By: Ryan Waterhouse
This past year was a year for me to remember in terms of following my passion for whitewater. My adventures took me to all corners of our country-NE, SE, NW, SW, and a couple locations in between. I saw the most amazing landscapes I had ever placed my eyes upon, rafted the best rivers of my life thus far, and made some new friends along the way. I am very grateful to have had the opportunities that brought me so many great experiences, memories, adrenaline rushes, and new friends, and I am grateful to share these experiences with you. The following will be the first of 5 installments on the whitewater adventures I was lucky enough to be a part of in 2014, and it’s only right to start it off with how I began boating and where…Maine.
A good friend of mine in high school graduated a year ahead of me and became a raft guide in the northwest region of Maine. After graduating, I worked full-time at a retail sports shop for a couple years before joining the Air Force. I ended up getting stationed in the armpit of the country (New Jersey) and let’s just say that it was not on my dream-sheet but it was only a 5-6 hour drive to my home in southern NH. July 2004, I went on vacation and brought a couple friends I had made in the military to New England to give them a taste of all it had to offer. We hiked a few mountains, camped all over the White Mountains, canoed the Saco River, and then capped off the week with a whitewater rafting trip in Maine.
We arrived in a small little drinking town with a SERIOUS rafting problem- The Forks, Maine! We went to the rafting base/bar that my buddy Andy worked at, Three Rivers Whitewater. It was a party scene unlike anything any of us had ever witnessed before. This small town was made up completely of rafting outfitters, and bar/restaurants, so almost every single person there is either a raft guide, kayaker, or guest who was on vacation and having the time of their life. Everybody was so incredibly nice, inviting, and truly happy. The atmosphere was addicting from the get-go and the entire area seemed to radiate a positive energy that I had not experienced before and cannot explain. But the next morning my life would change forever…
Andy had a friend who worked at the dam where we launch onto the Kennebec River and this friend was kind enough to lend us one of his rafts for a play-run. When Andy was giving us our safety briefing and getting us situated in the boat, he asked if anyone wanted to sit in the front and my hand instantly flew up. I love adventure, excitement, and adrenaline, so what better place than the front of the boat where I can take all the waves and hits face-first?! The river was amazing and the trip was so much fun, we couldn’t stop smiling or laughing, partly because Andy was guiding us down wearing a chipmunk face and afro-wig! I will never forget hitting the hole in Magic Falls so hard and letting out a roar to go along with my aggressive, continuous, fist-pump! Needless to say I was hooked, not just on the rush, but on the beauty and purity of the whole scene. Rafting became something I looked forward to and started going 3-4 times a summer.
A few years after that first trip, I separated from the military and went home to New Hampshire where I continued the job I was trained to do in the Air Force, Dental Assisting. The job paid well but it was not something I was passionate about at all. It was so monotonous and easy that it didn’t really require me to turn my brain on when I went to work. I would zone out and think about whitewater more often than not. Then one weekend I drove up to The Forks and Andy brought me and some of our friends from NH down the Dead River. Now, the whitewater run on the Kennebec is 12 miles and the rapids are very close together but die down after the first half of the run. The second half is much calmer and gives you an opportunity to enjoy the amazing scenery along the river banks. The Dead River, on the other hand, is 16 miles of continuous big whitewater and the biggest rapid is right at the end of the run, so it lets you off the river with quite a bit of adrenaline still coursing through your veins. As if I didn’t already think about whitewater enough, this trip kicked my addiction into overdrive.
In June, 2008 I left my job at the dental office and drove to The Forks, Maine to do my whitewater guide training class. I became a guide with Three Rivers Whitewater, guiding on the Kennebec and Dead Rivers, and soon after, completed my level 2 training so I could start guiding on the Penobscot River as well. I left a job making about $25 an hour to live in a tent and walk around in sandals and board shorts every day. This was the single most changing-point of my entire life. I became a part of a very unique community and started living my life in a totally different way. Stockpiling memories and amazing experiences, instead of money, and meeting new people every single day. It is a decision I will never regret making and also one that would be very tough for many people to fathom. Leaving the comforts and security of home and steady employment for the elements, adventure, and the uncertainty. This particular summer it rained almost every day, and many would have given up on living in a tent in this constant rain. But for me, the rain meant high-water and bigger adventure, so I built myself a platform and endured the elements in the name of adventure. I found myself spending more time outside, surrounded by nature and it felt so natural like this is the way it was meant to be all along. I started reading more books and getting in touch with nature and the core of my being once again. When fall came around I said “this was definitely the best summer of my life” and meant it.
After the season I went back to NH and started working as a dental assistant at another office. It is quite a transition to go from raft guiding for your job to working in a dental office as your job. When spring came around, I let them know in advance that I would not be sticking around for the summer because I was more passionate about whitewater than I was about dental assisting. I once again left my well-paying job to be a broke-ass raft guide. And that summer and every summer since I have said “this was definitely the best summer of my life” and meant it! But because I was pretty good at dental assisting and the office I worked at was pretty bad at keeping their employees, the dental office took me back every fall. This made it easier to get up and go back to the river every spring.
In the months leading up to the spring of my 3rd season guiding, I purchased my dream boat which was an Aire Super Puma for just over $3000 that I had been saving. I was used to guiding Aire rafts at Three Rivers and I loved them. Occasionally we would have to guide one of the few other boats we had that weren’t made by Aire and we were always wishing that we were one of the guides who got the Aire boat that day. One day a guide who owned a Super Puma, let me borrow his boat and I took it down the Kennebec River. I instantly fell in love! It made the Kennebec River (class 4) seem much more aggressive like the Penobscot River (class 5). Ever maneuver was so easy to make and it made lines appear that I did not think of running before. I knew after that first run that I would own that boat soon, and a year and a half later I had saved enough to get it. It changed my style and advanced my whitewater knowledge very quickly.
Now, every spring, the raft guides come back from all corners of the planet, depending on what they chose to do with their winter. Some move south for the winter and do another summer of guiding in some amazing location like New Zealand or Costa Rica, many other make their way to epic ski mountains and follow the water in a different form. Then, on the 1st weekend of May, we all congregate back to The Forks for 1st Blast on the Dead River. The night before 1st Blast is especially unique because there is so much energy and excitement when we all meet again to party hard at the bar, gather around a huge bonfire, and sing our asses off. Well the night of 1st Blast of my 3rd season guiding was one for the books and a lot of Southern Comfort and whisky went down, which I usually do not drink. I ended up pealing out later that night in my Mustang, deciding to rip donuts through the grass-field of the place that employed me. The next morning I woke up to learn about what I had done and that I was fired. I felt bad, stupid, and totally understood their need to fire me for my actions (but luckily for me, another company picked me up very soon after).
U.S. Rafting was a smaller company at the time and their operation was much smaller and laid back which I really loved. We also had a later put-in time which meant that we did not have to show up to work until 830-9 in the morning compared to 630-645 in the morning. This was huge to me because I have never been a morning person, and it was also a much smoother, less-stressful morning which was also a big deal for me. Aside from these great qualities, they had some smaller boats in their fleet and knew of my style so they would put all the extreme crews with me as long as I was being smart and giving them the ride they wanted while keeping them safe. Many other companies would not be ok with flipping your guests on purpose but they could tell I knew what I was doing and I would be smart about it. Judge my crews and what kind of ride they were looking for. If they wanted to go hard and flip the boat, I would do so but in a safe area with many points of recovery as well as letting my fellow raft guides on the trip know what was going down so they could be ready for the recovery. I was able to perform these maneuvers because of all the experience I had with running bigger stuff with my Super Puma and being able to manipulate the boat easily. I was also very good at reading whitewater and being able to tell what it is going to do to my boat.
Living this incredible lifestyle every summer got me used to living the life of my dreams, and it got harder and harder to go back to dental assisting in the winter. I skied 1-3 times a week and that kept me sane for a while, but then I made the decision that I wanted to enjoy my entire year, not just half of it.
In August, 2013 a good friend of mine invited me to go on his Grand Canyon rafting trip that fall and I accepted. This was a big commitment because not only did I have to come up with $1800 for the trip, $350 for a plane ticket, and about $500 in gear, but I had to take a month off of work only 6 weeks after arriving back to the dental office. It was putting my employment for the entire off-season in jeopardy, but the fact is I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. So I ventured once again into the uncertainty and left all of my securities behind for the river. We put on the mighty Colorado River Nov 23rd and got off just before Christmas on Dec 20th. I flew home to spend Christmas with my family and figure out what the hell I was going to do for the winter. About a week and a half later, an opportunity fell into my lap out of nowhere and I packed my car, drove to Colorado, and spent the winter bartending and skiing some of the most epic mountains I had ever skied! Funny how things just work out for you if you choose to leave behind all certainties to follow your passions.
That would be the best winter of skiing of my life and help kick-off the year of boating all corners of the country. This installment is supposed to be on boating in the NE so I am going to skip my spring adventures for the moment and bring you right to my arrival back in The Forks. Normally I would arrive to The Forks the first weekend of May for 1st Blast on the Dead River, but I chose to stop at a couple whitewater destinations on my way back east and didn’t get back to New England until late May. I told everyone in The Forks that I would be there for June 1st but I was planning to crash the Thrift Store party at The Marshall’s (the local raft guide bar in town) on May 26th, in full costume, bringing with me the element of surprise! I showed up and most people could not tell it was me but when they did, I received dozens of hugs from excited friends of mine that were happy to see me and eager to hear about my winter and spring adventures. Let the boating begin!
The early season rafting trips are usually small trips and many times the trips are booked by people who have been rafting before and want to battle the cold water for the chance to hit that next-level adrenaline rush. My style is very aggressive compared to some other guides, but at the same time, I think out every situation and make judgment calls on what kind of ride each guest wants (because, after all, it is their trip that they paid for). My spring was usually filled with guests who want to charge hard and get the most bang for their buck. It is also filled with high water and Dead River releases which is my favorite of the three rivers that we typically guide on in Maine. Then June hits and the water starts warming up quite a bit which brings the crowds and that is a good thing for everyone. For raft guides, it also means that the next 2-3 months of your life will be mostly spent on the river (the reason most of us keep coming back). This is our time to make as much money as we can and have a blast.
Occasionally we may be lucky enough to get a play-run going on an off day and hit up some awesome destinations in the area like a hike into Chase Stream Falls, Black Brook, or Moxie Falls (90 footer). One particular day that stands out to me is a play-run we did with 3 or 4 boats, 15-20 people, and pulled over to hike into Chase Stream Falls for a swim session in a pool in the sun below a 30 foot waterfall. Great day all around. We end up doing so many epic and adventurous things every day that many blur together and only some of the really significant ones stand out to me. By the end of June I feel like I have done 2-3 summers worth of fun activities.
Another one that I will never forget was the Huckfest event that took place on Grand Falls on the Dead River. This was certainly not a part of the commercial run. It is about a half mile upstream, of the put-in and every year we get together to watch experienced boaters go over an incredible 35 foot waterfall. 2012, ’13, ’14 I made even more of a name for myself by hucking the 35 footer in my 13 foot Super Puma successfully. The first time I did this, there were many people telling me not to do it and that it cannot be done. If every athlete listened to this kind of advice then sports would progress at a much slower rate. After looking at it for hours, I chose to run it and blacked out at the lip of the waterfall after I called the hold on command. When I opened my eyes we had landed it and stayed in the boat. it was hands down the biggest adrenaline rush of my life. It even trumped skydiving and bungee jumping!
I also had some of the best commercial runs that I have ever done and had the opportunity to meet and bring some really great people down the river. Another benefit of my job is that I get to meet all kinds of different people and many times they are really unique and cool people that have many of the same interests as I do. It is great to be able to share your passion with others and see them inspired by the way you live your life. Sometimes this can have a permanent effect on a person and it can open their eyes to a way of life that is much more enjoyable than the regular 9-5 routine that many have come to dread. There are countless benefits to the job but those are a few that stands out to me. Another that I cannot deny is the fact that, I don’t just love my job……I get paid to do something that I WOULD PAY TO DO. I seriously love it so much that I would pay to do it if I weren’t lucky enough to make money doing it.
On many of the crazy weekends or a purposely chosen off-night, the bars in town will have theme parties that are always the craziest time ever because it is comprised of all eccentric raft guides that go all out on the river and off as well. They truly party in ways that many people cannot even comprehend. We throw parties that range from karaoke nights, to Disco night, Guide Formals, Pimp-N-Ho, Thrift Store night, Dirtbag Ball, Sumo wrestling night, Mechanical bull, 1st Blast, Last Blast, live bands every weekend, Reggae Nights, and epic 4th of July celebrations that we will never, ever forget! We also cap the summer off with an epic event called Guide Olympics, which is made up of live music, events such as raft relays, raft flips, raft stacks and the infamous beer chug. There is always beer and food for all people that attend and we take donations to benefit a charity or local service like the volunteer fire/rescue service, or life-flight helicopter medic service. This is one of the biggest raft guide events of the summer and we do it in late August so the college kids can participate before they head back to school. We always do it on a Sunday night so we do not have to worry about many guests showing up out of the blue and witnessing the debauchery.
Raft guides in the area are very creative and like to live life to the fullest, which many times, means going on amazing adventures and seeing some of the most amazing scenery you will ever see. This area of Maine is pure and surrounded by mountains, rivers, wildlife, great people, and some of the most amazing skies you will ever see. The sunrises and sunsets are incredible, we have starry-nights that will blow your mind full of shooting stars, and microbursts/lightning storms that make your jaw drop every time. A couple times a summer we even hit the river for a midnight run (when the dam agrees to give us midnight flows) and hit some gnarly class 4-5 whitewater with nothing but the moonlight to illuminate the rapids. This year we did a midnight, supermoon run that I will never forget! There are also great trips to remote areas with mind-blowing whitewater like Canada Falls and the Seboomook which are class 5 runs deep in the wilderness of Maine.
After Labor Day, the season usually dies down and many of the guides are already back to college for their fall season. This is a time where money conservation is key but it is also a time where those of us who stick around till the end of the season get the opportunity to do the things that we haven’t been able to do all summer. Things like more play-runs, hiking some of the great mountains in the area like Katahdin, or camping at one of the many extraordinary places in the area like Gulf Hagas, Omaha Beach, Misery pond, Moxie Bald Mountain, etc. Around this time the foliage is peaking and just being in the forest or anywhere near the trees will take your breath away because of all the amazing colors they are giving off. Summer/Fall are some of the most amazing times to be in Maine. It is certainly a place that will always be special to me and have a big place in my heart. It is enough to bring me and many others back every summer, no matter where we end up for the winter, it is worth making the venture back to Maine.