Falls clean even though they were some hard-hitting drops, with a nice big hole waiting for us at the bottom. Not far downstream the cameras were waiting for us next to Faceplant and Billings Falls. We went down and pulled over on river right to scout the drops.
Taylor had expressed concern about what a raft would do going over such an abrupt drop-off like the one at Faceplant because it was a steep drop and the walls constrict on both sides right after the landing. So, we made our way up the shore to scout the drop. The drop was straight forward, the boil was big, but we felt good about our line and knew we would be able to throw a strong boof stroke to stay moving forward once we landed. We both agreed on the line and we continued down the shore to Billings Falls. That is when my adrenaline really started flowing! It was a powerful 18-20’ drop into a bubbly, festering pool of angry, aerated whitewater. I admit that I was intimidated when I thought of the raft getting sucked back into the falls because it would have become a very serious situation if anyone fell out at the bottom. There is a cave on the river right side of the falls and a while back a friend of ours was sucked out of his kayak and pulled back into the cave. He spent a good amount of time in there and said that he started feeling the early stages of hypothermia before he was able to get out of the cave. We scouted for a bit and realized that the water moving into the left wall continued downstream while the water along river right wall was moving quickly upstream. Our plan was to come down, slightly left from center, throw a hard boof stroke, and land angled slightly to the left. Once we saw that Mike had set safety then we made our way back up to the boat to run these awesome drops!
We pulled the boat into the water and paddled out of the top of the eddy into the current. We wanted as much power as we could get leading into the boof stroke in order to keep as much down-stream momentum as possible. We took a last look at the entry line, and all the currents leading to the spot we wanted to go off the drop at, and we paddled hard the whole way in. We made our line, just as we saw it, and quickly pulled into an eddy on river left to get ready for Billings. We saw the drone in position so we made our way into the current. We paddled hard and absolutely crushed our boof stroke! The momentum, good boof, and rocker profile of the Super Puma, caused the boat to land and shootout quickly away from the falls. It was a successful line and we took a quick second to celebrate before we made our way to the river right side to set up safety for Mike. After Mike made it down safely, we all sat to discuss the next rapid coming up, which would probably be the most dangerous rapid we would run that day, The Wedge or “Amuck”.
This rapid is one that many kayakers regularly choose to portage because of the serious consequences if anything goes wrong. The gorge walls shoot straight up as the river becomes very narrow so evacuation is tough. The lead in is class lV with a couple of small ledge drops and holes, but the crux is a 13' drop that lands a few feet out onto a slab of rock about 2' below the lip and slopes down from top right to bottom left creating a huge sieve in the main current. Much of the water pours in between the drop and the slab and pushes under the slab while the rest lands onto the slab and is guided down to the left landing right into a huge, hydraulic which is pretty much walled-in. Once we got down to scout, the water was really high and it did not look too likely that we would get pulled into the sieve. We discussed our line and went up to get ready. The first drop was about a 5-6’ drop and it absolutely stalled our bow and filled the boat with water. It ended up helping us by slowing us down enough to make the eddy to the right of the 2ndsmall ledge drop. There was a good size hole in the middle and we were angled to the right and able to hit the far-right side of it with our tail so we could back up towards the river left side. We did this so that we could get our momentum going from left to right and hit the exact spot we wanted in order to get over the top of the slab and into the current moving over the right side of the drop. We hit the spot and I saw that it was going to be a very awkward drop off the other side and if I were to hold on over the drop then I would end up flipping the boat over. So, I held my paddle in the water as long as I could, trying to get us as far to the right as possible but land without too much of a right broach. As we went over the drop and landed hard, I was launched out of the left side of the boat. I managed to grab the outside line on the left tube as I hit the water and quickly got back into the boat where we celebrated making it through the rapid alive! Mike decided to portage and threw his kayak into the main current at the bottom of the drop where we picked it up to paddle it over to him on the river right shore. From here, it was going to take the camera men a little while to get down to Turnstile and set up for their shots, so we took our time.
In between Amuck and Turnstile, there is a fun 15’ drop called Buttermilk Falls. We ran that and eddied out on the right to wait for the word over the walkie-talkie that the cameras were ready. Jamie had set up a top rope and rappelled down the tall, steep gorge walls to get some money shots. We were hanging out down there for a while as it took a lot of work and time for Jamie and Taylor to get up there and get into position. The weather was a drizzly 35 degrees and the cold was draining us quickly as we stood deep in the canyon with no sun. Once we got the word that they were ready, we descended into the very deep and committing gorge at Turnstile. It was a continuous series of fun ledge drops and very big holes with one humongous hole at the bottom. Taylor was getting drone footage from high above and Jamie was hanging off of a sheer wall getting stills as we came down through the rapid. The gorge was incredibly beautiful and the rapid was non-stop fun from start to finish! The next major rapid coming up was Jaws and it would be the most challenging rapid of the day.
Jaws is a series of steep class V drops with boulders strewn throughout and extreme consequences if you were to take what would surely be a long swim. After Mike said he was going to hike up and put in below the rapid, we made our way down to scout and call Taylor and Jamie. They said that the drone had crashed in the tight gorge, landed on a rock next to the river, and that Jamie was currently trying to rappel down and retrieve it. It sounded like their mission was going to take some time and it was starting to get late in the day so we decided to push on. From where we stood on the rock to scout Jaws, we could see very little other than the rapid seemed to go on forever with non-stop tight slots and steep drops. Yep, steep gradient and horizon lines! We both hoped like hell that neither one of us ended up swimming. We were on our own and we were running out of time so we hopped in the boat and just ran it. It was probably the longest, steepest, and most continuous rapid I have ever run other than Smoking Aces on the North Siouxon (although this was narrower and near impossible to portage in a raft). It was fast and chaotic the entire time and the rapid seemed to go by in an adrenaline packed blur. We pulled over on river left at the bottom of the rapid and looked back upstream in awe at how steep and long that rapid was.
We hadn’t eaten anything since we had been out there so we scarfed down some sugary snacks while we waited for Mike to complete his portage. After a little bit Mikey hiked up the embankment to try to meet up with Mike and let him know where we were waiting. He hiked up the trail for a bit and there was no sign of him. We waited a little longer and then determined he had to have already put in downstream of us. As we were pulling out of the eddy at the bottom of Jaws, we were heading right into another class lV/lV+ rapid that Mikey called Tommy’s Hand. It was pretty tight but straightforward and we made it through unscathed. The rest of the run was class lll boogie water and some small ledge drops. We paddled as quickly as we could and met up with Mike at the takeout, which is right where the Appalachian Trail crosses the river. It turns out that Mike had hiked around and put in the river just downstream of where we had eddied out so we had just missed him. We carried the boat through the woods which were currently flooded and back to the parking area. We all met in the lot and talked about our crazy day as we were loading up our gear. We had finally accomplished something we had wanted to do for years and we couldn’t have asked for a better crew to be out there with us. It was as if all of the stars aligned for us that day. I rolled up the Super Puma, and after a short celebration and sincerely thanking Mikey, Taylor, Jamie, Caitlin, and Mike for being out there with me, I started my 5-hour drive home on a dreary Sunday night so I could make it into work the following morning.
On my way home I played the day over and over in my head and felt very grateful that the day had all gone so well. A few months earlier, I had asked Aire for a raft that was slightly wider than the Super Puma because I was worried about its side-to-side stability at high water in such an unforgiving gorge. When it came down to it, I ended up taking the Super Puma and it turned out to be the absolute perfect boat for the run, almost like it was designed for it! Because of the boat's unique profile and incredible versatility, it handled all of the drops flawlessly, punched through every hole without issue, and allowed us to make some of the tightest lines I had ever made. I had already been in love with that boat for many years but its performance on this run solidified its spot as my favorite raft ever! I made it home safely and slept like a baby. You would think that after such a long day of driving and running an intense river I would be tired the next day at work but that was not the case! The adrenaline rush lingered and memories of that day made sure that I was floating on Aire throughout the entire week ;)
We want to say a huge thank you to everyone involved, but especially a HUGE shout out to Jamie Walter with some amazing shots from a rappel into the gorge. Jamie was kind enough to give us some insight on pushing the bounds of whitewater photography on this trip:
How long did it take you and did you prepare for the shoot?
If I remember correctly, this mission came together fairly quickly. I got the call the night before from Taylor Walker, who was planning to film the run, and he asked if I wanted to shoot photos. I quickly packed up my camera gear and had to balance what to bring in my pack so I could fit all the climbing gear I needed to have as well.
What was it like having to setup rappels into the gorge to get the shot?
I had been to Gulf Hagas once or twice before this trip and I knew there weren’t a lot of good vantage points from the trail that runs along the gorge. I really wanted to see if I could find a cool view by rappelling in and I figured I might as well bring some gear and look around. It’s always a little nerve-racking to set up a line that your life is going to depend on and the rocks and moss were really slippery that day. I ended up finding a great location though and was super stoked on how the shots came out.
What was going through your head when your drone crashed and what was the retrieval process like?We honestly would have been screwed if I hadn’t brought my climbing gear with me. The drone ended up on the only small ledge at the bottom of the cliff we were standing on and it would have been impossible to safely down climb to it. I had to clean my first rappel and set a new one to make it down there, but we successfully recovered it!